Hernando de Magallanes

Subsequent to the discovery of the Magellan Straits in October of 1520, by Hernando de Magallanes, from the XVI century to the XVIII century a series of expeditions took place led by daring and intrepid navigators, both spaniards as well as english, dutch and french, the former motivated by the urge to discover and secure the longed for passage to the Indies, as well as taking possession of the conquered lands, and the latter, determined to defy the Spanish power in the Pacific.

It is estimated that, during the course of these three centuries, few regions on the globe can exhibit in the history of their discoveries, such an abundance of expeditions, which in turn, originated a substantial number of shipwrecks.

Although it is true that, in the extensive works of Vidal Gormaz, mention is made of practically nearly all wrecks occurred and recorded as official in the Hydrographic Archives and Yearbooks and other historical sources, in the light of discoveries made by local fishermen and others, of the remains of vessel existing in locations never mentioned by Vidal Gormaz, it is possible to assume that the number of sunken ships in this region is even greater than recorded.

This situation is even truer, if we consider those cases of ships carrying out whaling and seal hunting activities, or simply other poaching activities led by Captains, who were not interested in or avoided compliance with sailing and/or arrival formalities for obvious reasons.

At the onset of the XIX century, the concept of steam navigation invaded maritime traffic, thus, vessels were gradually built with these new machines, maintaining the conventional sailing vessel rigging, basically the bowsprit and masts, the foremast, main and mizzen, thus maintaining a mixed drive system, which guaranteed these steamers a safe Atlantic crossing.

Steam engine
Boiler (1880)

However, both the paddle steamers as well as those driven by propellers, were faced with a common problem : the enormous coal consumption in their boilers, which, in cases such as that of the Britannia, the first paddle wheel packet steamer owned by the Cunard Line, the engine of which burned 38 tons of coal per day.

Steamer "Britannia"

In this way, the usage of sails was mandatory, until during the XX century, the improvement of steam engines, boilers with tube bundles, triple expansion engines and evaporators, resulted in the modification of the mixed propulsion mode.

It was the beginning of the golden age for the steamers.

In 1838 the first steamers to cross Atlantic across the northern hemisphere were the Sirius and the Great Western.

Not long afterwards, at the beginning of the month of October of 1840, the recently created Pacific Steam Navigation Company (PSNC) initiated steam navigation through the Straits of Magellan, with two sister ships, the Chile and the Peru.

And it is these very same steamers that comprise the majority of the shipwrecks mentioned earlier and explored in this summary, among which we can mention the German steamers Denderah and Arthesia, the French steamer Atlantique, and the british steamers Cordillera, Canton, Santiago and Mataura.

The historical follow up has only been made possible, by resorting to the complete and well documented works of Francisco Vidal Gormaz, the “Summary of Chilean History” by Francisco A. Encina, the Chilean Coastal Shipping Lanes, Volume V, to Bruce Chatwin and his splendid book “In Patagonia” , “La Mer” (The Sea) by Romanovski and Francis-Boeuf, “Short History of Magallanes” by Armando Braun Menendez and some publications out of the local Press at the time, such as the newspapers “El Ferrocarril”, “El Mercurio” of Valparaiso and “El Magallanes” of Punta Arenas .

With regards to this particular publication, the sinking of the French steamer Atlantique, that took place in April of 1894, opposite Magdalena Island, was extensively reported by the local newspaper El Magallanes, that had only recently been founded, on the 7th January, 1894.

El Magallanes newspaper, 1894

"...On the other hand, the study of marine shipping disasters, is in its own right, a branch of the country’s history, that should not be relegated to oblivion nor buried below the dusty archives, and if nowadays, it has been neglected, it is only fair to outline it and call the attention of the current generations in order to study and profit from the lessons offered by the varied incidents, and the multiple and unexpected events that originate shipwrecks..." (Francisco Vidal Gormaz).


Nao Santiago, sent by Hernando de Magallanes (Ferdinand Magellan), under the command of Juan Serrano, sank in the River Santa Cruz on May 22nd ,1520. Although this disaster did not occur within the Magellan Straits, we consider it worth mentioning, because this is the first ship that sinks off the southern South American coast “... , taking possession with its keel of the arid lands named Patagonia...” (F. Vidal Gormaz).

