- The team worked together superbly and held their nerve as gradually, with each pounding, stomach-lurching wave, we fulfilled our dream and rounded the Horn.
- Our brave RIBs took a battering as the towering waves swallowed us up and spat us back out.
- The abundant sea life was beautiful to observe and the towering glaciers quite awe-inspiring as they glistened in the brilliant Patagonian sunlight.
Voyage to the End of the World
RIB expedition leader Andy Leeman describes the preparations for his latest adventure – from Puerto Montt in southern Chile to the awe-inspiring and infamous Cape Horn – and looks back through his diary to share the highlights of the events as they occurred…
Cape Horn … The stuff of dreams, legend, triumph and disaster … Our ‘End of the World’ expedition started with two RIBs in Puerto Montt and the initial target was to reach Puerto Williams, capital of the Chilean Antarctic Province. But we always knew that if all went smoothly – relatively speaking, of course – the ultimate goal was to make it all the way to Cape Horn.
Background to the Expedition
The plan was to travel through Chilean Patagonia and the route we chose was as follows: Puerto Montt – Puerto Aguirre – Golfo de Penas – Caleta Tortel – Puerto Edén – Puerto Natales – Punta Arenas – Puerto Williams – Cape Horn – and back to Puerto Williams and Punta Arenas. A total of about 2,250 nautical miles (4,050 kilometres).
We chose an AB Inflatables 24VST with two Yamaha 115hp engines and a 28VST with one Mercury Verado 250hp for our expedition, fully aware of the kinds of conditions we were likely to face en route to the Horn. They would naturally be the key to our success and all our hopes were pinned on these two remarkable vessels. The fact that we are here to tell the tale of a successful adventure bears testament to the quality of the equipment and confirms that our preparation had not been lacking in any respect.
The crew that set out with me comprised Ivor Heyer (expedition co-leader), Apal Singh, Jürg Grossmann, Carlos Castro, Klaus Kranewitter, Urs Becker, Bernd von Borstel and Miguel Mauri Quetglas, Neil Mc Grigor and Dominic May – a magnificent and inspirational blend of international mariners ranging from 35 to 70 years of age. Having so many ‘captains’ on board was interesting at times(!), but we were a great team, and the longer we worked together the better we performed. It reminded me again that it is the passion for adventure that drives you on and makes you tackle tough conditions with relative ease, and not just physical strength. I felt particularly close to my co-expedition leader Ivor, and for that I shall be eternally grateful.
This was our greatest challenge and was always going to be a major factor in our success or failure. The problem we faced was that it seemed that whenever there were good conditions for sailing, we were under pressure to cover as many miles as possible, as in bad weather you can be parked for days or trapped in harbour by authorities. At times we faced issues as nature served up its worst: strong winds where we had to stop to find shelter, or driving rain and bitter cold where everybody suffered in silence. But overall I would be the first to admit that we were extremely lucky with the weather. Nevertheless, the rounding of Cape Horn, our Everest, in 5m waves and extremely strong current showed us how threatening this Southern Ocean can be to those who dare challenge her.
This was difficult since the charts are not always correct and we had to do a lot of eyeball navigation – no problem, of course, as we had so many captains in our team! Bernd’s job was to prepare the backup with the paper charts, and whenever there was a navigation issue he was there to use his vast experience to guide us through.
For us as seamen it felt very special to navigate in these famous waters – the Strait of Magellan, the Beagle Channel and of course Cape Horn – and it goes without saying that we saved the best till last, as the ultimate highlight of our epic journey was when we finally rounded the magnificent Cape. It is a memory that will never fade …
In many ways these were my biggest worry. The requirements for the ‘zarpe’ (cruising permit) included a very long list of safety material and documentation. The inspectors were very thorough and cut no corners in searching the boats. We also had to give our position to the navy every day at 8am and 8pm by satellite phone, so they could trace us and in case of an emergency would know where to search for us.
Support And Sponsoring
The team and I are hugely indebted to all of the following who supported and/or sponsored this expedition: AB Inflatables, RIBEX World wide Expeditions – BRIAN SL. with Brigitte, Yacht Center Palma, Lalizas, Hella Marine, Agunsa (Julio and Gonzalo), Captains of Patagonia, Henri Lloyd, Motonautica Balear, Petra Grossmann, Kuback Studio (Miguel), Empresas Maritimas Oxxean in Puerto Montt, who came in to support us at the last minute, and so many others who were in standby mode for whatever problem might arise.
The Media Team
Klaus Kranewitter, Apal Singh, Lina Timm and the fantastic Enrico Pallazzo Produktion in Munich did an excellent job in a very difficult environment. During the day, Klaus and Apal did all the filming and photography, at night they had to cut the clips, and whenever there was a chance of (mostly very slow) Internet they simply didn’t sleep in order to use every minute for downloading. The results are incredible and we shall all be eternally grateful to them for their selfless, beyond-the-call-of-duty efforts.
