WINTER IN FIRELAND By Nick Coghlan reviewed by Paul Durand


A Patagonian sailing adventure

I first became a fan of Nick Coghlan’s writing when reading his dispatches from our embassy in Colombia in the late nineties. In these reports, he combined the two qualities that make “Winter in Fireland” a gripping read – an irrepressible spirit of adventure which took him into the most daunting situations, and an ability to describe his experiences in lucid prose. This book, following on his previous publications about Colombia and Sudan, places him solidly in the company of the best travel writers - those hardy souls who have explored the world’s nether regions and lived to tell the tale.

The voyage starts in Capetown, South Africa, where, in 2003, Nick and his wife Jenny had begun a two-year posting. There, they conceived of the ultimate sailing adventure; around the tip of South America, through the Beagle Channel and the Strait of Magellan, then into the Pacific. This region, notorious as a sailors’ graveyard, is beset by ferocious storms, numbing cold and unpredictable currents: the most difficult sailing area in the world. In addition to the challenge, they were motivated by a certain amount of nostalgia, having worked in Argentina immediately after graduating from university in the UK. While there, they travelled extensively in the region and were particularly attracted to Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego.

Nick and Jenny complement each other very well for this type of venture; both have extensive sailing experience - among other exploits, they had completed a four-year circumnavigation of the world before joining DFAIT. Nick is the captain while ‘the crew’ - Jenny - adds invaluable expertise in all things electronic including computers, satellite phones, GPS, radar, etc. (these latter were especially useful in the sometimes uncharted waters of the Cape Horn region). In addition to complementarity, there obviously exists a good deal of compatibility, allowing them to withstand living at extremely close quarters for extended periods.

In South Africa they purchased and fitted-out the ‘Bosun Bird’, a Canadian-designed Vancouver 27 with a good reputation for rugged seaworthiness. At 27 feet, she was small - the minimum for this type of voyage, but similar in size to their previous boat, ‘Tarka the Otter’. After extensive fitting up, they weighed anchor in Capetown in September, 2005 and began the first leg of the journey, across the Atlantic to Brazil.

As the real journey begins, Nick’s sailing expertise comes to the fore. He explains, with the easy ability of one who knows his stuff, sailing tactics, gear, and various levels of marine history and lore (fans of Patrick O’Brian will be relieved to know that they don’t have to acquire a whole new nautical vocabulary in order to enjoy this book).

After a brief landfall in Rio de Janeiro, they begin the deep plunge into the south, making various stops along the Argentine coast. Plagued by engine problems, they put up for repairs for several weeks in Puerto Deseado, giving us a glimpse of life in this remote and increasingly forgotten coastal town in southern Argentina.

South America is familiar territory, and Nick puts the trip into historical and personal context as they make stops along the way. This provides depth and colour, because they are following in the footsteps/wakes of fascinating characters, such as Drake, Magellan, Cook, Slocum, Chatwin and an assortment of pirates. The history here is remote but consequential; he describes British and German naval confrontations during the world wars; Chile/Argentina border jostling, and the Falklands war, along with other interesting personal and historical anecdotes.

With well-warranted apprehension, they keep pushing south; through the Roaring Forties into the Furious Fifties, and eventually entering the Beagle Channel, with the Big Island of Tierra del Fuego to the north and a succession of Chilean islands down to Cape Horn to the south. He talks of 8-metre waves and 50-knot winds, sudden squalls and always the freezing, wet cold. This is not hospitable territory; and now, five months out of Capetown, the fun has just begun.

In March, they arrive in Puerto Williams, Chile, the southernmost town in the world (to the chagrin of the Argentines, who long claimed that honour for Ushuaia, several miles to the north) and prepare to hunker down for the worst of the winter before proceeding across the bottom of the world and into the Pacific.

Puerto Williams is not everyone’s idea of a vacation spot; it’s isolated, cold and nearly deserted. But they make the best of it, getting to know the handful of eccentric locals, hiking and climbing when weather permits, reading, and preparing for the next big push in the spring. Nick is a keen observer of nature and provides interesting information on birds, plants and animals, including the Canadian beaver, which was introduced here in the 1940s with disastrous ecological results. The intended fur trade failed and the released animals, having no natural predators, multiplied exponentially, changing river courses, creating vast bogs and degrading large tracts of land.

There is a compelling account of the tragic demise of the Yahgan tribes who were hunted, then proselytized, to near extinction, and the missionaries whose futile attempts to ‘save’ them usually ended in disaster.

Finally, on August 20, as winter eases and conditions improve, they slip their moorings and begin the 1200-mile journey through the rest of the Beagle Channel and the Strait of Magellan, up the Chilean coast to Puerto Montt. It’s an arduous journey, requiring all the sailing skills of the two, but eventually they arrive at their final Chilean destination, having traversed the world’s most treacherous waters.

On March 1, after re-supplying and re-fitting, they depart Puerto Montt and the Chilean mainland, heading out into the Pacific. In the words of the author, “On a brilliant afternoon, we set our course to the NNW and Robinson Crusoe Island, six hundred miles away. The sun sank slowly, the wind picked up, South America faded into the night”.

A perfect ending to a gripping adventure, written by a colleague who has mastered both sail and pen.

Tags: Paul Durand