Ocean Navigator

Before I left for Antarctica, the editor of Ocean Navigator, a serious sailing publication out of Portland, Maine, contacted me wondering if I’d like to write about the trip. “Yes, but let’s not discuss it until I return,” was my response as I asked him to follow this blog. He was most interested in our crossing of the Southern Ocean and the storm we encountered in the caldera of Deception Island. Following is the unedited copy I submitted for the article (which they shortened a bit).


Don’t wish for it, ’cause you’ll get it.

Two nights before making our return to Chile, during dinner, we had westerly winds in the mid 20-knot range. Comments around the table, as we ate an incredible batch of Chilean ribs, ranged from “Glad we didn’t get any heavy weather” to “Wish we had at least one dose of typical Southern Ocean, Cape Horn, weather.”

We got it. Just before Joel and I came on watch at 2200, the previous watch took in the genny and set the Yankee and staysail. Just after we came on, we put a double reef in the main and rolled in the Yankee. An hour later, we put in a third reef and kept the staysail. The new weather system had arrived and brought with it a steady 35 knots or so with higher gusts. We were ten hours south-south-west of and heading for Cape Horn.

We, eight sailors, mostly from Maine, were on the return leg of a three-week voyage on Skip Novak’s 74-foot sailing vessel Pelagic Australis from Porto Williams, Chile, to the Antarctica Peninsula and back in February of 2014. Before leaving Ukraine’s Vernadsky Station in the Argentine Islands, fifty miles north of the Antarctic Circle, our captain, Magnus Day, had been checking the GRIB files twice a day to plan the best course and, more importantly, the best timing to get us back to Chile with the least engagement with any heavy weather. A low was forming off the west coast of Chile and was expected to hit the Horn just about the time we arrived. Delaying our departure to pass behind the low would have meant a few day’s delay, missed plane connections, and who knows what else. Leaving now meant an uneventful sail across the Drake Passage with the chance of meeting the leading edge of the low as we arrived at the Horn.

The Southern Ocean is notorious for the deep lows that ceaselessly circle the Antarctic Continent, throwing up steep waves—especially in the Drake passage where the waters shallow quickly—combined with the fairly strong easterly current that flows around Antarctica. The course Magnus charted had us leaving the Argentine Islands and heading pretty much north-west, well west of the rhumb line. His goal was to gain as much westerly as possible early on so that when the low came, and with it the northwest winds, we could then bear off and reach our way to the shelter of the islands north of the Horn. Magnus wisely chose to leave promptly and take our chances on the other end.

Tracks down and back

Tracks down and back

Looking back at the Horn

We flew past the Horn in 45-knot winds with no chance of landing on the island or gaining shelter in nearby coves. Once in the shelter of the islands between the Horn and Porto Williams, winds were fairly calm for an uneventful sail home. However, looking astern we saw the cloud formations created by the 80-knot winds reported by another vessel that arrived shortly after we passed. Some of us got our wish.

Our passage south, three weeks earlier, had been an equally uneventful three days of mostly motor sailing that also ended in heavy winds. Our course was well to the west of the rhumb line since, in general, passages between the Horn and the Antarctic Peninsula stay west due to the prevailing winds and the constant east-flowing current. The current would carry us east and the winds preceding an incoming low would allow us to ease sheets and reach to our first Antarctic destination, Deception Island.

We made it into Deception Island ahead of the low, anchored in the sheltered Stancomb Cove the first night, then moved the next day and anchored off the beach in Whaler’s Bay, opposite the site of one of the largest early 20th-century whaling factory ship anchorages in Antarctica. As many as ten factory ships might have been anchored where we were, processing whale blubber and bone, seals, guano and who knows what else, as efficiently as ever possible.

What made Deception Island attractive then and now is that it was a huge volcano whose caldera collapsed, opening up a narrow, maybe 200-meter wide, passage into a large (about 5.6 by 3.7 mile) and extremely sheltered harbor. The volcano is still active, having blown last in 1967, and 1969 wiping out a number of research stations.

As Magnus nosed Pelagic Australis close to the beach, a few of us glanced at each other wondering why he was getting less than three boat-lengths from shore. In Maine we would never get this close because of the shifting tidal currents and the possibility of a change in wind direction overnight. One of us was bold enough to question his move and he explained to us Antarctica newbies that: one, the winds never change direction down there; two, there is no tidal current to worry about; and three, distances off are very hard to read in Antarctica. For the last reason, he frequently refers to the rangefinder slung around his neck when nearing land. We were safe.

But we weren’t safe. The low we beat to get into Deception Island slowed and brought us 45-knot winds which caused the anchor to drag. Hauling in the anchor in an attempt to reset it overheated the anchor windlass, so Magnus chose to power in position while it cooled. But the winds increased, so he then decided to reach under bare poles in the bay, powering up to come about before reaching back.

At first we had the entire bay to ourselves, but an Argentine Naval vessel anchored off their research station in Primero de Mayo Bay also dragged its anchor. Magnus and the Argentine captain agreed, via VHF, that Pelagic Australis would jog mostly north and south in the lee of the rim while the ship would jog mostly east and west, never crossing one another’s track.

Right track of Pelagic Australis, left track of Argentine Naval vessel.

Right, track of Pelagic Australis, lower left, track of Argentine Naval vessel.

During the night the winds peaked at 66 knots, near hurricane strength, but we were sheltered in the lee of the mountains to the north-east so we had not much in the way of waves. Our motion was as comfortable as could be expected, in 40- to 60-knot winds. I asked Magnus what he would do if the engine died. “Run it up on the beach, hopefully, in Stancomb Cove.”

The next morning, twenty hours after dragging our anchor, the low moved on and winds calmed to the point where we could depart the shelter of Deception Island to begin our two-week exploration of the Antarctic Peninsula.

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