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Exploring the maritime history and geography of Chile


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Chile’s coastline extends more than 4,000 km along the Pacific Ocean, wrapping around to the South Atlantic in southern Patagonia (not to mention Chile’s territorial claims in Antarctica). The country has a fascinating and diverse maritime history, including the unique boats used by indigenous peoples, its largely naval War of Independence against Spain (strongly influenced by British involvement), its later naval victory over Peru that cemented the region’s modern boundaries, its prominent role in influencing Charles Darwin’s evolving understanding of natural and geological history before he ever reached the Galapagos, its little-appreciated role in the final rescue of Shackleton's stranded crew in Antarctica, and the vast maritime resources such as rich fisheries available to the modern country.


Mrs. Cathead and I recently spend a month exploring the southern half of Chile (from Santiago to southern Patagonia), living out of our backpacks while using local buses and hostels to get closer to the landscape and people. We encountered and investigated many locations of maritime interest, and will share some photos, stories, and information in this thread in hopes of inspiring others to learn more about (and visit) this nautically fascinating country. This won’t be a full travelogue (for example, I’ll be leaving out all the time we spent hiking in the Andes and otherwise botanizing and geologizing inland), but a series of posts focusing on specific locations and/or themes of potential interest to MSW readers. Here are a few images as teasers, all of which will be expanded upon in subsequent posts. 01_Valparaiso.jpg.74de994319e73a2dc641316546c6b9c9.jpg

Valparaiso, Chile's main seaport and a great place for modern ship-watching as well as host to a fantastic naval museum. The place is absolutely marinating in nautical history and diversity.


Ship models are everywhere in Chile, including this huge example of the Esmerelda, perhaps Chile's most famous warship. She sank in 1879 while engaging the more modern Peruvian ironclad Huáscar during the Battle of Iquique, sparking a patriotic furor that drove Chile's subsequent victory in that war as well as immortalizing her captain, Arturo Prat, to near-godlike status in Chile.


View south across Corral Bay from the Castillo de Niebla, a beautifully preserved Spanish coastal fortress. On the far shore lie the remains of five other Spanish fortresses stormed in 1820 by Chilean forces under the command of Lord Thomas Cochrane (model for Patrick O'Brien's Jack Aubrey) during the Chilean War of Independence. This action was fictionalized in the final novel of Bernard Cornwell's excellent Sharpe series.


Diverse shipping in Puerto Montt, with Volcán Calbuco in the background. Modern Chile features a fascinating array of interesting ships of many sizes and uses, far more varied than most US ports I've visited.


A full-scale replica of HMS Beagle, the first in the world to my knowledge, in southern Patagonia. Part of a private museum featuring other full-scale replicas of famous vessels including Magellan's Nao Victoria and Shackleton's James Caird.


I hope readers will enjoy the subsequent entries in this topic. I'll try to answer any questions that may arise, or perhaps someone more knowledgeable will chime in (and correct me if necessary). This trip certainly provided me with a series of new modeling possibilities, more than I'll ever be able to tackle.

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Honestly, you'd never know the fire had happened unless you knew the area beforehand. Similar to the areas devastated by the 2010 earthquake (8.8), they've done a great job cleaning up and rebuilding.

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Yeah, I was referring to areas further south like Chillan and Concepcion with regard to the earthquake. Just mean that Chilean cities have rebuilt from a variety of disasters. Sorry for the unclear phrasing.

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A major highlight of Valparaiso (Chile's main port) is the fantastic Museo Naval, which chronicles the country's maritime history in a beautiful building that, as I recall, used to be their Naval Academy. In classic Spanish style, it consists of a multi-level structure wrapped around a central courtyard with rooms on both floors dedicated to different themes:


Hiding at the back is what's labelled as the last-built wooden fishing boat of a specifically Chilean design. I somehow failed to get a better photo of this, which I deeply regretted once I started seeing many of these still in use further south but couldn't get as close. Just out of the photo to the right is one of the Fénix capsules developed by the Chilean Navy and NASA to rescue the miners trapped by the world-famous 2010 Copiapó mining accident. This was really interesting to examine, and I enjoyed watching a small boy playing in it.



