Cruising South America – Argentina & Uruguay

Published: June 2014 Multihulls Quarterly
© 2014 Troy Gilbert

The humorous tales of the couple that’s never sailed a day in their life and who fell in love with the cruising dream are OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAubiquitous at yacht club bars. Everyone knows the type – they buy a sailboat, sell their home and head out for the sand and the songs of open blue water. The punchline is always something along the lines of their marriage not surviving that first moderate squall.

The counter to that is we rarely hear the success stories.

This past November Laurie and Craig, two Canadians very new to the water, watched as their liveaboard 44’ catamaran was splashed into the brown waters of the Rio de la Plata. By mid December, over incredible $3 bottles of Argentine Malbecs, charts of the massive delta and the coasts of Argentina and Uruguay were spread across the fine wood carpentry of the salon table – courses, destinations and plans were fine tuned. Outside in the South American night as the boat quietly rose in the 4-5’ nightly tide inside this marina minnowed deep up the delta near Buenos Aires were the grounds of one of the most beautiful yacht club’s and marinas one will ever encounter – the 127 year old Yacht Club de Argentino.

Planning and executing a cruise 3,500 miles up the coast of South America to the Caribbean may seem like a daunting task for most highly seasoned cruisers, but put yourself in the cradle of one fine 44’ Antares cat, stir in some friendly natives and a tablespoon or two of newbie owner naiveté and, well it may seem that too much seasoning might simply indulge your fears and spoil the pot of adventure that the world can cook up.

Craig and Laurie had taken a sailing course on Flying Scots and were now watching their dream come true. They OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAspent the last month provisioning their boat, getting some much needed hands on attention learning their new gear and exploring their surroundings. For cruisers, the exotic ports of South America are unheralded.

Buenos Aires is a massive city. A city of deep history, insanely beautiful colonial architecture and an obvious stratification of wealth and poverty, but even the poor here seem stylish. It’s a city of sidewalk cafes, Eva Peron’s ghost and political graffiti that leads one to think that Che Guevara is upstairs off of a cobblestone street plotting revolution, but the one thing that is unmistakable is its connection to the water.

One of the largest ports in South America, there is a definitive feeling of New York, San Francisco and especially given its Spanish colonial nature, New Orleans. From its most historic districts, the wharfs and giant hoists holler at you from throughout along with a myriad of marina options on this wide delta which reaches 140 miles across at its brown water extremes. Masts everywhere – this is an old world sailing city at heart.

Head a bit further up the delta to the town of San Fernando and one walks into the sailing capital of South America. San Fernando is a sailor’s maritime wet dream. On the streets, every other business is boating related, the local trade school is a “Barco Escuela” and each high school runs a sailing team – even the local McDonald’s has a boat built into their grounds. It is a town of highly skilled maritime tradesmen and custom boat building, renowned for their old world attention to detail and skill in this plastic, disposable modern world.

Next to the heart of San Fernando lies the satellite location of the Yacht Club de Argentino – a clubhouse, grounds and marina that on its own outshines nearly everything in the United States. The massive, private complex is ARG003populated by extraordinary late growth hardwood trees imported from nearly every continent. The start of the Argentine spring in December holds blue skies and nights with a light chill and strange birds calling from their perches in pines and fully flowering Jacaranda trees. It is as if a marina and a working boat yard were suddenly dropped down into the midst of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.

Sitting on the veranda of the yacht club’s small outdoor café, the view is populated by an incredible stable of cruising yachts and racing boats with nearly a third of the bows carrying Rolex South Atlantic Circuit markers. Sip your café con leche and before you know it, a massive transient 60’ catamaran from the Cook Islands pulls in to refit for its single-handed global cruise.

Opt against taking one of the club’s two “launches” that will night or day run you anywhere in the marina, and instead walk through the grounds past red brick boatyards where Open 40’s and boats from exotic ports are under repair and the stacks upon stacks of Opti’s wait for their obviously well attended and funded junior sailing programs. At noon, the yard workers and security officers lay off for their daily grilling of massive t-bones and ribeyes in a huge brick and mortar outdoor grill – there is obviously no heart disease in Argentina and if invited to join and your Spanish is good enough, they will explain this to you.

North American sailmakers would never lose their sense of amazement walking the tiled floating docks holding boats 40’ – 60’ in length, all nicely and completely tucked away under custom sunbrella boat covers. The nearby North Sails loft run by Torkel Borgstrom is indeed full service, busy and very competent. He states, “Within 10 miles of here there are easily over 5,000 sailboats and we service anything from OD to mega-yachts. We also get a lot of work from foreigners who spend six months sailing in Ushuaia and big boats cruising through the Cape.”

San Fernando is indeed a destination port that anyone with a bit of salt in their hair would fall in love with. The new OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAowners of the Antares cat nearly did, although it was more from the reality of their rapidly approaching undertaking.

Under a perfect blue sky following one of the last few cool fronts of the season, the final preparations were underway. By noon, the new skipper was turning his 44’ cat nearly on a dime in a narrow slieu to fuel up for the start of their 3,500 mile voyage. Having spent the previous day pouring through paperwork for Argentine Customs, Immigration and the local Prefectura – proper documentation is no joke in Argentina, including the licensed skipper having to sign a document swearing that the vessel will not sail to the Falkland Islands – the crew was anxious to get rolling.

