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For more information about Juan Fernandez, the stories of Alexander Selkirk and Robinson Crusoe please visit the “Chasing Crusoe” site at http://www.rcrusoe.org/.


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Estimado embajador, señor Jon Benjamin:

En primer lugar le quiero agradecer sinceramente sus líneas y compartir con usted mi profundo dolor ante el fatal accidente del que usted ya está al tanto. Nuevamente Chile recibe un duro e inesperado golpe: hemos perdido a 21 compatriotas que, cada uno desde su profesión,

Gobierno de Chile

dedicaban sus días a hacer que la vida de los demás fuese mejor. Entre ellos Felipe Cubillos, a quien usted -tal como yo- tuvo el privilegio de conocer. Somos, por tanto, testigos de aquel espíritu generoso que se daba por pagado con la sonrisa de los niños.
Asimismo le quiero enviar mi gratitud como Presidente de Chile por la tremenda ayuda que han entregado durante todo el proceso de reconstrucción tras el terremoto y maremoto del 27 de febrero del año pasado. El archipiélago Juan Fernández, que ya comienza a ponerse materialmente de pie, ahora comienza también una nueva etapa de reconstrucción espiritual. Cuento con usted, con el cariño de su país y con Su Majestad Británica para que juntos sigamos levantando Chile.
Un abrazo cariñoso,

Sebastián Piñera E.
Presidente de la República


La cruzada de Jon Benjamin por Juan Fernández

Poco después de que el maremoto arrasara Juan Fernández, el embajador británico en Chile, Jon Benjamin, llamó al alcalde insular, Leopoldo González.

El motivo: hacer valer el acuerdo de fraternidad que mantiene la ciudad

Jon Benjamin

escocesa de Largo, lugar de nacimiento de Alexander Selkirk, y la comunidad del archipiélago. El alcalde le propiso que ayudara a la escuela. Hace algunos días acaba de hacer oficial su Fundación Alexander Selkirk, la cual ya ha entregado a los alumnos un nuevo laboratorio de inglés y equipamiento computacional, entre otras cosas. Para eso, Benjamin ha recaudado fondos de distintas personalidades en Inglaterra y EE.UU., como el novelista Jonathan Franzen, y ha recibido aportes de actividades solidarias en Largo.


Ambassador visits Robinson Crusoe island with Chilean authorities

17 May 2011

Almost a year ago and during Ambassador Benjamin’s previous visit, the island’s Major took the initiative of appointing him as the Juan Fernández archipelago’s patron.

HMA Jon Benjamin in Juan Fernández

Ambassador Jon Benjamin with Chilean authorities in Juan Fernández Island

Almost a year after the tsunami giant wave that devastated the Robinson Crusoe Island in the Juan Fernández archipelago, Jon Benjamin, the British Ambassador to Chile, paid another visit to the Island on Friday 25 February together with an official team lead by Sr. Andres Allamand, the Chilean Minister of Defence.

Other senior members in the delegation were Admiral Edmundo González and Sr. Raúl Celis, Commander in Chief of the Navy and Governor of Region of Valparaíso respectively. Another noteworthy visitor was Sr. Felipe Cubillos a well known businessman and philanthropist.  
Almost a year ago and during Ambassador Benjamin’s previous visit, the island’s Major took the initiative of appointing him as the archipelago’s patron. Such nomination was in retribution to an earlier decision adopted by HMA, in the form of a personal commitment aimed at assisting the reconstruction process required at the Robinson Crusoe Island; with a special emphasis going towards rebuilding its local school.

Shortly afterwards - and thanks to the coordination role undertaken by Katty Kauffman & Associates - a number of people joined in this effort. Indeed, the number of fund raising initiatives undertaken by such volunteers paid off and almost US$ 50,000 worth of contributions were collected; chiefly in the form of donations of equipment items as well as a state-of-the-art mobile English-language teaching laboratory.


Embassy provides support to Juan Fernández medical project

17 May 2011

Chilean Navy transport ship

The British Embassy will contribute to the medical project that will take place on the 19th and 20th May on Robinson Crusoe Island.

Reiterating the historic ties that link the United Kingdom and the Juan Fernández archipelago, the British Embassy is contributing to the medical project that will take place on the 19th and 20th May on Robinson Crusoe Island, donating part of the medical supplies required for the initiative.