Sancti Spiritus. Commanded by Juan Sebastian Elcano, sank at Dungenes Point, on January 14, 1526.

Typical Nao XVI century

Alonso de Camargo. Flagship sank off the North East coast of First Narrows on January 23, 1540.

San Sebastian. Francisco Cortes Ojeda, overwhelmed by the tempestuous southern weather, was lost in January of 1558 in the labyrinths of the group of isles, known nowadays as the John Narborough isles.

Marigold. One of the vessels belonging to the fleet of Francis Drake, after a successful and memorable navigation through the Magellan Straits, (it only took sixteen days to sail from the Eastern Inlet to Cape Pilar) upon departing the Western Outlet to the Pacific, was caught by a furious storm, and was lost in the islets south of Desolation Island, somewhere around the beginning of September of 1578.

A Brigantine, belonging to the fleet commanded by Sarmiento de Gamboa, sank in the month of January 1580, to the south of Cape Santa Lucia (Diego de Almagro Island, located on latitude parallel 52°).

Francis Drake

Trinidad. Vessel commanded by Sarmiento de Gamoa, was lost due to an intentional scuttling, in order to take advantage of its planking and rigging, because of the precarious condition of the hull, an event that occurred opposite the recently founded settlement of Nombre de Jesus (Name of Jesus), in the Dungeness area, in February of 1584. We mention this event as a veritable “settlement rehearsal of the Straits of Magellan” (F.Vidal Gormaz).

Nao "Trinidad"
Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa

North American barge, sank in Monday Bay, in the group of isles named “Week”, located at latitude 53º 11’, on April 30, 1884.

Veintires de Mayo. French brigantine, sank in Bahia Misericordia (Mercy Bay) in December of 1846.

"Garonne" barge
"Santiago" PSNC steamer

Cauning. British brigantine, caught fire at Port Bulnes on December 16, 1846.

Manuela. British barge sank in the Magellan Straits, Western Mouth, North shore, in April of 1850.

Garonne. French barge, sank in Solano Bay (Port Wood), towards the end of 1851.

Maria Isabel.
Chilean Transport Vessel, sank in Bahia Misericordia (Mercy Bay) on December 16, 1857.

Lautaro. Chilean Barge, sank on August 22, 1860 in Posesion Bay.

Santiago. A steamer owned by PSNC, in route from Valparaiso to Liverpool, sank after striking a submerged rock at the outlet of Puerto Misericordia (Port Mercy), on January 23, 1869 .

Rippling Wave. A sealing schooner built in New York, and incorporated into Punta Arenas register, in 1869. After a hazardous existence in the southern seas, dedicated to seal hunting, in the area of the great labyrinth of islets and islands off the Pacific coast and, after making successive journeys to Port Stanley and a memorable voyage to Valparaìso full of adventures, the venturesome life of this renowned schooner came to an end running aground at Cabo Negro (Black Cape), in 1906, but not before running aground on three previous occasions during the years 1869, 1872 and 1904 on the coasts of the province of Magallanes. Part of the bow, stem and bowsprit are still conserved currently in the frontispiece of the local Maritime Authority Offices, as a testimony of three decades of commitment to the development and progress of this region.

Sheffield. British barge, sank in the vicinity of Cape Pilar, on June 14, 1869.

Jean Amelie. French frigate with a tonnage of 535, on tow towards Punta Arenas, was caught by a strong west wind, that caused the towing cables to fail, and the vessel drifted onto the coast at Dungeness Point, on April 30 , 1876.

Sea Shell. Fourty two Ton chilean schooner, ran aground at Cape Posesion, on April 30, 1876.

Georgia. North American steamer,1937 Tons, ran aground at Punta Roqueña (Rocky Point) on June 23, 1876

Denderah. German steamer owned by Kosmos Line, 988 Tons, ran aground at Punta Baxa (Shallow Point), in the month of July, 1877.

HMS Doterel. British gunboat, at anchor in the bay of Punta Arenas, exploded and sank immediately, on April 26, 1881.

