Desolation Island

The opportunity to visit the Kerguélen Islands arose on the Cape Town-to-Wellington leg of the east-about circumnavigation I was undertaking aboard my 42-foot Westsail Fiona. The island group is one of the most isolated in the world, lying as it does in the Southern Ocean, the swath of unimpeded deep ocean that circles Antarctica. Visiting it by voyaging sailboat would definitely be an unusual accomplishment. We resolved to attempt it.

The British Admiralty publication Ocean Passages for the World recommends sailing on the 40º S parallel for the 8,000-nm journey, particularly in the southern winter. However, by dropping down to 50º S, about a thousand miles can be saved. The anonymous author stonily observed: “Tempestuous gales, sudden violent shifts of wind, accompanied by hail or snow, and terrific and irregular seas are often encountered at higher latitudes. The steadiness and comparatively moderate strength of the winds, with the smoother seas and more genial climate north of 40º S, compensate by comfort and security for the time presumed to be saved by taking a shorter route.” However, you can visit Kerguélen and save mileage by sailing to 50º S. This combination and the fact that only one or two voyaging yachts sail there each year were irresistible.

The island was discovered by the French Capt. Yves Joseph de Kerguélen-Trémarec in 1772. The main island is part of an archipelago of more than 300 islands lying between 48º 27′ S and 49º 58′ S, and the meridians of 68º 25′ E and 70º 35′ E; it is one of the most remote island groups in the world. After its discovery, it was the haunt of sealers and whalers for nearly two centuries. During part of World War II, it was the secret base of German commerce raiders preying on Allied ships in the Indian Ocean. Port-aux-Francais at the southeast corner is now the site of a French research station.

Since most visitors comment on the frequency of gale-force conditions, before our departure from Cape Town, I purchased a spitfire jib that could be hanked to the forestay. I also got a second whisker pole for the staysail, so that we could run with two headsails boomed out. We bent on the storm mainsail and yankee jib and replaced the 45-lb plow anchor with a 65-lb fisherman anchor that is more suitable for anchoring in kelp.

We left Cape Town on Oct. 15, 2002, a little early, perhaps, in the southern spring, but we also hoped to round the Horn before the end of summer, so time was of the essence. Onboard as crew were Bob Bennett and David Pontieri, both of whom had also made the New York-to-Cape Town leg. We had a fair wind as we shaped a course to clear Cape Agulhas and the shallow bank to the south of it. Small problems occurred that were typical for a boat that had been in port for a month, a balky autopilot and a sticking wind gauge that necessitated a trip to the masthead for Pontieri. By the next day, it was blowing 45 to 50 knots with gusts to 60 knots.

Gear failures force return

On the night of Oct. 17, the boat was rolling so violently the whisker pole dipped into the sea and snapped in two. We had rigged it earlier to boom out the jib, which fortunately was furled by that stage. The next day, we tried to repair it but without success. Later the same day, when sailing on a broad reach with reefed mainsail and staysail in heavy winds, the staysail halyard block disintegrated, and the sail flogged itself to pieces before we could get it under control and gasketed. Things seemed to be going wrong in a hurry. I thought about the 8,000 sea miles that still lay ahead and the fact that Cape Town was only 400 miles behind us, and I decided reluctantly to put back for repairs. We used the spare halyard to set our new spitfire jib on the forestay and made it back to our old slip at the Royal Cape Yacht Club just a week after we left. Think of it as a shakedown, I told myself.

The riggers and sailmakers surpassed themselves, and we left again on Oct. 26, after only four days in port. The staysail was repaired and a second set of reef cringles added to the main, which, when tied down, gave a luff of only 12 feet. It seemed like a ridiculously small sail, but then I had seen the Southern Ocean in action.

For two days, we encountered stiff, southerly winds that gave us a beat as we struggled to clear Cape Agulhas again. Finally the winds backed to the southwest, and we made good progress under reefed main and staysail with gusts up to 45 knots. The noise was tremendous as heavy seas pounded Fiona; the breaking waves found every crack to force water into the boat. The main hatch slides were a particularly annoying leak, but we could not rig the dodger, as it would certainly have been carried away by all the water coming aboard. I set an intermediate GPS waypoint just north of the Crozet Islands at about 45º S. If the weather turned out to be atrocious, we would stay at that latitude and skip Kerguélen. If conditions were reasonable, however, we would push on to Kerguélen, about 1,000 nm to the ESE. For a while we were overtaken by a high-pressure ridge, and the wind died to nothing for more than a day. To give us some stability in the leftover swells, we powered.

Sat phone helps repair HF SSB

I took this opportunity to attempt a repair on the single-sideband radio. I called on our Iridium satellite phone to a technician at the factory on the U.S. West Coast. Amazingly enough, the adjustment he suggested did the trick. It was odd to be talking to him in his presumably warm, stable workshop as the boat corkscrewed in the ceaseless swells. From then on, I checked in every day with a South African amateur radio net for maritime mobiles. The operator gave us the daily forecast for our area, but it was usually wrong. When the wind returned, it rapidly increased to 25 knots on the nose from the east, and after a day of slugging to weather, we gave up and lay hove-to on starboard tack as the wind increased to 40 knots. Finally we got to try the new second reef in the mainsail as the wind touched 60 knots. It began to look like it would take forever to get to Wellington. Would we have time to visit Kerguélen? We had moved westward by more than 25 nm while hove-to and eventually crossed the 30º E meridian three times.

