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Person states out of window into the sea.
Photo Credit: Dean Hancock
A crewmember on the research vessel NATHANIEL B. PALMER watches her sister ship the LAURENCE M. GOULD depart Punta Arenas, Chile, for Palmer Station.

Chile's inside passage offers shelter and new sights

For the next few days, the sailing was less than smooth. We were still on, and everyone onboard knew that the irksome winds would soon meet their match. Just as winter’s full force seemed poised to descend upon the Gould, a refuge appeared. It was Chile’s “inside passage.”

Some may be familiar with the inside passage of British Columbia and Alaska. Chile has one of its own. It’s a glaciated coastline riddled with fjords and islands where serpentine channels provide large ships passage between towering rock walls and forested slopes. This is still the sea, but it’s a part of the sea that’s protected from the long-fetched brutality of the vast South Pacific by barrier islands — a place where the winds come to die. This is smooth sailing, and it’s sailing with a view.

The inside passage certainly offers a relief from bothersome winds, but it also offers an alternative to the blue monotony of the open ocean. For weeks, there had been nothing to gaze upon but ocean, sky and the horizon. A single day in Panama marked the sole exception, assuming that we discount those imaginary landfalls that force their way into one’s thoughts. Entering the inside passage changed all of that. Here there’s a landscape this side of the horizon.

The northern entrance to Chile’s inside passage is at the island of Chiloé. From the ship, the region appears a pastoral place of rolling hills overlooking a lovely, surf-swept coast. One longs to stop and take an intimate look. Regarding Ecuador and Peru, exploration had been pure fantasy. But here the landscape is no mere figment. It’s tangible. It can be seen and smelled, and almost touched. But there is a schedule to keep, so the desire to explore Chiloé is filed away with the memories of the many places that a sailor sees only from a rolling deck. Plans for a future visit are tacitly made, even if such an adventure is unlikely.

People stand on the decks of a ship.
Photo Credit: Dean Hancock
The GOULD shortly before it departs Punta Arenas.
A rusting shipwreck.
Photo Credit: Dean Hancock
A shipwreck spotted in Chile's inside passage.

Continuing south, the landscape takes on a rougher cut. By the second day in the passage, the rolling hills surrender to steeper slopes, and tamed pastures to dense forests. This appears to be a wilderness. There are signs of human activity — the fish farms that dot the channel’s edge and the occasional rusting shipwreck — but no human activity is evident on the land itself.

There is really no surprise in any of this, because these waters are part of Patagonia, a name synonymous with places isolated and wild. Waterfalls abound, as do hidden coves and mysterious channels that disappear around every corner. It’s both wilderness and maze. Once again, fantasy is indulged: just who, or what, might inhabit such isolated places?

Farther south, rugged hills give way to ridges, arêtes, and cirques that are unquestionably alpine. Sculpted summits and snowcapped towers peak out through grey skies, but just long enough to admit their presence. Then they are gone again as the infamous Patagonian wind blows obscuring clouds back into the area. The day ends before other summits can be seen, but their mere existence serves as fodder for that night’s dreams.

As the night passes, the inside passage joins the Strait of Magellan. Rounding Cabo Froward — the southern most tip of mainland South America — the Gould makes a final turn toward Punta Arenas. In all, the inside passage has consumed about four days. Although clouds and drizzle did their utmost to obscure the landscape, enough was seen to confirm that this is a special place. One last time the imagination reels, and one last promise is made regarding future travels. This is a place to see, and to see again.

But there’s little time to dwell on such matters. There are countless things to do before the ship can turn south yet again, and little time in which to do them. There’s cargo from the United States that must be exchanged with that needed at Palmer Station, and embarking passengers also require attention. Some of them have clearly been through this drill before, while others display the wide-eyed glair of a newcomer. Each will have questions and concerns, and most will require briefings and training sessions before setting foot in the Antarctic.

Eventually, all of the chores have been completed. The schedule remains intact. The eight or nine days spent in port were hectic, but everything is ready to go. During that time, the calendar has quietly slipped from winter into spring. But it’s still very early spring, and this is a very high latitude. Once again, the Laurence M. Gould fires up its engines, and once again the big screws make the harbor water boil. Once again, the Gould is heading south, but this time, the ship is bound for the Drake Passage. This time, it really is sailing into winter.

Dean Hancock is a technical editor for the U.S. Antarctic Program External U.S. government site, and he accompanied the research vessel Laurence M. Gould as it transited from Port Fourchon, La., to Punta Arenas, Chile, earlier this year. He spent 10 years in the U.S. Navy External U.S. government site, where he worked in shipboard engineering. He has also worked for the U.S. Geological Survey External U.S. government site doing cartography and Geographic Information Systems.

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Curator: Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Winifred Reuning, Division of Polar Programs