In November and December we are offering last minute trips around the Falkland Islands at great rates. The Falkland Islands have a lot to offer so whether you are interested in the wildlife, the conflict or just a holiday somewhere off of the beaten track, Pelagic offers a trip which can be tailored to you and your friends.
Please contact me for more information.
In November and December we are offering last minute trips around the Falkland Islands at great rates. The Falkland Islands have a lot to offer so whether you are interested in the wildlife, the conflict or just a holiday somewhere off of the beaten track, Pelagic offers a trip which can be tailored to you and your friends.
So, after a slightly round-about route, my crew Bertie Whitley and I arrived in Piriapolis to start preparing Pelagic for the season. There will be more on this soon, but for now we are working hard, and looking forward to heading back to the Falklands.
Antarctica in 3D
Waiting for 3d
So our Antarctic part of the season kicked off in Ushuaia on the 31st December, well was meant to. Our first trip was a 3D film project, trying to illustrate the changes due to global warming, and trying for the first time to chronicle Antarctica in three dimensions. The film guys flight was in fact delayed by 12 hours, so they turned up on the 1st January exhausted instead. This was to set the standard for the rest of the charter! After waiting for three days for a 3D underwater camera housing to turn up, including someone flying back up to Buenos Aries to try and persuade customs to release the housing, after talking to everyone in any kind of power position he had to admit defeat and found a flight back to Ushuaia letting us leave only a few days behind schedule.
Slow upwind Drake
Having been delayed and missing a perfect light wind weather window for the Drake Passage, we headed out down the Beagle Channel with 40 knots behind us. As soon as we found our way out into open water we were greeted with south westerlies, while not ideal they are not the worst that could happen either. With Skip (the boss) on board and in the watch system we started to plug into the wind, trying to make due south – sounds easy but our tacking angles aren’t too great and all we can really manage is going from reach to reach! Skip had done several (downwind) Whitbread races back in the 80’s, and it seems that this dictated the tactics for the crossing. If we wanted to have the wind forward of the beam, it had to be done while he was asleep or wasn’t watching! Running with the wind aft of the beam we ended up to the east of King George Island in the South Shetlands and facing an eighty mile bash upwind into 35 knots. It seemed that this could have been avoided to some extent but we were stuck with it struggling to make 6 knots motor sailing into the chop and breeze whilst avoiding brash ice in the semi dark.
When visibility lifted the next day came we were able to see Deception Island, our first stop and just before breakfast we dropped our anchor in the caldera of Whalers Bay. After inflating our zodiac and finding all of the camera equipment which had been safely stowed for the crossing, we dropped the guys off to suss out how things worked and to get some atmospheric shots of the old whaling base and chinstrap penguins emerging from the hot steam along the water’s edge. Many hours later, they were collected and after talking to them about their successes with the shooting we determined they were happy with the three minutes of footage from eight hours ashore! The next day we were greeted by favourable winds and so we headed out around the corner to Bailey’s Head, a site with one of the largest chinstrap penguin colonies in the South Shetlands. We landed the guys and afterwards sat in the pilot house with a cup of tea, suddenly just metres from the boat there was a spume, and after much staring, we saw a pair of humpback whales cruising around us. Laura and I jumped into the zodiac and went off to try and find them, zooming off around a headland where we saw them heading. Failing to find the whales we scouted out a beach which we had been informed was a failsafe landing beach for Bailey’s Head, it was and we ended up using this to collect everyone as the beach where we had dropped off the camera equipment had built up a reasonable surge.
From Deception we headed south, once again to Enterprise Island where we tie onto the wreck of the Governoren, a burnt out hulk of a Norwegian whaling factory ship. From here the crew spent another day filming icebergs and other bits and pieces whilst we were left on board cleaning and cooking.
Base Brown and Skontorp Cove
After a night at Enterprise Island we a little further south to Cuverville Island where there is a colony of Gentoo penguins, I took two of the team in the zodiac to recce the beach site, and to look at the colony and see if there were any chicks yet as this was a shot they were wanting. Unfortunately there were none, but instead there were some beautiful icebergs blown in and slowly breaking up. After using Pelagic Australis to shoot some footage of this from we found some brash ice to film our bows forcing the way through.
Heading on for the night we slogged out another few miles through brash ice and snow on our way to Base Brown, an Argentine research base and usually a stop for our first walk on the Antarctic Peninsula (proper!).
After a good night sleep we took off our shore lines and headed out into Skontorp Cove in the southeast of Paradise Harbour, here the aim was to film the magnificent ice cliffs of the glacier reaching the water. Here the kayaks (which had been shipped down especially for the filming project) got their first of many outings paddling in ‘bergs and the glaciers.
We spent a few days at Port Lockroy, formerly British Base A from a 1950’s project, now a museum and a post office run by the British Antarctic Heritage Trust, and the most popular tourist sight in Antarctica. Here we were joined by a cruise ship and the film team set up several time-lapses of people moving around the museum whilst they themselves took it in turns to dive on some of the whale bones in the lagoon behind the station. The water here is around 2°C with glaciers melting and calving into the lagoon, and as is typical with the glacial water it was slightly milky and at ten metres that meant that filming was hard work and unproductive. They next tried to film the underside of some of the icebergs which were floating close to us in the bay, again the milky water hindered natural light of the shots and so the director canned those efforts, despite the camera crew sure they could get the shots if they just used the underwater lights they had bought for that very reason.
With the film crew was our first time visiting Palmer Station on Anvers Island. This American scientific base was very different to Vernadsky (the Ukrainian base in the Argentine Islands) or the BAS stations we visit in South Georgia. The base itself has a much more serious feel to it; it is solely there for research and visiting it definitely felt like they were doing us a favour, despite the visit having been arranged months in advance and the film being made potentially raising more money for the research being carried out.
The base itself sat on a wide spit of rock emerging from a glacier, to the north side a bay with calving glaciers, to the south was the anchorage we used in a narrow creek which ran up to a glacier. Shortly after tying up the director went ashore with his cameramen to work out which shots they could get, mainly trying to cover research on the Peninsula as well as, to a lesser degree, humans using the area and how we cope. Shortly after they left the boat the tide changed and with it, the ice started to come! Soon there was a reasonable amount of brash ice all around us, with the occasional larger one thumping down the side of Pelagic Australis making Miles, Laura and I nervously jumped up to fend off each time, while Skip wasn’t bothered and said that was what the boat was built for!
