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Chilean Government Building Fishing Port at Southern Tip of the Continent

Workers launch an Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler, which will sit on the bottom and measure currents and waves.

Workers launch an Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler, which will sit on the bottom and measure currents and waves.

Argentina’s southernmost town of Ushuaia is filled with tchotchkes, bragging that it is “the town at the end of the world.” However, Chile’s diminutive Puerto Williams, located on Navarino Island, is south of Ushuaia by many miles, so residents there joke that they live in “the town beyond the end of the world.”

And beyond the end of the world are excellent fishing and crabbing grounds, long the mainstay of Puerto Williams’ economy. However, fishermen here have never had their own pier – a sore spot for the community. For many decades, residents here petitioned the Chilean federal government to construct one, but the government was always reticent to invest in such an expensive project for a town home to just 2,000 people.

Perched on a platform in the middle of the bay, surveyors monitor equipment during the initial survey in January.

At long last, three years ago, a conversation between a local fisherman and the president of the republic yielded results. Now, the Chilean Ministry of Public Works is building a new fishing wharf in the town for small and medium boats. What’s more, it has sent a team of contractors to Puerto Williams to conduct bathymetric and seafloor studies on another section of the harbor to prepare for a planned new cruise terminal, one that might attract some of Ushuaia’s Antarctic cruise tourism market and bolster the economy beyond the end of the world. The government is also drawing upon plans to create the country’s first public marina in the pueblo, and have slated a new boat ramp for a small port on the far end of the island, to prepare for a new ferry line, officials said.

Nelson Inostroza, president of the Fishermen’s Syndicate of Puerto Williams, claims a great deal of credit for the fishing pier. For decades, he said, the town’s fishermen were forced to unload their catch on the Chilean Navy’s pier. That pier is too tall to unload onto safely during certain tides and weather conditions, a fact that resulted in several grave injuries over the years. Even without safety concerns, the naval pier is less than ideal, since it isn’t always available. Even when it is, it is subject to bureaucracy and paperwork because of its military management. And the fishermen cannot dock at the naval pier, so they must find other protected harbors up and down the coast to dock their boats.

But the cost of building a pier in the fierce climate conditions and rough seas of Southern Patagonia – one that would serve such a small town – made the project a tough sell to Chile’s government.

Inostroza finally found support for the project in President Sebastien Piñera. Shortly after taking office in 2010, Piñera was touring Chile’s southern Patagonia region and visited Puerto Williams. Inostroza was invited to greet him at the airport and, while waiting for the president to land, chatted with the guards and learned that Piñera liked to break protocol to talk to locals. When Piñera landed, Inostroza shook his hand and asked if they could meet to discuss a new fishing pier. Piñera agreed, and later that day, the two had an hour-long meeting about the fisherman’s request. By the end of the meeting, Piñera had promised to construct the wharf.

A surveyor checks the readout on the Reson NaviSound 410 echo sounder during a January survey to measure currents, waves, depth and tides, over a space of about 45 hectares (about 111 acres) near Puerto Williams. The contractor was QProject Infrastructure.

He soon delivered on that promise, sending a team of contractors to conduct bathymetric studies of a section of the harbor. The harbor has sufficient natural depth, so no dredging proved necessary. In November 2012, the first stone was laid in the project, which is anticipated to cost about $7 million and will serve about 180 local fishermen, who collectively bring in 4,000 tons of catch annually. Officials expect the project to be completed by early 2015.

Now the same bathymetric contractors are back in town doing another study of another part of the harbor for a possible cruise terminal. The concept would be to build a terminal to accommodate a Holland America-type cruise ship, about 240 meters (about 787 feet) long and 33 meters (about 108 feet) wide, and 8.5 meters (about 28 feet) deep, with a tonnage of 61,000.

Esteban Molina, a hydrographer with contractor QProject Infrastructure, led a team to Puerto Williams in January to conduct the bathymetric studies on behalf of the Ministry of Public Works (MOP). The first phase of the study measured currents, waves, depth and tides, over a space of about 45 hectares (about 111 acres). A second phase is scheduled to return and measure currents during another season. For the studies, Molina’s team used the Reson NaviSound 410 for depth, a GPS Trimble S700 for position, a Hobo Water Level Data Logger for the tides, a Hobo Meterological Station for winds, and an Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler for currents and waves. Their preliminary results was that there was an abrupt drop-off from the beach to more than 14 meters (about 46 feet), which means that dredging will not likely be necessary for the project.

The town has a small but highly subscribed yacht marina surrounding a grounded German supply boat called the Micalvi. The Micalvi was sold to the Chilean navy in 1925 and functioned as a supply boat for many years before retiring to Puerto Williams. The Chilean MOP is now drawing up initial engineering plans to expand the infrastructure around the Micalvi for what would be the country’s first publically owned and operated marina, said MOP engineer Fabian Trujillo. The agency is also drawing plans for a new boat ramp at Puerto Navarino, a small port about 40 miles north east of Puerto Williams. That port is closest to Ushuaia and receives ferries from there. However, the Chilean government is building a road through Chilean Tierra del Fuego to Yendegaia Bay. When it is complete, the government plans to begin a ferry service between that road and Williams, so travelers won’t have to go through Argentina to travel to Williams. For this project, the port at Puerto Navarino would need a new ramp, which the MOP is beginning to design.

These projects will all cost much more to complete in Puerto Williams than they might elsewhere because the region is frequently hit by severe storms, winds and waves. The town sits on the edge of the Beagle Channel, and is the closest population to the fabled Cape Horn. In the winter months, the days reduce to only several hours of daylight, which makes work more difficult.

Even in the middle of summer, the bathymetric team faced difficulties completing their tasks, getting hit with sleet and severe winds that forced them to disembark and wait for better conditions.

But the end product of such efforts will greatly help the local population, small as it is, Inostroza said. He said that the high navy pier was a constant worry for fishermen and their families, especially in bad weather. Having a wharf specifically designed to host and protect their boats will not only make unloading the day’s catch more efficient and fishing boats more accessible, but will ease the minds of the community.

“Now we can sleep better, because we’ll know our boat is safe,” Inostroza said.

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