Many cities tend to have one historical figure they celebrate, usually with statues, street names and exhibits in their honor. Back home in Salt Lake City it’s the Mormons Joseph Smith or Brigham Young we often see, in Edinburgh you’ll find Robert the Bruce towering over you, in Rome it’s Jesus, Kathmandu it’s Buddha and Ganesha, and in Punta Arenas, at the end of the world, it’s Ferdinand Magellan.

Strait of Magellan, Ferdinand Magellan, Punta Arenas, Patagonia, Chile,Not only are the Strait of Magellan and Magellanic penguins named after the famous explorer, but there are numerous statues exalting him in Punta Arenas and a replica of one of his ships, the Victoria, in nearby Rio Seco, (Magellan actually commanded the flagship Trinidad, but the Victoria was the only vessel to survive the voyage).

It’s difficult to imagine such an undertaking, especially when crossing the Strait of Magellan in a giant passenger ferry on a very windy day. Britnee and I were on our way to Tierra del Fuego to see some king penguins. It’s only a two-hour ride to cross the water on a 96-meter, 924-ton modern, metal vessel. But as the rough waters rocked us dangerously from side to side, sending passengers sliding in their chairs and stumbling to the ground, it got a little tiresome. So my condolences to the crew of the Victoria, a 21-meter, 85-ton wooden carrack, who along with a fleet of four other ships, set out to find a western sea route to the Spice Islands — and circumnavigate the world for the first time by accident — on August 10, 1519.

Strait of Magellan, Ferdinand Magellan, Punta Arenas, Patagonia, Chile,We paid a visit to the replica at Nao Victoria while in Rio Seco to get a better idea of what life might have been like for the 42 on board — and 21 meters is as small as it sounds. With bad food, miserable conditions, and the dangerous voyage into the unknown ahead, no wonder so many crew members deserted, mutinied and died along the way. The punishment for those who mutinied was severe, being drawn and quartered or marooned on distant shores. Without such deterrents, I imagine they wouldn’t have got much further than Brazil.

On the Victoria, even the captain’s quarters were cramped while the rest of the crew slept in a windowless crawl space in hammocks. I couldn’t find anything resembling a toilet, their diet consisted of mostly salted fish and meats, ports were not always friendly, the work was endless, and there was little option for entertainment. The whole ship looked like a floating vase, bulbous at the bottom and narrow at the top. I’m no expert on ship design, but this little thing must have been thrashed in high seas.

Strait of Magellan, Ferdinand Magellan, Punta Arenas, Patagonia, Chile,After departing Spain and making stops in the Canary Islands and Cape Verde off the coast of West Africa, the crew set a course for South America and sighted land after a week at sea. Descending the coast of the Portuguese territory of Brazil and all of modern-day Argentina, they eventually reached Cape Virgenes and began scouting a passage to the Pacific. By this point only four ships remained, but soon one more would be lost when the San Antonio mutinied against its captain and returned to Spain. Then, those remaining found what they thought was the tip of the continent and turned westward into what is now known as the Strait of Magellan.

The crew of our modern-day ferry transported us safely across a narrow portion of the strait with the aid of radar, GPS, echo sounders, electronic charts and, I’m sure, additional high-tech equipment. The Victoria, on the other hand, used a compass, quadrant, depth sounds, landmarks and tremendous skill to travel the entire length of the strait and the circumference of the world.

A quick study of their passage through the 373-mile Strait of Magellan reveals what a brave and challenging feat this was — and it was just 38 days of their four years at sea. There were none of the 27 automated lighthouses that now dot the shoreline, nor the other modern technology to aid them in navigating — and where there are now a number of towns and ranches, there was just an unfamiliar landscape roamed by native tribes and guanacos. Southern Chile’s coast is a maze of fjords and islands that create somewhat of a maze for ships, and experts are still amazed that Magellan’s fleet made it through on their first go, entering the Pacific on November 28, 1520.

Strait of Magellan, Ferdinand Magellan, Punta Arenas, Patagonia, Chile,Fast forward to 2015 and Britnee and I found ourselves stranded at the Punta Delgado terminal — our return crossing — as winds had increased even more, shutting down ferries that evening. As the icy Patagonian winds cut through our clothing and numbed our hands, we dreaded the thought of spending the night in discomfort on Tierra del Fuego as our cosy hotel room awaited us in Punta Arenas. Thankfully, after another hour, the waters calmed and we were on our way, comfortable in our own beds later that night.

Magellan and his remaining crew, however, still had approximately one year and ten more months before reaching home, crossing the Pacific Ocean, Indian Ocean and rounding the Cape of Good Hope before completing their circumnavigation. Magellan would in fact not survive the voyage named in his honor, dying in the Philippines on April 21, 1521 after foolishly trying to subdue an angered force of 1,500 natives in the name of the king. In total, 18 of the original 270 crew members would complete the voyage while others perished or deserted, and only the Victoria, under command of Juan Sebastian Elcano, would return to Spain on September 8, 1522.

See more photos from the amazing landscapes of Patagonia!

One Response

  1. Shelia Boudreaux

    This is awesome. I am writing up my trip to the Strait now and your info is excellent!
    I wish I would have stopped to see the replica ship.