The following day the film guys went ashore for their filming and with a new forecast bringing more wind than previously anticipated and from the opposite direction. Before this kicked in we span Pelagic Australis through 180° using only ropes to help us which proved an interesting but very cold couple of hours. After a cup of tea we headed over to the base as well for a tour, conducted by a dedicated tourism co-ordinator (on a base which discourages visits!); it was interesting seeing the set-up in contrast to our previous experiences. Every room in the base, itself a spacious facility for the 45 staff it houses, was kept unpleasantly warm despite being sub-zero outside, and with no natural light instead using halogen bulbs left permanently on one wonders about the contradictions of the research being conducted about how we have an effect on Antarctica whilst they are using vast amount of diesel and therefore emitting (the cause of global warming etc) greenhouse gases, not to mention warming the local environment by that seemingly insignificant amount. Even the water they use on base is not simple run-off or melted using the heat from somewhere else, they use a desalination plant instead, again using the generators rather than a more eco-friendly way.
French Passage and failing for Petermann and Vernadsky
A 270° image of the Penola Strait with ice surrounding us. On the left the Lemaire Channel to the north, the middle is to the south, and the right is out to sea towards the west.
After the guys had all of the footage that they required from Palmer we headed down towards the Lemaire Channel, hoping it had opened up more than a few days previously. On approach it was obvious that it was still chocked up with large pieces of ice as well as a constant carpet of first year ice. There is an alternative route south to the Lemaire Channel; it is to go to the outside of Booth Island and any subsequent islands until you can find a way into the Penola Strait. On this instance we headed past Booth, through a few brash belts with hard multi-year ice mixed in with the softer first year ice, past Hovgaard Island, finally entering the Penola through French Passage, an entrance to the south of Petermann Island where Charcot wintered on the vessel Porquoi Pas? in 1909. Here it still looked quite full of ice but Skip was determined to see the Adelie penguins which call the tiny Yalour Islands (in the middle of the Penola) their home. Unfortunately we were unable to make it all the way to the islands, we got about a quarter of the way there before the engine cooling system filled with slushy ice, restricting how much raw water was able to get to the engine to perform its duty. The engine was stopped for a short while to scoop out as much of the ice as possible before promptly heading back out towards the relative safety of French Passage and back north towards an anchorage named Pleneau just to the south of Booth Island and the Lemaire Channel.
Pleneau and Hovgaard, playing football on the sea ice and watching the sunset
We anchored in time for the film crew to head out and do a recce for the morning’s shots whilst we prepared dinner. After dinner it was shaping up to be a perfect sunset, so Miles, Laura and I headed to the nearest high point on Hovgaard Island to try and gain the best view. This was probably our first time ashore by ourselves of the trip which helped make it a special moment, together with the first time in the trip we had seen the setting sun lighting up the sky with wonderful oranges and pinks. The following morning the film crew headed off to get their shots of penguins in the small colony that resides on Pleneau Island. The other shot they managed to achieve was staged clip of Skip and the grip (the film worlds’ dogs-body) climbing up the virgin slope to view the perfect panorama of the west side of the Booth Island, panning around to see the ice choking the Penola Straits, and looking out over grounded tabular icebergs towards the sea, and coming back to the north and seeing the spectacular pool known as the Iceberg Graveyard to the yachts, this area collects tabular ‘bergs which are disintegrating contained by the rocky islands at the northern perimeter.
Whilst they were off shooting those left on board, the three of us and Shawn (the grip) investigated how solid the sheet of ice which stopped us tying in where usually we would have. It turned out that the sheet was about 20cm deep, plenty strong enough to walk on and being large and perfectly flat, we decided that it would be a perfect space to have a little kick-around on. We happened to have a football on board, and as luck would have it, it was a bright yellow and so easy to spot as it was flying towards you. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, partly just the freedom, partly in doing something so unexpected; it was one of my best memories of that trip and possibly of Antarctica so far. The ice wasn’t quite as solid as we had first thought though. As the morning progressed and the day warmed up we found our footsteps going through the snow, and starting to find the clear ice below, and disturbingly starting to fill up with water. With that it was time to head back to the boat and put back on our serious faces!!
Lockroy – leopard seals eating zodiacs
So, Antarctica again. It was an uneventful crossing so I will leave it at that, instead I will take you straight to Port Lockroy and the preparations for the clients’ expedition.
Just before dropping the climbers and whilst still in Lockroy we had just collected some ice for some drinks and had left the zodiac in the water for half an hour. Next time someone went outside the floats were looking a little flat and by the time it was lifted it was apparent that the tanks had been punctured. Upon inspection we saw that it was a leopard seal that had tried to eat the zodiac!! There were multiple bites in each float. Time to deflate this zodiac properly and inflate the spare one. After this incident as soon as the dinghy was finished with, even if it was to be used again half an hour later, we would lift it back out of the water and out of reach of a hungry mouth!
Dropping them off, Peltier’s Crack and the drag
We headed off to an anchorage on the south end of Doumer Island, in the Peltier Channel just south of Port Lockroy. Named Peltiers Crack by a former skipper of Pelagic Australis the anchorage is a little nook in which we could tuck in, seemingly securely. Here we enjoyed a lovely sunset, sat on the glacier with a beer in hand, close to perfection! The next day was a bit of a write off being sub-zero and snowing so we got on with some indoor jobs. The following day was glorious, brilliant blue skies and sunshine so we all three went for a walk over the hill and back to a penguin colony and an abandoned base. When we returned to the boat, we could see over the hill the mast at a strange angle so we hurried along. As we came down lower we could see that PA wasn’t where she was meant to be, where we had tied her in. We zodiac’d back to the boat and it was clear that she was on the beach bouncing up and down. Oops. Anyway, we found new rocks to tie onto and wound her off without any issue or damage caused. All good. We then went rapidly went back to Port Lockroy for safety!!
After giving the boat a thorough spring clean, we picked up the climbers. Meeting them on the beach with champagne they were rightly in a jubilant mood, they had become only the second group to ascend Mount Agamemnon, a mountain opposite Port Lockroy. One of our climbers, Diego (a mountain guide from the Italian Dolomites) also soloed the summit of Mount Francais, the highest peak on the northern Peninsula from a new route.
Port Stephen – walking, Indian village, penguins (rockhoppers, gentoos, magellanics)
Departing Stanley and on our way to Ushuaia (for Christmas and to prepare for our upcoming Antarctic Peninsula trips) we had planned a couple of days in hand. We had decided that we wanted to try and visit somewhere on the west island of the Falklands, and with a ‘native’ friend from a farm on the southernmost corner recommending that we visit her parents, we headed off to Port Stephen. Only an 18 hour motor sail from Stanley, we arrived to the entrance of the enclosed bay at dawn, greeted by a fog restricting the visibility to about a boat length. We felt our way in using the radar and depth sounder, anchoring off the settlement in time for breakfast.