HMS “Doterel” remains recovery made by the british Garnet "Turquoise" in July, 1881

Wanderer. Small North American Schooner, dedicated to seal hunting off the coasts of the island of Tierra del Fuego, sank in Hope Harbour, Grafton Group, on October 17, 1881.

Surprise. North American Sealing Schooner, 53 Tons, sank off BASKET island, to the south of the island of Tierra del Fuego, on September 24, 1882 .

Cordillera. Steamer owned by the Pacific Steam Navigation Company (PSNC), ran aground on the rocky shoals that are the projection of San Isidro point, on September 20, 1884.

Remains of Cordillera

Artique. French steamer sailing from Le Havre towards Valparaiso, ran aground on the eastern coast of Patagonia, between Cabo Vìrgenes (Virgins Cape) and Condor Cliff, on September 24, 1884.

Vichuquen. Small french steamer, had sailed from Nantes en route to Talcahuano, sank off Cambridge Island, Saint George Channel, in the vicinity of the Evangelistas Light House, on July 1st, 1889.

Adamant. German barge sailing from Hamburg bound for Valparaìso, after having rounded Cape Horn, was wrecked on the coast of Desolation Island, in the vicinity of Latitude Island in August of 1890.

Virgilia. German steamer, sailing from the Atlantic to the Pacific, put in at the port of Punta Arenas, and was lost when departing the Western Outlet of the Straits into the Pacific in September of 1890, and was probably swamped in these tempestuous waters.

Ysca. Barge of unknown flag in the chronicles, ran aground in Posesion Bay on September 27, 1890 .

A Steamer. The captain of the german steamer Theben, that dropped anchor in the bay of Valparaiso on September 29, sailing from Hamburg, reported that on the 11th September he saw a steamer the name of which he could not see nor could he observe any crew members, aground and totally lost on Astrea Rock in Tamar bay, Straits of Magellan.

Cleopatra. German steamer owned by the german company Hamburg Pacific, sank off the eastern coast of Dungeness Point, on June 30, 1892.

Artesia. German steamer owned by Hamburg Pacific, 1803 Tons ran aground in Punta Pasaje (Passage Point) of Isabel Bay on the night of July 17, 1892.

Steamer “Cordillera” PSNC

Steamer similar to "Artesia" sunken at Punta Pasaje

Unknown Vessel. The Captain of the british barge Conway Castle, arriving at Valparaiso on April 17, 1893, proceeding from Sunderland, reported that, around latitude 36º 33’ South and 74º 21’ West, they had found a vessel with its keel exposed to the sun...

We mention this fact due to a curious story, because the author of this summary, rescued from the remains of the german cruiser Dresden, sunk off the island of Juan Fernandez (Robinson Crusoe), in March of 1915, a beautiful bronze bell, belonging to the barge Conway Castle, which in turn was sunk by the german cruiser in February, 1915. In view of these facts, we are inclined to believe that the commander of the Dresden, had kept the bell for himself, in lieu of a “souvenir”...

Recovered Atlantique's bronze plate Conway Castle's bell

Atlantique. French steamer belonging to the Compagnie Maritime du Pacifique, with a gross tonnage of 1917 tons and loaded with a cargo of 2950 tons, on a journey from Guayaquil and Valparaiso towards Le Havre and Liverpool, while steaming towards the Second Narrows, it touched bottom on a submerged rock on the quarter of Magdalena Island, on April 29, 1894, therefore the Captain changed course towards the North coast of the island, running the ship aground.

Hengist. British barge with a gross tonnage of 1.116 Tons, sailing from Port Stanley and bound for Punta Delgada (Narrow Point) in Magallanes, was wrecked off the West coast of Dungeness Point, and was totally lost. In 1894.

Canton. British steamer with a gross tonnage of 1820 Tons. Having suffered a serious list because the cargo of steel rails it was carrying moved to one side, the Captain made an attempt to reach Punta Arenas, but when he dropped anchor in Snug Bay, he touched bottom on a rocky shallows, sinking to the bottom and becoming a total loss, on October 18, 1894.

