January 30, Thursday
Noon position: On Amtrak train to NYC
January 31, Friday
Noon position: On Aerolinas Argentinas flight 1301, JFK to Buenos Aires
February 1, Saturday
Noon position: On Aerolinas Argentinas flight 1852, Buenos Aires to Ushuaia
Ushuaia grill master and Joel.
Our flight passed over the Falkland Islands, which are again in the center of turmoil between Britain and Argentina.
The crew finally all assembled at Hostel Malvinas, so we headed out for a typical Argentina grill with all we could eat of lamb, beef, sausage, and chicken, plus all the veggies and salad fixings. Too much red meat, but really good red meat.
February 2, Sunday
Noon position: On Commitment, a schooner owned by Tony Mowbray and also in the Antarctic cruise trade, which is our transportation down the Beagle Channel between Ushuaia and the Chilean town of Porto Williams…
Protected shrine, Porto Toro.
On Tony’s boat, Ushuaia to Porto Williams. Paul, Jack, Peter M, Sylvia, Tony.
Meat pie and other goodies on Tony’s boat, Ushuaia to Porto Williams.
Tony’s a delightfully crazy Aussie who has sailed around the world, solo, non-stop, just for the hell of it, and is a motivational speaker when not taking his boat to the Deep South.
“Fixers,” who we would call “facilitators” or “agents,” are hired to get us through the clearing-out process and seem to be worth every peso. The process took about 90 minutes to clear out of Ushuaia and about an hour to clear in, then to get our sailing permit in Porto Williams. But we did it.
The first night was spent at anchor in Porto Toro, about a two-hour run east of Porto Williams. Magnus wanted to anchor inside Pte. Eugenia, amid a cluster of small islands, but a call from the Chilean Navy indicated that we could only anchor there in severe weather and that we did not presently have that.
Porto Toro was fine. It’s billed as the southern-most hamlet in the world and is a base for King Crab fishermen part of the year. Not much else seems to happen there.
February 3, Monday
Noon position: 55° 11.750S, 067° 02.203w in the Paso Goree
Micalvi Yacht Club, Porto Williams, as we leave.
Cape Horn from about 12 miles away.
Good breakfast, a short walk round town, then set sail for the horn and south to the peninsula.
The crew consists of four: Magnus Day, the captain who has been sailing one or another of the boats for a number of years; Rupert Dixon, the cook; Thomas Geipel, mate and deckhand; and Bertie Whitley, a hitchhiker who we are taking south so she can join the other Pelagic.
The Pelagic Australis is very well kept, well thought-out, and could not be better. Confidence-inspiring, both boat and crew.
The plan is to head as far west as possible, so that when the wind comes more from the southwest, we can then crack off and reach down to our destination, Deception Island.
February 4, Tuesday
Noon position: 57° 51.420s, 068° 26.750w
Yesterday’s passage among the islands was relatively uneventful, with winds varying from 5 to 18 knots, so we sailed, motor sailed or just motored. The boat’s motion is very comfortable.
Magnus set up a watch system so cabin mates stand watch together. Joel and I had the 2200 to 0200 watch with Magnus being our first watch captain and Bertie our second. Solid, wide-ranging conversation with Magnus while we motor sailed.
Today was atypical of the Southern Ocean as the morning brought light air and calm seas. First motor sailing then reefed main and genny. During the day we went through a series of headsail changes as the wind built ’til we got set for the night with double reefed main, yankee and staysail. As the wind increased, it brought an overcast sky and occasional rain squalls, more typical Southern Ocean conditions.
Great crew. Good sense of humor. There was some banter about golfing off the fore deck which degenerated into bowling for penguins which somehow evolved into being hired as a penguin wrangler and therefore what size horse a penguin wrangler needs. Bowling? Penguins?
Doing anything on Pelagic Australis is so much different than on Golondrina due to it’s size and weight. Three crew are needed to reef or change headsails. But winches are big, with well placed lines at hand, so it’s an easy process. There are some well thought-out details such as reefing lines led through grommets in the sail to tame the reefed sail, a shelf on the boom to hold the reefed sail, and pockets in the coaming to stuff sheet tails.
February 5, Wednesday
Noon position: 60° 47.400s, 065° 13.700w
- Dolly and friend (lamb carcasses) as we cross the Southern Ocean.
Last night we crossed the Antarctic conversion zone which is both a fixed political demarcation and the place where the waters change in temperature (we noticed a drop of 8°C) and salinity. When I wrote about the Southern Ocean, I mentioned that it is saltier. That’s wrong, which proved once again that you can’t believe everything you Google. It is less salty due to the melting of the glaciers and icebergs, which actually makes sense. South of the zone supports more sea life, so we should start seeing, well, more sea life. It’s also noticeably colder down here.