During this period, the air was extraordinarily humid and cold. Condensation dripped off every surface belowdecks. When the wind backed, we were able to set the twin headsails, jib and staysail on poles and run at speeds up to 8 knots plus. This put an immense strain on the Aries self-steerer as the boat yawed in the increasing swells. Twice the steering lines chafed through and had to be repaired as we steered by hand. It was rolly, and the motion resulted in another failure that was much harder to fix: A dull clanging from inside the mast announced that the internal aluminum tube containing the wiring to lights and the VHF antenna had become loose.

I decided to maintain a speed of between 6 and 7.5 knots while staying reasonably close to our rhumb-line course. The lower speed gave satisfactory progress of about a thousand sea miles a week, and the higher limit was intended to minimize gear failure. We made good progress eastward for several days. A more serious failure occurred when the turnbuckle holding the forestay snapped. As we crouched at the bow with the crew struggling to replace it, cold waves (40º F) sluiced over us. This really was getting to be tough sailing. Worse was to come.

Boom strikes crewmember

A day later, Pontieri went forward while I hand-steered in preparation for a gybe. The staysail boom had not been vanged down hard enough, permitting it to move a couple of feet as the boat tossed in the seaway. It suddenly shifted and struck him on the head. He dropped to the deck streaming blood from a nasty cut to his scalp. Bennett and I got him below, cleaned the wound, shaved away his hair and sutured the laceration with tape.

It was not the end of our problems that day; late in the afternoon, an immense wave buried the boat. The cabin was literally darkened for a few seconds as we were submerged. Water jetted from cracks round the companionway, and in the aft cabin, the water pressure forced open the dogged ports a fraction of an inch, which allowed my bunk to get soaked. Things are obviously getting serious when the skipper’s bunk is doused! As the boat struggled to free itself from the dead weight of water, the rattle of sails told us more problems awaited on deck.

The wave had broken off the plywood steering vane, and Fiona had weathercocked into wind. The Lifesling and the MOB flasher had been washed overboard too. We rigged a spare vane, tidied up the boat and got on course again. The Crozet Islands were then a little more than 100 nm away. The next day, we decided we could cope with the weather and go to Kerguélen, as the research station there probably had a doctor who could examine Pontieri’s wound. The weather immediately improved, and we made good time to our destination with nothing worse in the way of failures beyond a chafed jib sheet. The weather situation settled down to east-going lows to our south and highs to our north. This gave us reasonably stable winds that varied from southwest to northwest as the fronts passed us. I think earlier the landmass of Africa had perturbed this pattern — Good Hope is not called the Cape of Storms for nothing.

A week after leaving the vicinity of the Crozet Islands, we raised Cape Bourbon on the southwest corner of Kerguélen. It was a radar contact because thick fog had settled over the land. We depended on the radar to avoid the rocks and islets lying off the coast; the chart warned that satellite-derived positions were unreliable, as the datum was uncertain. As the long sub-Antarctic twilight drew to a close, the fog lifted, and we could see the snowy mountains of the island on our port.

Arrival in Kerguélen

We sailed along the south coast all night; by early morning, we entered the Passe Royale at the southeast corner of Kerguélen and headed for Port-aux-Francais. As we sailed up the bay, the wind slowly died, and we powered the last few miles in glorious sunshine. A call on Channel 16 brought an inflatable from the base to guide us to a spot that was free of kelp, which lay in long strands over much of the sea surface. We dropped our anchor in 20 feet at about 1100 hours on Nov. 19, three weeks and three days after leaving Cape Town for the second time. We had logged 2,896 nm. While Pontieri went to find a doctor, I took advantage of the wonderful weather by having Bennett winch me up the mast so that I could insert some pop rivets in the errant wiring tube.

Later, we visited the station chief, who invited us for drinks after work at the bar, followed by a great supper that certainly maintained the French reputation for cuisine. Fortunately for the residents, we squeezed in a shower before socializing. The next day, our guide, a Scottish scientist living in Tasmania, arranged for our jerry jugs to be refilled with diesel, and the chef gave us some fresh vegetables and a couple of newly baked baguettes. We did a little laundry and visited the post office, which is famous among collectors for the rare Kerguélen stamps cancelled with islands’ postmark.

In the afternoon, we took a walk around the bay to look at the scores of elephant seals and king penguins that populate the rocky beach. The met office gave us a five-page forecast of westerly winds, 20 to 25 knots. We left in the late afternoon with brisk easterly winds, what else? New Zealand lay more than 4,000 nm away in the Roaring Forties. n

Eric Forsyth, a recipient of the Cruising Club of America’s Blue Water Award, is now on his second circumnavigation aboard Fiona.

By Ocean Navigator