With the visibility improving we set of in the zodiac to the settlement, tying onto the old jetty and went for a wander around. The first thing that strikes you as you step ashore on West Falkland is how different it is from the East, certainly from my experience limited to within a few miles of Stanley. To start with there is geography! There are hills worthy of the title! The land around is also greener, less like the peaty moorland that characterises the area around Stanley.
After our brief stroll we went in search of the owners of the farm, Peter and Ann. We were aware that it was shearing season and so we started off checking the wool shed. Having not seen a wool shed in the UK, I was surprised by the vast size, easily 400metres long, 200metres wide it was an impressive sight. We found our hosts and were promptly invited for dinner in the farmhouse.
Over a warm, friendly dinner we found out about the inhabitants, the farm (maybe it should be referred to as a station as it covers around 30,000 hectares), the surrounding area and its’ surprising quantity of wildlife, as well as life in such a remote place.
Over the years with mechanisation and the pull of town life, the stations population has dwindled from having 20 or so permanent workers (in the summer the population could more than double with the appearance of the travelling shearers) to just two, with both of them in their late 60’s. The station has retained a similar number of sheep despite the lack of workers, around 10,000 head, which the four visiting shearers managed to complete in just three days.
Opposite the farmhouse on the seaward side of the peninsula that shelters the houses we were told was a penguin colony, a new species to us, one not found in South Georgia or the Antarctic Peninsula, the Rockhopper. We took the zodiac across to a beach nearer the colony and had a wander. From a distance we had seen a strange rock formation, looking like a series of hay stacks the weather beaten rocks are eroded into many strange shapes looking like a perfect child’s playground. Up close it was equally wonderful, the Indian Village as it is known, was a series of sandstone formations, eroded by the salty westerly winds forming lots of nooks and crannies, used by nesting birds, and by us as we scrambled up on to the tops of a few looking and finding the amazing view.
In the lee of one of the rock formations there was a Gentoo penguin colony, one we are familiar with seeing both in South Georgia and on the Antarctic Peninsula. What we found interesting though was that these were completely unused to being visited by people and much more skittish and keen to run away. The penguins we see elsewhere, however much of a wilderness we think they reside in, they are frequently visited by people, either tourists from yachts or cruise ships, or from the scientists who often camp alongside them whilst studying them. These though, if visited at all by people, would also be interrupted by dogs and sheep; maybe it was this which made them much shyer than their Sub-Antarctic brothers.
Carrying along around the coast on the seaward side looking for the Rockhoppers we came across a beach exposed to the predominant westerlies, and strewn with timber and fishing floats. The timber being a slight surprise given that the southern part of South America, certainly the areas we visit and the nearest land to the island, has trees but definitely not of the size of these washed up ones.
Eventually, after almost giving up, we came across the colony we were looking for. Climbing out of the crashing surge onto rocks and coming up the steepest part of the hillside around we spotted the train of penguins, hopping up the hillside in their comical way. The Rockhoppers have the same yellow eyebrows as seen on macaroni penguins, although unlike the macaroni’s it isn’t continuous. We sat observing the interactions between the individual penguins, watching them climb up the cliff, or coming close full of intrigue to check us out; for an hour or so we just watched.
Unfortunately that was all the time we had, we had a short window of fair weather in which time we had to reach Ushuaia and start preparing for the joint excitements of Christmas and our first Antarctic charter of the season. I won’t go into details of the Christmas celebrations, partly because I can’t remember all, partly because I shouldn’t incriminate…!! It was a fun period and great seeing friends again.
Our arrival back to South Georgia was one which is considered to be typical for the island. We rounded Shag Rocks, 100 miles west-north-west of SG in calm weather, 20 knots and a nice long swell, we were also treated to having the company of a sei whale playing in the surf alongside us. We left the rocks astern and were lifted further and further as we approached SG and the wind was steadily building. As dawn came and we were about 10 miles off of the rugged coastline (which was shrouded in mist) we put in a gybe which took us fairly well north to pass in between several of the off-lying islands. As I came off watch the wind had built to a steady 38knots, by the time I next came “on deck” (I use the phrase loosely as we in fact have a large pilot house so I only need to brave the elements for a ciggie or to put in a reef) we had over 50knots and were reaching along the north shore of the island heading to our first anchorage, Rosita Harbour. On our charge along the coast we could only catch glimpses of the alpine scenery of craggy mountain tops and blue tinted glaciers through the fog, mainly having to believe the radar and the charts that less than a mile to the south was land. We were also trying to decide on the radar which were wave crests giving reflections, and which were icebergs. Scary stuff at times, but far worse in a black moonless night like the previous one.
We rounded the headland which was to provide us with shelter for our first night in South Georgia, hoping to come into the lee and take a break from the 35-45knots we were seeing outside. Initially our wishes were granted and we dropped the main and lashed it to the boom in just 15knots, a big relief. Whilst sat on the boom securing the last sail-tie there was a call of “williwaw” and glancing up there was a visible white swirl of driven spray coming at us, dancing along the crests of waves. When it hit us, we heeled over 15 degrees just from the force of the wind on the bare mast, this one was only a small one, a mere 50 knots, as we motored upwind for two miles to make it to the anchorage we were battered by gusts which literally tried to blow you off of your feet. Setting the anchor in these conditions was a tough job, twice we dragged and so we decided to head to a slightly more sheltered looking bay a mile to the south, it was marginally more sheltered, we anchored metres off of the beach in as shallow water as we dared with as much chain out as we could afford, it was to be a sleepless night for us the crew as we slightly nervously stood anchor watches waiting for the wind to change direction and put us too close for comfort to the rocks on three sides of the boat!
After sending the clients ashore for a quick leg stretch we headed to Prion Island to see the wandering albatross on their nests. At this time of year there are quite a lot of fur seals ashore at this time of year, the bulls have been around for a few weeks to stake their claim for the prime territories, and the females slowly follow to give birth and shortly after to mate. As we pulled up to the beach in our zodiac we were greeted by the testosterone charged males who saw us as a threat to their dominance and tried to fend us off. After much backtracking and dodging of bulls growling and bearing their teeth at us we got through and up onto the walkway taking us up to the nest sites, here too were more bulls (less dominant though as they have to head further from the prime sites) reluctant to let us pass unhindered, but after some cajoling we got past them. At the top of the walkway you are afforded some wonderful views out over the Bay of Isles, as well as the majestic beauty of wandering albatross wheeling around above our heads and the courting dances amongst the tussock. In some of the nests there were also some young albatross, still covered in their downy feathers looking quite dissimilar to their elegant parents. Last year there was one wanderer chick sat less than a metre from the path, we were disappointed to see that it had fledged this time, but there was an adult sat there instead hopefully on a new egg.
