The year was 1955 and H W Tilman was under­tak­ing his first ‘sail to climb’ exped­i­tion, aim­ing to cross the Patago­ni­an ice-cap in both directions—starting from the ‘other side’. This would neces­sit­ate a trans­it of the Magel­lan Strait; as Sir Robin Knox-John­ston puts it in his Fore­word to Mis­chief in Patago­nia: ‘He describes the pas­sage through the Magel­lan Strait in straight­for­ward terms but, as those of us who have sailed in those chan­nels know, it is a dan­ger­ous route with almost con­stant, cold adverse winds for the west-going ves­sel, of Force 7 or more.’ Tilman describes this with his usual lac­on­ic under­state­ment, but not for­get­ting to include much topo­graph­ic­al detail and local interestbut then, though this was his first voy­aging book, he by this time had seven moun­tain explor­a­tion titles to his cred­it.

Now that we were well down in the forties the South Atlantic began to roar to some pur­pose. No soon­er had we left Pen­guin Isle astern than the coast van­ished in a murky haze, while to the south, clouds (which, by the way, I noted in my diary as ‘not very threat­en­ing’) began to gath­er. The gale struck with stun­ning force. By even­ing we were run­ning before it to the Magel­lan Straits north-east under bare poles. But its first fury did not last, for in the course of the night, a glor­i­ous night of full moon and cloud­less sky, we were able to set the try­sail and get the ship once more head­ing south. By day­light the wind had veered to the north and we got up all plain sail. But again the wind freshened, and again the main­sail had to give way to try­sail and storm jib, and later, as she was run­ning too fast, to the jib alone. But at least we were run­ning in the right dir­ec­tion, and Mis­chief had shewn her­self to be such an able sea-boat that we had no anxi­ety on her account. After two days of bet­ter weath­er, when we were twenty miles off the entrance to the Straits, the glass fell to 29″ and the wind rose. We made our land­fall under the con­di­tions which we had now come to regard as spe­cially reserved for such occa­sions. At 2 a.m. on the morn­ing of 5 Novem­ber, with a strong west­erly gale blow­ing, we sighted the Cape Vir­gins light, a little to the north of the entrance to the Straits. Day­light revealed a long, flat line of white cliffs, except for the light­house on the east­ern extremity bare as the sea itself. The wind was blow­ing straight out of the Straits and a high, con­fused sea was run­ning. We could make no west­ing so we hove to on the star­board tack and drif­ted slowly south­ward. In the even­ing, with no land in sight, we went about to recov­er our ground and at mid­night we once more raised the light. And so it went on. We stood off until the even­ing of the 6th, when the wind mod­er­at­ing, we shook out all reefs and stood in to the south-west.

Off the entrance to the Straits the tidal streams are strong and con­fus­ing; for the flood stream makes north up the coast from round the Horn and also sets east through the Straits, and in the same way the ebb run­ning south divides, part of it set­ting west through the Straits. So when the wind fell light we star­ted the engine, fully determ­ined that no false pride should stop us enter­ing the Straits and attach­ing ourselves firmly to the bot­tom to save our being blown out or set out by the tide. Ber­nicot, who in 1936 in the cut­ter Anahita had repeated Slocum’s single-handed cir­cum­nav­ig­a­tion by way of the Magel­lan Straits, had had a rough hand­ling just inside the entrance and was twice swept out to sea in spite of all that sail and engine could do. Slo­cum, too, had no soon­er roun­ded Cape Vir­gins than a south-west­erly gale struck him and for thirty hours his sloop Spray man­aged to hold her ground with no more than a three-reefed main­sail and forestay­sail. She had no engine and she was not driv­en out to sea; but then Spray was Spray and there have been few sea­men like Slo­cum.

Inside the Straits the tidal streams are stronger and reach their max­im­um strength in the First and Second Nar­rows. In the First Nar­rows spring tides run at from five to eight knots and are not much less in the Second Nar­rows. Between the east­ern entrance and Punta Aren­as a sail­ing ves­sel or a low-powered steam­er must there­fore work the tides, anchor­ing when the stream is against her. By 10 o’clock that night, when the Dun­ge­ness light bore north, we knew we were fairly inside the Straits, and with a nice breeze com­ing in from north-west and with the flood under us we sailed hap­pily west­wards gain­ing assur­ance with every mile made good. Early in the morn­ing, when the ebb began to run, we dropped anchor at the tail of the Orange Bank.

