Southern Exposure 12: The Chilean Fiords, Part 1

On Sunday, November 3, the Zaandam departed the San Antonio harbor in the late afternoon in brisk winds and heavy seas. Our latitude was about 45 degrees, right in the middle of what sailors call the Roaring Forties, where the wind howls most of the time– the kind of weather we were expecting. The sun was out, however, and the sea was sparkling. As the huge rollers hit the cliffs near the harbor, their spray reached 40 or 50 feet. 

When we woke up the following morning, seas appeared calm with  towering cliffs  on both sides, not far from the ship. Overnight we had entered the northernmost part of the Chilean fiords, the first day of what would be three days meandering in these protected waters. As the depth of the channel permitted, the Zaandam coasted along.  I positioned  myself on the  aft deck for almost the entire day taking photographs and marveling at what ranks among the best that Mother Nature has to offer.  The Chilean fiords are right up there with Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, the Yellow Mountains in China, Lake Baikal in Russia and Mount Fuji in Japan. Bucket list material for sure.

Unfortunately, it  was not too long before we made a sharp right turn, taking us due west toward the ocean. As we turned into the wind, white caps started to form, and we could begin to feel the strong breeze. The captain’s somber voice came on the ship’s public address system alerting us to a change in plans. Our original course had us headed out of the channel the next day  in the direction of a major storm to the south, producing gale force winds and seas of over 30 feet high. In order to avert extremely difficult cruising conditions, he had made the decision to cancel our first stop in the fiord in order to get a jump on the storm in order to  make it back  into the fiords before the worst of the storm hit. 

It did not take long to understand why he had made that decision. When the Zaandam  left the protected waters and entered the Pacific, we were slammed by howling winds and huge waves. White caps were everywhere making the sea look like a giant cappuccino. Suddenly it was not all that easy to keep your balance. Sea sickness bags began appearing in common areas, and the captain came on the address system again  to announce that for safety reasons, all doors to the outside decks had been locked and the elevators shut down. All the water had been drained out of both swimming pools.  The captain said that the temperature outside was 46 degrees and the sustained winds were 42 knots gusting to over 50 knots.  Keeping on your feet required holding on to railings.

All morning Embry and I sat in the Crow’s Nest, a bar and gathering area on Deck 9, the top deck, peering out the window through the fog and rain, watching monster waves crash across the bow of the ship with spray at times reaching the window in front of us, some 90 feet above the sea, 

We did finally get some relief from the rocking and rolling in the afternoon when we were able to make the next passage  back into the fiords, just missing the  predicted storm waves of  30 or more feet, almost twice the size of what we had been plowing through. Unfortunately, however, in the afternoon the rain and mist settled in again. All we could  see were eerie, gray silhouettes of mountains and an occasional fleeting glimpse of a towering snow capped peak and  waterfalls draining melting snow into the ocean. 

Then close to five pm as if on cue, the rain stopped, the mist began to rise, blue patches of sky appeared, and the snowcapped peaks showed off their full glory.

About an hour later, the ship paused in front of a glacier, a bluish ice pack about 50 feet deep beginning at the top of a large mountain and extending all the way down to the sea. Even though the rain had started up again and the mist had returned, the aft deck was crowded with fellow travelers snapping photos of the glacier, the snowcapped mountains and the blue fiord. Despite the frigid temperatures and  howling wind, they were asking, I suppose, the same question I was asking: When will we ever see anything quite like this again?

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