On heading back down the track to the beach we were greeted by a bloodbath that reminds you of a Tarentino movie! In our absence a couple of bull fur seals must have had a disagreement over who’s turf it was and set about taking chunks out of each other. Sat close to the zodiac was one who had blood dripping from his mouth as well as from areas of his neck, seeing as he was the only blood drenched one around we must assume that he was the victor and his competitor must have been in a far worse state.
From Prion Island we headed down the coast towards Cumberland Bay, in one of the fjords the government of South Georgia reside along with a British Antarctic Survey team in King Edward Point. We were interested in the west arm which is where we were to drop off two climbers whose purpose of coming down was to reach the so far virgin summit of Mount Nordenskjold. Having negotiated a little brash and a few bergy bits we got within reach of where Crag and Richard wanted to be dropped off, we loaded up the zodiac with some of their gear and went to look at landing them. The landing wasn’t to be that easy as all along the beach front there were lumps of grounded ice so finding a gap on the surging beach with the heavily laden zodiac was to make things more interesting. Two or three runs later we had dropped the gear without drama and so with no more we could do we abandoned them and went to King Edward Point where we could all have a good night sleep (after a bottle of wine or two).
Walking – Maivkyn, Mt Hodges
Bright and early the next morning we were up and about planning what to do with ourselves until we had to collect the climbers up to a week later. It was decided that the guests wanted a mixture of wildlife and walking. After packing some cheese and biscuits we set off walking over to another beach over the hill into the next valley to look for a Gentoo colony. We got distracted from that task when we reached the beach, instead we found some fur seals which had pupped within the last 24 hours, much more pleasant company than their grown up counterparts. In Maivkyn, the bay and beach we had walked to, we spent some time exploring, finding a sealers cave and exploring that before meandering our way back through the tussock onto the steep scree slopes back towards the boat. Coming over the final crest we were greeted by the sight of a cruise ship anchored in the bay and a flock of “yellow penguins” waddling around the whaling station. These yellow penguins turned out to the cruise ship guests, and a number of them were stood near the dock admiring Pelagic Australis, amongst these was the ships expedition leader (EL) who in fact was coming on our first Antarctic charter. We invited him on for a beer and a chat; he was in fact an entertaining Kiwi with many tales to tell and after several more beers we were invited onto his ship for dinner. The catch with this was we had to mingle and Miles had to give a 10 minute talk on being a yacht skipper in the sub-Antarctic regions. With a gin and tonic in hand we wandered around talking to people and answering questions, most commonly how did we cope on such a small boat and wasn’t it dangerous? With question time over we all headed to the dining room were we sat down to a rather bland meal. Half way through our starter, Graham the EL, had a message on his vhf from the captain saying that the anchor was dragging and only be able to hang around for 30 minutes more. Our main courses arrived and we as soon as we had started, we were told we had to leave! After being dropped back to Pelagic Australis, we proceeded to have a few bottles of wine and discuss how lucky we were to be on a small (74 foot) yacht exploring the wonderful areas rather than being herded like sheep through the variety of locations.
The following day (rather hungover) we headed off for another walk, this time we had a goal in mind: we were going to get a summit of our own. We set off up the hill behind KEP, towards the lake where the base gets its water from, and around behind the mountain we aimed to climb. As we rapidly ascended we came to a point where the easy climbing ceased and the shale started. After over an hour of tramping up the shale, making two steps forward and sliding one step back, we came to a ridge with more solid looking rock. We looked up and there was the bay, and we were very close to the scary over hang! But still a few metres to go to the top. We came on to the summit, clear above everything else close by and looked out, what a view: out over Cumberland Bay, looking down on the whaling station and Pelagic Australis. What a way to blow away the hangover!
We headed onto St Andrews beach, one with incredible quantities of wildlife including hundreds of thousands of king penguins. We waded across the glacial melt stream (which separates the only safe landing place and the penguin nursery) and headed into the thick of it. Once in amongst the penguins it is so easy to waste many hours, and we duly did! Sitting watching the interactions of parents and chicks, juveniles wandering around in gangs, chicks wandering around looking lost without a parent beside them, or parents returning from the sea ready to regurgitate a krill supper for their eager chick; the whole scene happening around you is an awesome experience and you do truly appreciate how fortunate you are to be there.
Gold then Ocean Harbour including a swim
The next stop was for us Gold Harbour, another beautiful penguin beach, smaller than St Andrews but more intimate as you arrive on the beach and you are straight in the thick of nursery. Here we had a dawn landing; we were fortunate that for the third time in three trips we have tried, the gods have obliged and given us the perfect clear start to the day. Seeing the morning sun lighting up the beach and the thousands of penguins is another wonderful experience. Before the weather closed in we headed up above the cliffs to where there are lightly mantled sooty albatrosses nesting. We were lucky enough to be able to sit on the edge of the cliff and watch these graceful birds performing their aerial acrobatics and courtship games right in front of us, and provide us with the finale of coming in to land on a tiny ledge on a vertical cliff.
Onto Ocean Harbour we headed, a small nook where one of the first whaling stations on the island was set up. From here we went for a bit of a leg stretch, heading off on a short hike to see a small colony of Gentoo penguins perched on a saddle between two hills. With the rain starting to set in we headed back towards the boat, interrupting a herd of reindeer and sending them galloping back into the hills. With the rain turning to sleet and not looking to let up, we opened a few beers and promptly set about putting the world to rights!
The next morning bought with it clear blue skies, and with the climbers due to be back at the pick-up point it was decided that the guys would walk over the hill to meet them, only four or five miles, but you would gain enough height to have a wonderful view over Cumberland Bay and over the mountains behind. With such a glorious day and (relatively) warm water a few of us decided to jump in and have a quick swim before lunch, it was actually quite pleasant the splash, 5°C rather than the chilly 3°C of the more common bays filled by glacial melt water. After an al-fresco lunch Miles and I watched Laura and the guests leave, before pulling up the anchor and motoring around to join them in Cumberland Bay.
