By Gavin McClurg, photos by Jody MacDonald
Sailing around the world isn’t new. Historians recently learned that Chinese merchant ships in the latter 15th century, which were grander, faster, and better equipped than Spanish and Portuguese fleets (Magellan, Columbus, Gama, etc.), used trading routes that vary today only because of the Suez and Panama Canals. These canals eliminate the need to navigate the treacherous Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn, respectively.
Today, we call these routes the “milk run.” When you start at X and sail to Y, there is a very sensible time of year to do it and a very sensible course to take advantage of winds and currents. This is true for all vessels of every size and type. To get away from the milk run takes a lot more effort, skill, patience, fortitude and, yes, imagination – which is, of course, why it’s worth it. It may be true that the oceans of the world have been mapped, but that doesn’t mean they have been properly explored.
[Above: Finding a barrel at the bottom of the world.]
Enter the Cabrinha Quest. On a 14-year mission to find remote wind and waves on a series of blue-water kitesurfing and surfing expeditions – during which we’ve sailed around the world twice – I have taken considerable pride in escaping the milk run as often as possible, including rounding both of those notorious capes (where pride manifests in pain!). Our latest expedition, in partnership with Cabrinha Kites, launched in September 2012 – a five-year seafaring quest to explore the most remote corners of the globe.
In four previous crossings of the Pacific, a kaleidoscopic wistful throng of islands has captivated my imagination but they have always been just too far out of reach. To get there would require a longer crossing than I have ever sailed, nearly all of it in open ocean below 40 degrees south – a band of latitudes known as the “Roaring 40s” and “Screaming 50s” for the unhindered westerly winds that rake unending around Antarctica. It’s a cold, lonely, impossibly large and wild place with no hope of support if something goes wrong.
So this year we went. 5,000 miles. 28 days at sea. Three days with visible sun. Water temps down to 6 degrees Celsius. Not a single sighting of another boat. Not a single fish caught. But at the end of it all stretched the ultimate prize: 1,000 miles of granite peaks encased in ice and snow, uncountable uninhabited untouched islands, glaciers that descend to a dark ocean bustling with strange fish and sea creatures, fjords that wander for miles and miles in a never-ending maze of lushness and plenty, waterfalls cascading from gray clouds into heavy mist, virgin forests with pancake-shaped leaves the size of large trucks dripping with eternal rain hanging over crystal clear lattices of geothermal pools. Patagonia. Where God possibly imbibed in some supernatural LSD and applied his watercolors by hand instead of brush.
The decision to come here has been in the works for years but the tipping point was reached only very recently. In our efforts to operate the Cabrinha Quest in a sustainable manner we teamed up with the uber-eco-conscious Patagonia clothing company. Yvon Chouinard named his company Patagonia after he fell in love with the region during a climbing trip with Doug Tompkins in the ‘60s. It seemed only fitting to bring some of the Patagonia crew to the place where it all started. In a small twist, we’d be going by sea instead of land.
Yvon’s son Fletcher, FCD’s board shaper and kite and surf addict; Jason McCaffrey, Patagonia’s surf brand manager; and Patagonia ambassadors Reo Stevens and Jason Slezak arrive on the docks in Puerto Montt right on time for a planned 10-day push deep into the fjords where we hope to surf waves that had never been ridden. Distances are vast, and we must carefully plan all movement around the tides. They range more than four meters on springs and neaps and create currents that turn narrow passes into raging whitewater rivers, which makes traveling heedless of their strength quite ill advised.
I am anxious to get started immediately.
Jason McCaffrey and Fletcher Chouinard prep boards for the trip.
Jason Slezak, making some adjustments to the kit.
But only one set of bags has arrived. An ice storm in Dallas has sent the bags to airline purgatory and we are told they might arrive “mañana,” or “mañana mañana,” or possibly “mañana mañana mañana.” ¿Pero quien sabes? Indeed. Who knows?
If we were in the tropics, not having bags would have very little impact. We have plenty of gear on board, surfboards and kites bulging out of every storage compartment on our 60-foot catamaran, Discovery. The fridge and freezer are stocked with every imaginable seafood delicacy compliments of the rich waters that surround Puerto Montt, the gateway port to Patagonia. But the water here hovers around 10 degrees Celsius. Without proper wetsuits, water activities will be considerably curtailed.
We study charts and Google Earth and come up with a plan B, and a Plan C, D, and E, depending on which mañana.
On an ebb tide we slide away from the docks at an absurd speed. With no wind and no sails we travel twice as fast as we should under power. The ocean is dark. I’m used to the translucent water of the tropics where reefs are as visible as billboards on the freeway. Here they lurk invisible in frigid water. At high tide they pass below our keels with plenty of room to spare. As the tide drops they rise above the surface like erupting volcanoes: dry, sharp, gnarled and twisted. They are a mirror of our surroundings.