Motoring out of the marina and into the raw world of South America is a bit unnerving and genuinely exciting. The delta of the Rio de la Plata is navigable and well marked with channel markers, yet don’t be too trusting. Large swaths of land are created almost annually by the super silt from the Andes Mountains and the heartland of Argentina pouring out into the giant river delta, but as a port, it is reasonably well managed and with a catamaran that draws only four feet, there really is no fear if you stick to the charts.

However, an old derelict freighter lodged up on what is now dry, rising land and surrounded by mature trees speaks to what could be happening in south Louisiana if the Mississippi hadn’t been corralled by levees – this is a growing and living delta with water bottoms and sandy shoals rapidly becoming new land in short order.

From San Fernando’s transient slips, multiple day trips abound throughout the massive delta. Tigre, Argentina and ARG008Colonia, Uruguay are perhaps the most interesting. True old world holdouts from the colonial days, these mostly unchanged towns with their markets and cobblestone and dirt streets have great water access and reasonable marina infrastructure.  Directly to the northeast from Buenos Aires is the capital city of Uruguay – Montevideo. Much smaller than Buenos Aires, Montevideo is undergoing a bit of a renaissance, especially on her eastern beaches. In fact the beaches to the north and south of the delta have been quietly chic for the past decade and the creatures from Hollywood and the inevitable developers are of course following.

Today though, there is still a real sense of history in sailing the brown waters of this giant delta. Freighters and high speed ferries abound and join you in passing wrecks such as the Graff Spee, the German battleship scuttled just out of range of British and New Zealand warships lying in wait for her in international waters during the early days of World War II – marked by lights, her stovepipes still solemnly rise from the water.

The first 100 miles were a rush of feeling the freedom of sailing, unattached to the umbilical of the Antares team. It provided hours for the wide eyed crew to master their boat electronics including learning where the MOB button was and tackling their last minute addition of a satellite phone.  It also didn’t hurt that they installed jack lines and designated a hatch for garbage. But all around them, their new life was coming true.

After making the turn northeast past Montevideo, only then did the presence of the South Atlantic make itself known. The waters slowly begin to change from their chocolate milk color to blue, and salt can be tasted. Sailing past rocky coastal islands holding historic lighthouses, populated by even more wrecks and a sky loaded with an insane southern hemisphere starfield, one can almost feel the pull of sailing giant lazy circles and communing with Crowhurst.

The rising and rocky coast of Uruguay is lightly populated, one of the more interesting aspects of this land of cattle ARG002ranches. With thousands of miles of coastline combined, Argentina and Uruguay appear to have literally an almost negligible history of fishing. By definition, this is beef country with your average resident consuming red meat 12 times a week, so ports that can offer even a modicum of transient or emergency harborage are somewhat rare until one hits the coastlines of southern Brazil. The ones that do exist such as Periapolis, Florianopolis and Punta del Este are however well equipped, quite friendly and generally reasonable.

Important information as with the changing of the seasons into spring, a nasty late December cold front powered it’s way north over the boat as it sailed past the lighthouse on Faro Isla de Flores. Striking with 40+ knot winds and blinding rains, the seas rose quickly on the edge of the continental shelf, but with the nature of a big cat like the Antares – it breezed through the weather and the only real threats came from the heavy commercial traffic and the persistent bouts of seasickness and exhaustion for the new owners.

However, the natural and well appointed recreational harbor of Punta del Este, Uruguay is a dream refuge. Known as a historical stop for the Whitbread Regatta (now known as the Volvo Ocean Race), Punta is a true cruising resort town. Home to two serious yacht club’s, access to all necessary forms of maritime service and the feel of Monte Carlo with its nightlife, expensive shops and condo developments – Punta del Este is a pricey oasis of modern civilization on the Uruguayan coast.

In the cafes surrounding the marinas of Punta, tourists with their children and Coach bags in tow gaze down at giant, yawning sea lions sunning on the piers. What they’re missing though are the conversations between the old grizzled sailors and their young British and Aussie counterparts trading stories, laughter and hard earned knowledge down on the piers. These sailors are there to re-provision and take respite before plying their luck and skill in the formidable elements of the southern oceans and earn the right to witness the rare beauty of the waters and lands of the Cape and Antarctica.

It’s easy for the uninitiated to not notice that these ports are a jumping off point, that they are the la grange point between those sailing thousands of miles north to the suntanned, lazy tropics and the explorers who are sailing south.

Docked in Punta del Este, Laurie, Craig and their crew meticulously charted their last stretch up the coast of Uruguay and into the famed waters of southern Brazil and further north. After a scare docking the boat in the head winds of the passing front, their energy and adrenalin were pumping. They’d made the first leg of their journey and were ready for more. Five months later, they had achieved the Caribbean and discovered their new home, with a bit of salt behind their ears.

– More images of cruising Argentina and Uruguay can be found HERE.

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