Antarctica 2011

So, a lot has happened since the last email I sent, a quick summary would be that I have been once again to South Georgia (which does seem a long time ago back in November), we sat out a bit of a blow in Stanley, Christmas in Ushuaia with lots of Frenchies, and to top all of this I have now been across Drake Passage twice, sailed past Cape Horn, and been to Antarctica. Not bad for 8 weeks!

The second trip to South Georgia was brilliant again, it had a different emphasis to the first one, being the main purpose to drop some climbers/skiers off to do the Salverson Traverse towards the southern end of the island. I’m not going to go into the details of this trip as it is very similar to the first one, ie penguins, seals and snow, so I will just summarise, but there were some new treats as well!

The trip down was without too much drama, no more than 35 knots, largely up the chuff. Our first stop at the north of the island to go and see the nesting wandering albatross again, this time though the beaches were full of the aggressive fur seals, which were even more feisty as the ladies had started turning up, and now there was something to fight for. Anyway, along the walkway we have to follow, a bull fur seal had decided that this was his territory, and, because we were trying to pass him and were obviously a threat, he had to see us off. So, the six of us blokes that went ashore decided that the best course of action was to send Laura first. Ideal. She’ll scare him off. Seems he wasn’t quite so intimidated. Maybe even it encouraged him to have a fight, or maybe just the broomstick Laura was carrying looked tasty, whichever way, he did launch himself at poor Laura who is trying to defend herself. At this point, as I am sure you have guessed, us blokes had already bravely retreated, leaving Laura, in her valiant efforts to fall back down some steps as the furry decided to take a bite out of the broomstick, quite an impressive bite actually. After a brief discussion, we decided that one of the guests should go and help Laura to chase him away, and thankfully, it wasn’t me that drew the short straw! Anyway, mission accomplished, we carried on to see the albatross.

Whilst sailing down the coast to the drop off point for the climbers, we were on deck putting in a reef after 40 knots had suddenly blown up, when Miles on the helm spotted something big off of the bow, obviously we turned around to have a look, but Miles thought putting a reef in was more important than sightseeing this time! Reefed down, we had another look around, and then off of the stern someone spotted a long dorsal fin, and then another, and another. And then playing in the waves behind us were three orca’s clear to see, large black and white killing machines. Very cool, but a little bit scary too, especially when I was stood at the stern when one decided to have a quick look at the boat less than a metre from me.

The next moment of interest was when we were dropping the climbers onto the shore. Miles and I were running the zodiac duties for the dawn drop off, with Laura on board cooking breakfast. It would appear that at some point while Miles and I were ferrying gear ashore, a relatively large bergy bit must have bounced down the hull and whilst tacking at anchor been pushed underneath the boat. The first we knew of this was after lifting the anchor, and setting off towards our planned daytime stop, but feeling a vibration through the hull as the revs were put on. After some wishful thinking and trying to reverse off any kelp that may be wrapped around the propeller, which there wasn’t, we figured it must be the prop itself. Bugger. So, back to Moltke Harbour with its nice sticky mud, drop the hook, and have a look. Bearing in mind that it isn’t the Caribbean down here, and the glacial melt water is about 2°C, Miles did some procrastinating before donning his semi-dry wetsuit, weight belt and air tank, and jumping in to have a quick look. When he surfaced, with Laura and me looking on, smiling hopefully, he gave us the bad news… the propeller was bent. Now this means one of two things, either we call back the climbers, and sail off back to Stanley then, or try and change it. The prop on Pelagic Australis is about 20inches across, and weighs about 60kg, so as you can imagine, this isn’t a single handed job. Fortunately for Laura and myself, we only had one flotation vest, so we could only have one (Miles) in the water. I’ll spare you the details of how we changed it, but after about 6 hours, we had a new propeller on. Whew. And it seemed to work when we put the engine in gear and gave it some beans. One more night in the anchorage, then we set off to look after the one remaining guest, and let him experience the wonderful island.

Having picked up the climbers, we plan was to head to the north of the island to go and see King Haakon bay, where Shackleton and his team landed after setting off from Elephant Island after their 18 months in the ice. Basically, it was windy, wavy, and crap holding, so after a quick zodiac tour, we headed on to a new anchorage, one Pelagic Australis had never entered before, but didn’t look to bad on the charts! We entered this bay, it was about one and a half boat lengths wide, but 10 boat lengths long, and the breeze coming from the south, this was ideal, we set the anchor, and celebrated the fact with a few bottles of wine. At three in the morning I was awoken by Laura running past my cabin, and informing me that we were dragging the anchor, oh shit. Foulies on and lift the anchor then. Apart from as usual, it couldn’t be quite that simple. The complication was a 30knot breeze coming from the opposite direction to what we had set in, with 50+ knots gusts coming off of the hills. And the anchor snagged on a rock. And the bow being blown off with every gust. Fun and games. Two sets later and we seemed to have a good holding, but we sat an anchor watch just to make sure, with the only anxious moments being when the wind backed and we were drifting closer and closer to rocks, so we just pulled in 20 metres of chain, whilst remaining vigilant.

