Strait of Magellan

From Openwaterpedia
Beagle Channel and the Strait of Magellan crossed by Ryan Stramrood (South Africa), Kieron Palframan (South Africa), Toks Viviers (South Africa), Andrew Chin (South Africa), Pedro Ordenes (Chile), Randy Perkins (USA), Rachel Golub (USA), Cristian Vergara (USA/Chile), Scott Lautman (USA), Mark Lautman (USA) [wetsuit], Rafal Ziobro (Poland), and Gustavo Oriozabala (Argentina)

The Strait of Magellan (also called the Straits of Magellan or the Magellanic Strait) comprises a navigable sea route immediately south of mainland South America and north of Tierra del Fuego. The waterway is the most important natural passage between the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans, but it is considered a difficult route to navigate because of the unpredictable winds (williwaws) and currents and the narrowness of the passage.

The strait is approximately 570 kilometers (310 nmi; 350 mi) long and about 2 kilometers (1.1 nautical miles; 1.2 mi) wide at its narrowest point (Carlos III Island, west of Cape Froward). The northwestern portion of the strait is connected with other sheltered waterways via the Smyth Channel.

The eastern opening is a wide bay on the border of Chile and Argentina between Punta Dúngeness on the mainland and Cabo del Espíritu Santo on Tierra del Fuego, the border as defined in the Treaty of Peace and Friendship of 1984 between Chile and Argentina. Immediately west are located Primera Angostura and Segunda Angostura, narrows formed by two terminal moraines of different ages. The Primera Angostura is the closest approach of Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego to the mainland of South America. Farther west lies Magdalena Island, part of Los Pingüinos Natural Monument. The strait's southern boundary in the east follows first the shoreline of the Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego, then the northern end of the Whiteside Channel and the shoreline of Dawson Island.

The western part of the strait leads northwest from the northern end of the Magdalena Channel to the strait's Pacific entrance. This portion of the strait is flanked on the south by Capitán Aracena Island, Clarence Island, Santa Inés Island, Desolación Island (Cabo Pilar) and other smaller islands, and on the north by Brunswick Peninsula, Riesco Island, Muñoz Gamero Peninsula, Manuel Rodriguez Island and other minor islands of the Queen Adelaide Archipelago. Two narrow channels connect the strait with Seno Otway and Seno Skyring. A broader channel, Smyth Channel, leads north from the strait between Muñoz Gamero Peninsula and Manuel Rodriguez Island. Francisco Coloane Coastal and Marine Protected Area, a sanctuary for Humpback Whales, is located in this area.


Ferdinand Magellan (Portuguese: Fernão de Magalhães), a Portuguese sailor in the service of Charles I of Spain, became the first European to navigate the strait in 1520 during his global circumnavigation voyage.

On March 22, 1518, the expedition was organized in Valladolid, naming Magellan captain general of the fleet and governor of all the lands discovered, and establishing the privileges of Magellan and his business associate Ruy Falero. The fleet would become known as the "Armada de las Molucas" or "Navy of the Moluccas". The expeditionary fleet of 5 ships set sail from Sanlucar de Barrameda on September 20, 1519.

The five ships included La Trinidad (100 to 110 barrels) under the command of Magellan; La San Antonio (120 barrels) under the command of Juan de Cartagena; La Concepción (90 barrels) under the command of Gaspar de Quezada (Juan Sebastián Elcano served as boatswain); La Victoria (85 barrels) under the command of Luis de Mendoza; and La Santiago, under command of Juan Rodríguez Serrano.

Magellan's ships entered the strait on November 1, 1520, All Saints' Day, and the strait was therefore originally named Estrecho de Todos los Santos (Strait of All Saints). The Spanish Empire and the Captaincy General of Chile used it as the southern boundary of their territory. The first Spanish colonization attempt was led in 1584 by Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa, who founded Nombre de Jesús and Rey Don Felipe on the northern shore of the strait. These towns suffered severe food shortages, and when the English navigator Sir Thomas Cavendish landed at the site of Rey Don Felipe in 1587, he found only ruins of the settlement. He renamed the place Port Famine. Other early explorers included Francis Drake. The strait was first carefully explored and thoroughly charted by Phillip Parker King, who commanded the British survey vessel HMS Adventure, and in consort with HMS Beagle spent five years surveying the complex coasts around the strait.

Incorporation into Chile

Chile took possession of the channel on May 23, 1843. Chilean president Bulnes ordered this expedition after consulting the Chilean libertador Bernardo O'Higgins (1778-1842), who feared an occupation by Great Britain or France. The first Chilean settlement was Fuerte Bulnes, situated in a forested zone on the north side of the strait. Fuerte Bulnes was later abandoned, and in 1848 the city of Punta Arenas was founded farther north where the Magellanic forests meets the Patagonian plains. In Tierra del Fuego, across the strait from Punta Arenas, the village of Porvenir emerged during a gold rush in the late 19th century.

Argentina effectively recognized Chilean sovereignty over the Strait of Magellan in the Boundary treaty of 1881 between Chile and Argentina. Argentina had previously claimed all of the strait, or at least the eastern third of it.

In 1840 the Pacific Steam Navigation Company was the first to use steam ships for commercial traffic in the straits.

Until the Panama Canal opened in 1914, the Strait of Magellan was the main route for steam ships traveling from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. It was often considered the only safe way to move between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, as the Drake Passage separating Cape Horn (the southern tip of South America) from Antarctica is notorious for turbulent and unpredictable weather, and is frequented by icebergs and sea ice. Ships in the strait, protected by Tierra del Fuego to the south and the coast of continental South America to the north crossed with relative ease, and Punta Arenas become a primary refueling port providing coal for steam ships in transit. Sailing ships, however, due in part to variable winds and currents in the strait, generally preferred the Drake Passage, as they had more room to maneuver there.

Swimming Crossings

The first person to cross the Strait of Magellan was American Lynne Cox in 1976 in 1 hour 2 minutes. Others include:

Cold Channel Challenge

A crossing of the Strait of Magellan is part of the Cold Channel Challenge, a series of 4 solo cold water crossings:

It is part of the Triple Corona Sudamericana (South American Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming) that includes 3 difficult solo crossings of the Río de la Plata, the Beagle Channel, and the Strait of Magellan.

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