A Thomas Bick Boating Experience
Sailing around South America past Cape Horn
Thomas Bick and Les Girls II sailed out of AYC marina for fun on the Lake 26 times in 2010. Not bad for a then 87 year old, though the previous year the tally was 33 total sails on his beloved boat. It was not for lack of trying though, but as many of you fellow sailors experienced, September was too blustery. It was so windy that even the Air Show was forced to cancel one day because the rough waters would deem it unsafe to operate rescue vessels if needed. It goes without saying that the diehard Thomas squeezed in as many “just one more” sails before haul out for which he could wrangle first-mates.
Now is the time that yachters dream of summertime and adventures to be had out on the water. While daydreaming of sailing and last summer’s activities with Thomas under sail, my thoughts also venture to his second boating love, that of cruising. Over the past fifty or more years, he has taken close to 100 cruises, all over the world, many times to the old reliable Caribbean, also the Mediterranean, Alaska, North Cape, the Amazon, Japan to Samoa and China, Australia and more. One of the most exciting however was one that would be the envy of any sailor and the dream of the explorers of the past. Three years ago, he took me cruising around the coast of Patagonia – Santiago, Chile to Buenos Aires, Argentina, via the Chilean fiords and around the Horn.
We left cold Toronto in early January and flew to Santiago, Chile. It was hot there, being in the middle of the southern hemisphere summer. We took a 30 mile bus ride from the Santiago airport in the mountains through the hilly countryside to the coast passing a huge open pit copper mine, lots of llamas and vineyards on the way to the port city of Valparaiso where we joined our cruise ship. The boat was large compared to our boat at AYC but relatively small by cruise ship standards, 30,000 tons carrying about 600 passengers compared to over 100,000 tons and over 2,000 passengers or more on some of the latest cruise ships. On board we met crew we knew from previous trips and they told us stories of how rough the last cruise had been around the Horn pitching and heaving causing plates to fly and crash all over the dining room not to mention what was going on for many of the poor passengers. We wondered what to expect and were pleased that our first days on board were calm. We arrived in warm sunshine in our first port, Puerto Montt. The pier was right near the town centre so we were able to walk straight from the ship into and through the centre. It was a busy little town since it was a tourist base for visiting major attractions of fiords and glaciers. Early colonials had been Germans so many of the houses looked like alpine chalets.
When we set sail again we travelled through sheltered waters of the fiords towards our first major attraction the San Rafael glacier. The ship could only go to the entrance of the glacier lagoon. The rest of the way to the glacier was made on inflatable zodiacs that could go closer. From the zodiacs one could see the carving of the glacier (this is the term for the ice breaking off in huge chunks) and the ice falling into the water along with loud cracking sounds.
After a day at the glacier we headed out into the Pacific Ocean where we had to contend with a significant swell that tested our sea legs, Thomas of course spent most of the time whooping it up on the deck and had to be dragged in (almost kicking) by the crew. That night a fellow traveller directed us to the back deck where just a hand full of people had gathered to watch the McNaught Comet streak through the sky. It took 25 minutes for it to travel in an arc within our view. To us it appeared to be the size of a quarter and very bright with a short flaming tail. It was an amazing experience.
Next day we returned to the sheltered waters of the Magellan Strait. We were on our way to the most southerly continental city, Punta Arenas (Sandy Point), on the northern shores of the strait. This Chilean port is a staging post for trips to the Antarctic. Ashore, in port, we were practically blown off our feet because it was so windy and it was hard to walk around because of all the dust swirling everywhere. Later we went to see our first of many penguin colonies. A bus took us on the deserted coastline on a sandy beach about 10 miles from the city. The colony was like a little town. Each penguin family had a burrow in the ground under tufts of grass on the sand. While some penguins with their growing offspring would sit at the entrances, others walked along well trodden penguin paths either down to the sea where they would go fishing or were returning. The human paths were kept separate from the penguin paths and sometimes included bridges over the penguin paths to reduce the disturbance to the penguins.
From Punta Arenas we sailed west and retraced our steps along the Magellan strait and then south to the Beagle Channel (named after the ship that took Darwin to the Galapagos). Along the channel which the locals have named “glacier alley”, we passed several glaciers that could be seen coming down valleys on the way to the water: six of them one after the other, each named after a European country: Germany, Italy, etc. Compared to the Rafael glacier, these glaciers melted before they reached the water. We sailed on to the world’s most southerly city of Ushuia, on the island of Terra del Fuego, in Argentina. That day the sea was so rough that we could not land in spite of the sunny day. Even though it was summer, we were glad to have brought our winter ski-jackets to protect us from the temperatures that were just above freezing. It was funny and predictable that all of the Canadians on board had thought to bring winter coats and many of the Americans were unprepared.