One of the first rooms features a set of beautiful stained-glass windows made for the museum. Two depict a maritime globe, and three depict heroes of Chilean naval history. The photo above is of Lord Thomas Cochrane, likely of particular interest to many readers here.



There are many displays of nautical artifacts; I found these particularly fun.



A HUGE painting depicts a naval victory over the Spanish during the War of Independence. There are also many, many interesting ship models, of which I focused my photography on those from the War of Independence era (of most personal interest). Follow the link to learn more about their origins (photos below).



The battleship San Martin



The corvette Chacabuco



The frigate Lautaro. Lautaro was a famous indigenous leader in Chile from the 1500s who led the Mapuche resistance against the Spanish. Interestingly, the Mapuche maintained their independence throughout the Spanish era and well into modern Chilean history, a near-unique achievement in the New World.



The brigantine Araucano (an older Spanish word for the Mapuche, which appears in various forms all over Chile).



The brigantine Aguila (Eagle).



A separate room feature 20+ models from the Valparaiso modelling club. I couldn't photograph them all, but thought this cross-sectional diorama of a Spanish whaling vessel was particularly interesting as I've only ever thought about the English and American kinds.



A Rapa Nui canoe from the now-Chilean territory now known as Easter Island. We would find more examples of indigenous craft elsewhere, but this was the only one here.


Finally, a broader panorama of the Valparaiso waterfront that captures its diversity and visual interest, taken near the entrance to the museum. There's so much more I didn't share, including other maps, photos, drawings, paintings, articles, and displays dealing with fishing, exploration, recreational sailing, and so on. We spent hours there without getting bored, and I can't recommend it enough if you're lucky enough to get here. I left out the photo of the huge Esmerelda model shown in the first post of this series, but it and its companion Huascar are also fantastic.


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Next up, the southern coastal port of Valdivia, probably my favorite town in Chile. Founded by the Spanish in 1552 on at the junction of several rivers, maybe 10 km upriver from the Pacific Ocean, it's chock full of nautical interest. The site was inhabited long before the Spanish, given its excellent location and abundant natural resources, and played a key role in the Chilean War of Independence. I'm going to cover this in two posts, given how much there is to say and show, and this will still only be a brief summary.


Part I: The Valdivian fort system


At the river's mouth, the Spanish built a network of coastal forts that made Valdivia the best-defended port in the country. These were upgraded in the late 18th century. Interlocking fields of fire and a narrow navigational channel meant the area was considered impregnable, yet the southern forts were stormed in 1820 by Chilean forces under the command of Lord Thomas Cochrane (model for Patrick O'Brien's Jack Aubrey) during the Chilean War of Independence. This action was fictionalized in the final novel of Bernard Cornwell's excellent Sharpe series.  Two of these forts are open to the public today, including the Castillo de Niebla on the north shore, which has excellent interpretive material and sweeping views across the bay:


Above, you're looking upriver toward Valdivia (10 km inland). The low ground along the left half of the image was carved out of the bedrock promontory by the Spanish, creating a moat that isolated the rest of the fortress to the right. Even accounting for the fairly soft sandstone here, it's an impressive engineering feat and creates a really unique setting.



A reconstructed building surrounded by original foundations. Inside are very well-done interpretive materials including more nice ship models.



A view across Corral Bay, aimed a bit farther left (east) than the photo I used in the introductory post to this series.  Here you can see two shot furnaces serving the cannons; the magazine was carved out of the bedrock further to the left. Originally, the protective walls (can't remember the right term) were sandstone, but were worn away by centuries of visitors, so they reconstructed some on the left and while the right side remains in its worn-down state. Some of the cannons are originals, too, according to the interpretive materials. Across the bay at center, though it's hard to pick out, is the Castillo de San Sebastián de la Cruz Fort (more commonly called the Corral Fort), the other location open to the public. To the right, the rest of the network's forts spread along south shore out of view (again, see photo in first post).


