Expedition Sail Blog
I am in the process of changing our blogs of completed journeys into logs, so they read in chronological order -- Kate
On board are Kate, Hamish, Tony, Coryn, Pam, Ron, Sheila, and Roger
6 March 2008 -- Rothera // Lagoon Island
We're back at Lagoon Island after our visit to Rothera research station, after bumping the lifting keel over many rocks on the way in. We have to retract the keel nearly all the way to reach the anchorage. (SEAL draws three metres with the keel down; one metre with it all the way up .... ed.) Rothera lies three miles away on a rocky peninsula on Adelaide Island. It's a fully equipped small village occupied by over a hundred scientists and support personnel in the summer and a skeleton crew of twenty-two in the winter. There are labs of all sorts, for oceanographers, geologists, biologists, glaciologists, meteorologists, etc. They work all over the peninsula, transported by Canadian-manufactured Dash-7 and Twin Otter planes. These were in immaculate condition, housed (along with Massey Ferguson tractors and other Canadiana) in hangers next to a 900 metre runway. This was under construction, again by Canadians, when Hamish was last here in 1992.
We had been buzzed by the Twin Otter in Lagoon Island, and we were presented with an aerial photo of Seal by Ian the communications officer at Rothera when he came down to visit SEAL in the afternoon. We spent the whole afternoon touring the station with the soon to be base commander and off duty plumber. Great hospitality. Many thanks, Ali and Steve!! We were the only such visit by yachties all year, although another yacht had called in briefly earlier in the season.
On Lagoon Island, fur seals distribute evenly across the beaches, viciously growling and absurdly whimpering as they defend their territories from other fur seals and stray humans, but they take no notice, or steer clear of the enormous elephant seals who lie together in thigmotaxis in muddy wallows while they molt. They snort and burp in retching bubbly roars through their enlarged proboscises. These animals can weight up to five tons (for a mature male) and dive to up to 1800 meters for up to two hours at a time (the average dive is about 500 metres for forty-five minutes). When moving, they travel like huge animated slugs for short bursts and collapse in exhaustion to be followed five minutes later by another trek.
Skuas crowd the cliffs, hills and screes. If anyone inadvertently comes close to the teenaged chicks waiting to mature enough to fly, adult squadrons dive bomb the intruder from all directions.
Dozens of molting Adelie penguins stand around waiting for their fluffy feathers to fall off so that they can swim. Suddenly one takes off towards the shore, followed in waddling procession by two others. After checking several spots, the leader dives in, followed by the second and then the third. But while the first two dash off, the third swims around in distressed circles and gets out. Not yet ready to swim. Most have left now, but there's evidence of a large rookery here in the season.
7 March 2008 -- Crystal Sound
Expecting a long day of motoring against the north wind, we left Lagoon Island at seven am to make our way through the Gullet and on into Crystal Sound. Some readers may be interested in the some of the practical issues surrounding our trip, so here are some details.
A yacht coming to Antarctica should be self-sufficient, carrying enough food, fuel and water for the trip. There are no supply sources in Antarctica. They must also have enough spare parts and resources to handle the inevitable breakages. Other than another yacht, there is no one available to help in the case of a breakdown. Some charter yachts have lifting keels to enable them to extract themselves in the event of a grounding. A lifting keel also allows anchoring in shallow waters that prevent nighttime attacks from icebergs.
Seal carries 1850 litres of diesel and 1500 litres of water, enough for eight people for a 30+ day voyage. We had a good sail south across the Drake passage, but since then the winds, though for the most part favorable, have been light and we have had to motor a great deal. The wind is still from the north and if there is no change in the next couple of weeks, we will be testing the limits of our fuel capacity.
Although yachts have to be self sufficient, there is some back up in the event of a major medical emergency. Cruise ships always have a doctor on board, although at this time of year there are few if any cruise ships on the peninsula.
Seal is careful to minimize any environmental impact. All plastic, metal, glass, and paper rubbish is stored for disposal when we get back to Ushuaia. All biodegradable rubbish is stored for disposal at sea when we are crossing the Drake Passage. We clean and disinfect our boots each time we return to the boat, so as to avoid transferring any contamination from one site to another.