Success for climbers
When we arrived at the arranged beach for the pick-up of both the climbers and our walkers, we could see neither. After closer inspection with binoculars we made out the shapes of the climbers snoozing on the beach in the heat of the sun, and our greeting party were strolling along the beach further along. We launched the zodiac and I went ashore to start collecting everyone and all of the gear the climbers had required.
We had been talking to the climbers every day – to update them on the weather predictions as well as to keep tabs on how they were getting on. A couple of days prior to the pick-up we had received the news that they had successfully summited Mount Nordenskjold; it had been achieved in a twenty hour push from a camp well below the summit with the climb being much tougher than expected, the brittle ice and knife-edge ridges making things challenging. After a rapid decent with their tent and all the gear they had carted around with them, our guys were waiting for us on the beach ready for a shower, a cold beer and a roast dinner. Congratulations to Crag Jones and Richard Spillett for conquering Nordenskjold!
Husvik and Stromness for the Shackleton walk
After another day spent in Grytviken we headed back north along the coast stopping in Stromness Bay home to the three largest whaling stations on South Georgia. We anchored off of the southernmost of these, Husvik. A brave group decided to brave the williwaws and sleety showers which the afternoon had come to, and went off for a walk up to a lake which up until a few years ago had been bounded by a glacier. Crag who had been harbourmaster for KEP in the late ‘80’s had known the lake quite well and was hugely surprised to see it completely dry and with the glacier retreated another half mile back up its’ fjord.
The following day we went within the same bay to Stromness Harbour, to walk (the wrong way!) the final part of Shackleton’s epic journey back to Fortuna Bay. After having his ship crushed and sink in ice whilst trying to sail across the Antarctic, working their way north trying to find salvation and ending up floating on pack ice to the remote Elephant Island, being forced to leave most of his team there while he and a select few set off with extremely slim odds of success to try and raise the alarm in South Georgia 1000miles away travelling in a 25foot open boat with rocks in the bottom to try give extra ballast. Amazingly they made it, largely down to Worsley’s astounding navigation, with one sun-sight managing to find the needle in the haystack of the Southern Ocean, with Worsley adamant that the island was charted in the wrong place, and he was correct!! After reaching the west coast of the island they still had to cross the spine of the island over high mountains and glaciers to find a place they last saw more than 18 months before. They managed it, crossing from King Haakon Bay to Fortuna Bay, finding that there was no whaling station there, and carrying on to Stromness Harbour and raising the alarm. The rescue party managed to get to Elephant Island and few if any lives were lost.
Our section of the walk was going from Stromness to Fortuna, nowhere near as epic, but a challenging enough stroll up shale slopes onto a ridgeline which looked out over both bays, passing the point where Shackleton and his guys heard the whistle from the whaling station and realised they were safe, the waterfall Shackleton and co abseiled down, Crean Lake and down over to Fortuna Bay.
Our final stop of the trip was another penguin beach, this time towards the north eastern of the island, called Salisbury Plain. Of my three trips to South Georgia, this was my first time on the beach having stayed on board previously to do the day to day tasks. I had previously been reluctant to explore this beach because the backdrop is less spectacular than some of the others, and the beachfront is quite long, meaning you don’t get the intimacy of some others that we visit. In its’ own right though, this is another awesome place! We landed near a stream and followed it around towards the colony, weaving our way through fur seals and the occasional elephant seal, still not quite made it back to sea. We came right into the middle of the nursery, amongst the king penguin chicks in their fluffy brown down and these were the nosiest ones we had seen, after sitting down for a few minutes a gang of chicks came to explore us, gradually making their way up to us before one of us twitched and they turned and waddled away. Their confidence building they did make it to us and in their funny way they were checking us out. The method used by the chicks is to lean their head on one side and present you with one eye, then stretch to get in closer, occasionally over-balancing, before deciding that it was a bit too brave and backing off again. This game continued until the weather started to close in and we were forced back to the boat.
This ended our South Georgia portion of the season, and we set off heading north west with the amazing backdrop of the island staying with us until dark.
So, I am now into my 2011/12 season and I guess it is time to write another email/essay. This season kicked off in Cape Town where we spent the best part of a week finishing the jobs from the refit, nothing particularly exciting but all essential I guess. All work completed and ready to go – we had cleared customs and immigration, the boat was all stowed for sea etc – we were about to head to the fuel dock to get the 7000+ litres of diesel needed to fill the tanks when we were told that the owner of the fuel dock had fallen out with the supplier and therefore only had 300 litres, not much use to us obviously so some frantic phoning around was required from Skip Novak (the boss) to see what we could organise. After waiting for most of the day it finally turned up, and after two hours of standing holding the pump nozzle in the fillers we were ready to set off.
The weather for departure was pretty good, a gentle south westerly had us sailing pleasantly towards the sunset, and looking back to see Table Mountain illuminated with various strobe lights was almost a relief. After a couple of hours and setting the tone for the rest of the transatlantic the wind veered and forced us to head south west, away from the desired route which would take us north into the light easterly winds of the St Helena high. We were eventually able to tack over and get back towards the northerly track and the winds eased as we got into the high pressure zone. So the short version (all I will bother you with) is that the high pressure zones were a long way north, every time we tried to get a little south into the course cutting some miles off of the trip to the Falklands we got onto the top of a low and were then faced with big headwinds, frequently 40 knots or more. We did have 12 hours of slamming into 60 knots hard on the breeze, the least pleasant part of it for me was being out on deck to wrestle the mainsail down, for Magnus (the skipper for the trip) it was going out along the boom to lash the sail down.
In Cape Town one of our sponsors, Quantum Sails, had made us a new headsail. As the trip was progressing and having used it in some breeze the front edge was stretching and requiring us to put more tension on the halyard every few days. One of these times having decided to really crank on the tension it was my turn to do the winding. Unfortunately for me, the 10mm spectra halyard broke. And whipped me in the eye. Ouch. And quite a lot of cursing!
Three weeks later we made it into Stanley and began sorting out Pelagic Australis ready for our first full charter of the season, a trip with ten ski adventurers heading to South Georgia to follow in Ernest Shackleton’s famous footsteps and cross the north end of the island. At the first opportunity, the Thursday, I went to see the hospital to get them to check out my eye. After a lot of poking and prodding the doctor with the most eye knowledge could see there was damage at the back of my eye and told me I should go back to the UK to get it checked out more thoroughly. “Fine” I told him, “I will be heading back in about nine months, I will get it checked out when I get home”. He didn’t agree. He rang up the agents there and then to try and get me onto the plane which left for the UK the next day. There were no spaces for then, but on the Saturday there were, so back home I flew thinking it wouldn’t be so bad to have a couple of weeks off. I went straight to Oxford where the specialist I was advised to visit was based, got the all clear and headed home.