Another view of Niebla's main battery. I liked the juxtaposition of the modern freighter in the background with the old Spanish cannons. In both photos, notice the angled slots carved into the rock floor on both sides of each cannon emplacement. The interpretive materials state that these were for rolling heated shot to the cannon mouths, which makes a certain amount of sense, though to my mind it doesn't explain why you need slots on both sides for every emplacement (I wouldn't think anyone carrying heated shot would run around to the far side). I had initially thought the slots were meant to ensure each cannon stayed in its "lane", given that they perfectly match what would seem to be the maximum traverse and there didn't seem to be any allowance or need for other rigging (as on a warship). Any further input from more knowledgeable folks? I don't know much about fortress design.



And here's the opposite view, looking north from the Corral Fort back at Niebla (from the guard tower, count back four cannon emplacements and the Niebla Fort is directly above). This fort is a bit more run down and has no interpretation, but it's a fascinating visit nonetheless. You can tell the Spanish never expected an overland attack here, everything is aimed toward the sea. They assumed the rugged coastline and hills would keep land troops away, but they didn't expect Cochrane's creativity and the Chilean forces' zeal. If I recall correctly, this fort and Niebla never even put up a fight, once the first few forts along the coast had fallen, the Spanish garrisons here up and fled. In their defense, this was a godforsaken posting at the end of the world, the Spanish empire was reeling, and there wasn't a lot of reason to die here.


And here are the Catheads centuries later. I thought it was interesting that all the cannons here were on naval-type carriages, while all the cannons at Niebla were on army-style carriages. None of the interpretive materials went into detail on such things, so it's not clear if the carriages are meant to represent original forms or are somewhat random. Note that here, there were no slots around the gun emplacements, which could have several explanations. One, I didn't see any shot furnaces here, which I thought was odd, so if the Niebla slots were primarily for shot that would fit. Two, did this carriage design recoil sideways less than the ones at Niebla and/or have more rigging, so didn't need guidance slots? I don't know. It's interesting that here the ground is paved in rough stone, as opposed to the natural sandstone surface at Niebla. Lots of differences for forts so close to each other and from the same era.


In the next post, I'll leave the forts behind and explore some other interesting aspects of the Valdivia era. Thanks for reading.


UPDATE: Just realized I completely forgot that there's a third fort you can visit, on the Isla Mancera that sits in the bay just upstream of Niebla. We didn't get there because we ran out of time doing the first two, and boats to the island run less frequently than boats across the bay between Niebla and Corral. But anyone visiting should certainly try to do all three.

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Valdivia has other nautical attractions in addition to the forts. The town's waterfront hosts a variety of tour boats that visit the forts by sea as well as exploring a large nature reserve upriver.02_Valdivia_7.jpg.ae1d91c653f0786a3380853fec107b76.jpg

The large structure at center is the town's market, where a wonderful mix of fresh produce, cheese, and seafood are sold. The seafood stalls back up to the water, making disposal of offal and other fresh refuse easy. Chile's fresh seafood is one of the country's greatest assets to a visitor. Lest this seem wasteful or polluting, a large population of gulls and sea lions happily takes care of anything going over the side:



Among the interesting vessels tied up along the waterfront, we found an old Chilean Navy submarine (open for tours, but not when we were there) and this modern patrol vessel:


The region also hosted many interesting fishing boats. Most noticeable were a distinct style of open boat, always painted red and yellow, an example of which I saw in the Valparaiso Museuo Naval. These, however, were often rigged with simple triangular sails. Looking out to sea from the Niebla Fort, I could see a series of these far out with their sails rigged, but my camera wasn't good enough to capture them. Here are two not-so-great photos of the type in harbor:




I wanted to learn more about these, but couldn't get clear answers from local fishermen. When I asked what they were called, for example, all I could get was "lancha", which is a generic Spanish word for "launch" or "boat". Online searches have turned up nothing more (not even better photos), and my Spanish isn't good enough to dig deep into historical archives. If/when I return, I'd like to focus on learning more about these; they were the first time I've ever seen sail-based fishing boats in actual operation. They'd make a really interesting modeling project if I could get enough information and better photos.