We should also start seeing floating ice later today and certainly tonight so a sharp lookout is in order.
The light is a bit different, as you can imagine, with the sun setting late, 11pm or so, but the southern horizon retains a narrow band of light all night, moving from the west to the east until the sun comes up again, at about 7am. What is hard to get used to is that the sun is north of us at noon. I immediately grasped that the lows rotate in the opposite direction from those in the northern hemisphere, but seeing the sun north of me at noon is counter intuitive. The sun rises south of us and as the day progresses, it moves to a position north of us. That has thrown off my innate sense of where north is.
The conditions we’ve experienced are much calmer than any of us expect, with a ground swell of only six feet, and since we’ve had calm winds, the wave heights have also been low, two or so feet. None of us are complaining, since these are ideal conditions for a boat load of rookies to acquire their sea legs. None of us have gotten seasick, although one or two have felt a bit queasy. We’ve all been taking Sturgeron 15, a gift from Joel, so that might be the reason. Good stuff, although I stopped taking them after the first day.
Snow. We just sailed in to what I assumed would be another rain squall and it turned out to be snow. We’re in the Antarctic.
February 6, Thursday
Noon position: 62° 57. 200s, 061° 20.400w
Entering Desolation Island.
Land. We’re there. Almost.
Through the night the wind rose, but more on the nose, so we continued to motor sail under reefed main alone. We made our waypoint so we cracked off, set sails, and headed for our first stop, Desolation Island. Sailing between Smith and Snow Islands, we began to encounter icebergs, skuas, whales and other life.
Remains of the whaling factories at Desolation Island.
Desolation Island is a somewhat active volcano that blew in 1967, burying the research stations and driving the crews off. It has been rumbling since, but researchers do go back yearly. The island is also one of the more touristy spots on the peninsula due to the warm waters from the hot volcanic springs. One trick is to dig a hole in the fine rocks, let it fill with hot water and take a bath. Not “legal,” but done when no one else is around.
It’s heavily overcast with flat light, so not that great for making pics. There’s not that much definition between water and land and sky. However, a spot of sun hung over Smith Island until we passed.
February 7, Friday
Noon position: Stancomb Cove inside Desolation Island
Hiking Desolation Island
Hiking Desolation Island—low visibility.
Hiking Desolation Island—a little like Mars!
Last night we spent at anchor in a small cove in the far end of Desolation Island. Magnus’ first anchorage choice was off the old whaling station just inside the entrance, but that was taken by a German expedition yacht.
Rupert got a Chilean sea bass from our Porto Williams “fixer,” so that was baked and served with well spiced roast potatoes, tossed salad and plenty of wine. This was our first meal at anchor, so we all gathered around the salon table not only to eat, but also banter, tell tall tales, try to determine the difference between American English and English English. Jumper, biscuit, scone, sweet, savory, crap out, are all terms we need to come to terms with.
I was up at 5:30 to see what the early morning light was like. Again, it’s overcast, flat light, but it snowed overnight. so the black volcanic ash covered hills were now white. Nice.
It was also nice to have the boat to myself. Magnus slept in the berth in the pilot house to keep an anchor watch, so I took over the salon to check the camera gear as well as the previous day’s pics. All seems to be working well other than the flat lighting. It’ll change.
The harbor in the middle of Desolation Island is the sunken crater of the volcano that created the island. Surrounding the crater are peaks of volcanic rock, so we decided to ascend to the top of one. Not a bad hike, but it did show that my aerobic strength is not as good as it should or could be. But I made it, as did everyone else.
The landscape is a symphony of black, gray and white, but with streaks of turquoise snow, green fungus or algae, and a few spots of orange krill. It’s more colorful as you look more closely.
Our hike was the first time that my planning was put to the test, and all seemed to work well. The only issue is glasses that fog instantly and batteries that die quickly. Maybe I’ll take all four next time.
After a lunch of veggie soup and fresh baked bread, we moved the boat around to Whalers Bay off the old Norwegian/Chilean whaling station. Magnus let me helm and it was a cold trick at the wheel with a steady 20k gusting to, at one point, 31k.
February 8, Saturday
Noon position: Whalers Bay
Riding-out the gale Desolation Island—Magnus at the helm, with Wyatt in company.
Riding-out the gale Desolation Island—Rupert, Bertie, Magnus, Peter M., Peter P.