That about sums up the dramas from that trip, we had a smooth enough ride home, although we had to dip south of the rhumb line to avoid a big low promising big winds, but we caught no more than about 45 knots, and we tied up in Stanley a couple of days before the clients left. The next day, baby Pelagic arrived, after acting as safety boat for a group of Norwegians who successfully circumnavigated South Georgia unsupported (ie no assistance other than in a real emergency) so to celebrate their arrival, we had them over for dinner, and shared stories of adventures, and had two long days and nights of drinking with them, concluding with a session which finished with bloody mary’s two hours before they got on their bus to the airport! And one serious hangover, but that was delayed by the few extra days of drinking with friends in the Falklands!

The Falklands are a windy set of islands, most days in Stanley harbour their seemed to be 25+ knots, so when we saw on the gribs of just red triangles, indicating 50+ knots overnight, we doubled all of our lines, and prepared for the worst. Luckily this time on the dock, we had a larger yacht on the inside, a 120 foot private yacht called Hortence, who acted as a bit of a wind break, although we still had 45knots in the lulls, and were sat for 24hours with 10-15deg of heel, only from the windage of the top half of the mast! The larger puffs of wind came through over night, and we were sitting a rope watch, checking regularly for chaff on lines, and checking for damage in general. Talking to the skipper of Hortence after, he informed us that the most he saw was 77knots, and we had about 3hours with an average of 65knots. Pretty drafty!

After the blow, we were waiting a couple of days for a decent few days weather forecast so that we could make our passage across to South America where we would be based for the rest of the season. We got the break we wanted, and had a comfortable sail across, stopping off in Puerto Williams, Chile, en route to make it easier politically to enter Argentina as they think that they own the ‘Malvina’s’ blah blah. After a few hours in Williams, we headed out into the Beagle Channel and hooked up with a French scientific research sailing yacht called Tara to share the compulsory (if you are over 50 tonnes) pilot into Ushuaia, which in itself is a bullshit rule, the pilot just sits there, talks, and drinks our coffee, but costs thousands of US$. Oh well, needs to be done. And that was the start of our Christmas, it basically involved being hosting and being invited to other yachts for evenings of drinking, including ours on Christmas Day, kicking off in the morning with bloody mary’s once again, and they are a definitely a good way to start the day! After a long day of drinking, we were invited onto Tara for dinner, and celebrated in the French way with lots of wine, frois gras, and duck confit. Yummy. Really good times. And the rest of our Christmas period was in the same kind of vein, working daytimes, drinking evenings, until we headed back down to Puerto Williams in time to pick up our guests on New Years Eve.

New Years day with surprisingly few hangovers we departed. We headed down the channels and set out across Drakes Passage with five Russians and an Italian. Drakes Passage has a notorious reputation, it is a shallow shelf with predominant westerly wind and waves which can circle the earth continuously and when the waves hit the shallower water, they can suddenly ramp up to monstrous proportions. Fortunately on our return crossings we didn’t see anything scary, we had a gentle breeze below 20knots all the way across and below 35 on the way back up, both trips with fairly calm seas. After two and a half days we saw land, the South Shetlands which lie off of the Antarctic Peninsula. I should probably note that we were also very fortunate that in our crossing we also didn’t see any icebergs, or even growlers. Our first stop was in the South Shetlands, a volcanic island called Deception. I have to say, sailing into the crater of a volcano is a pretty cool experience, and to add to this, we swam there too. I should probably add that i wasn’t the first one in the water, two of the Russian girls were. One of the toughest parts of my job so far must have been that afternoon, my duties were to chaperone (and photograph) two attractive Russians having a swim in a thermal spring. It’s a tough job but someone has to do it! The next morning we went further into the volcano and found a beach which was steaming, the water where the volcanic vents are is the temperature of a hot bath, but both the air temperature and the water away from the vents are closer to 3°C, pretty cold. From this beach we all had a swim. It was a very weird sensation to have part of you in the hot bath, and part in the very cold water, but anyway, I have swam in the Antarctic!

