The watchman at the end of the world

The watchman at the end of the world

Balancing work and family life is a challenge for most of us, but few come up with solutions as extreme as Jose Aguayo's.

The Chilean sailor, whose job used to keep him away from his family for long stretches, decided recently to move the whole clan to Cape Horn, near the tip of South America, where he watches over a lighthouse above the treacherous Drake Passage and spends more time - a lot more time - with his wife and two sons.

It is a harsh environment of numbing cold and bitter wind, and the nearest town is more than five hours away by boat.

But to the 36-year-old and his family, this remote outpost at the end of the world is now home.

"The kids motivated me a little bit," he said, explaining why he volunteered for the job.

"I'm a sailor, so I spend a lot of time at sea. Vicente (his oldest son) is 11 and I've been sailing for 10 years. So they wanted to be with their dad, and what better way than being here." Manning a lighthouse that sits above the spot where the Atlantic meets the Pacific, Aguayo guides ships through a tempestuous stretch of sea that has killed more than 10,000 sailors and shipwrecked 800 vessels since the 17th century.

Known for its icebergs, large waves and strong currents, the Drake Passage between South America and Antarctica used to be an essential channel of world trade, until the Panama Canal was completed a century ago.

These days, there is much less traffic. But Aguayo, who arrived in November, still starts his day at 3:00 am, taking meteorological measurements.

By six, he is greeting the tourist boats that ferry curious sight-seers to this remote outpost during the southern hemisphere summer.

"We've had 4,000 visitors to the island so far. They ask me how I can still be smiling," Aguayo told AFP.

Cape Horn is the scene of more shipwrecks than any other ocean region in the world, according to the Chilean navy.

Its stories of death and survival in extreme circumstances have inspired the likes of French writer Jules Verne - whose book "The Lighthouse at the End of the World" could well describe Aguayo's office - and Chilean writer Francisco Coloane, who set his collection "Cape Horn" there.

"Sailors say that navigating Cape Horn gave commanders, captains and crew the envied rank of a true man of the sea and the indisputable right to be listened to everywhere with admiration and respect," said Chilean naval commander Ivo Brito Sanchez at commemorations in January to mark 400 years since the cape's discovery.

The Aguayo family has spent the past two months keeping the Cape Horn lighthouse, which was built by the Chilean navy in 1991.

They live in a treeless landscape swept day and night by winds of up to 100 kilometres an hour.

Aguayo's wife, Natalia Rodriguez, home schools their sons, 11-year-old Vicente and Montserrat, 5.

Besides the family's house, which is at the base of the lighthouse, the only signs of civilisation are a landing strip and a chapel.

There isn't a lot to do, but "the kids are doing great," said Aguayo.

"They're sharing a lot of experiences... and, since we've had a lot of bad weather, they play Xbox in the house," he said.

The house is a fairly ordinary middle-class home, and has satellite, phone and Internet connections.

They may live at the end of the Earth, but "we're not cut off from the world," said Aguayo.

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