After informing Skip (boss) and the Miles (skipper of PA) that I had the all clear from the doc, Skip suggested that I head down to Uruguay to help work on the original Pelagic before heading back to the Falklands to re-join Pelagic Australis. Six days was all I had back in the UK, 36 hours after talking to the travel agent I was heading to Piriapolis for three weeks to help on here refit. I’m not going to go into detail here, but Uruguay is a really nice place, very friendly and laid back and well worth the visit, it was almost worth damaging my eye to go and see it!! We finished the refit within two weeks and once the other crew arrived had a night on the town before heading off for the delivery.
It was interesting to sail on the little boat, to see how an 80’s sailing legend thought an expedition yacht should be like. (Skip and a few friends had talked about the design of a yacht suitable for cruising the Antarctic Peninsula whilst on the rail racing Drum around the world in the ‘85 Whitbread, she was finally drawn and built in 1989 to Skip’s specification.) She did seem to work, there was logic in everything, sometimes hard to see but it was there! She sailed along very comfortably, everything worked and as a result a lot of the things have been scaled up and used on PA, my home for the next 9 months. We got into Stanley and I moved back onto PA and started working on her that day, getting ready for the next charter which started 6 days later.
Another couple of months have passed since my last newsletter and it is probably time to check in again. We have just returned from a trip around the Beagle Channels and before that was a second trip to Antarctica.
Antarctica was just as amazing the second time around, although to an extent we weren’t as lucky as the first, the weather just wasn’t quite playing ball. Usually the lows pressure systems which build around the south Pacific and then track east and through Drake’s passage pushed north by the Antarctic high keeping the Peninsula in a high with little wind. In February though this wasn’t the case with lots of lows coming down and creating unsettled weather and the occasional big winds. These big winds limited our options a little at times, once we had to abort heading south because of the 45knot headwinds which make tying into an anchorage really hard work and potentially dangerous. Later in the trip we managed to get into a new anchorage, one untried by us and only known about by one other yacht. This anchorage looked pretty bulletproof for the 40 knot north westerly which was forecast, but maybe a little exposed to anything from south of west. So when the forecast wind did build, and swung to southwest and continued to build we did get a little nervous. Instead of the usual four lines that we use to tie in with (one from each corner of the boat) we actually had seven!! The 40 knots would have been nice as well. What actually came through was probably closer to 70 knots, luckily though we weren’t able to know exactly because of the anemometer not reading above 45 knots. We were happy though when after a nervous night of checking the lines when daylight came, the wind eased back and we weren’t parked on a beach.
One thing of note that we didn’t see to the same extent on the first trip was whales feeding. And not just a couple. We saw four groups of whales coming up vertically and closing their mouths around huge areas of krill, we were close enough to see the pink of the krill through the humpbacks extended membranes under their chins. It was amazing to watch and we just cruised from pod to pod observing them often within a boat length of us. From here we set out heading north back to Puerto Williams in the best weather window we could hope for, although this wasn’t what we actually got. As we left the humpbacks behind us, the wind gently built in my watch, and by the time i was off duty we had sails up and the engine off. Through the night the wind built and built, luckily it was behind us but there was still up to 60 knots and lumpy seas which wiped out quite a few of the guests. This did pass without any damage to the guests or to Pelagic Australis, but we did hear when we got back into port that others weren’t quite so fortunate and a friend of ours did blow out a staysail and was knocked down.
Our next trip was around the Beagle Channels, and the guests on this trip were a bunch of hardcore Aussie sailors who between them had over 100 Sydney-Hobart races under their belts. And they liked drinking. A lot. We had a wish list that had them averaging 1.5 bottles of wine per person, per night over the 14 day charter. As well as beers and spirits. They did a pretty good job of polishing most of it off by the end of the trip which is a really good effort considering the trip was cut short to 10 days for several of the guests having to get back to Australia and Hong Kong for business meetings.
We left sleepy Puerto Williams in brilliant sunshine and with no westerly wind to battle into, very unusual for the Beagle (some of the guests were even sunbathing/sleeping off hangovers on the foredeck), and set off west past Ushuaia and onto our first anchorage in Bahia Yendegaia. In this bay there is an estancia, a ranch, where the gaucho (cowboy) lives and his job here is to control the numbers of wild cattle and wild horses which roam the 30,000 hectares he patrols. When he is in the estancia, not in his hut two days ride away, he is kind enough to invite us to visit, and through the season we will treat him and his girlfriend Anemie to an assado (bbq) with the cordero (lamb) that we carry on each trip. It turns out that Jose is an expert with the assado, he cut the lambs in half and put each half on a spit on each side of the fire, attentively overseeing the cooking and marinading over the few hours it took, delivering at the end some of the best lamb i have eaten which was so incredibly tender and flavoursome. The next day he also took us out riding on some of the wild horses he has caught and broken in the past. The amazing thing was that the saddles and the bridles were all made by Jose himself, the saddles made of leather he has prepared from the wild cattle he has previously caught and butchered, and sheepskins to add comfort. The ride he took us on had us crossing rivers of glacial melt water which was deep enough to force you to lift your feet to avoid a soaking, winding up the valley, through woods with barely a track where you have to hang off of the horses neck to avoid colliding with low branches, keeping going until we reached a beaver dam where some of the guys went fishing. It was a wonderful day, tough on some of the guests who hadn’t ridden before, and unfortunately the fish weren’t biting so dinner wasn’t the original plan, i suppose you can’t have it all.
Caletta Olla was the next stop only a short hop west, we tied in here and within minutes we had our first sightings of an Andean Condor. The condor landed on the beach and searched around old assado pits looking for scraps whilst everyone was hanging off of the stern happy snapping away. The guests went ashore for a walk and i was left to do the cleaning on the boat, and also to prepare the centolla net that we have acquired for these trips which i then set with a fender as the pot marker. After being caught in a snow storm the guests returned and over the vhf we received a tsunami warning. We sent off some emails and the guests with satellite phones rang home to find out what it was all about. The information we received told us that the wave if any would reach us between 3 and 10 the next morning. After discussing strategies we sat an anchor watch waiting for a substantial change in the depth of water and the wave that would follow but luckily all we saw was a 40cm drop in the water level.