Canton boilers. Diving at 16 mts. depth, near Cape Froward.

Copernicus. British steamer owned by Lamport & Halt Shipping Company, with a gross tonnage of 2052, departed from Punta Arenas bound to Valparaiso, carrying passengers and an assorted cargo, never having been heard of again; but it is known that the intention was to sail out to the Pacific and continue the journey. It seems very likely that, it might have been swamped, as occurred with the german steamer Virgilia, in 1890. The Copernicus was lost in October of 1895. Months afterwards, the crew of a Sloop Registered in Punta Arenas, discovered on the coast of Puerto Angosto (Narrow Port), at latitude 53º 14’ S and Long 73º 23’ W , on May 26, 1896, a life vest with the name Copernicus.

Corocoro. North American steamer, owned by the Merchant's Lines N.Y., ran aground opposite Punta Baxa, on August 12, 1897.

Desolacion Island, “Mataura” cove

Mataura. British steamer of 3600 tons, Captain Charles A. Milward, was sailing from New Zealand bound for England via Cape Horn, but having suffered a malfunction in the engine, was forced to head North towards Cape Pilar, “...risking himself on the worst leeward coast in the world and reached the western entrance to the Magellan Straits...” (Bruce Chatwin). When it was very close to Cape Pilar, the engine of the Mataura failed once again, and the ship was swept by the West current and weather onto the shores of Desolation Island, where he was forced to run aground and save his crew...” The vessel was grounded in a cove located to the north of Puerto Loberos (Sealer’s Port), known nowadays as “Mataura” cove, on January 12, 1898.

Kirckless. Chilean steamer with a gross tonnage of 242 tons, was wrecked close to Punta Delgada, and was totally lost in the middle of April of 1899.

Huemul. Small coast guard cutter belonging to the Chilean Government, dedicated to service in the Straits of Magellan, light houses, buoys and hydrographic surveys.
Ran aground on Crooked rock (near Borja), in an unexpected manner, subsequently sinking to the bottom. The wreck occurred in April of 1899.

Duntroone. British frigate with a gross tonnage of 1500 Tons, sank in the Nelson Strait (Brecknock Channel ) in the month of October of 1899.

Ambassador. British Clipper 692 register Tons, composite building, that is to say, hull with steel frames coated by teak wood.Even though this ship, grounded today in a beach at Magellan Strait's “San Gregorio” farm, 120 km North of Punta Arenas, does not represent a shipwreck, we think it is interesting to mention it here, because is one of the famouses and fast Tea Clippers that sailed between the chinese port of Fuchow and London, circa 1872.

This sailboat, along with its similar Cutty Sark, exhibited as a museum in Greenwich, England, respresents one of the lasts Tea Clippers.

As a curiosity, Ambassador's figurehead was rescued in the 70's and today can be seen in the Maritime Room at the Patagonia Institute in Punta Arenas, Chile.

Clipper “Ambassador” with unfurled sails
Figure Head
Ambassador today in San Gregorio

Francisco Ayarza O.

Shipwreck Diver

Nautilus 53°


Punta Arenas, August 31st, 2001


Francisco Vidal Gormaz / “Naufragios Ocurridos en las Costas de Chile”

Francisco Antonio Encina / “Historia de Chile”

Instituto Hidrográfico de la Armada / “Derrotero de la Costa de Chile”

Bruce Chatwin / “En la Patagonia”

Jean Randier / “Men and ships around Cape Horn”

Captain Charles H. Brown / “Insurrección en Magallanes”

Armando Braun Menéndez / “Pequeña Historia Magallánica”

Armando Braun Menéndez / “Cambiazo, el último pirata del Estrecho”

Keneth Giggal / “Classic sailing ships”

Eric Linklater / “El viaje del Challenger”

Romanosky y Fancis Boeuf / “La Mer”

Sea History Magazine / “Winter 2000-01”

Diario El Magallanes / “29 de abril de 1894”

Tre Tryckare / “Las Artes de la Mar”

David R. Mac Gregor / “The Tea Clippers”

Alex A.Hurst / “Thomas Somerscales, Marine Artist”