At anchor due to a good-sized low that passed to the north of us bringing a steady 25 with gusts as high as 41. Magnus anchored in about 6 meters very close to the shore, about 50 meters off, which concerned some of us who are used to tidal current and wind direction changes in Maine. Not here. When it starts to blow, it will keep blowing without much change other than intensity.
Magnus also talked with us about the possibility of raising both the keel and rudder and driving the boat up onto the beach.
But the anchor started dragging, so up it came. We repositioned the boat over the same spot, however the anchor did not take this time. During the anchor drill, we recorded a gust over 50k. This time the windlass overheated, so Magnus headed out, hove too and decided to ride out the remains of the storm rather than anchoring again. How long? We don’t know, since the barometer is still falling.
All the above happened before our lunch of fish chowder (Peter Murray) with baking powder biscuits (mine). We continued to jog back and forth across the inner end of the lagoon all afternoon and into the evening, and Magnus planned to do the same until the wind eased. The wind grew to a steady 45 with gusts into the low 60s.
Magnus kept the engine slowly turning as we rode beam on to the wind. In this small lagoon the waves only built to two or so feet, with no ground swell, so that was in our favor. He would power up to tack the boat when we ran out of sea room.
I asked him what he would do if the engine died. “Run it up on the beach, hopefully in Stancomb Cove.”
The boat is actually designed to do that. With the centerboard and rudder raised, the gradually sloping forefoot, flat keel profile and skeg extension protecting the prop and rudder, she will slide easily onto the beach. The hull is well designed for these conditions, and while she certainly will not win many races, she tracks well under both sail and power. She is not close winded, however, as she tacks through 120 degrees. Ideal for these conditions and confidence-inspiring.
So is the crew. I’d sail anywhere with Magnus, Thomas, Bertie and Rupert knowing that they’d take care of the boat, each other and us.
February 9, Sunday
Noon position: 63° 40.650s, 061° 06.662w
Day after the gale at Desolation Island.
Dolly and friend—now rime-covered.
Magnus made the decision to leave Desolation Island and make a day’s run down to Enterprise Island since the wind eased at 5AM as the low moved off. Our 0000 to 0200 watch was two hours of heaving to as we jogged in and out of the west end of the lagoon. Power up to driver into the wind, get in the lee of the cliff, then bear off on close to a beam reach until we run out of room. Come about and do it the other way. Back and forth.
When I awoke at 0800, we were well clear of Desolation, in open water, heading south with a sharp lookout for floating ice.
And the sun was coming out.
We passed Trinidad Island, Isla Hoseason and “Low and Inconspicuous Island” among others on our way through the Gerlache Strait. If this is any indication of what we can expect, it’s gonna be incredible!
At any one time, there may be six expedition yachts down here, so the odds of crossing paths with one is slim, but not unexpected. The crew says some spots are more popular due to the landscape or the sheltered waters, so we might find ourselves in company.
Cruise ships, on the other hand, must plan, schedule and post their routes and stops six months in advance to prevent too much of a human overload on the environment. There are strict limits to the number of passengers allowed ashore at any one time. For us, that does not apply. However, we must be briefed on the proper protocol when meeting wildlife, where to go or not go, and we must scrub each other’s boots before and after going ashore. Everyone is trying desperately not to introduce more invasive species than have already been introduced.
Had my first opportunity to really photograph the islands and bergs today. Not as easy as it looks. The 70 to 200 zoom is nearly ideal, but getting even closer would be good. Magnus and Bertie both have Canons, but neither has a telextender. Having worked most of my life with the Leica and 35mm lens set most of the time at the hyperfocal distance, this zoom thing takes a bit of getting used to. But I really like this camera and I really like digital, auto focus and a viewfinder that’s kind to my aging eyes. Sun, a monopod and 1/500, and all is good.
Tomorrow the distance between the islands and the peninsula will narrow, so my work will really begin. I hope.
February 10, Monday
Noon position: 64° 40.500s, 062° 05.400w
Sunset while tied to the Governoren I
Last night, on Enterprise Island, we tied up to the Governoren I, the wreck of the most efficient whaling factory ship that could process blubber, bone, guano and who knows what else. The amount of whaling that was done down here was phenomenal. Whales had been hunted to extinction everywhere but here by the turn of the last century, so this was the place, and of course, the last stand of the whales. We saw many pairs of whales as we moved today, so I’m hoping that’s a good sign.
We motored down to the Plata Passage in clear skies where two kayaks were launched along with the dinghy.