After the fortunate lack of drama of the tsunami we took in our lines and got ready for departure to the next bay, whilst the anchor was being lifted i went off in the zodiac to collect the crab pot and see if we had any lunch. Luckily we did, in the pot we had about a dozen centolla or king crab with long legs with delicious meat. One of the guests, a seafood consultant in California, helped Miles to prepare the crab for our lunch which was fantastic, there is always something special about food which you catch yourself and is so fresh and everyone enjoyed it immensely. The next anchorage was in Seno Pia, a fjord which splits into two and we chose the east arm to start with so in we went and tied in. At the head of this fjord there are two glaciers which tumble into the water, both of them carve frequently so we inflated the two kayaks and the guests set off up towards the glacier and i followed in the zodiac. Close to the glacier there was a fair bit of brash which had to be weaved through, and we headed to the beach where we could sit and wait for some ice to fall off which duly obliged giving a spectacular sight and roar as a lump bigger than a car fell off and hit the water sending out a wave which was larger than our experience of the tsunami!
The next morning we went around to the west arm and took Pelagic all the way up to the glacier at the head of the fjord and sat amongst the brash whist we had lunch and having team photos in front of the glacier. After lunch we motored back along the fjord to an anchorage where we tied in with four lines and once again set the crab pot hoping for tomorrows lunch before sitting down with a whiskey perfectly accompanied by some popping glacier ice we had collected.
Picking up the crab pot we had an even more successful haul than the previous time. We had some monster centolla and even had to throw some back as we had too many! We then went onto Seno Garabaldi, another fjord which has a permanent collection of South American sealions. We had a zodiac tour to watch them playing and hear them bellowing. It was strange to see them playing in amongst the trees, not the terrain that you would expect to see seals. From Garabaldi we headed to a bay known amongst a few people as Caletta Wow due to its stunning views and a glacier you can walk up to and touch. Properly known as Caletta Coloane, we went exploring. The first move was to take the zodiac up towards the glacier. The glacier has retreated so it doesn’t come down to the water, you have to climb up over a rocky ridge to find the glacier. When we got up to it, you could walk under the overhanging lip or scramble onto the edge of the glacier itself for the photos. In the afternoon Laura led Miles and a couple of guests on a walk up onto the top of the hill behind the yacht, on the way to the beach they were joined by a pod of Chilean dolphins which swam around and were uncharacteristically friendly. The ‘straight-forward’ walk the guests were sold ended up anything but, it started with a bit of bush-wacking trying to force their way through the low level trees, followed by a scramble up some near vertical scree, but the view they were apparently greeted with made it all worth while.
That evening we headed out of Bahia Cook on the western side of the Beagle to aim for Cape Horn, a 120 mile overnight passage which had the hardcore yachties excited. We had a stunning sunset followed by a cracking breeze, a steady 30 knots from the south west which unfortunately backed and dropped through the night and into the early morning resulting in us being unable to sail efficiently an requiring the engine on to complete the passage past the famous cape. The advantage of this was that with no wind we were able to complete a landing on the island, an unexpected bonus for the guests who would have been content just by sailing past, but to land on this iconic landmark was the icing on the cake. I was fortunate enough to be the one chosen to lead the shore party, so i donned a drysuit to let me do the surf landing on the beach (even in no wind Isla Hornos always has a surge and a really steep beach making for a tricky landing) and we walked up to the lighthouse and were shown around the lighthouse and chapel by the lighthouse keeper, before having our passports stamped.
Cape Horn completed we sailed on to an anchorage close by and dropped the hook in the lee of an island with a reported gold mine on. After discussing this over a few glasses of wine, it was decided that we would have to go and look into this, we landed by the alcamar (coastguard) station and were told that it was about a two hour walk, and that the armada representatives dog would show us the way! The dog actually did do a really good job and we should have trusted him more! He did run around in circles a few time and chase ducks, but he did indeed get us to the mine but unfortunately for us, we couldn’t find any ingots lying around or even an exposed vein.
This was our last stop before a few of the guests had to head off home to make meetings and the like, but the ones that remained took us out to the Micalvi, a sunken supply vessel which acts as a pontoon where we all raft out from, as well as doubling up as the armada officers club and yacht club bar. Lots of piscos that night, and plenty of sore heads the next morning, but a good time was had by all.
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.
So, my first trip is over, what is there to say other than I am bloody lucky! This is fantastic part of the world, filled with interesting people, stunning scenery, and extraordinary wildlife.
The whole trip I think we were very lucky, starting off with winds that weren’t that extreme for the Southern Ocean, 45 knots at most but all up the chuff so no biggie. From the starting point of Stanley we headed east on a long, easy swell, arriving in Grytviken (about a mile from South Georgia’s capital of KEP) in blizzard conditions tying up to the only quay on the island. We all felt that we deserved the bottle of wine opened on arrival! After a boozie evening, and a late start, the guests went to explore the whaling station and stretch their legs after the 5 days it took to get down, while us, the hard working crew (!) did the housework (thankfully not too much to do as the guests were a housetrained bunch, and no one was seasick on the way down making all of our jobs much easier) and made the most of some peace and quiet! That afternoon we had some free time, so I went for a walk with Laura, and with her I lost my cherry… I had my first elephant seal experience! Shortly followed by my first fur seal experience. And my first king penguin experience. Wow, not bad for ten minutes! The elephant seals were a bad smelling bunch! And antisocial! They weren’t too keen on us walking within about three metres of them, luckily I reckon I could outrun 4 tons of Jabba-the-Hut shaped blubber! More importantly I was sure I could outrun Laura if necessary or at least trip her up if I needed to sacrifice someone! The BO issues the ele’s have we did eventually decide was part of the chatting up process and helping in gathering as many women as possible.
From Grytviken (after clearing snow off of the deck) we headed down towards the southern tip of the island, stopping off at a beach called Gold Harbour. Here we saw our first real colonies of wildlife, literally thousands of king penguins and elephant seals. There were times where the ele’s are so tightly packed that it feels like you have to climb over them o get to the far side. Once past the ele’s you get into the bulk of the kings, and there are monster amounts of them with the attractive adults calling to their chicks, the scruffy ‘little men in brown jackets’! We overnighted there at Gold, and after being warned of a poor holding for the anchor we, the crew took it in turns to watch films, while officially doing an anchor watch waiting for the sunrise. When sunrise looked imminent, we woke up the guests, and took them ashore at 4am to view the beautiful sunrise with the king penguins heading out to sea, and I was lucky enough to have them porpoising past while I sat in the zodiac in the middle of the bay. After breakfast, we headed along to another beach for lunch. At this point you would be right in assuming that life revolves around food, we ate like kings (not the penguins though), we took down two whole lambs, two lumps of beef (big enough to feed the islands’ population if we weren’t so greedy!) for roasting, 3 meals worth of top quality meat for steaks, and loads of stewing meat. The wine, wow! We also carried about 500 tins of beer and 200 bottles down, amazingly we ended taking a large part of it home, but I did do my bit for the team, in fact Laura and I probably drank more between us than the rest of the boat did!