Our ‘End of the World’ voyage was born over a cup of coffee, when Ivor Heyer, manufacturer of AB inflatables, and I met in Amsterdam during a boat show. I had the dream of an expedition to Patagonia and Cape Horn, and Ivor was immediately gripped by the idea. Until now, almost all my expeditions have been along rivers, but this one was too tempting to be missed by my expedition buddies. Ivor has joined me and sponsored our boats on various expeditions – he is passionate about outdoor adventure and loves exploring all aspects of nature, and one of the great benefits for him in sponsoring our expeditions is that his boats get tested in extreme conditions, something that cannot be fully replicated in the lab.
You won’t be surprised to hear that expeditions start a long time before the boats are actually put on the water. It usually takes a year of planning, obtaining permission, logistics and other preparations. The ‘End of the World’ expedition was a particularly hard one to prepare for, and I had already put in more than 800 hours of work when Ivor and I visited Puerto Montt two months ahead of the voyage to meet the authorities and look in minute detail at what lay ahead.
The hardest part was getting the permissions we needed. We were dealing with the navy, who initially were not very keen on allowing our expedition to go ahead, since safety, security and shipping are their domain and they needed to be convinced that we knew exactly what we were taking on and that our plans were as thorough as they could possibly be. We had to work very hard to show them how serious we were and convince them that we were properly prepared, but eventually they came round and gave us their backing.
The most expensive part was transporting the boats. Ivor had to send his AB 24ft RIB from Colombia and I sent my AB 28-footer from Spain, and the boats had to be unloaded and reloaded three times before finally reaching their destination at Puerto Montt. They then had to be shipped to Oxxean Marina, where they were unloaded once more and put into the water using heavy equipment and cranes – not an easy task with the 6-metre tides.
After boarding the boats we had to get them ready for inspection by the coastguard the following morning. Two very stern-looking inspectors came to look over the boats, and particularly the safety and security equipment. No stone was left unturned as they had to decide whether the boats would hold up for over 2000nm in some of the most dangerous waters in the world, and we spent a number of tense hours with the inspectors answering what seemed like an interminable barrage of questions until eventually, to our great relief, we received the go-ahead.
After the inspection, Ivor and I went to meet the Capitán de Puerto, Señor Yerko, as we needed his final approval. He read the report carefully while we sat there with our stomachs churning, hoping and praying that he would find nothing amiss. Our preparations and planning had been so thorough that we couldn’t imagine what could go wrong now, but I guess you never know … After what seemed like an age, Señor Yerko looked up, smiled and gave the thumps-up. The relief and joy we felt at that moment are hard to describe but it certainly felt as though a huge weight had been taken from our shoulders. We knew now we would get our zarpe. We would shortly be on our way to the ‘End of the World’.
The Adventure Begins
05/07.01.2016 Puerto Montt
One by one the crew started to arrive and final preparations were soon in full swing. Food and camping gear had to be organised, and most importantly fuel. We started with 1200 litres of gasoline. We didn’t really know how the RIBs would perform in heavy seas with such a full load and how much fuel they would consume. We’d just have to suck it and see.
08.01 Puerto Montt – Quellón – Isla San Pedro. 141nm
We left Puerto Montt with more than 2000nm of navigating in RIBs lying ahead of us. The weather and sea conditions were just perfect, allowing us to warm up and ‘get into the groove’. Our journey to Isla San Pedro was trouble-free.
09.01 Isla San Pedro – Marina Jechica – Puerto Aguirre. 176nm
We had planned to sleep in our tents, but a local resident invited us to spend the night in his house. That was typical of the Patagonian people we met during our expedition – they were so helpful and supportive everywhere we went and certainly upheld their reputation as being gente del mar (‘people of the sea’).
The next day we cruised at 20 knots. My boat was heavy and I struggled to keep up with Ivor since I had about 2000kg of fuel and equipment and five crew on board. The scenery was spectacular and there were salmon farms everywhere we looked.
10.01 Puerto Aguirre
Sunday. We were stuck for the whole day in Puerto Aguirre. Because of the good weather we came further than we had planned on day two, so we needed to refill our tanks. This was quite a mission as we had to carry the cans a long way to our boats. Half of the team busied themselves with this task while the others had some time off. They took a walk in Puerto Aguirre, met kids in the streets, bought some food and took some photos of this charming Chilean village.
