Drake Passage, Beagle Channel, and Ushuaia
Early this morning, we finished our transit of the infamous Drake Passage. It is named for Sir Francis Drake, the famous English explorer and privateer, who was the first Englishman to sail around the world…during the years 1577-1580. On September 6, 1577, Drake cleared the western mouth of the Strait of Magellan, but a severe storm drove his Golden Hind southward to 57° S and eastward to where the Atlantic and Pacific oceans meet, thus proving Tierra del Fuego was not part of mythical Terra Australis Incognita.
Speaking of severe storms, conditions were kicking up quite a bit this morning with some very strong winds, lots of foam and spray, but surprisingly the waves were not particularly large (see photo). Our wonderful stabilizers kept the ship very stable during all this and if one didn’t look out the window, one had no idea how active it was outside. Meanwhile, the albatrosses and petrels were having a great time winging just over the waves, banking and soaring with the wind…never needing to flap their wings. One could almost imagine them yelling with glee.
By mid-morning, we were about even with the islands of Cape Horn, the southernmost reach of South America. Cape Horn lies within the infamous west wind drift region known as the “furious fifties,” and is frequently buffeted by severe storms, so we weren’t particularly surprised to encounter the strong winds here. Once the ship was in the lee of the islands, we were protected from the long swell system and even though sea conditions were quite choppy, we enjoyed a smooth ride for the rest of the day. The cape is actually a point on an island called Isla Hornos and is part of the Tierra del Fuego Archipelago. It was named by Dutchman Willem Schouten, who first rounded the cape in 1616 while searching for a trade route to the Orient. He named it Hoorn, after his birthplace in Holland. Cape Horn belongs to Chile, which maintains a very important, but lonely, weather station here.
After lunch, we returned to the eastern entrance of the Beagle Channel, an important and strategic waterway for Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia. Although we transited these very waters nine days ago, we had a much better chance today to enjoy this scenic waterway and admire the mountains that form part of the spine of the Cordillera Darwin (the southern tip of the Andean Mountain chain). One of the most amazing aspects of this region of the world is that the treeline is very low and very obvious. It is only a couple thousand feet (600 meters) above sea level (see photo). We picked up our pilots and sailed up the channel to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, arriving in the early evening…thereby returning to the port from which we began this expedition.
Ushuaia, with a population of more than 50,000 people, started out as a lonely British mission station in 1870 to minister the Yaghan Indians. About 15 years later, the settlement was converted into an Argentine penal colony. In the 1950s, it became an important Argentine naval base and in recent years, the Argentine government has successfully induced people to move permanently to Ushuaia with tax incentives, jobs in technological industries, and a higher than average pay scale. It is also a duty free port, and as a gateway to Antarctica it has become an important player in Argentina’s tourist economy. Many of us went ashore after dinner for a chance to stretch our legs and visit a pub or two.