Much of this part of the coast reminded me of northern California or southern Oregon, with rocky headlands separating beaches and isolated fishing villages. A particularly nice location is Curiñanco, to the north, where a nature reserve protects huge old trees on steep slopes above the water and a rocky beach generates beautiful waves and preserves some really interesting bedrock geology (what looked to us like deposits from past tsunamis along this very tectonically active coast).


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Continuing south, it's time for one of Chile's greatest maritime experiences, the ferry route to Patagonia. South of Puerto Montt, the mainland breaks up into over 1,000 km of islands, fjords, and mountains capped by two major ice sheets. It's not possible to travel to Chilean Patagonia by land unless you cross the Andes into Argentina, but there is a ferry service that runs through the fjordlands to Puerto Natales. Similar to the Alaskan Ferry system (which I've also used), this is a working service whose primary purpose is to serve communities and locals in the region, but which carries tourists as well to balance the books. The voyage takes four days and three nights, all of which are overloaded with scenery, bird-watching, and of course interesting maritime traffic.


The Evangelistas was build in 1978 (about my age) and measures about 115x21 m with a draft under 5 m. She takes many hours to load with trucks, trailers, and other cargo, which seasonally can include livestock from Patagonian ranches. Above, you see the stern-loading ramp extending to shore at Puerto Montt. She also carries around 300 passengers (both tourists and regional residents) and 40 crew.



A different, but similar Navimag ferry encountered on the voyage gives a rough sense of context. I never got a shot of the Evangelistas, though she's easy to Google if you want to, because we didn't have a chance while boarding and we didn't disembark until after dark (and she sailed the next morning before we got back down to the harbor).



Puerto Montt, like Valparaiso, is chock full of interesting shipping. In many ways, visiting Chilean ports felt like time traveling back 70 or 100 years, because there's so much greater diversity in the size and nature of the shipping, and much more cargo handling is done by hand or small crane. Everything from small-medium ocean-going freighters to little flat-bottomed lighters shuttling things all over the harbor; it was a bustle of activity that felt very different from modern US ports with their super-large shipping. I could have spent all day watching this.


The Orca Yagan, which is listed online as a Fish Carrier. I assume this means it services the myriad salmon farms spread throughout Chilean Patagonia. I'm not a big fan of fish farming, but this was a very attractive vessel, especially clean and well-kept.



This neat little tug was hovering around the ferry, bobbing like a cork in the tiniest waves.


We saw a lot of ships of this general type; I have no idea what they are, but most had lots of piping and equipment on their rear decks, suggesting they aren't cargo ships. There's oil and gas exploration in southern Patagonia, but not in the fjordland area, so I don't know what these are.



The wreck of a Greek freighter, I believe from the 1950s, deep in a remote Patagonian fjord. It's sitting on solid ground, a sunken hilltop that forms a dangerous reef in the middle of the fjord.



We particularly enjoyed being allowed to visit the bridge. They have a modern navigation system shoehorned in at far right, but are clearly comfortable with older methods of navigation. There's a big chart table that has a full set of charts always at the ready, which we enjoyed poring over. Some of these fjords are over 600 m deep, often deeper than they are wide.



Patagonian wind earns its reputation. Here, it was screaming from astern and whipping sheets of spray off the water into walls of mist that carried forward like curtains. With the sun at the correct angle, beautiful rainbows arced from the bow. Very few people saw this, as most were huddled indoors. We spent 95% of our time on deck regardless of weather and were rewarded with wonderful experiences like this, as well as all sorts of good birds and other marine life (like the relatively rare Chilean dolphin along with albatrosses and skuas).


Arriving in Puerto Natales in southern Chilean Patagonia, we had to wait for this Navimag freighter to clear the one loading dock. Everything was delayed because the wind was too strong to allow safe departure or arrival; we circled the harbor for hours waiting for it to die down with evening. We didn't disembark until after 11pm, dark even in high-latitude summer, but the sunset over the town and harbor gave glorious light. Just astern of the freighter is another patrol boat very similar to the one shown above in Valdivia.


In the next installment, we'll head further south to Punta Arenas on the Straights of Magellen, and an amazing museum with full-size replicas of historic ships.

