s/y Nine of Cups
Islas Juan Fernandez
March 2009
The volcanic Islas Juan Fernandez is the name of a group of three
islands (Robinson Crusoe, Santa Clara, and Alejandro Selkirk) and
a spattering of islets that lie about  400 miles west of Chile in the
Pacific Ocean.  The island group has an area of 56 square miles and
a population of less than 1,000. The only industry is fishing and the
islands' waters are well known for the lobsters caught there.
An estimated  600 Spanish-speakers live on Robinson Crusoe, the
largest island, named after its most famous celebrity. The islands
were discovered in 1563 by the Spanish navigator Juan Fernandez
who originally named  them Mas a tierra (closer to land) and Mas a
fuera (further away from land). He stopped briefly and put goats
ashore, as future provender for shipwrecked sailors. It was a
common practice of the time, but the goats-adaptable, voracious
and prolific- wrought ecological havoc.
The Robinson Crusoe legend began in 1704 with a
pivotal misadventure by Selkirk. The mariner, who
ran away to sea as a boy, had risen to sailing
master aboard the British privateer Cinque Ports,
prowling off South America in search of Spanish
prey. That year, he made the bad mistake to
quarrel with his captain. Selkirk was promptly put
ashore on uninhabited Mas a Tierra ( now known
as Robinson Crusoe Island) with a gun, powder,
shot, axe, knife and food for a few days, and the
ship sailed away.
The goats saved him. Selkirk, a tall, agile, vigorous
man, lived in a cave and became exceedingly
skilled at hunting the animals. He lived on goat
meat, fruit, shellfish and the lobsters (today the
main wealth of the islands) that filled rock basins at
low tide. Every day he climbed to the top of a
1,700-foot cliff (now called Mirador (lookout) de
Selkirk) and scanned the sea, hoping to spot
Every day he climbed to the top of a 1,700-foot
cliff (now called Mirador (lookout) de Selkirk)
and scanned the sea, hoping to spot a saving sail.
The lonely vigil inspired British poet William
Cowper to begin his poem about Selkirk's
solitude with the famous line: "I am monarch of
all I survey."
Selkirk lived like that for four years and four
months. Then two ships in need of fresh water,
the Duke and Duchess, sailed in. They were
commanded by another privateer, Woodes
Rogers (who later went legit, leased the
Bahamas and became the islands' first governor).
A pinnace sent ashore returned with Selkirk, "a
man," noted Rogers dryly, "Cloth'd in
Goat-Skins, who looked wilder than the first
Owners of them."
from an article by Fred Bruemmer
Okay...enough history. We had tried three times in the past to sail to Juan Fernandez and for one reason or another, never made it;  so this time we
were determined to stop there. We left the calm, protected waters of Chiloe and sailed out into the Pacific via Canal Chacao. We were literally
"spit" out at 8.5 knots on the ebbing tide. The passage of about 545 miles northwest took 4.5 days with variable winds and seas. We arrived at the
Cumberland Bay, Robinson Crusoe Island with 35+ knot winds (williwaws) sweeping down the valley from the mountains into the anchorage. A
father-son team from the Swiss catamaran "Jumbo" already in the anchorage arrived in their dinghy and offered help in retrieving lines for one of
two free moorings available to visiting sailors. We tied up, tidied up and despite 40-50 knot winds, spent a relaxing evening (kind of).
Of 140 island plant species native to Juan
Fernandez, 101 grow nowhere else on
Earth. This is a botanist's heaven.
A portrait of Alexander Selkirk  by Rosemary Sage
with an attempt by the artist to render a picture of
Selkirk as close in resemblance as possible as he is
described in various articles.
Robinson Crusoe Island is 12 miles
long, 4 miles across, 34 miles around
and 4 million years old.
High points:
Robinson Crusoe - El Yunque - 915M
Alejandro Selkirk - Los Innocentes - 1,650M
We could see a faint outline of Robinson Crusoe
Island from about 30 miles out and from 12 miles,
the photo above. We were getting close. We
were sailing a broad reach to downwind at about
7-8 knots with staysail and main in 25kts of wind.
We headed to shore mid-day on 10 March
to check in with the Capitania's office. Our
next stop was CONAF to pay our park fees
and get a trail map. At last, we'd arrived in
the archipelago Juan Fernandez.            
The island's most famous celebrity, Alexander
Selkirk, greets you at the head of the pier  as
you arrive in the island's little and only town
of San Juan Bautista.
We needed some exercise so our first hike was
an easy one to Fort Santa Barbara where rusting
Spanish canons remain in place. If you strain your
eyes, you can see a white boat with a mast in the
background...Nine of Cups...si, claro!
The Juan Fernandez National Park
was created in 1935 and declared a
World Biosphere Reserve.
NO...NO...NO! Several animals are not wanted on Robinson Crusoe, but according to the
CONAF official, all are still present in considerable numbers. On the plant side of things,
blackberries, also an introduced species, represent a hazard to the island's fragile ecosystem.