11.01 Puerto Aguirre – Pacific Ocean – Caleta Cliff. 149nm
We started early as we wanted to cover as much distance as possible before the afternoon, since strong thermal winds and high seas were expected. The higher the waves, of course, the harder they are to ride, and that’s equally demanding on the fuel. As one of our main concerns in this expedition was about finding petrol, we had to be extra careful with it and make every litre count. Over the next two days we hoped to cross the Golfo de Penas (the ‘Gulf of Suffering’!). This was the first time we had driven in open sea, and the Pacific did not disappoint. True to its reputation, very soon we were experiencing very strong winds and waves as high as 4 to 5 metres. The huge waves didn’t relent, but we still completed 140 miles – a remarkable and extremely satisfying achievement.
At the end of the day we found a beautiful campsite – the first time we had put up tents. It was great to warm both our bodies and spirits around the fire. We had soup and cheese for dinner, all washed down with a delightful Chilean wine. We reflected on the day and then looked ahead, and realised that despite the difficult conditions we had encountered and come safely through, this was just the beginning. But that’s why we were all here, and nobody expected an easy ride …
12.01 Caleta Cliff – Faro Cabo Raper – Golfo de Penas – Caleta Tortel. 159nm
We left camp at first light after releasing the AB 28 from a rock – yes, the tide had stepped in and made our lives more difficult, but no damage was found. We passed the lighthouse, where we had to make a security check-in call to the navy. The Golfo de Penas treated us quite kindly and we decided to sail all the way to Caleta Tortel, where we found a beautiful little port connected to the mainland.
13/14.01 Caleta Tortel, Jorge Montt Glacier. 70nm
This was a busy time for us – finding gasoline, checking and buying supplies, tending to our RIBs and engines – and we found a very nice hostel with hot water and great food. We decided to visit the Jorge Montt Glacier, which is a tide water glacier and lies at the north end of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. This excursion will never be forgotten – its frozen wasteland was like something from another world.
15.01 Caleta Tortel – Puerto Edén. 129nm
The journey south to Puerto Edén was both exciting and nerve-wracking, with small and dangerous canals and tides running at up to 8 knots, small passages and difficult navigation. But the abundant sea life was beautiful to observe and the towering glaciers quite awe-inspiring as they glistened in the brilliant Patagonian sunlight. And even the weather gods smiled on us here as the winds were not too strong.
16/17.01 Puerto Edén – Puerto Natales. 265nm
We took on board 1200 litres of fuel, delivered by ferry, to make sure that we had enough to make it all the way to Puerto Natales. The weather had turned and it was now cold, wet and miserable. The camp was very pleasant but the rain was relentless and spirits were taking a bit of a battering as it hammered down for hours. However, after a hot meal and a good night’s sleep, we left early the following morning with renewed determination to enjoy every second of our adventure, no matter what Mother Nature threw our way. We visited another glacier and enjoyed the company of dolphins guiding us through the ice. The rest of the journey was long and not a little arduous, but with our escort of whales and sea life of all shapes and sizes, no one was about to complain.
18/19.01 Puerto Natales
Puerto Natales is a great harbour and packed with facilities for outdoor life and tourism. We took on board another 1650 litres of fuel and were expecting two new crewmembers to join us in the shape of Dominic May and Neil McGrigor from the UK. I was also expecting to see my family. There was still time for Carlos to organise a trip to the Torres del Paine National Park, which features three famous granite peaks up to 2500m above sea level.
20/21.01 Puerto Natales – Punta Arenas. 275nm
Having Dominic and Neil on board made my life much easier as they joined in the daily work with great enthusiasm. Carlos and Miguel decided to take a break and travel by car to Punta Arenas. Our journey was long, but when we finally reached the Magellan Strait I noticed that everyone on board had big grins on their faces as we celebrated our arrival in such a famous place and it started to sink in that we had successfully navigated from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean.
The waves now got bigger and more powerful and we started to have problems with the huge following sea. We did find shelter in a small bay but the wind made camping rather complicated. The spring tide forced us to move camp twice. Early the next morning we met a family of seven whales, and having them right next to our RIBs was something very special.
We had got so used to the cold weather and the strong seas by now that we were no longer suffering, and with the Henri Lloyd equipment plus six to seven layers, life was verging on the comfortable. We were delighted to arrive in Punta Arenas, and after meeting our great friend Gonzalo from Agunsa Logistics, we got ourselves organised with fuel and various other tasks we needed to complete.
22.01 Rushing out of Punta Arenas. 25nm
The next morning we were informed that the harbour was closed because of strong winds. Ivor and I tried to convince the Capitán to let us go, since our boats were in danger of getting squashed between the big ships. Finally, they let us leave for a refugio at Puerto Ambre about 22nm away where we could ride out the storm. Many fishing boats were there and we had a very pleasant night in our tents, well sheltered from the wind.