Returning to our passage, the day was long and cold with heavy snow and strong headwinds for much of the time. We had a relatively easy passage through the gullet which thankfully avoided a 140 mile passage around the outside of Adelaide Island. The wind stayed north the entire time. Not much fun. Motoring all day. Especially as we had to constantly avoid icebergs and brash ice. There are no good stopping places north of the Gullet so we continued on until nightfall and then lay ahull until dawn. Thankfully there was little ice around us and the wind had dropped to ten to fifteen knots. We passed many large icebergs, but drifted past them without having to start up the motor and avoid them. We drifted back south across the Antarctic Circle again in the night (we drifted about eight miles).
8 March 2008 -- Pitt Islands
All on board can now mention in casual conversation that we have crossed the Antarctic Circle four times. Last night as we lay ahull, we floated back on our tracks by about eight miles and over the circle. This morning we started at about five am and motored back over it again.
Before the trip we anticipated spending a lot of time reading, but until the last two days, the outside world has been of much greater interest. Now with visibility down to the immediate sea around us and the cabin a lot drier, warmer and calmer than the freezing bluster on deck, the reading has begun, the Scrabble and cards have come out. Coryn is undisputed champion of the Scrabble board. Hamish, Ron, and Tony, accompanied by Pam and Coryn take sequential half hour turns at the wheel outside, on the lookout for icefloes. They dress up in full foul weather gear, ski goggles on, no skin exposed, and return from their stint in the gale, sodden from the driving snow or rain. Snow driven at thirty knots is not to be underestimated, but under the gear they stay dry.
We had also wondered beforehand whether eight people in continuos close contact for a month would run out of conversation. Perish the thought. The talk of an evening rushes topic on topic, while we vie for a turn at amusing or informative anecdote before the topic turns and leaves our story stranded. For each question there is a reference book quickly at hand.
The food on board has its cycles. During the Drake passage, eating is not at the top of the mind (except for Tony and Hamish). In calmer water, it's great eating as the Argentinean steaks come out, the two lambs hanging astern begin to lose legs, shoulders, and ribs. These sumptuous meals are interspersed with things like spaghetti and potato bacon soup. Oranges and grapefruit were in short supply in Ushuaia so the few we have were gone in the first week. Now we are down to apples; first crate nearly consumed; another to go. There is always a box of special goodies for those on night watch. Carrots and potatoes are an everyday staple. Longlife cream with hot chocolate is available and constantly consumed. There is no fridge, but the bilge is normally at 31 F / - 1 C and serves as a fridge. (On this trip, we have frequently encountered abnormally warm water; the outside water today is a shocking 40.1 F / 4.5 C ... ed.). Eggs will keep the length of the voyage if they are turned once or twice. Ginger is stored in sherry. Bread is baked most days, and Kate usually prepares a flat cake of some sort - carrot walnut today.
This afternoon a couple of humpback whales came to look us over. There's a common pattern. We sight them somewhere away. They know exactly where we are. If they feel like it, they come over. If not, they keep going. We cut the engine and hope for the former. There is a required whale watching etiquette. Don't approach. Idle engine for a while (so the whale can establish your location) and then stop it. Stay downwind to avoid floating in on them. These two were accompanied by a frolicking fur seal keeping pace with them while they rose and fell smoothly with great wooshing breaths in circles around and under the boat. The sound so near is quite as thrilling as the sight.
We're now tied up four square plus anchor after a very long run upwind in varied weather, and walked the land which has no sign of human habitation, except for two plastic bottles, which we picked up and added to our trash. It is the first time in Hamish's twenty years of cruising on the peninsula that he has ever seen plastic bottles on a beach here.
More on whale watching guidelines: Yachts from most nations are permitted to approach the back end of a cetacean to within thirty metres; drifting downwind or current towards an animal is also considered approaching. However, we find that such close approaches are unnecessary. A curious whale will turn around and come to the motionless yacht from up to a mile away (and could well be underneath the boat when you think it is more than 30 metres away); an incurious one will leave the area quickly, so there's no point in trying to chase it See www.iaato.org for more information.