Com­ing on deck that morn­ing with the vague, mys­ter­i­ous coast of Tierra del Fuego on one side and the bold head­land of Cape Pos­ses­sion on the other, we felt our adven­ture had really begun. Until the tide turned we fished unsuc­cess­fully and watched with interest some Commerson’s dol­phins. These were the first we had seen; they are smal­ler than most dol­phins with black and white col­our­ing sharply delim­ited, the white part includ­ing the flip­pers and the lower half of the head. When the flood began to make we weighed and stood towards Punta Del­gada at the entrance to the First Nar­rows. As we neared it the wind dropped so we star­ted the engine and with the tide run­ning full bore we swept through the Nar­rows with a speed of some­thing like eight knots over the ground. The chan­nel has a least width of two miles, the fair­way is deep, and the shores steep-to but not high. An hour later we shot out of the west­ern end and at the same time the engine failed. There was no wind but the tide still ran strongly enough to carry us to a safe anchor­age in San­ti­ago Bay.

Instead of press­ing on that night with the next tide we took a long night in. At noon next day we weighed again hop­ing to pass the Second Nar­rows while it was still light, for at this time of year it is light until after 10 o’clock. No soon­er had we star­ted, how­ever, than the wind came in so strongly from dead ahead that we had to push the engine hard to get as far as Gregory Bay, the next anchor­age some ten miles to the west. In Gregory Bay there is a frig­or­i­fico, a mere col­lec­tion of build­ings with a tall, iron chim­ney and a wood jetty from which the frozen mut­ton is shipped. We anchored close off the end of the jetty where only a few chil­dren gathered to look at the strange ship, for at this time of year the place was not being used. As if a frig­or­i­fico was not a strong enough hint that times had changed we could see, as we looked across the Straits that night, the great flames of nat­ur­al gas from the oil wells on Tierra del Fuego. Thus the voy­ager in these his­tor­ic waters, aglow with such romantic names as Fam­ine Reach, Royal Road, Pel­ic­an Pas­sage, or Eliza­beth Island (so named by Drake), whose ima­gin­a­tion has been stirred and who yet cher­ishes the hope­ful illu­sion that the low coast on either hand is still wild and strange, must here aban­don such ima­gin­ings, now utterly extin­guished by the hor­rid real­ity of a frig­or­i­fico on the one hand and of oil der­ricks on the other.

Expect­ing to reach Punta Aren­as that day we got under way soon after mid­night. Since the Second Nar­rows are much wider than the First the stream is weak­er. In our eager­ness to be off we roun­ded Gregory Point and were at the entrance of the chan­nel before the east-going stream had stopped run­ning. Until the tide turned pro­gress was slow, but by five in the morn­ing, when it was full day, we had cleared the west­ern end. As we altered course for Punta Aren­as, for the Straits here bend sharply south­wards, we met a rare sail­ing breeze from the north-west. The day was won­der­fully clear. To star­board lay Drake’s well-wooded Eliza­beth Island, with Queen Chan­nel to the east of it and Royal Road and Pel­ic­an Pas­sage to the west. Ahead Broad Reach opened out, its light blue waters ruffled by the freshen­ing wind. Bey­ond it to the south lay high ground, the slopes green with forest and crowned with patches of winter snow. Far away in the dis­tance, from west round to south, rose a jagged sky­line of high moun­tains, the highest of them glisten­ing with the con­vin­cing white­ness of per­petu­al ice and snow. So unex­pec­ted a vis­ion was heart­en­ing. There at any rate was coun­try still wild and strange.

As the wind gradu­ally freshened and Broad Reach became covered with white-capped waves, Mis­chief sped along with a bone in her teeth as if eager to fin­ish in style what had been a rather slow pas­sage. The brown huddle at the foot of a bleak, red­dish col­oured hill­side which we had long decided was Punta Aren­as began to take shape. In the roads a big four-masted hulk lay for­lorn and uncared for, and soon we could make out the jetty and we had to decide where to go. We were still sail­ing fast, a little too fast for accur­ate nav­ig­a­tion, and presently a jar and a shud­der warned us that Mis­chief had indeed reached Patago­nia. But in a mat­ter of minutes she had bumped over the shoal and we lost no time in hand­ing the sail and drop­ping anchor a cable’s length from the jetty. A pilot launch was soon along­side and towed us to the jetty where we tied up. We had at any rate aston­ished the nat­ives. The slight contretemps had gone unnoticed by the ancient mar­iners and long­shore­men who had gathered to see us come in, and who, as we heard later, had much admired our dash­ing approach, swift round­ing-to and stow­ing of sails. To have made such an impres­sion was grat­i­fy­ing, for it is not every day that an Eng­lish yacht, or indeed any yacht, comes to Punta Aren­as. It was per­haps a pity that our depar­ture was destined to be the reverse of dash­ing.