7 November 2017:
Punta Arenas, Chile:
In the Footsteps of Shackleton

By Corey Sandler, Destination Consultant Silversea Cruises

We’ve almost reached bottom.

Punta Arenas, Sandy Point, is the capital of Chile’s southernmost region, Magallanes and Antartica Chilena.

Punta Arenas is on the Brunswick Peninsula north of the Strait of Magellan, mostly uninhabited except in and around the city, part of Chilean Patagonia.

GHOSTS IN THE CHANNEL

Monday afternoon, we sailed down the south arm of the Smyth Channel, a place that has been seen by uncounted thousands of ships passing to or from the Atlantic or Pacific oceans.

The Kawésqar people lived along its coast for thousands of years.

But very few humans have left footprints on the mountains on both sides and with the exception of a few buoys, we saw nothing to tell us of our modern times.

Smyth Channel. Photo by Corey Sandler

Smyth Channel’s south arm is a continuation of the Sarmiento Channel.

Its north entrance is in the Nelson Strait at 51°36′10″S 74°48′12″W, between Charlton Cape and the western extreme of the Lobos Islands. Its southern end is at Manuel Rodriguez Island and Merino Peninsula on the mainland, where it opens into the Strait of Magellan.

As I mentioned, this channel has seen many ships—from dugout canoes to Spanish and Portuguese ships of exploration to sailing vessels to cruise ships. Not all of them made it all the way through.

At its southern end lie the wrecked steamships MoraledaMagadaPonte Verde, and Recreo.

SANTA LEONOR AT REST

And just short of the Strait of Magellan, at Shoal Pass, is the wreck of the SS Santa Leonor.

SS Santa Leonor. Photo by Corey Sandler

The ship entered service as the USS Riverside in 1944 during World War II.

The steel ship of 8,007 gross registered tons (GRT) was 150 meters or 492 feet long, and 21 meters or 69 feet wide. As first built for the US Navy she could carry 1,740 passengers or troops and 575 crew.

A Bayfield-class attack transport, she delivered troops to the battlefront in Asia and also served as a transport for wounded from Pearl Harbor back to California. She also sailed to Okinawa, Guam, the Philippines, and Korea.

Decommissioned in 1946, she was sold to Pacific Argentina Brazil lines and renamed SS P&T Forester and then to Moore McCormack Lines in 1957 as SS Mormacwave.

In 1966 she was sold for the final time to Grace Lines and SS Santa Leonor.

At the time of the accident she was travelling from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to Vancouver, Canada with just a skeleton crew aboard.

A GOOD REASON TO SAY “STARBOARD” OR “PORT”

One way or another, the accident was the result of a navigational error.

An oft-repeated story—which may have some truth embedded in it—is that the captain and a Chilean pilot were having a conversation on the bridge as the vessel approached the narrow Shoal Pass.

According to the story, the captain finished his conversation by saying, “All right, pilot.”

And the helmsman responded by applying full right rudder, which sent the ship onto the island at full speed.

SS Santa LeonorPhoto by Corey Sandler

PUNTA ARENAS, CHILE

Magallanes is the Spanish version of the name of Ferdinand Magellan, the Portuguese explorer who sailed for Spain. While on his circumnavigation of the earth, he passed close to the present site of Punta Arenas in 1520.

Later came  Charles Darwin, Giuseppe Garibaldi, and Ernest Shackleton.

The Beagle in the Straits of Magellan
Punta Arenas

Darwin came aboard the second visit of The Beagle, a brig-sloop of the Royal Navy.

Darwin’s observations on the round-the-world voyage helped form his scientific theories and made Beagle one of the most famous ships in history.

Darwin had his first sight of glaciers when they reached the Beagle Channel in January 1833, and wrote in his field notebook,

“It is scarcely possible to imagine anything more beautiful than the beryl-like blue of these glaciers, and especially as contrasted with the dead white of the upper expanse of snow.”

The city of Punta Arenas was originally established by Chile in 1848 as a tiny penal colony, mostly as a placeholder to maintain a claim to the isolated piece of land.

Punta Arenas grew in size and importance as shipping traffic increased, starting with the first wave of Gold Rushers from the United States and elsewhere beginning in 1849, moving down and around the bottom of South America and then back up to California.

Punta Arenas. Photos by Corey Sandler

Punta Arenas, although exposed to storms, was considered one of the most important ports in South America before the construction of the Panama Canal, for resupply of food and coal.

Punta Arenas is about 1,418 kilometers or 881 miles from the coast of Antarctica.

That is the reason the explorer Ernest Shackleton made Punta Arenas his base in 1916, as he planned the rescue of his crew from Elephant Island.

And that is why today it continues as one of the principal connections to Antarctica for the international research stations there.

A supply ship for the American research station in Antarctica

We also took a stroll to one of our favorite unusual spots in South America, the Cemetery of Punta Arenas.

And finally, we strolled through the fascinating old museum established by the Silesian missionaries of this region, with a collection of artifacts of the native peoples as well as industries of the area including whaling stations.

We are off tonight for a trip into the Beagle Channel and into the Agostini National Park for an up-close visit to the Garibaldi Glacier and later a procession along the Avenue of Glaciers.

All photos and text Copyright 2017 by Corey Sandler, all rights reserved.

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