The project was launched today in the presence of the Minister of Health, Jorge Mañalich, on board the Aquiles in Valparaiso harbour. The initiative, which will provide inhabitants with access to a variety of specialised medical care, has been organised by the Municipality and the local medical centre. The Chilean Navy and the Organización de Cien Manos have provided support for the project along with the British Embassy.

The Embassy has strong ties with the archipelago, which have been further strengthened by Mayor Leopoldo González’s naming of Ambassador Jon Benjamin as patron of the island school. The honouri came after the diplomat’s personal commitment to the reconstruction of the school, which was destroyed by the tsunami on the 27th February 2010.

Ambassador Benjamin has joined forces with a group of private companies brought together by Katty Kauffman & Associates, who, through a variety of activities and donations have managed to raise nearly US$50, 000. The funds raised have been used to acquire equipment and tools, as well as a state of the art mobile English language laboratory. Future help will be channelled though the Alejandro Selkirk Foundation, which is currently in the process of being founded.

The diplomatic delegation has also been organising for the island school to be put in touch with schools from Largo, in Scotland. It was here that the inspiration for the Robinson Crusoe novel, Scottish sailor Alejandro Selkirk, was born.

The launching was attended by the Regional Intendant, Raúl Celis Muñoz; the Minister of Health, Jaime Mañalich Musi; the Commander in Chief of the First Naval Zone, Rear Admiral Cristián de la Maxa Riquelme; the Regional Governor Pablo Zuñiga Jiliberto, the Commander of the Reconstruction Task Force, Captain Ronald von der Weth; the Regional Secretary for the Ministry of Health, Jaime Jamett Rojas; the Councillor of the British Embassy, Janet Huntington and the Medical Director of the NGO “Cienmanos” Doctor Rodrigo Loubies Muñoz


Ambassador’s Residence opened its doors for National Heritage Day

17 May 2011

On Sunday 29 May, the Embassy supported the National Heritage Day by opening the doors of the Ambassador’s Residence in Chile.

Residence of the British Ambassador: View from the garden / Residencia del Embajador Británico: Vista desde el jardín.

Residence of the British Ambassador

The British Embassy in Santiago supported the National Heritage Day by opening the doors of the Ambassador’s Residence to the public. The Residence is located on Gertrudis Echeñique 96, Las Condes.

On this occasion, there were guided group tours between 10:00 and 14:00. Additional to this activity, there was a mini-cinema showing short films of the See Britain series that feature the UK on the road to the London 2012 Games. 

The Residence has marked this day since 2005, and the building has always caught the eye of the public not only because of its architecture and decoration, but also thanks to its vast garden area, designed by the German landscaper, Óscar Prager.

On this occasion, we received over 700 visitors of all ages who also had the opportunity to learn more about the reconstruction project our Embassy is supporting at Juan Fernández Archipelago after it was devastated by the February 2010 tsunami.


British Ambassador visited Juan Fernandez Archipelago with presidential group

26 April 2010

HMA Jon Benjamin with President Sebastián Piñera and opera singer Kala MaxymPresident Sebastián Piñera, Ms. Kala Maxym, and HMA Jon Benjamin

The British Ambassador, Mr Jon Benjamin, visited the Juan Fernandez Archipelago in response to an invitation from President Sebastián Piñera. The British Ambassador Mr. Jon Benjamin, visited the Juan Fernandez Archipelago in response to an invitation from President Sebastián Piñera and in his capacity as “Godfather for the Juan Fernandez Archipelago”. The Ambassador joined the presidential group that traveled to the Archipelago last week.

Talking about his trip, the British Ambassador said: “Following from my appointment as the Archipelago’s Godfather by its Mayor, Sr. Leopoldo González, for me it was an honour to have been invited by President Piñera to join him on the trip”. He went on to say: “It was very interesting to see by myself the Island’s current condition and evaluate on the ground the likely long term needs of its School. For me this was also a personal cause, since the “Robinson Crusoe” book is based on the life and history of Alexander Selkirk, a 17th century British sailor who was stranded in this archipelago.”

The contribution

The total contribution for the Islander School amounted to US$ 10,000. The Ambassador’s close relatives and some of his foreign friends managed to raise US$ 6,000. Another US$ 4,000 came from a benefit opera performance in New York. Such performance was arranged by the Ambassador’s friend Ms Kala Maxym, an American mezzo soprano singer.