9 March 2008 -- Pitt Islands
Alarmingly, the water here is 40.5 F / 4.5 C which is way too hot for Antarctica. This is despite an enormous quantity of 32 F / 0 C water which is running off the glacier (so much that we filled our water tanks), which should be cooling the seawater around the glacier. We a lot of plastic on the beach here -- several bottles and two types of plastic strapping -- which is the first plastic Hamish has seen on the beach in the 20 years he has been coming here. Either people are throwing stuff off boats here, which is pretty unthinkable (though we have found beer cans over the last two years, which is probably yachties) or it's really scary because it means the Convergence is breaking ... the Antarctic Convergence normally keeps the pollution of the rest of the world out of Antarctica, because it doesn't allow any interchange of surface water. A friend of ours has a thermometer in his depth sounder (annoyingly ours doesn't, so we've been taking spot measurements around the place) and he read 9 C water all the way to the South Shetlands. Normally, the water temperature suddenly shifts to about 1 C in the middle of the Drake Passage ... normally, everyone on deck knows exactly where the convergence is, because in one watch you suddenly need two more layers of clothing. That didn't happen on the passage to Antarctica this time. If warm water is coming into the Peninsula because the Convergence has broken, then the melting patterns we have seen this trip will accelerate enormously.
9 March 2008 -- Pitt Islands
Fresh water. Lots of it, filling our somewhat depleted tanks from the glacier that sounds like a rushing mountain stream. We have repositioned the boat, stern in to this high wall of ice, and a yellow hose runs from a small crevice of water, down the snow slope, and up into the water filler pipe on the boat. This the is the brilliance of the physics of siphoning at work. To celebrate this replenishment, we have all showered and done laundry with impunity and all the taps are flowing with fresh not salt water for the time being. Such luxury.
Some sun and blue skies and mountain vistas reappearing have been a welcome sight, and as we are staying put for tonight, it is a lovely day to explore the islands and to catch up on lost sleep.
We are anchored in the Pitt Islands, again a place like no other we have been. The water is a stunning turquoise blue and clear to depths of twenty feet or so, revealing a bottom with lots of sea life. It would be a wonderful place to snorkel. Evidence of the life in the sea can be found on land - bits of sea urchin, star fish and piles of limpet shells that feed the local birds, skuas, blue eyed shags and kelp gulls. The skuas are curious but not agressive here. The nests we've seen are empty and the chicks are gone, which makes for much more relaxed exploring. A toot around in the zodiac takes us to one of the outer islands in the group where there a few dozy fur seals and the last few remaining Adelie penguins finishing their molt before heading out to sea.
This must be a huge colony in peak season as the rocks and slopes all around are pink with krill filled guano, making them slippery to walk on. We have a good cleaning of boots in the sea before we get back on the boat and always step into a disinfectant boot wash on board to stop the spread of contaminants from place to place.
Once again, we wish we had a geologist on board. The rocks here are largely gray and essentially smooth from the recently retreated glacier. There are lots of erratics and other curious extrusions. The glaciers are equally curious. Why is there an island with half of it covered with a hundred feet of ice and the rest of it bare?
We find some interesting skeletal remains, a perfect penguin skull, a flat seal flipper bone, and in among the rocks is an old wooden oar, likely from a whaling ship, as the handle is much heavier than those made today. We also find some plastic debris which raises concerns that the Antarctic Convergence is diminishing, allowing flotsam from other oceans into the Antarctic.
The barometer is dropping down to 976 mb as a new low comes through during dinner. We are having lamb curry, the second to last meal from the original two lambs we started with. Kate has made fresh naan and Hamish the accompanying dal bat. Delicious. The wind is rising, but we are snuggly attached with lines ashore.
We are now beginning to plan our final few days before we head out across the Drake. The long term GRIBS (weather forecasts) show a weather window of southwest winds, but it's still too far in advance to count on ... we will not tempt fate with expectations.