Joel and I, with Bertie at the helm, took the dinghy for a photo expedition along the shore and among the floating bergs. The colors in the ice range from a brilliant cyan to a yellow tan to gray in addition to a neutral white. I banged off close to 200 frames, which is really easy and really fun with this camera. One problem is that working with gloves means I cannot feel the shutter button as well as when bare-handed, and worse, I inadvertently can hit a control and screw up the exposure. I did that with a batch of pics of Peter Plumb, Magnus, Joel, Bertie and Rupert going for a swim. A very short swim. Rupert managed to swim out to a small berg and hug it before climbing back on deck.
Motored through Wilhelmina Bay, around Cape Anna, down Errera Channel to Danco Island, the site of an abandoned British research station. Most of us went ashore to climb through the Gentoo Penguin Colony to get to the top. A 125-meter climb trying to avoid the little critters, stay out of their path. They have right-of-way, they know it, and they use that right. On the way down, Bertie and I ran into about a dozen of them coming up. We stopped, so did they. A stand off. Finally an aggressive one in back kept pushing the herd until they move past and up. Their white belly is iridescent, something that does not show up in pics. Every penguin pic is a cliché, but ya’ gotta do ’em.
Peter opening his birthday champagne.
At the top, Bertie pulled out tumblers and a bottle of champagne to celebrate Peter P’s birthday. One of the driving forces behind this trip was Peter turning 70 in September.
Neither words nor photos do justice to the magnitude of the landscape down here. It’s bold, big, forbidding and unforgiving. We have fortunately been served up mild conditions, other than the 24 hours at Desolation Island, and it seems that we will have a few more days of ideal Antarctic weather.
February 11, Tuesday
Noon position: 64° 51.200s, 062° 35.500w
Argentine station, keeping an eye on the Chilean station.
Jack, Chris, Thomas going ashore to the Port Lockroy station.
There are about a dozen men and women stationed there. Half are Chilean Navy, the rest scientists from Chile, Canada, and Sweden who are studying the bacteria found in penguins to determine which ones are natural and which are man-induced. One Chilean scientist has a girlfriend from Blue Hill, Maine, and is working out of a university in New Brunswick, Canada. Another group is studying the local fish, which are few in species and small.
Our lunch treat was to float just off one of the most active glaciers hoping for a berg to calf. No such luck. But lunch was good, as usual.
I then took the helm as we motored from Paradise Harbour throughout the Ferguson Channel around Bruce Island to Cape Errera on Wienke Island at the entrance to Port Lockroy where we anchored for the night off the museum. Port Lockroy was first a whaling station and then a British military base during WWII followed by a research station before becoming a museum manned this season by four women. We will be going ashore, between the passengers of two cruise ships scheduled to arrive tomorrow.
I enjoyed being at the helm, not having to be constantly on the lookout for more and more pics. The time at the helm was also a time when I could be alone to contemplate the magnitude of this place. The scale is awe inspiring. None of us can grasp the scale of the heights nor the distance to shore. Magnus still can’t even after his years of experience down here, so he is constantly using an electronic rangefinder to gauge distances off.
Thomas piloted us up the channel into Port Lockroy very slowly since there are some uncharted rocks in the middle of the channel. This combined with the fact that the GPS datum is off enough that at one point, the chart showed us sailing well over the land, atop a 200-meter mountain.
February 12, Wednesday
Noon position: At anchor, Port Lockroy
Port Lockroy—kitchen in the station.
Port Lockroy as it was left by the Brits and preserved by the Heritage Trust.
Two cruise ships were scheduled, so we could only go ashore between them, for a few minutes around lunchtime. The first was the Norwegian FRAM, not the original FRAM, filled with Oriental tourists, all dressed in red, so you saw all these red dots climbing around the rocks. Some kayaked over to us to make pics and say “Hi.” The second ship off-loaded their guests who were all dressed in yellow, so Thomas commented, “Hey! Look at all the yellow penguins.”
The little Pelagic has been down here since November with Ruth, a Gentoo Penguin expert, and Andrew, a freelance wildlife cameraman. They are putting together a documentary for the BBC on the lifecycle of these penguins. Yesterday they were trying to capture the chicks fighting each other for being fed by mom. If mom gives birth to two, she will make them chase her and become aggressive in their demands to be fed. The most aggressive one gets the food. Ruth says this is their way of making sure that the fittest, most aggressive, survives and therefore that one has the best chance of continuing the line. Again, it seems Darwin got it right.
They have four more months to go. While not for me, I have to admire someone who is this passionate and this focused on a subject. I’m not sure Andrew is quite as focused on penguins, but he certainly is the consummate professional.