On 8 May, Ms Kala Maxym will perform another benefit lyrical function at the Ambassador’s Residence where she hopes to raise more funds that will go to supporting the needs of the same School, specifically in the form of educational equipment and suitable clothing items for its students.


President Piñera responded to letter sent by the British Ambassador

6 September 2011

HMA Jon BenjaminHMA Jon Benjamin

Ambassador Jon Benjamin sent a condolence letter to the Chilean President regarding the tragic accident near the Juan Fernández Archipelago.

In response to a letter sent by the British Ambassador, Mr Jon Benjamin, expressing his sincere condolences for the terrible tragedy that took place on the Juan Fernández Archipelago, The President of the Republic of Chile, Mr Sebastián Piñera wrote:

"Dear Ambassador Jon Benjamin,

First of all I would like to thank you sincerely for your words and share with you my deep sorrow over the fatal accident of which you are aware. Chile has once more received a hard and unexpected blow: we have lost 21 compatriots who, each from their own profession, dedicated their days to making the lives of others better. Among them was Felipe Cubillos, who you – just like I – had the privilege to know.  We are, as such, witnesses to that generous spirit who would have given himself for the payment of the smiles of children.

I would like to express my gratitude as President of Chile for the tremendous support you have given to us during the whole reconstruction process after the earthquake of 27 February 2010. The Juan Fernández archipelago, which is already beginning to pick itself up, must now also begin a new chapter in its spiritual reconstruction. I count on you and on the kindness of your country, so that together we can all continue helping Chile rise.

Yours sincerely

Sebastián Piñera
President of the Republic of Chile."

On his part, the letter sent by the representative of Her Britannic Majesty’s Government in Chile stated:

"Dear Mr President,

After the tragic accident that took place on Juan Fernández, I wanted to extend the deepest condolences of the people and government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. As you already know, there are strong and historic ties between the archipelago and the United Kingdom, due, in the most part, to the story of the Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk, whose experiences later gave birth to the famous legend of Robinson Crusoe.

On a personal level, I feel greatly moved by the events. I was acquainted with Mr Felipe Cubillos on the first journey I made to the Robinson Crusoe Island in April 2010 thanks to your kind invitation, and I returned to visit Juan Fernández with Felipe after a kind invitation from the Ministry of Defense in February of this year, a journey we made on a FACH aircraft piloted by the same official who recently lost her life.

I would like to assure Your Excellency that in the British Embassy we feel more committed than ever, through our Alexander Selkirk Foundation, to continue raising funds for the restoration of the Robinson Crusoe School with the latest educational equipment that we have obtained according to the priorities that the principal of the school, Mrs Cristina Riquelme, has bestowed upon us."



'It looks as if there are houses floating': The dream voyage that became a tsunami nightmare for one couple

12 June 2010


In January this year, British couple Rhian Salmon and Andy Whittaker embarked on the trip of a lifetime. In their yacht Zephyrus, Rhian, 35, an environmental scientist, and Andy, 36, a former Royal Marine and Antarctic guide, planned to sail from Chile to New Zealand. Their first port of call was the volcanic paradise of Robinson Crusoe Island, 400 miles off the South American coast, where they spent a week moored beside the idyllic village of San Juan Bautista. In the early hours of 27 February, the day they were due to set sail again, a devastating earthquake struck Chile, and unleashed a massive tsunami westwards across the Pacific. Robinson Crusoe Island was directly in its path. This is Rhian’s account of the moment the wave struck.

The motion of the boat is strange tonight; I can’t sleep. She’s rocking forwards and backwards – not the uncomfortable side-to-side 'yaw' we’ve been accustomed to all week. There are gurgling noises, so I close the toilet and sink drains, and check our position outside. We’re still in the same spot, moored in the quieter and less inhabited east side of Cumberland Bay some 150 metres from the shore.

We’re tied to a mooring buoy, courtesy of the Chilean Navy, I guess. It’s a huge block of concrete resting on the sea floor, attached to a long line of heavy chain, designed to hold ships several times our size. Andy dived down and inspected it on our first day here a week ago – it’s more secure than an anchor and much easier to arrive at and leave from.

At 4am the boat starts rocking violently. We jump up, Andy checks the ropes… behind us it looks as if we’re flying through the water, although we’re still tied firm at the bow. The water is rushing under our boat – only later do we realise this is the wave racing into shore.