10 March 2008 -- Hovgaard Pleneau
We are anchored and tied back in a lagoon entirely protected by low rocky shores. Once again at the mouth of the Lemaire Channel where we had such spectacularly beautiful days coming out. It is an exhilarating return across the open bay to the high mountains in fine weather facing cold breezes falling off the high ice fields. As we come in, schools of gentoo penguins flash in the sunlight, porpoising through the water on their way in and out of land.
Anchoring and tying lines ashore we once called the "Chinese Fire Drill" but it now runs as smooth as silk. Ron, Tony, and Hamish jump into the deployed zodiac and scout the shores for projecting rocks, over which they throw wire "rock strops." Suitable rocks are often scare. They may be up scree slopes beyond the surging tide and requiring avoiding colonies of feisty fur seals, or on rock outcrops protected by diving skuas.
Once the strops are in place, the guys roar back to the boat to grab one of the four possible anchoring lines (port or starboard, aft or forward) running them back to shore to tie with trusty bowline knots to the strops.
Sometimes we also drop an anchor, a precision technique that Kate and Hamish have down pat. Those of us on board have picked up our various roles of laying the retraining lines on deck, winching them in as needed, but it's really the drill team that makes it all happen. The editor disagrees ... without Pam, Coryn, Roger and Kate to keep the boat in the right place, keep the lines out of the turning propeller, preventing overrides, and taking up on the lines at exactly the right time, where would we be? And without Sheila preparing hors d'oeurves while all this is happening? ...
In anchorages that are unfamiliar, Hamish takes the wheel while Ron and Tony head off in the dinghy with a depth sounder that looks rather like a flashlight. Via VHF they transmit soundings ahead as Seal slowly moves forward. Seal has both a lifting keel and a lifting rudder so we have been able to slip into places impossible for other yachts, Lagoon Island being a prime example. This is not to say we have not bumped on occasion, but Seal is built for such possibilities, and it has been reassuring to know that she is able to take it without serious damage.
There is a super realism like computer fantasy art about the view when there is sunlight, more so in bright sun. Partly it is the exaggerated wildness and sharp edges of the mountains; partly the limited forepart contrasting pallet of sheer white snow, near black rocks, subtle colorings of ice cliffs and cracks, and the shifting blue green gray sea and finally the extreme clarity of the air. But tonight the cloud thickens and visibility recedes once again.
-- Pam and Roger
11 March 2008 - Hovgaard Pleaneau
Today we prepare for the dreaded Drake crossing. Contents of lockers are rearranged, one half inch lexan storm panels are screwed over the cabin windows. Eggs are boiled for later use; food packed; apple sauce made in case of future nausea, clothing sorted to reduce changes, seasick pills consumed. The engine is taken off the zodiac, cleaned and stored. Tomorrow, the zodiac's last duty will be to be pulled back to uncouple the strops at the end of the land lines, and then to be disassembled and stowed.
The GRIB is consulted and a preliminary course laid out. Light air is projected early, so we we expect to start motoring and the wind is expected to go SW for a few days. A waypoint (or enroute destination) is set west of a direct path. By then the wind is expected to swing NW and we will be driven east. But there will be adjustments along the way. We're trying to skip between skittish moving lows. The GRIB forecasts are less reliable the further they peer into the future.
The day is dull and sleet filled. We wait hopefully for a slight clearing so we can see the local gentoo colony. No luck, it just gets worse. So, we set out anyway, huddled in a bouncing zodiac, progressively more drenched with spray and driven snow, until we land again against glacier smoothed granite. We climb the stone hill and look back at the colony. A vast array of evenly spaced standing and wandering birds. Some climb up and past us, sure footed on smooth, wet, steep boulders, cutely hopping over gaps like toddlers. This is so much part of their appeal: they are so like little people in formal dress and baggy pants. A leopard seal in the water is grabbing returning birds, shaking them inside out, for a freshly peeled meal. On return, we are amazingly dry under our sodden outer gear.
We're grateful we've experienced this amazing otherworldly part of our planet. We're nostalgic about not seeing it again. We'll miss icebergs; they are endlessly fascinating. And some of us have expressed a little trepidation about the comfort of the coming passage. But the thought of a wide and stable bed, space to spread out, and easy access outdoors, has some compensating appeal.
