Ben Pester and his friends, Jeremy Burnett and Fraser Currie (aggregate age: 193 years) had an objective. They wanted to explore the waterways off Tierra del Fuego and celebrate the turn of the Millennium off Cape Horn in Ben’s 36-foot teak boat, Marelle. How they accomplished this is the story of Through the Land of Fire.
Sailing from Falmouth, England, across the Atlantic, and down the east coast of South America, they entered the Magellan Strait, continued due south at Point Hope, went through the Cockburn Channel, probed the Beagle Channel, sailed past Wollaston Island, and traveled around the Horn, west to east.
The book has less than the usual complement of sea stories. Instead, Pester gives some of the amazing history of this desolate place. He has done a wonderful job of research; when the Marelle passes a point of interest, he tells, in great and fascinating detail, which explorer named it, the story of who it was named after, and what interesting historic events happened at that site. For example, Tierra del Fuego is no longer the Land of Fire; the explorers and missionaries exterminated the native people who set the fires that Magellan saw and for which it was named.
The crewmembers of Marelle do have their problems dealing with bureaucracies in a hostile (both climatic and military) environment and combating some of the unrelentingly worst weather on the planet. A “Richas” is a fierce wind that drops off the Andes down into a bay, sometimes reaching speeds of 100 knots which can blow for two or three days.
The first chapter discusses setting up a small, simply equipped boat for such a journey, and four appendices deal with subjects from baking bread to survival at sea. Four good-quality color maps are included. Turn to these early; otherwise, keeping track of the many locales that are mentioned, especially in the Beagle Channel, will be difficult.
The writing is a bit overwrought, at times. This is less apparent in the historical anecdotes. For a sailor looking to the ultimate challenge of a Horn passage, this book would be a useful guide to the remarkable history of this desolate place.
Through the Land of Fire: Fifty-Six South by Ben Pester (Sheridan House, 2004; 286 pages)