To get to the Antarctica Peninsula we’ll have to cross at least 600 miles of the Southern Ocean, the fiercest body of water in the world, which separates the tip of South America from Antarctica.
There is some debate as to exactly what the Southern Ocean is or whether it really is a separate body of water or simply an extension of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans. Most people consider it it’s own entity since the salinity is greater than the abutting three, it’s colder and much deeper, averaging over 12,000 feet deep. It also extends non-stop around the globe.
What this means to us, and all other sailors who navigate the Southern Ocean, is that the winds and waves continue to circle the globe unimpeded so the waves build and build until, well, they’re huge. While it averages two miles deep, our passage south crosses the shallowest area, sometimes only 600 feet deep. Those of you who surf know that what means. Long rollers in deep water hit the shallows and “trip” forming shorter and steeper waves that can break. Perfect for surfing; not that great for sailing.
There are reasons why sailors call the winds at 40˚ south latitude the Roaring Forties, the winds at 50˚ south the Furious Fifties and then at 60˚ the Screaming Sixties.
Should we worry? No. With modern up-to-the-minute weather information available, our Captain can choose the right weather window to make the passage with the most comfort for us and safety for the boat. Does this mean we’ll not get beat up? No, but the chances of encountering extreme conditions can now be easily avoided. We have many islands between Ushuaia and the Peninsula where we can hide out and explore while we wait.
If you’re interested, I recently found a fascinating site that shows the world’s wind patterns and strengths in real time. Open, click on EARTH and explore the various options, from sea level to the jet stream to the stratosphere. Click and grab the globe to change its position. Click on any point to see the lat and long and the conditions at that place.
Above is a screen shot from January 11. The “cowlicks” circling Antarctica, dancing across the Southern Ocean, are low pressure areas, some well formed, others forming or dissipating. Each is an area to avoid. The tighter the spiral, the worse the weather.
Before modern weather tracking, sailors were at the mercy of the conditions and had to accept what was thrown at them. One famous story is of a 1905 passage around the horn by the steel hulled square rigged ship British Isles. She had an uneventful passage until she started to go ” ‘Round the Horn.” It took her 71 days to get from the Atlantic to the Pacific and during that time she lost spars and four of her crew. She at least made it. Many didn’t.
Which brings up the question of fear. There are two things I try never to bring aboard: a schedule and fear. Trying to meet a schedule can cause one to take chances and when you take chances you run the risk of putting your vessel and yourself in danger. Leave the schedule ashore and take, instead, some trashy novels to enjoy while anchored, waiting out the bad conditions.
I’ve always tried to prepare my boat for the worst so if anything unexpected does happen, I know the boat can take it and bring us through safely. I also try to prepare myself by being in shape, well rested, properly dressed and having a game plan in mind before I go on deck. Does that mean I’m never apprehensive? No. Apprehension, or whatever you want to call it, is good since makes me more aware, alert and cautious. Fear, on the other hand, causes one to freeze, and then you’re in the position of letting yourself down as well as your shipmates and the boat.
One hand for the boat, one hand for yourself is an adage that’s so true. Two hands for the boat and you might be lost, two hands for yourself and the boat might be lost. In both cases both can be lost. YIKES! That’s way to philosophical for this blog but a few people have asked me if I’m afraid, so this is my answer: No. I trust myself, I trust Pelagic Australis and I trust my crewmates.