Then an almighty roar, resonating around the bay. ‘Oh my God,’ I hear Andy outside. ‘It looks as if there are houses floating. There’s been a landslide.’ He asks me to start untying the dinghy – he’s not going out in that, surely? I’m outside now. Water is flying past us in big whirls, carrying trees and what looks like roofs. It’s a really dark night, but we think the hill right by us has collapsed.

The water is now soaring back towards the open ocean, carrying with it all objects in its path. We hear cries and calls from people on the roofs and trapped in the two- and three-storey houses which fly past us. We shine head torches and lights towards the voices. ‘Swim to the yacht, swim to the yacht,’ Andy is shouting at top volume in Spanish. Thank God he’s got the sense not to go anywhere. This is no landslide, though we have no idea what it is.

Where’s the Navy? I’m thinking. Where’s the rescue team? Surely an island such as this has a volunteer rescue team? But there’s no one here, just people shouting, and us. Now there are a few flashlights from people on shore cutting through the dark. But where are the emergency services? We call up on the radio. At first no one replies, then, eventually, gradually, more lights start appearing on shore.

Next thing Andy has reached over the side and pulled a boy on to the deck. Pablo, age 14, shivering, covered in oil and cuts, looking for his family. ‘Mama! Papa!’ The strained voice of terror. I get him inside for a short while, get him warmer and dryer, into a warm jacket, briefly wrapped up in a sleeping bag. But he won’t stay long – he needs to be on deck, searching for his family. I put the kettle on, and then immediately off again as we’re surrounded by strong fumes – petrol, diesel. Later there is a strong noise of gas hissing from gas bottles that have been ripped from the houses they used to supply.

Another boy climbs on board. He’s older, late teens, strong and wants to save people. The boys are now calling to everyone: ‘Come here, come to the boat.’ There are other boats in the water now. And a Navy boat – at last a Navy boat is near us, I think with relief, only to realise it’s unoccupied, dragging hard on its mooring. Andy and the two boys are fending the boat off – one of them wants to jump on and start it but none of them knows how. On the other side a rooftop is pushing up against us, and next to it a whole house. ‘I’m holding back a house!’ Andy shouts. He’s fending them off with the wooden oars from our dinghy.

Further away, a family are stranded on the top floor of a floating house. They see us and start to swim. We throw a rope to them and they grab it on the third try. Andy pulls up a young girl, light as a feather. Now for the other three… No, NO, they’ve been pulled past us and the father has let go of the rope. Deliberately. He won’t leave his wife and son. The older teenager with us wants to jump in and swim to them. This time we manage to dissuade him. (Later he’ll go swimming again, and thankfully return.)

An empty inflated Zodiac dinghy has drifted up to us. Andy ties it on: we can use that somehow, we have an outboard engine we could put on it. The boys start focusing on that. I’m inside with Francisca, sweet waif of a shivering child. Age seven, huge eyes, wearing a wetsuit that I suspect saved her. She’s talking about dying – her dying, her mother dying, her family. She’s terrified, shaking. Gradually she warms up, calms a bit. I hold her and hold her and hold her. But she’s got guts, this one. She’s feisty and determined and wants to go outside. OK, as long as she stays with me.

‘This was no landslide. This was a wave, a huge wave. The whole town front
has been wiped out, gone’

We’re out there for a while, calling, talking, listening to the cries. Then Pablo joins me and Francisca in the cockpit. Good news, he’s found his family – they’re alive. He talks with Francisca: who is she, who was she with, where were they living? I’m surprised he doesn’t know her, but it seems her family are visitors to the island. Bless her, she’s trying so hard to stay awake but her little body is exhausted. We’re telling the radio, shouting to other boats – ‘We have a girl here, Francisca, she’s OK, she’s here, she’s OK.’

A fishing boat pulls up to us, full of people. The driver, who is Pablo’s uncle, is completely naked and freezing. As I find him clothes, the two boys join him to help search for survivors and three other people join us from the fishing boat. It’s Francisca’s family: joy! Her mother, her father, her brother. Dear God, thank you. Yes, they confirm, this is their whole family. They huddle in one big hug in our cockpit.

We get the children dry and into bed. Blankets, jumpers, hats, socks – they’re all so cold. Now the mum too. Talking…sleeping…talking… The father, Alex, is strong and warm now, working with Andy outside. They’re hacking away at the trees that are tangled up in our mooring. Trees, ropes, all sorts of debris. But the mooring is still holding.