Later that day we headed further south to the island of Cape Horn, a big dark rock definitely in the shape of a horn jutting out of the sea. It is the most southerly point of the continent, 55 degrees 59 minutes South, 67 degrees 17 minutes west. We were supposed to sail all the way around the cape and were heading south, but the weather started changing. Ominous clouds appeared in the sky so the captain of our ship ordered us to turn early, so we made it half way around the island and then retraced our route back then headed North East toward our next destination, the Falkland Islands or Malvinas, the site of the 1982 war with Britain after the invasion by Argentina.
On arriving at Port Stanley on the main east island of the Falklands, we again encountered strong winds and it was decided it was too difficult for the tenders to take all of us ashore and get us back to the ship. Apparently a previous cruise ship had docked at Port Stanley while the wind was whipping up in a similar manner and it turned out all the tourists had to spend the night ashore. The problem for the islanders had not been finding billets for the passengers, but rather providing enough regular medication, like diabetes pills and the like, since there wasn’t a large enough supply on the whole island. They didn’t want to get stuck like that again, so some of the islanders came aboard to tell us about life in this outpost of the British Empire and sell some wares such as woollens and postage stamps. This is a real backwater, but since the Falklands war, Britain has paid more attention to the islanders and has a significant military garrison. The residents told us many stories and measure almost daily the political temperature between Britain and Argentina. For example, flights to and from the main land go to Chile rather than Argentina.
Later in the day the wind subsided and we were able to make a brief shore visit to spend an afternoon in the town of Port Stanley. We visited another penguin colony on the coastal sand dunes but we stayed on the marked paths because there were still unexploded landmines in the area. Although, technically, in the wild, the penguins seemed to be used to human contact. Some of the mothers would look at us carefully and then stand aside so we could view their babies. Eventually we walked to the edge of a huge cliff that overlooked the sea and were lucky to see a trail of giant Emperor penguins marching around the beach.
The town of Port Stanley was interesting, some of the houses looked as though they belonged in East London and the inhabitants worked very hard to cultivate English style gardens in the sand. The grocery store (just one) was filled mostly with British products, although we did notice 5 lb flour bags with the Canadian flag stamped on them and printed labels reading “Canadian Durham wheat flour, excellent for baking”.
Our next stop was Port Madryn in Argentina half way between the cape and Buenos Aires and a major setting for wild life. We hired a taxi man who drove us in his dilapidated car on very bumpy dirt roads south of the city to Point Loma national park to the top of cliffs overlooking a bay where we could see and hear, really hear, a large colony of sea lions. The water was so clear that we could see the sea lions swimming under water. They awkwardly dragged themselves along the beach and piled up under rock cliffs to avoid the sun but from our perch they were in full view. They were barking and howling at each other and the sound was fascinating – we could hardly drag Thomas away. On the return to our ship we found one lone sea lion relaxing inside a bumper tire hanging from the dock, he had no worry about us.
Montevideo, capital of Uruguay, our next port of call, is on the East bank of the river Plate. As we sailed up the river into the port we passed the sunken remains of the German Graf Spee, a so called pocket battleship that was famously scuttled at the start of World War II. The top of the mast still peaks out above the water. We enjoyed a walk around the Ciudad Vieja (old city) including a large Plaza Independencia with huge palm trees in its centre. Even though some of the architecture was magnificent one could tell the city had seen better days and it seemed dusty and frozen in time.
At the end of the day our ship sailed across the river Plate to our final port. After 4,300 nautical miles by ship from Valparaiso we reached our final stop, Buenos Aires. It is a city of wide avenues and is called by some the Paris of the Americas. On disembarking we went to the Recoleta district to spend a day relaxing and exploring. We took walks through the local streets with their upscale stores, sipped coffee in sidewalk cafes by the local park, watched the tango dancers and walked around the famous cemetery where Eva Peron is buried. Each mausoleum is different from the other and covered in statuary, some with elaborate windows so you can see the multiple coffins and spider webs inside. It was like a huge macabre art gallery. In the evening we caught our plane back to winter in Toronto.
During the current winter, it has been fun looking back on past travels especially such an amazing adventure around the Horn. Now we are ready to prepare for another season at AYC. Thomas, although looking forward to 89 his next birthday, is still keen to match and hopefully surpass his last year number of sails out of the AYC marina. He’s looking forward to waving to everyone as he tries to steal a little wind from your sails while he tries to make his sailing quota.
Bernard Lewis (Thomas Bick’s son-in-law)