CHAPTER IX. SANDY POINT TO LOTA BAY.
Whilst in the Narrows we looked back, to see everything bright and cheerful, but ahead all was black and dismal: the sky and sun were obscured, the tops of the mountains hidden, and the valleys filled up with thick fog and clouds - all which seemed to indicate the approach of a storm of rain, although the glass was still very high. We went up South Reach and North Reach, in the Messier Channel, till, just as we were off Liberta Bay, in lat. 48 deg. 50' S., long. 74 deg. 25' W., the blackest of the black clouds came suddenly down upon us, and descended upon the deck in a tremendous shower - not of rain, but ofdust and ashes. Windows, hatches, and doors were shut as soon as we discovered the nature of this strange visitation, and in about half an hour we were through the worst of it: whereupon dustpans, brooms, and dusters came into great requisition. It took us completely by surprise, for we had no reason to expect anything of the sort. Assuming the dust to be of volcanic origin, it must have travelled an immense distance; the nearest volcano, as far as we know, being that of Corcovado, in the island of Chiloe, nearly 300 miles off. We had heard from Sir Woodbine Parish, and others at Buenos Ayres, of the terrible blinding dust-storms which occur there, causing utter darkness for a space of ten or fifteen minutes; but Buenos Ayres is on the edge of a river, with hundreds and thousands of leagues of sandy plains behind it, the soil of which is only kept together by the roots of the wiry pampas grass. For this dust to reach the Messier Channel, where we now are, it would have to surmount two chains of snowy mountains, six or seven thousand feet in height, and in many places hundreds of miles in width, and traverse a vast extent of country besides.
The weather was still so fine, and the barometer so high - 30.52 inches - that Tom determined to go to sea to-day, instead of stopping at Hale Cove for the night, as we had originally intended. Directly we got through the English Narrows, therefore, all hands were busily engaged in once more sending up the square-yards, top-masts, &c., and in making ready for sea. Just before sunset, as we were quitting the narrow channels, the sun pierced through the clouds and lightened up the lonely landscape as well as the broad waters of the Pacific Ocean. Its surface was scarcely rippled by the gentle breeze that wafted us on our course; the light of the setting sun rested, in soft and varied tints, on the fast-fading mountains and peaks; and thus, under the most favourable and encouraging circumstances, we have fairly entered upon a new and important section of our long voyage.
Although perhaps I ought not to say so, I cannot help admiring the manner in which Tom has piloted his yacht through the Straits, for it would do credit, not only to any amateur, but to a professional seaman. He has never hesitated or been at a loss for a moment, however intricate the part or complicated the directions; but having thoroughly studied and mastered the subject beforehand, he has been able to go steadily on at full speed the whole way. It has, however, been very fatiguing work for him, as he hardly ever left the bridge whilst we were under way.
We steamed the whole distance from Cape Virgins to the Gulf of Penas, 659 knots, in 76 hours, anchoring six times. This gives seven days' steaming, of an average length of eleven hours each; and as we stopped two or three hours, at different times, for Fuegians, photographs, and sketches, our average speed was nine and a half knots, though sometimes, when going with strong currents, it was twelve or fourteen, and, when going against them, barely six knots.
Just at dark, we passed between Wager Island and Cheape Channel, where H.M.S. 'Wager,' commanded by Captain Cheape, was wrecked, and we spent the night in the Gulf of Penas, almost becalmed.
Friday, October 13th. - We ceased steaming at 7.30 a.m., and made every effort throughout the rest of the day, by endless changes of sail, to catch each fleeting breath of wind. We did not, however, make much progress, owing to the extreme lightness of the breeze.
Sorry as we are to lose the scenery of the Straits, it is pleasant to find the weather getting gradually warmer, day by day, and to be able to regard the morning bath once more as a luxury instead of a terror. The change is also thoroughly appreciated by the various animals we have on board, especially the monkeys and parrots, who may now be seen sunning themselves in every warm corner of the deck. In the Straits, though the sun was hot, there was always an icy feeling in the wind, owing to the presence of enormous masses of snow and ice on every side.