Antarctica seems to bring a passion and an intensity out of anyone who works down here. The magnitude of the land and the severity of the weather demands it. Man’s 250-year history in Antarctica is filled with stories of men sailing south in ill-equipped vessels, surviving an overwintering being trapped in the ice, to Shackleton’s well known epic adventure. I’ve caught a glimpse of it chatting with some of the scientists at the Chilean station, the penguin documenters, the Pelagic Australis crew. No Sea Tow, no AAA, no Coast Guard. No one to call, so everyone must be prepared and self-sufficient.
I’m glad I came. But I realize that words and photos cannot describe adequately this place. There is no written description that comes anywhere near what one sees. There is no camera or film or digital process that can take in the expanse of our surroundings or record the nuances of the color in the rock and ice.
February 13, Thursday
Noon position: Port Lockroy, still
Two of four women stationed for four months at Port Lockroy, remains of British “art.”
Bad weather, so the decision was to stay here to wait it out. It’s not that we couldn’t have made the next stop, but rather that this leg, the next 85 miles, will be the most beautiful of the trip. So Magnus wanted to ensure that we had a chance to see it in the light, not in today’s fog. We’ll be going down a narrow channel and then into the iceberg graveyard before ending up at the Ukrainian research station. We’re trading sugar for vodka, apparently, at the southernmost bar in the world.
Once there, the decision will be made whether to try for the Antarctic Circle or not, depending on the ice. Magnus has never crossed the circle, so it’s a personal goal of his and he was foiled earlier this summer due to too much ice. We also want to try.
The lay day was good for other reasons, as Magnus discovered a worn belt on the engine which lead not only to changing that one, but the others as well. Also a complete inspection of the mechanical gear, ending in a thorough cleaning of the engine and room. It was clean to start and is better now.
This boat is kept in immaculate condition, top to bottom. Granted, Pelagic Australis had a complete refit in South Africa this past winter, but the crew is constantly on top of everything from sweeping up our dropped bread crumbs to properly coiling running rigging.
Bertie, our hitchhiker, has now settled in on the little Pelagic, as they call her, and has said that it is not as well kept, but she plans on getting it whipped into shape quickly. Seeing how she worked on the big Pelagic, my guess is that she’ll get it done.
Ruth, the penguin pro, and Bertie dinghied over just as we were finishing dinner. Ruth was asked aboard one of the cruise ships to give a short presentation on her work while having her and Bertie’s laundry done. They were given a cream cake and a stash of cookies which they brought to us.
The crews down here, both the boat- and land-based crews, all get to know each other and seem to look out for each other. When the small boat crews see a familiar cruise ship come in, they can get a quick turnaround on laundry, like today. We delivered a passport to one of the women stationed at Port Lockroy. We may take a package back to Ushuaia for them. We’re delivering sugar to the Ukrainians. We brought food and diesel fuel to the little Pelagic. The captain of another charter yacht developed a heart condition, so a crew from a third boat took over and brought the captain’s boat back to Ushuaia as he was evacuated by a cruise ship. He’s OK.
The small boats like ours keep in email contact with each other to report ice-clogged coves, bergs in the Davis Strait, who needs what, who’s going where.
February 14, Friday, Valentines Day
Noon position: 65° 04.780s, 062° 55.800w
Gentoo penguins at Port Lockroy among the remains of a small boat.
Approaching the iceberg graveyard.
We discovered why the ice is blue. Ice is blue since it absorbs red light well, green light less so and blue light not at all, so the blue is what is reflected back. The ice looks white since the trapped air reflects the white sunlight back, making the bergs look white. The more trapped air bubbles, the whiter it looks, but as the ice gets compressed, the trapped air is forced out, resulting in blue ice.
On the east side of Antarctica, there is an algae that turns about ten percent of the ice green. Today we saw spots of green lichen on some rocks we passed. We also saw patches of snow lichen which covers the ice in a red/orange hue, which is not to be confused, ever, with the red/orange stains on the ice from penguin poop.
Let’s kill the myth right now. Penguins are cutest in the pages of National Geographic. Up close and personal, they’re not that nice to be hanging out with. They smell. They poop on everything. They’re cranky. They’re noisy. They’re rather aggressive. But I still spent a lot of pixels trying to get a pic of a penguin that did not look like some clichéd penguin pic we’ve seen before. And I think the Geographic photographers must Photoshop the orange poop out of their white bellies. OK, they really are cute. Ya’ just gotta get used to ’em.
When leaving Port Lockroy, we nosed into a brilliantly blue berg to make some pics. While we were photographing the berg, the guests on a National Geographic cruise ship were photographing us.
We motored down Butler Passage, through Lemaire Channel, past Deloncle Bay, then into the graveyard of the bergs between Booth and Hovgaard Islands.