There’s a light flashing nearby, floating. We can’t make out if there’s a person with it. Andy and Alex get into the Zodiac and try to investigate but can’t get our outboard working. The sea is calmer now. We feel safe on the boat, in the bay, but there are still cries and calls all around. How far did this thing reach? Gradually we start piecing together the night. This was no landslide. This was a wave, a huge wave.

And the calls and shouts continue in the distance.

Time passes.

Waiting for dawn.

Time passes. More shouts, lights, calls.

As dawn approaches we start to digest the damage. The whole town front has been wiped out, gone. The navy boat that floated past is wrecked on the rocks. Our friend Pedro had a beautiful house right on the water. Two storeys, modern design, light, open plan, wood and stone, his home and his business – a hostel, a bar, a meeting place. Pedro’s house is gone. Not there. The shops where I bought supplies yesterday. Gone. The Navy didn’t answer because they were hit too; their base destroyed and their boat washed on to the shore. The whole bay is a wreck. People’s lives too – but it’s only later that I start thinking about that.

From a distance it seems that the wave must have reached 70 or 80 metres inland. Alex’s family cabaña was situated at a height of about 20 metres, so we know it reached at least this far up. Thankfully the island is steep, so many houses are above this level. Still, it seems the ‘main drag’ was hit – including all public offices, the school, many houses, many shops, the town square.

A rooftop is pushing up against us, and next to it a whole house. ‘I’m holding back a house,’ says Andy

Clearly we’re not leaving today. We want to stay, we need to stay. We want to help. It’s an unspoken given. But then the Navy calls us on the radio. There has been news from Valparaiso on mainland Chile: another wave is coming. The whole town is being evacuated to higher ground, and we need to leave.

The family choose to be taken around the corner, to a hostel on a hill. A plan is quickly devised: we’ll take them near the hostel, then they can go on in the Zodiac dinghy.

Sail covers off, loose items strapped down, engine started, mooring lines let free, then careful navigation through debris in the bay. We motor around the corner, finally get the Zodiac outboard to start, the family get in the dinghy, they’re off. They’re safe. We’re safe. It’s over. We watch them head for safety, then watch in horror as the outboard stops running. Alex can’t get it started. They are drifting again, no oars, helpless.

We drive our boat back to them and tow them a bit closer to the shore. Then we pass over the oars and I climb into the dinghy too. Alex rows us all to land, they climb out, then I row back – ever aware that a second wave could be pummelling towards us.

Climb back on board, grab oars, ditch dinghy, ditch outboard and get away from land. This is insane, but at least they are safe. I see them waving from the rocks. I feel like we’re running away, cowards. The only people able to leave. I don’t want to leave, but we only endanger ourselves and others by staying.

We stay in radio contact with the Navy for about six miles. They ask us to go ten miles offshore, or 150 metres depth. We also hear our friend Pedro on the radio. He and his family are safe back on the shore: we will try to e-mail his brother with the news.

As the sun comes up we see the full extent of the wreckage. I can’t get that image out of my mind. The school, the gym, the bakery, naval station, library, houses and shops have simply been washed away. It looks as if most of the town centre has disappeared.

I desperately want to go back. So does Andy. We have reached the ten-mile mark, we are out of radio contact now, we don’t know what to do. Our hearts say ‘return’, our heads say ‘continue’. Already we have seen three planes and heard that a Navy ship is on its way. Support has arrived. We would like to go back, stay a few weeks, help rebuild the town. But today isn’t about rebuilding, today is about finding people, putting roofs over heads, feeding families. Emergency response. And grief. Definitely not a time for visitors.

Ten miles offshore, the winds and seas are pushing us on course for Isla de Pascua (Easter Island), 1,629 miles away. We make the decision with our heads, our hearts screaming in defiance, and set the sails to head west.


The second wave never came, but Cumberland Bay lost 136 of its nearly 400 houses. At least 12 local people died and six are still listed as missing. Across Chile, the powerful earthquake, which measured 8.8 on the Richter scale, damaged an estimated 500,000 homes and killed around 500 people. In Cumberland Bay alone the damage has been estimated at £21 million, and an appeal has been launched to rebuild the local school. Rhian has donated her fee for writing this piece to the appeal. If you would like to contribute go to: colegioinsularrobisoncrusoe.com/index.html

Rhian and Andy are now on their way to New Zealand. You can follow their progress at smilingfootprints.com