We are near the winter solstice, which, this far south, means our days stretch impossibly long. Each morning we are enveloped in a dense still fog, but the sun eventually wins the battle for space and wet decks and chilly bodies are warmed generously. I can’t help but feel like this place is actually sucking in geological-sized breaths. Each day the forests and mountains take a huge inhalation, pulling in the fresh ocean air and sending a myriad of birds into the sky. Eventually, still waters and still air are whisked into strong laminar winds which we use to travel fast and far. As the sun sets, the mountains and streams and trees get their fill and they exhale, giving back to the ocean what they swept away so it can all begin again. The same pace sets in on board the boat. Why fight what Mother Nature has performed so perfectly?
We use the days without gear to wander up and down coastlines and bays, following the afternoon winds, seeking waves. The travels are stunning to be sure, but the odds are not in our favor. At one tide level we could sail right past a potential break that is totally flat, where no obvious wave exists, but in two hours, with a meter less water, it could be pumping. Persistence and considerable luck pay off when the bags arrive just in time for a solid WSW swell that comes to us from Antarctic waters and we are in position.
Anticipation of things to come as we drop the anchor at a new break.
Another session begins.
Jason Slezak, dropping in.
Fletcher Chouinard returns for a quick break between tides.
We settle into the same pace as our surroundings. Every living thing is taking in and using as much as it can. Light, water, food, air. We do the same but we add recreation. Yet even in this pursuit we are not alone. Boobie birds play and bathe in tidal pools; huge colonies of sea lions lounge in the sun without a care in the world and even surf some of the waves that we ride; terns soar cliff walls, using the sea breeze to stay aloft, clearly enjoying the freedom of flight just for the fun of it.
At first glance Patagonia seems to have escaped man’s incessant demands for resources. But look closer and the picture isn’t so rosy. Salmon aren’t native to Chile, but salmon farms are ubiquitous. The industry has been at the heart of fierce environmental opposition. They are ecologically filthy, pose a huge threat to native fish, and ultimately have been found to be a very unhealthy food source. Once-free-flowing, glacier-fed rivers that attracted paddlers from around the world have now been dammed to power mega-mines in the north.
When the swell dies we sail down Renihue Fjord to Parque Pumalin, in the heart of The Conservation Land Trust, created by Doug and Kristine Tompkins – now the largest in the world at over two million acres. The land has been set aside for conservation and their organization is teaching the locals that the economy in the long run will benefit more from leaving the land alone than exploiting it for short-term use. Beekeeping, ecological restoration, sustainable farming and fishing, and park creation are all part of the overarching goal: saving biodiversity.
No adjectives are descriptive enough to do this place justice. Powerful is the only one that comes close. Hungry? Grab a bucket and fill it in a minute with succulent mussels. Or grab a fly rod and land a fish from the sparkling river that runs through the property. An organic garden feeds all the staff. Chickens fertilize, bees pollinate, goats provide milk, and the cattle look like they’ve won the heifer lottery. Sustainability in action, all at the foot of one of the grandest and most picturesque places I’ve ever witnessed.
An unusual way to see Renihue Fjord, Jason Slezak at the entrance of Pumalín Park.
Reo Stevens, where the currents collide.
Jason McCaffery exploring Patagonia by kite.
I’m traveling with people who, like me, are concerned about the state of the planet. This trip wasn’t necessary to change anyone’s mind. We are the choir, no preaching necessary. Call us liberal, or progressive, or tree-huggers or maybe something even less endearing, but regardless of where you stand and what you think of issues like global warming or our overburdened planet, you can’t come to a place like Patagonia and go home unchanged.
I notice this change in our final days. Everyone takes a little more time to himself or herself. Everyone is a little more contemplative. Everyone is taking a closer look around. Everyone’s eyes shine differently and are a little more alive than they were when they got on board. I can’t help but think that we, and by WE I mean all of humanity, are a reflection of our environment. In Patagonia, you start to really like what you see in the mirror. Time isn’t read on a watch, it’s logged by the passing of the sun and moon. Food isn’t processed and shipped, it’s caught or foraged and eaten fresh. Movement is dictated by the weather, not a schedule. Exercise dictates sleep instead of an alarm clock.
Is it a stretch to say that if we subject ourselves to traffic, pollution, unpronounceable food additives, poorly built homes, pesticides and the myriad of other “advancements” that have made our lives “better” that we are moving in the wrong direction? We don’t have this conversation on the boat, but this is what we’re all thinking about. And this is a stretch, but try if you can to imagine that our world, the world we all share, was once like Patagonia everywhere.
Reo Stevens in search of surf.
Between the inhale and exhale a long moment of tranquility.
Gavin McClurg is the CEO of Offshore Odysseys and founder of The Best Odyssey and The Cabrinha Quest. He grew up on boats in the Pacific Northwest and commercially fished in the Bering Sea before getting into sailing in the mid ‘90s. You can keep up with Gavin and The Cabrinha Quest on Facebook and Instagram. Check out his previous post, “The Higher You Get, The Higher You Get – A Paragliding Journey in the Pioneer Mountains.”
Jody MacDonald is an award-winning adventure sport and documentary photographer. She says she's more comfortable snowboarding than wearing a dress and way happier surfing than going to the mall. You can follow her work and travels on Facebook, Instagram and JodyMacDonaldPhotography.com.