Strait of Magellan

The Strait of Magellan is a 350-mile/570 km channel separating the mainland of South America from the large Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego and connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It was first navigated by the explorer Ferdinand Magellan during his circumnavigation voyage in 1520. He named it the Strait of All Saints, because his transit started on November 1, All Saints Day. It was also Magellan who name the southern island Tierra del Fuego, after seeing the smokes from fires in the camps of the native Yahgan people, whom he named the Patagones, meaning “big feet,” and their land Patagonia. The strait is between two and 20 miles wide, and earned the nickname Dragon’s Tail among sailors, for its tortuous path. Along with the Beagle Channel, it was one of two protected channels for sailing between the oceans prior to the construction of the Panama Canal The third alternative was the notoriously turbulent open ocean Drake Passage beyond Cape Horn. There is one sizeable port city in the strait, Punta Arenas, Chile, which has an interesting harbor breakwater consisting of two ship hulks, the Cavenga and an old iron four-mast sailing ship, the County of Peebles. There are several Chilean national parks and monuments in the strait, including Los Pinguinos National Monument and a sanctuary for protecting humpback whales. Southern right whales are also known to frequent the strait’s waters. There are 41 light signals in the strait, including the San Isidro Lighthouse that has been restored and is now a museum, and the Evangelistas Lighthouse at the western entrance. The strait was very difficult for sailing ships, due to unpredictable winds and tidal currents. Depending on tide conditions, even modern ships often opt for one of the alternative routes, because the tidal speeds are greatly exaggerated by the Venturi effect through narrows.