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  • 5 weeks later...

De nada, mi amigo, estoy agradecido que lo disfrute. Nos encanta Chile, un pais maravillosa. Espero que puede entender mi español, estudio y practico mucho pero necesito aprender mucho mas!


Jorge's kind note reminds me that I never finished this series. On to the final, and possibly best, single place in maritime Chile: the Nao Victoria museum in Punta Arenas, Patagonia. Located on the shoreline of the Magellan Straight with a clear view across to Tierra del Fuego, this is a private venture from a history enthusiast who has taken it upon himself to build accurate, full-scale replicas of famous ships in Chilean/Patagonian history. It's an absolutely fascinating location, as you wander around, on, and through Darwin's HMS Beagle, Magellan's Victoria, Shackleton's James Caird lifeboat, and the schooner Ancud that carried the first Chilean colonists to the region. I have tons of photos from here but will just post a few for brevity; anyone looking for more images for research interest can contact me. Look for these coming soon in several posts, as even culling them it's more than one post can handle.

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HMS Beagle replica:



Views fore and aft. That's me on the forecastle with the Magellan Straight behind me.


View near the wheel. Inside the chartroom, and posted around the ship, are myriad sheets of plans and drawings that are great to study while standing on the full-size equivalent.


View belowdecks, looking aft toward the officers' quarters.


Me and my namesake.


Another view from the bow.



It was just mind-blowing to walk around, and on, this vessel. I'm not enough of an expert to know if any details are wrong, but they sure seemed to try for authenticity. It was close enough for me. Both Mrs. Cathead and I reread Voyage of the Beagle in preparation for this trip (we both have a background in earth science and strong interests in ecology & natural history), so we both got a lot out of this visit. It amazes me that there aren't truly accurate kits of the Beagle, and I have to admit that scratchbuilding this is high on my potential next-project list. Really,  how could the household of two travel-loving natural history lovers not have this?

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Nao Victoria replica:




Man, these 16th century ships are tall and narrow. I knew this intellectually, but looking at one longitudinally really emphasizes how top-heavy they were compared to, say, the 18th century. It was fantastic to have this side-by-side with the Beagle to compare designs and building styles.


At the helm, and a primitive cannon.


Below decks at a carpenter's work station. Even for shorter 16th century folks, this was a cramped space for circumnavigation.



A fun stove. No idea how authentic this is, but I liked the display.


Leftover parrell beads near the mainmast.


Captain's cabin, with various swords and armor lying around to play with. It was clear we were in a more sensible country than the US, as there were no paranoid warnings about hurting yourself. They just trusted you to be sensible.


Not much to say, overall, I just found it so much fun to walk about this replica and contrast it with others. There's something about the physical experience that adds so much to the knowledge gained by reading.

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  • 1 year later...

quite a good trip it was.....

i live in santiago so valparaiso is quite a destination for me, for work issues or just to go for the weekends.... very nice place to live too.

Valdivia was home between 1996 and 2009. I studied there and after graduating worked in ASENAV for some 9 years, which is the big blue buildings shipyard you must have seen across the river on the costanera. I just love that place, fresh and cheap fish all year long, quite a warm summer and cold winter. After Valdivia i left for Seattle for quite some time and it was not much of a change other than the size of the city.

Puerto Montt is similar to Valdivia in many ways, but is larger. All the vessels you mention, with all the piping and equipment on the aft deck, are all wellboats (or live fish carriers). I worked on the construction and design of a whole bunch of those (still do). Also there you probably saw a bunch of flat top ferries that work between Puerto Montt and Chiloe and a couple passanger vessels we also worked in Asenav.

When i was in the university i had the chance to be onboard one of the Navimag ferries for a month as a deck officer trainee on the same Puerto Montt-Puerto Natales route yo took. It is quite a ride in the winter through the golfo de penas. I didnt see too much of Natales as we used to arrive late in the evenings and leave very early the next day. Never went to Punta Arenas, but sometime will do....


Kind regards





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German, thanks for reading! Really cool to hear your perspective on being directly involved in so many of the vessels we saw. Can you give me any insights into the basic fishing craft?

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