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Setting the record straight. Long renowned as the southernmost town in the world, Ushuaia, Argentina is not. Puerto Williams, Chile, is.

There are only three reasons to budget the time and funds to visit Puerto Williams on barren, mountainous Isla Navarino, all relatively irrational: one, for a brief encounter with the only known remaining Yámana (also Yagán and Yaghan), several of who are mestizos; two, for a visit to the world’s southernmost—and, not surprisingly, one of the world’s smallest—yacht clubs; three, simply for the “been there” boast.

Isla Navarino lies opposite the southern flank of Tierra del Fuego, southeast of Ushuaia, Argentina, on the shore of what is today called the Beagle Channel (after Captain Fitzroy’s ship, the HMS Beagle, whose illustrious early 19th century passenger was Charles Darwin). The native Yámana called the island Uspashum.

Wild-eyed European immigrants attracted by the much-hyped—and short-lived—gold rush to Tierra del Fuego just prior to the turn of the last century created an informal settlement here. It was known as Puerto Luisa until 1956 when its name was changed in honor of Juan Williams who laid formal claim to the Estrechos de Magallanes (Straits of Magellan) in 1843 and established Fuerte Bulnes to the south of present-day Punta Arenas. Today Puerto Williams is a Chilean naval base, home to some 2,000 sailors, officers and their families; civilian residents number about 500.

Directly south of Isla Navarino are the treacherous Islas Wollaston, tipped by the notorious Cape Horn. Beyond that, Antarctica.

A short walk to the east of Puerto Williams, a tiny cluster of wooden houses comprise the community of Ukika, home to the last of the Yámana. The men eek out their living as fisherfolk. It is unclear just how many of these inhabitants are pure descendants of the original Yámanas, but there is little doubt that they are friendly and hospitable and do not mind the occasional stranger wandering into their enclave.

A small protected inlet on the western edge of Puerto Williams shelters the southernmost yacht club in the world, Club de Yates Micalvi, named after the rusting hulk of a small, between-World-Wars-era Swiss freighter, the Micalvi, listing to port, permanently moored to the shoreline. Her tilted pilothouse (or bridge) is the clubhouse, welcoming the world’s most intrepid sailors with comfortably worn seating of every description, an unimaginably well-stocked bar, and a small fireplace in one corner. It is open to all visitors, its irregular hours notwithstanding.

The Punta Arenas-based airline, DAP, operates a twin-engine aircraft a few days a week, weather permitting, from Punta Arenas, a flight of a little over an hour provides spectacular vistas over the glacier-strewn Cordillera de Darwin and the fjords. There is also a weekly ferry from Punta Arenas, southward through the Canal Cockburn into the Pacific, then into the western extremity of the Canal Beagle, a trip lasting up to a day and a half.

North American “Captain Ben” sails the 75-foot schooner Victory around Cabo de Hornos (Cape Horn) from his home in Puerto Williams on the Canal Beagle. In addition, he is the representative for some 17 vessels available for visiting Antarctica under sail, private yachts for charter and “tall ships”.

Captain Ben’s extraordinary website (www.victory-crusies.com) contains “1,400 graphics and 450 pages of information on culture, history, fauna, flora, anthropology, geography, archaeology, Chile and Antarctic facts, kayaking, whale watching, trekking”. It meanders a bit, but click on the “Cape Horn” patch to the left for more or less of an index. It’s well worth a visit. Creating an extensive website might be the 21st-century equivalent to carving scrimshaw for whiling away the long winter months.



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