Anyway, I digress, Cooper Bay was a lovely little beach, lots more ele’s and king penguins, in addition there were more significant numbers of fur seals growling at you (then running away when you looked them!) although at this point they were mainly juveniles so slightly more athletic looking than later on in the trip. A few of us decided to have a wander over a small hill to go to look for chinstrap penguins which supposedly have their own private bay, this wander wasn’t quite as easy as intended as in the tussock is a favourite spot for fur seals, and they do blend in surprisingly well only alerting you to their presence when you are either about to stand on one or is right by your head and could easily have a snap at you which obviously is not too desirable, they have pretty awful oral hygene! You would also not expect a four ton elephant seal to be camouflaged, but there they are under your feet!
The next morning we set off for the southernmost point of our trip, a stunning fjord with various hanging glaciers along its length, and at the tip, a glacier falling off into the water. We gently pushed our way through ‘icecubes’ (up to the size of armchairs) and avoiding more serious lumps right up to the base of the glacier. All the way up, I am happy to say that I reckon I had the best view sat up on the lower spreaders 25 foot above the deck guiding Miles through avoiding the biggest bits, whilst also getting a different perspective of this stunning location.
We anchored for the night in narrow fjord off of the Drygalski which was just as beautiful in its own right, the pancake flat water providing wonderful mirror images of the steep cliffs rising dramatically to the blue sky. This fjord, Larsen Harbour as well as being beautiful has another speciality, it is the only place in the world there you will find Weddell seals breeding and pupping on dry land rather than ice flows. From here there are two options, go up the west coast which gets battered by the prevailing winds and has few safe anchorages, or head north back up the east coast which has the majority of the wildlife. East coast it is then.
Leaving the unusually sheltered Larsen Harbour we poked our nose out into the ocean to ce greeted by 40knot northeasterly. Great. Right on the nose. Oh well, has to be done, so we plodded offshore a little, before heading back in to a anchorage reckoned to be breezy but bulletproof. And it was. After an anchor watch in 45knots nervously checking transits and gps tracks the sun arrived and the breeze dropped off and I got another first, this time wild reindeer. Here we saw more of the now common place ele’s and furries, and a large colony of gentoo penguins. Heading north again we headed north again we stopped off in St Andrews Bay, anticipated to be a highlight of the trip because of its vast numbers of wildlife with more than 150,000 pairs of king penguins and and 6,000 elephant seal cows. For me though, this wasn’t the best spot, I enjoyed myself much more in the smaller beaches which seemed much more intense and somehow personal. The density of the animals living in quiet harmony, if you forget the elephant bulls bellowing and rearing challenging each other for prime location and for the harems that had already been collected. We saw a couple of fights, which are brutal and leave the looser with serious disfigurements like losing half of their face! Deciding that the swell rolling into the bay would make for an uncomfortable night, we headed on again to Ocean Harbour, a former whaling station which had been abandoned in 1920. Here we met up with a German couple who have been cruising around South Georgia in their 30foot wooden boat for the last three years where they joined us for dinner and told us tales of their adventures. The following morning was spent exploring the ruins of the station and looking around at the wildlife in a mist which had settled over night.
From here it was back (via a detour up to another glacier) to Grytviken where we had a look around the whaling station there. This is the only one on the island which you are allowed to have a look around as they have spent vast amounts removing any asbestos and loose roofing. Unfortunately in doing this, they have also managed to strip any character out of it, making it hard to imagine how the place ran in the 60’s where they would be processing four whales at a time with the place buzzing with activity. Luckily there is a really good museum which chronicles daily life and has images of how the place was run through the hundred years that the island was used for whaling. Next time we stop by I will be spending more time and hopefully look in all the rooms before closing time!
Leith Harbour was the next destination, another abandoned whaling station, one of three in close proximity which you aren’t allowed too close to. Because whalers weren’t too careful, the harbour has lots of scrap wire and other bits that you can snag on on the floor making dropping the hook a bit of a lottery, so two of us had to remain onboard to motor around until the others were ready to be picked up in the increasing wind before doing a flyby of the two other stations then heading further up the coast for the night.
Prion Island was the next destination and with its nesting wandering albatross it promised to be interesting. After a failed attempt at landing due to the outboard on the zodiac dying due to dodgy fuel we finally managed to get ashore and followed the boardwalk to the top of the hill and ended up a few feet from a young albatross as well as a few courting adults. The baby was the size of a turkey! But to be honest, they weren’t doing anything too interesting so I wasn’t too bothered to spend that much time staring! We went off to Rositta Harbour and anchored in a kelp bank, fun times when it came to lifting it back up, but first we decided to stretch our legs a bit and found ourselves a small mountain to summit. And we managed it! Even me who tries to avoid excessive exercise and smokes too much. And it was definitely worth it! The views from the top were magnificent looking out over the Bay of Isles, the brooding blackness out to sea and Pelagic looking tiny, dwarfed by the dramatic landscape. After our stroll and then dragging up half of the sea bed we set off to Salisbury Plain. I gave that one a miss as I was wildlifed out, and so I took my turn to do the housekeeping. Lucky me.
The final stop of our tour was another gorgeous little bay called Elsehul. The blurb promised various albatrosses, and the other abundant species of wildlife we had already seen, but with the addition of macaroni penguins, the little dudes with the crazy yellow eyebrows. Awesome. Apart from there weren’t any. So we went off for a walk across to see the south side. Stunning. Jagged. And nice having some peace and quiet again. Downside was that the route back to the boat ended up walking through a minefield of dodo’s. Well giant petrels, but they look like the pictures you see of dodo’s.
Unfortunately that was it. Our time on the island was over, just the trip back to the Falklands remaining, which promised to be a thumping headwind all the way, but we got lucky, there was no wind at all, and it was donkey work all the way home, well nearly, about a day from Stanley, we had 20knots from the east. Bloody amazing! Donkey off, ah, peace and quiet.
So here we are back in Stanley, working to prep the boat back up for our next charter at the weekend where it all starts again.