Robinson Crusoe written by Daniel Defoe
in 1719 and based on the experiences of
Alexander Selkirk was the first English  
novel ever written. Its original title was "The
Life and  Strange Surprizing Adventures of  
Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who
Lived Eight and Twenty Years, All Alone on
an Uninhabited Island on the Coast of
America, near the Mouth of the Great River
Oronoque; Having been cast on Shore by
Shipwreck, wherein all the Men Perished
but Himself. An Account of How He was at
last Strangely Delivered by Pyrates".  whew!
The SMS Dresden, a corvette of the German Imperial
Army under Kayser Wilhelm II, evaded the British for
months in the Chilean canals, but was finally located.
She was sunk here by her captain in 1915 rather than
turning her over to her British captors. She lies on the
bottom at 180' deep in Cumberland Bay.
These pink lilies (Naked Ladies) grow in
abundance in San Juan Bautista, but are not
endemic. Several of the introduced plant species
endanger the native species and efforts are being
made to control the problem. Blackberries, for
instance, are a real nuisance here.
A male firecrown or  Juan Fernandez hummingbird
An endangered species, the Juan
Fernandez hummingbird is found
only here in the whole world. An
interesting aspect of this species is
sexual dimorphism (ahem!). That
really only means that there is a
distinction in coloring between the
male and female of the species. The
male is red. The female is green,
white and metallic blue in color.
Another non-endemic hummingbird lives here and is
simply called the picaflora continental. One of their
favorite hosts is the cabbage tree (dendroseris
litorales) with its huge yellow blossoms. The tree, also
endemic to the island, grows to about 15 feet long and
the main street of San Juan Bautista is lined with them.
Lobstering is the main industry of the island. Due to an enforced off-season and
restricted minimum size rules, the lobster population, though diminished from the
past, remains a healthy size.
We were disappointed that the post office had no
JF stamps, but they did have First Day Covers for
sale which we bought as a souvenir.
We met a local man, Pedro Niada, who
spoke excellent English and spent a great
deal of time telling us about the island. He
loaned us the book
Selkirk's Island by
Diana Souhami which we read aboard to
each other in the evenings.
Our first hike was to the Plazoleta del Yunque, considered
an easy hike (not so easy for us) and recommended by
Pedro. It was, of course, all "up" with a lovely picnic/
campground at the trail's end. There was a self-guided
45-minute circuit walk on a easy path from the
campground which afforded us the opportunity to see
different type of flora than that in the town below.
Pangue, a relative to the nalca which we
had seen in Chiloe looks like giant rhubarb
and the leaves grow to umbrella-size here
acting as a cover from the sun.
Ferns grow prolifically here. There are
several endemic species, but we're not
fern-folk so the differences were lost
on us. That said, the climbing ferns
shown above did indeed catch our eye.
A female firecrown or  Juan Fernandez hummingbird
Our next hike was to the Mirador de Selkirk, a
565M moderate hike to the place where Selkirk
climbed daily in hopes of spotting a passing ship.
Above, the view of the anchorage. The trail was
well-kept with benches located at strategic spots
for vistas and shade.
We were not prepared for the view of the "other side"
of the island. When we reached the top of the saddle,
Selkirk's lookout, the view of both sides of the island
was spectacular, but the north side was absolutely
breathtaking with Santa Clara in the distance.
At the top, a plaque honoring Selkirk
and placed here in 1868 by the officers
of the HMS Topaz.
Just for fun...a fine fern unfurling, caught my eye
and warranted a quick photo.
Isla Robinson Crusoe -  33S38.38 / 78W49.53
We met Pedro first by VHF when he welcomed us
to Juan Fernandez and offered the free use of the
mooring during our stay. Later we met him, his wife
and family and stopped by most everyday for a
chat.   Above, Pedro & Fabiana Niada with son,
Dante.Their daughter, Lucicita, was napping.  
We left Robinson Crusoe on 16 March around 5pm with thoughts of
arriving at Alejandro Selkirk...about 90 nm and an overnight passage..in
mid-morning. It doesn't get light here until about 0830 and it was just
about 0900 when we spotted the island, its peak enshrouded in a huge
cloud.  Unfortunately the weather was not cooperating. Strong
(25+knots) southeasterlies made the only anchorage on this open
roadstead island untenable.

  Next stop,
Easter Island...about 1600 miles away.
He and his wife also run a hostal, are
CONAF guides and are generally involved
in whatever seems to be going on on the
island. Above, Pedro's headquarters and
hostal, Pez Volador, (flying fish). Pedro is
a divemaster, teaches SCUBA and also
maintains the two moorings (compliments
of the Higuerillas Yacht Club).Click here
to see
Pedro's website.
Another endemic species, the Juan
Fernandez cuchidito or tit-tyrant (anairetes
We looked out to see several Juan Fernandez
fur seals (lomo fino) lying on their backs,
sunning. They grab their tails with their flippers
and just enjoy the rays. We call it seal yoga.
Colorful little butterfly
We opted for a "sail by only" photo as our only
memory of  Isla Alexjandro Selkirk.