13 March 2008 - at sea, 62:53 South, 67:07 West
15 March 2008 - at sea, 58:22 South 68:00 West
Good steady weather today ... been galeish for most of the night / am. squalls coming through ... fourth reef in the main and tiny scrap of genoa sailing really well. GRIBs say we have SW but we have WNW. All hands well. Young wandering albatross near the boat. some sun this morning. big seas and fairly close hauled. -- Kate
16 March 2008 - Land Ho!
Cape Horn far away comes into sight with the dawn. It's a flat sea and a light wind as we ghost in under full main and genoa, the scene slowly unfolding on our approach. A school of dancing Peale's Dolphins welcome us, weaving in and out at the bow, keeping pace a while, speeding aside, leaping in the sheer joy of accompanying us. Wandering and Black Browed albatross wheel over the waves. They are so engineered that they seldom flap a wing, using them instead to tilt and shift just so, to allow shifting wave-induced air turbulence to keep them continuously aloft, swooping and soaring over the surface of the moving sea. And then we are upon the craggy cliffs of the cape in full sunlight, hailed over the VHF by the military outpost on it just as the champagne is axe-opened in the Seal tradition. We are now anchored once more in Caleta Martial next to the only sandy beach we've seen.
On our over four day crossing, perception of time falters as watch follows watch at four and three hour rotations, superimposed on and overwhelming our sense of the daylight cycle. We are used to thinking of a day as about 18 hours, with definable components: morning, afternoon, evening; the night an unconscious transition. The sleep-wake-watch cycle blurs that perception and increases a day's measure to the full 24 hours. All the while, the sea mountains outside roll on, the yacht slices and rides them; rushing along propelled by often gale-force winds, yet paradoxically moving at its fastest at about the speed of a Saturday marathon runner. It's quite a thought that if it were land and we had the stamina we could have walked and run the distance in the same time.
The crossing was also that of the Antarctic Convergence or Polar Front, which separates the Southern Ocean from the tail ends of the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans. This somewhat mobile and often foggy line marks a distinct change in sea water temperature and salinity. It acts as a kind of barrier to warmer waters. It has been much reduced in recent years, which may explain the warmer water temperatures which so surprised Kate and Hamish in the south. The record at Rothera research station show an average increase of 2 degrees Celcius over the last forty years. This in an astounding statistic given that fears of severe climate change are in the 1-2 degree range. The lapse in the Polar Front may explain the missing sea ice and diminished snow cover we encountered, the lack of which could drastically affect the breeding ability and current abundance of krill which ominously is the prime source of food for whales, penguins, seals, and indirectly for just about every visible Antarctic creature. About the shortest food chain for a large animal (oddly enough the largest) is diatom to krill to whale.
All in all, the gods dealt kindly with us. On our way south we had north and northwest winds behind us and all the while we were in Antarctica the winds were in our direction. Coming back north, the planned course held true. The winds obligingly turned to the southwest and west and finally northwest, giving us a close reach for most of the trip.
17 March 2008 - Caleta Margarita
South America breaks down at its end into a maze of islands, Tierra del Fuego, the drowned tail of the Andes which after a circuitous undersea tour of the Southern Ocean, rises again to form the Antarctic peninsula and associated islands. Cape Horn forms the prow of the last out flung group a day's sail from the main islands. The area between is called Bahia Nassau, nicknamed Nausea Bay because of the fierce winds which focus and accelerate between the hills, and the resultant choppy waters. Our mission today was to cross this without succumbing to seasickness, which we did, and very fast reaching ten knots at times in forty knot wind.
How to describe a chaotic sea, erratic winds, agitating it in shifting succession, currents at cross purposes? First, a base swell, growing from infant wavelets at the beginning of a fetch, building to full maturity as the fetch increases in length. Add one or two cross swells, remnant momentum of earlier wind. Push the swell in multiple top breaking mounds, often kicking up vertically as they crash in opposing directions. Then, pock the scalloped surfaces, some clear, some foam. The foam trailing a breaker lies aback the wave, itself pushed into little ranks of wavelets, rippling the surface of its larger parent. Overlay all this with driven spray and now drive through a thirty ton vessel, sharply heeled, slicing, driving, riding, swooping through, harmonizing (mostly!) its motion obliquely with the waves. Which means nose up, down, starboard gunwales under rushing water on the down wave, spray flying, helmsman fighting to keep course in a thrilling dance to a roaring, howling, squall.