Once we drifted and dinghied around in the graveyard, we motored down Penola Strait and into the Argentine Islands where we anchored and put out four mooring lines to rocks ashore in a small, tight, but really sheltered cove near the Ukrainian research station, Vernadsky. Ashore tomorrow.
The above list is meaningless since the names are not the goal, but rather it’s the land and the images. And today yielded up what I came here hoping to get. Lots of bergs, subtle color, fascinating forms, sharp contrasts between colors and edges and shapes, and ice and rocks and water. 475 frames. A quick look seems to indicate that there just might be something to work with.
February 15, Saturday
Noon position: Vernadsky Station
It’s Saturday night in Antarctica, so we’ve gotta go socialize at the southern-most bar in the world. Vernadsky used to be the British station, Faraday, one of many British stations on the continent but was sold to the Ukrainians in the ’90s for one pound. This is where the Brits discovered the hole in the ozone layer. The Ukrainians have continued to do some serious atmospheric research, including some sort of mid-level stratospheric exploration on a magnetic something or other, seismographic research, and a few other things.
Sunset at the Vernadsky Station.
There are twelve men stationed here for a year’s tour. One woman was posted on Vernadsky a few years ago and she was heard to say that it was not a successful experiment. The base is open to visitors starting at 2100, so we had to go, of course. As the communications officer was giving us a tour, I was impressed at how well maintained the place is, perhaps exceeding that of our boat, and the photographic records on every wall documenting the history of the station and the area. I noticed a two-masted lateen-sailed vessel, very Mediterranean or North African, and was told it wintered over in the ice in 1903 with a French scientist aboard in the graveyard of the bergs. Apparently he was one of the first true scientists, not an adventurer disguised as a scientist, to work down here.
But our real goal was to get to the farthest-south bar in the world. One of the British construction workers built out a true, but small, pub on the second floor with a pool table, dart board, and just about anything else that a British scientist might like. The Ukrainians have continued the tradition in grand style. We brought many bottles of wine, left what we didn’t drink, were served snacks, good snacks, and generally enjoyed their company. They also have a gift shop (no tees in my size) with postcards and stamps, and the station commander will stamp your passport.ì
I mentioned the gift shop at Port Lockroy. That place was well stocked, so we tried guessing the year’s take. I first guessed $100,000. Way too low. Half a million. Again too low. They get two cruise ships a day, 200 or so passengers, $30 tees, books, maps, the works. Some of our crew dropped $250. A full million dollars? Closer. All for the British Heritage Trust which maintains four, and more, historic stations on the peninsula. Good for them.
We met a couple who has been moving from hut to hut, station to station, keeping the huts in good repair. The woman, Liesle, an American with relatives in Maine, spent a number of winters at the South Pole as construction or maintenance head. The people we’ve met down here have a toughness that’s hard to define but is present. Not macho, no swagger, but they exude a passion for this place that brings them back year after year. Another indescribable aspect to this place.
February 16, Sunday
Noon position: Vernadsky Station
We’re ready to go home. Not enough time to head south to the Antarctic Circle since we’ve had to wait out too many small storms. And the current weather window seems best for quick departure so we can get to the Horn before the next serious low arrives there. We’ll have a bit of a breeze at the start today, then it should ease enough to make us motor sail for about 24 hours. The next system will come in and if we can get on the back of this low, we can have a broad reach to near the Horn, then a bit of a calm before the low blows us in and past the Horn where Magnus to would like to anchor to wait-out better weather for a possible landing at the Horn. Or not.
We have a week to make it to Porto Williams and Ushuaia, so we can pick and choose our timing and we have the time to head well west so when the prevailing westerly wind comes, it will give us a good slant and easy ride to the shelter of the islands north of the Horn.
The weather reports we’ve received have been good, but the weather has shown up about six hours later than predicted. Magnus, on the other hand, has been spot on in his decision-making process and gotten us in or out exactly when we needed to get in or out.
While the adventure is far from over, my goal of photographing icebergs, islands and rocks up-close-and-personal has come to an end. A quick look at what I’ve done so far indicates that I’ve got some good pixels to work with. I hope. Steep learning curve and whatever I did to get ready was only a small part of what I actually experienced and needed to know down here. For the rest of the trip, I’d like to document our activity as we sail for the next four or five days.
February 17, Monday
Noon position: 63° 15.400s, 066° 57.000w
We’re in the Southern Ocean again, motor sailing on a heading west-north-west in calm winds with a surprisingly mild ground swell of only six feet or so. It was higher, over nine feet, as we were leaving the peninsula, which make sense as it piled up on the shallower waters.