23.01 Crossing the Magellan Strait and hoping to reach the famous Beagle Channel. 135nm
We left early the next morning to cross the Magellan Strait and dive into the shelter of the canals bringing us down to the famous Beagle Channel. After experiencing fast currents but a pleasant sea, we found a little hut where we could warm our cold bones on the fire. Some slept in the hut and the rest in tents.
24.01 Beagle Channel. 108nm
We left at first light the following morning and enjoyed a testing but memorable journey for the most part as we sailed among staggering glaciers and gigantic waterfalls, navigating sometimes through ice, until 30nm before Puerto Williams, where the wind gusted up to 40 knots and the waves just got too big for our small boats. We managed to find shelter in a small bay almost opposite Ushuaia, where we gathered around a glorious fire and reflected on the amazing day we had shared.
25.01 Puerto Williams, the southernmost settlement in the world. 30nm
There were only 30nm left to sail to reach Puerto Williams, but the wind and waves were still enough to chill us both physically and mentally. To make matters worse, my propeller bushing gave way and there was no way it could be changed in these heavy weather conditions. Ivor gave us a tow, and the good news was that we only had to change the prop and no other damage was detected.
Puerto Williams is the capital of the Chilean Antarctic Province and administers the communes of the Antarctic Territory and Cape Horn. We had been rather anxious as we knew that the future of our expedition lay in the hands of the harbour master at this point, knowing that he had the power to decide whether or not we would be allowed to round Cape Horn. However, we need not have worried. The port authorities, as always, were very friendly and advised us to get the zarpe that day as the weather window for the next two days was very promising. Knowing that some boats have to wait for weeks, we grasped our chance. Our crew were surprised when Ivor and I told them that the next morning, at 04:00 sharp, we would be on our way to face our biggest test and fulfil the dream with which we had set out – to round the infamous Horn.
26.01 Cape Horn
It was still dark when the crew prepared the boats for the ultimate trip to the Horn. There was not much talking … There was nothing much to say … We all knew what we were about to face. The waters around Cape Horn are particularly hazardous, owing to the blend of high winds, large waves, strong currents and icebergs, and these dangers have made it notorious as a sailors’ graveyard. Even some of the biggest and mightiest of boats have struggled, occasionally with catastrophic results … We were in RIBs …
We had great conditions right through to reaching the open waters and the point where the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans meet. But as we finally rounded Hornos Island, where the famous lighthouse is located, our brave RIBs took a battering as the towering waves swallowed us up and spat us back out, as if determined to show us who was boss and remind us that this place is one of the toughest goals you can aim for as a sailor and deserves the utmost respect. The team worked together superbly and held their nerve as gradually, with each pounding, stomach-lurching wave, we fulfilled our dream and rounded the Horn. Unsurprisingly there was huge relief and thankfulness among the crew as we made it clear of the grip of the seas, and the sense of pride we shared was tangible as everyone turned and looked back at what we had just achieved.
We later visited the lighthouse and the large sculpture by Chilean sculptor José Balcells featuring the silhouette of an albatross, in remembrance of the sailors who died while attempting to round the Horn. It was a sobering moment as we stood together, each with their own, very personal thoughts.
On the way back the weather improved and we reached Puerto Williams safely after an adrenalin-driven day full of different emotions, ranging from anticipation and fear through to joy and relief. It had been a long day, and when we all came together for a last team photo it still hadn’t quite sunk in what we had just achieved.
27.01 Back to Civilisation
With the 2000nm expedition now successfully completed, it was time to get back to our daily lives. For our part, Ivor and I still had to get the RIBs back to Punta Arenas, 269nm away, from where we would ship them back to Colombia and Palma de Mallorca.
28.01 A Great Run to Punta Arenas. 269nm
The decision was made by breakfast that we would bring the boats back by sea and not by ferry. Urs, Ivor, Apal, Klaus and I made up the team and had a wonderful time cruising light and enjoying every bit of the Beagle Channel, with all its sea life and the beauty of the glaciers surrounded by snowy mountains. We could have made it all the way to Punta Arenas but decided against it just to enjoy the last camp in this paradise with some of the best friends I have. The camp was right on the Magellan Strait, and after a tasty pasta and a drink or three, we slept and we dreamed …
A Final Word from Andy
I fulfilled my goal of rounding Cape Horn in a rigid inflatable boat and adored the mystique that goes with it. Loved and hated by seamen for the past 400 years, many have died in their attempt to round the Horn. Legend has it that they return, just like the albatross that glided with motionless wings above the ocean swell that surrounded us.
Like an ascent of Mount Everest, sailing around Cape Horn earns you a place among the elite, and with good reason. Often wreathed in fog and battered by towering seas, the southernmost headland of Cape Horn Island marks where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans collide.
My unserved thanks goes to all who helped and supported us in whatever way, and especially to the team that made this epic voyage possible.
Andy Leemann, expedition leader.