Seamen know what ten or twenty or thirty knots mean as wind speed. There is a measure called the Beaufort Scale which gives an idea of the conditions we have been in. Starting with "light air" it goes through moderate to fresh to strong breezes, gales, and storms, concluding with "hurricane." Today we started with a Fresh Breeze (22-27 knots, perfect fast racing weather in Toronto), moved onto a moderate gale (28-33 knots, regattas start to be cancelled in Toronto), and then a Fresh Gale (24-40 knots) with squalls into Strong gale territory and gusts to 60 knots. A 25 foot yacht like a shark would have been turned over. Seal stormed right through to our exhilaration as we crowded spray soaked in the cockpit. On a close reach, the three-reefed mainsail and half unfurled headsail took us at one point to 10.2, past the hull speed of the boat!
Our journey is developing a symmetry as we return to the same safe havens we used during our departure. Now we are anchored once again in Caleta Margarita. It's St. Patrick's Day. The Irish sea ballads blast out and the wine flows. The conversation is rapid, multi-faceted, lively. An outside observer (of which there are none) might say raucous.
18 March 2008 - Puerto Williams
We're tied up together with eight other boats beside the Micalvi, a beached wreck of a 1925 munitions vessel, now the focus of the Southernmost Yacht Club in the world. Several overwinter here. It seldom snows at sea level. Surrounded by the oceans, the temperature is relatively steady all year. Puerto Williams is a military base for the Armada de Chile, founded in 1953, open to civilians in 1985. Population is now about 2300.
After a pancake breakfast, topped with caramelized condensed milk, golden syrup and cream (not kidding!) we spent a very pleasant morning exploring the beech forest around last night's anchorage at Caleta Margarita. While distantly related to the northern beech, these three varieties have tiny leaves. They hail from the ancient super continent Gondwana and close relatives can be found in New Zealand and Tasmania. It's strange sitting on the moss in a thick forest of very tall trees and thinking that only a few hundred miles apart, there is abundant verdant greenery on the mountains on one side, and only snow and stone on the other.
Tierra del Fuego, "land of fire" was so called because of the numerous fires seen on these islands by Magellan and his crew. These were no doubt smoke signals lit by concerned natives at the sight of a strange vessel. These were the Yamana people, who lived almost completely naked all year in small families along the shores. They fished from small beech bark boats, furnished with fires, placed on the bottom over a layer of mud, shells, and pebbles. They had extraordinarily good eye sight, seeing sails emerging over the horizon long before the Europeans did. The Beagle of Darwin fame transported four of them to England and returned three, now schooled in Christianity, a few years later in a failed attempt in cross-cultural relations. They soon succumbed to the usual alcohol trade and dependance on "settler employment," losing their traditional hunter gatherer means of earning a living. (European diseases, such as TB and measles and a bounty in some parts of southern South America were responsible for wiping out the vast majority of the four native cultures of Tierra del Fuego ... ed.) There is a small group of Yamana descendants, and, in 2007, one full blooded Yamana living on the outskirts of Puerto Williams.
The Micalvi wheel house and main cabin is still intact, the later now the yacht club bar. Festooned with flags and mementos of yachts and yacht clubs around the world, including Tony and Coryn's boats Mistral (1994) and Taonui (1997) noted on the Royal Victoria Yacht Club Pennant. The bar is our last stop before turning in for the night.
19 March 2008 -- Ushuaia, Argentina
A calm night back at harbor in Ushuaia "el fin del mundo" the end of the world, they say. But for us it is the beginning of the normal world. We're taking the Lairds to town on the eve of Kate's birthday. No cooking, no washing up duties.
We are acutely aware of and grateful for the privilege of being able to experience the other polar world so directly and at such close quarters. Except for our return to our homes and normal lives, our journey now ends, as does this accounting of it.
other reports from Antarctica 2008
South Georgia 2007