We all popped our dose of Sturgeron 15 before leaving, which left some of us totally drowsy and others with the dry-mouth syndrome, but the stuff works. No one blew lunch.
Sleep, read, eat, stand watch. That’s it for the next few days. Could be far worse.
Offshore passages are different. We sail all day and all night. Non-stop.
An ex-colleague could not wrap her head around the concept of sailing through the night. “Where do you anchor?” she asked.
“We don’t. It’s too deep.”
“Well, do you go into a marina?”
“No. We keep sailing.”
“You keep sailing?” she said worriedly.
“Yes. Well…we might go into a marina,” I lied, just to put her at ease.
“Oh. Good. That makes me feel better.”
Magnus divided us into watches according to cabin mates. Joel and I, followed by Chris and Wyatt, then the Murray brothers, and finally Peter and Jack. We are four hours on, twelve hours off. Magnus and Thomas are watch captains and they stand a six hour watch, then off for six hours. Rupert, our cook, does not stand watch since good food is important for the crew while offshore.
Rupert fills that task admirably. Most meals are not the sit-down-in-the-salon meals we had while at anchor on the peninsula. He makes one-pot meals—soups, stews, sandwiches—that can be easily eaten while rolling around in six-foot swells and are easy for him to make. Also, since our stomachs are not that settled for the first 24 hours, he makes everything mild. No reason to trigger anything.
The crew going off watch wakes the oncoming crew, offers tea or coffee or a snack, briefs them on the past four hours, then heads for their berths. It seems simple until something happens. And something will, occasionally. If the wind comes up, we’ll have to reef the main and roll in one sail before setting a smaller one. Or make a course change. Or shake out a reef. Each will require the full watch plus maybe another body or two. Magnus and Thomas are excellent in first talking us through each step, then taking action. Suit up, clip in. Slow, safe, easy.
For the first two nights we actually “stood watch,” keeping a sharp lookout for ice. The watch captain and one of the on-deck watch stood, scanning ahead. Icebergs can be seen on the radar, but growlers and bergy bits cannot be seen by radar. We hit a car-sized chunk of ice in the early AM with no damage, fortunately. I slept through it.
We may not see one of our shipmates for many hours. Some of us sleep, others read from the extensive Pelagic Australis library, and others write emails to those back home. Life goes on at 9 knots.
For some, an offshore passage is a chore that we have to get through to arrive at our destination. For others, it’s the journey itself, that old cliché, and can approach a religious experience with the passage maker seeking or gaining some sort of epiphany or personal transformation or right of passage or proof of manhood or whatever.
Personally, I’ve started every passage with a bit of apprehension, a somewhat queasy stomach, and a desire to understand the passing weather systems in order to learn how to read what today’s signs—wind, waves, clouds—indicate what tomorrow will bring. I’m fascinated by the colors, the purity of the colors. Also the night sky where the stars are clear to the horizon and so bright that they can at times illuminate the deck. All this is due to being away from land’s human interference.
I’ve ended every passage with the firm resolution that I will never, ever, set foot on another boat that’s heading on another offshore passage. No way. However, within a month I’m looking for the next opportunity to get offshore. It’s addictive, in some odd way. And like the indescribable landscape in Antarctica, I can never adequately put into words when asked what I see and what I experience while offshore. It’s one of those things that has to be experienced first-hand.
February 18, Tuesday
Noon position: 60° 39.900s, 069° 22.200w
At sea, about halfway to our waypoint south of Cape Horn. Still calm winds, so we’re motor sailing. Magnus just brought up the GRIB file, the wind predictions, and we should get some wind on the beam soon so we can start sailing. The low predicted to bring us some serious winds, 45 knots or so, a day out from the Horn, fortunately has slowed and will now pass over us after we are in the islands just north of the Horn. Good news, but this motoring is getting a bit tiring. Boats are designed to sail, not power.
A friend wrote before I left “…getting on a Tonka toy sailboat and heading out across some of the most dangerous waters in the world.” As it turned out, Pelagic Australis is far from a Tonka toy boat and these “most dangerous waters” have turned out to be surprisingly calm. But we have another few days ahead of us, and it could all go south, fast.
Just before Joel and I came on our 1400 watch, Magnus set the genny and shook out all reefs. We’re sailing.
February 19, Wednesday
Noon position: 57° 56.700s, 068° 48.200w
Still at sea, but closing on the Horn. 150 miles from our waypoint. Light winds, but still moving a bit to the west of the rhumb line, so when the wind does come—tonight?—we’ll be in a good position.
The clouds lifted just before sunset, the night watch said they were spotting planets and stars, and we had bright sunlight at dawn. More Caribbean than Antarctic.