From Deception, it is about 100miles until the next interesting place, so we set off on an overnight passage, passing some icebergs the size of a house and bigger, and after literally a couple of hours of darkness, we saw white snow covered islands rising out of the water as well as glimpses of the Peninsula in the distance to the east. Our destination was one of the few places where you tie up alongside, although there was a twist, at Enterprise Island you tie up onto a wrecked whaling ship. After a day messing around in kayaks we headed further south, through Wilhelmina Bay which is a beautiful bay with vertical cliffs and glaciers surrounding, with the added bonus of a likelihood of seeing whales, it did not disappoint. Here we saw four humpback whales gracefully arching their backs and lifting their tails before diving down, amazing. As we pootled through the icebergs, nudging some of them aside and dodging the larger ones, we saw plenty of crabeater seals lounging around on the ice. Motoring on for a few more hours we started looking for our overnight stop, several of the potential spots were instantly ruled out by pack ice in the bays where we were intending to go, others because of the wind direction meaning ice could be blown in overnight. We ended up in Paradise Bay, where there are two bases, a Chilean and an Argentine, for the reasons mentioned just now, we chose to tie in (with a line off of each corner of the boat tied to rocks on the shore) near to the Argentine base. After a celebratory evenings drinking, we decided that we needed to set foot on the mainland, so off we set in the zodiac to see the Argentines, and here we had our feet on the Antarctic Peninsula for the first time, to celebrate this accomplishment in style we set of up the hill, and sat on the crest to enjoy the view and drink a bottle of champagne, before making the most of the snow and gravity and sliding down the hill on our arses!!

That afternoon we headed on down to Port Lockroy, the first British Antarctic Survey base, for a quick tour of the museum and to send some postcards, but the main reason for stopping was to allow us to get a good night sleep before heading further south to sail through the Lemaire Channel, a beautiful narrow channel with vertical cliffs on either side reaching 2000m towards the skies. Dodging icebergs in a blizzard was one of the fun activities that the day had in store for us, but luckily as we approached the entrance to the Lemaire, the snow stopped and we had blue skies allowing us to see the full glory, and the icebergs littering the channel! Our destination for the night was by another base, this time inhabited by Ukrainians. Crazy cigarette deprived Ukrainians who make their own vodka, which we were kindly invited to share, and, in a container, they have constructed a sauna which our Russians were very keen to try out. Nutters! For me though, the high point of this stop over was walking on the sea ice to have a closer look at some crabeater seals.

From Vernadski our plan was to head south to try and get to the Antarctic Circle where on the summer solstice the sun never sets. The first problem encountered was a huge amount of ice as we left the base, for about an hour we fought our way through with someone sat up on the spreaders trying to point out the best route, dodging and weaving around ice that varied in size from a small car up to a large house, definitely ones to try and avoid hitting, we don’t mind smaller ones glancing off of us, they tend to take a little anti-foul with them but don’t do any real damage. We eventually broke free of the ice and motored onwards until thwarted by another ice packed bay, this time I was sent up the mast to try and find a route for us to thread our way through, and we made it about an extra mile before we had to stop completely and try to reassess our position. We were aiming to go through a narrow passage which takes us into the Antarctic Circle, but this unfortunately was completely packed with ice, so we reached our most southerly point, 65°50S, 40 miles short of the Circle. Of course, we had to have a bottle of champagne to celebrate!

So, Detaille Island (within the Circle)… fail. Let’s go back north then. Over the next couple of days we made our way back north, stopping over night in various anchorages, enjoying perfect weather and walking in beautiful snowy locations. Whilst motoring on our way to the Melchior Islands we had a wonderful sunny day with blue skies, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to turn the engine off and drift while having lunch. Where we sat though, was about 100 metres from an iceberg the size of a block of flats. A stunning location for a spot of lunch, with entertainment supplied as well with gentoo penguins porpoising around us and with the clear water you could see their antics below the surface. This crystal clear water and warm sun was too good an opportunity to pass up on, and as I hadn’t had a shower for a few days it made sense, I went and changed, and dived off the stern. Fuck me the water was cold!! About 2°C. With an iceberg 100 metres away. I admit I was very hasty to get back on board! But seeing me shivering didn’t deter the two Russian men, they promptly stripped down and jumped in as well.

As we were approaching Melchior, a group of islands we planned to be our last stop before heading back to Puerto Williams, one of the guests spotted the spume of a whale in the distance, so we set off to follow, and suddenly we were treated to two groups of four humpback whales feeding. I immediately went back up the rig to be a spotter, and from there I could see where the whales were about to surface, either from seeing the shadows under the water, and on occasion, seeing a ring of bubbles created by the whales to encircle krill to drive them to the surface, with the humpback following with the mouth open. A stunning display to watch.

So finally we headed north, as I said much, much further back in the email, we had a pretty calm crossing, and in fact we ended up sailing too quickly! We averaged 10 knots which meant we got back to Cape Horn in darkness, we couldn’t have that so we sat hove-to about 30 miles to the east of the rock for a few hours so that we could view this landmark of sailing in daylight. Unfortunately the easterly winds that had been so kind to us on the up through the Drake meant that landing on the Horn was impossible, the swell would have put us all in danger, so we made do with doing a sail past. Going the tough way, east to west, not that many people have done that!! And from there it was back through the channels to Chile and Puerto Williams.

About David

David Roberts is the skipper of sailing yacht Pelagic, a charter expedition yacht working in Antarctica, South Georgia, the Falkland Islands, Tierra del Fuego and Cape Horn areas.
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