It’s true. I wrote earlier that there would be close to a three-hour difference in the length of sunlight during our three-week voyage. I’m sensing that difference, but we are a bit too far north of the Antarctic Circle to see the distinct three-hour difference. Less here, but still a big enough difference to notice it. And it’s still disconcerting to see the sun north of us at noon.
February 20, Thursday
Noon position: 55° 21.900s, 067° 06.500w
Don’t wish for it ’cause you’ll get it.
Last night, dinner time, 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 on this trip” 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 crew took in the genny and set the Yankee and staysail. Just after we came on watch, 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.
Magnus made the decision to fall off to make a broader pass of the Horn rather than a more dramatic near pass a mile or less off. His new plan was to pass the Horn, drop the main and sail up to an island with a cove with a nice white sand beach, a few ruins, and some good hiking where we’d anchor, sit out the blow, then go back to do a circumnavigation of Isla Hornos so we could all brag that we did a rounding of the Horn, lite version, which means no erring.
After getting tossed around in my berth for five hours, sleeping fitfully, if at all, I got up to discover that the new forecast was for 40-knot-or-more winds for the next few days. Anchoring was out. The plan was to tie up at Porto Toro again to sit this out. Getting from there to Porto Williams, another 12 miles, was even an iffy proposition. We’ve gotta wait and see. Getting ferried from Porto Williams to Ushuaia might be an issue, which could certainly impact our flying out on time. That could then impact my getting to Buenos Aires and on to Lima to meet up with Denise.
Some of us might have gotten our wish.
February 21, Friday
Noon position: Porto Williams
Back to civilization. We’re rafted up at the yacht club, next to the Macalvi. Once we got inside, or north, of Isla Hornos, the winds eased and it became a rather nice day. But behind us, we could still see the heavy weather and all the signs that we made the right decision.
Looking back at the Horn and the cloud patterns resulting from the 50-knot winds.
Magnus laying out our options after coming to the realization that we could not anchor at the Horn.
Magnus told stories of being in calm conditions in the Beagle Channel with other boats reporting 80 knots at the Horn. Or, the opposite on other days. The weather patterns not only get funneled by the narrowing gap of the Peninsula and South America, they are also affected by the high mountains at the tip of Chile. These factors make for unreliable predictions down here. Magnus’ rule is to add 10 knots to whatever his GRIB files predict at the Horn.
Magnus laid out a number of options for us since we were now a day earlier than expected. Landing at the horn was no longer an option. Anchoring at the white sand beach island was also not an option, both due to the high winds. No one really wanted to go back to Porto Toro to hang out—been there, seen it. There were other anchoring options we could try before getting to Porto Williams, but the one factor looming over us is that tomorrow, which is today as I write this, there are expected to be high winds in the Beagle Channel and if they reach and exceed the 25 knots predicted, both Porto Williams and Ushuaia will be shut down. Most of us opted to head to Porto Williams to hang out, although a minority report did come through suggesting that arriving a day early might be seen as cheating ourselves out of the full experience.
Most of us, well…I’ll speak for myself…my expectations have been fully met. Actually, they’ve been exceeded. Good company, incredible landscape, professional crew, well fed, about 3000 frames exposed. Awesome experience.
February 22, Saturday
Noon position: Beagle Channel
Heading up the Beagle Channel toward Ushuaia.
On the ketch Ice Bird, our passage from Porto Williams back to Ushuaia. Private vessel, owned by a sixty-something French sailor who occasionally takes diving parties into the Beagle Channel or further south. His daughter is a trapeze artist with a French circus, so metaphors of falling apples and trees is not too far off here.
Back to the big city. People, cars, traffic, noise. Big change. Checking in at the Integrated Naval Base was again long and convoluted with our skipper Alain having to fill-out the same form, by hand, eight times since there were eight of us. Xerox machines?
Great dinner at a French restaurant. King crabs.
~ March 6, Thursday ~ UPDATE ~
Noon position: While I’m on the second leg of my trip in Peru, my friends on the Pelagic Australis are back navigating the Southern Ocean
I just received word from Peter Plumb of a massive storm along the north shore of Antarctica, the only island I know where every shore is the north shore, facing the tip of Africa. At left is a screen shot of today’s wind chart at 1220 EST; you can check out an updated wind chart here.
Pelagic Australis is currently about halfway between Porto Williams and their destination, the South Georgia Islands, on a bit of a northerly arc which means they either stopped in the Falklands or went north to avoid the storm. Check out their position on the tracker.
Magnus, Thomas, Laura and Rupert: I hope all is well and you’re sailing safe.