On Christmas Eve, 1998, Fiona had been at Port Williams, Chile, for nearly a week, tied up to the old ship Micalvi, which serves as the local yacht club. Fiona is my well traveled and sturdy Westsail 42; the crew consisted of myself, Mike from South Africa, and Bruce from Zimbabwe. We were all looking forward to an exciting cruise: a look at Cape Horn nearly 100 miles to the south and then a trip across the Drake Passage to Port Lockroy on the Antarctic Peninsula near 65° S. From there we hoped to voyage east along the South Shetland group, past Elephant Island, and then strike out across the Scotia Sea to South Georgia.
I wasn’t too sanguine about the ability of Fiona’s fiberglass hull to deal with significant floating ice and I noticed the charter yachts were all steel or aluminum. Did they know something? Fiona was ready to gowe had stocked up with food at the small supermarket on the naval base and filled the fuel tanks, and we had 120 liters of diesel in jerry jugs. We had mounted 1/4-inch-thick aluminum plates on the large cabin ports in anticipation of rough seas south of the Horn. We had already bent on the storm mainsail and yankee jib during our transit of the Chilean “canals” on the way to Port Williams from Port Montt.
We left early on Christmas Day and sailed to Lennox Island, hoping to pass Cape Horn in daylight the following day so that we might land on the fabled cape, wind and swell permitting. We anchored in a cove on the lee side of Lennox; during the night the wind picked up, and the next day we watched the spindrift fly as the wind hit 45 kts. Fortunately the storm was over in 24 hours, and after this delay we set out for Cape Horn. Judging from the leftover swell, a landing at the Cape would be difficult, so we lashed the dinghy on the foredeck with heavy lines in preparation for the ocean passage. We threaded our way past the south side of Wollaston Island and sailed with light winds to Horn Island.
The weather during our threeday sail to a landfall on the Antarctic Peninsula was associated with a low pressure cell in the Drake Passage, westerly winds up to 20 kts for about a day, then fluky winds and calm spells for half a day until a good wind built in from the east. This slowly increased to 25 kts; we reefed and charged south, making good 26 nm on the log on one three-hour watch. When we left the Horn the water temperature was about 40° F, and it slowly fell to 32° F as we approached the continent; we had entered the region of freezing surface water known as the Antarctica Convergence Zone. Below 60° S the short nights faded entirely and we had the unique experience of sailing in daylight for 24 hours.
Our first glimpse of land was Smith Island; it was forbidding, with black cliffs streaked white with snow and ice and the top lost in cloud. The wind settled down to ESE at 15 kts with snow as we sailed in Dallmann Bay past Brabant Island. The seascape was dotted with icebergs about the size of small houses. At the south ends of the bay we worked through a narrow passage west of islets and rocks called “the Waifs.” I figured with radar and the depthfinder it was safe enough, but at the back of my mind was the thought that if we had any kind of accident in this desolate place we were on our own. What I did not know, and would only discover when we came to anchor at Port Lockroy, was that the depthfinder had developed a glitch and was over-reading. Once past the Waifs we entered the Gerlache Strait; on our left lay the Antarctic mainland, on the right Anvers Island. On both sides the view was stark, just mountains of black and white. As we ran southwest the wind strengthened to northeasterly, gusting to 35 kts. The floating ice ahead thickened, but with radar and a lookout at the spreader we found fairly wide leads through the ice. Several times we gybed to avoid large bergs. Picking through the ice field
As we cleared the Neumayer Channel, five miles from Port Lockroy, the ice was so dense we rounded up, dropped the sails and picked our way slowly through the ice field under engine. We rounded a headland into a secluded bay; at its head, on small rocky Goudier Island, was the barely discernible hut that was Port Lockroy. On our approach to the island a muffled figure appeared clutching a handheld radio. He introduced himself as Dave and offered to guide us to an anchorage. I was very grateful, but at his anchorages the depthfinder read 120 to 150 feet, far too deep to anchor. We messed around for half an hour, dodging small ice floes, but I could not correlate Dave’s remarks with observed soundings. Dave, too, was clearly getting frustrated, standing in the cold wind.
Finally I headed Fiona into a narrow passage between Goudier Island and a small island to the north (Bills). Dave warned it was shallow but the depth finder showed 62 ft. Suddenly Mike, who was standing by the anchor winch on the foredeck, yelled “Back up, back, we’re on the rocks!” I reversed violently; fortunately Fiona did not touch. What the hell was going on? By this time Dave must have been convinced he was dealing with idiots. So we dropped the hook in a spot he recommended, south of the base hut, and paid out virtually all our chain as it appeared we had anchored in 100 feet or more. The problem was with the depth finder. The keel offset had somehow jumped from -4 feet to +60 feet, when I reset it I found we had anchored in the reasonable depth of 40 feet. It was New Year’s Eve, and we had arrived about 1800. Dave invited us to the hut for supper. We had brought along enough liquid refreshment to ensure the year 1999 entered in style at 64° 49′ S.
The base at Port Lockroy was founded by the British in 1944 to monitor weather in the South Atlantic. After the war it was operated as a scientific research station until it was closed in the 1960s. It was reactivated as a museum a few years ago. During the summer, November to March, Dave and another companion, Nigel, live at the base just as scientists did in the 1950s. They have no electricity or running water. Tourists visit on small cruise liners that operate adventure expeditions to the Antarctic.
The island is also a penguin rookerywe found gentoo penguins every few feet on a crude stone nest nursing small chicks or still incubating eggs. The place was alive with many species of birds, and we ran Nigel over to Bills Island in the inflatable so he could find a nesting skua. On the north side was a complete whale skeleton about 30 feet long, and nearby were dozens of old wooden barrel staves left by the whalers.
We had hoped to visit the Lemaire Channel, nine miles to the south, since it was reputed to be very beautiful, but radio chatter indicated it was blocked by thick ice. I decided to head back north. We negotiated the spectacular Peltier Channel into the Bismarck Strait. As we sailed past disporting whales, the wind dropped and a clammy fog descended. We motored across an oily sea. The large bergs were easy to see on radar, and we kept a sharp lookout for bergy bits, which usually are found in the vicinity of the larger bergs.
We entered the Bransfield Strait and passed Low Island on our port at a range of three miles, visible only on radar. A day and a half after leaving Port Lockroy we came to a gap called Neptune’s Bellows, the entrance of Deception Island. The island is an ancient volcanic crater some five miles in diameter. The fanciful name was given by the old whalers on account of the erratic winds that funnel through the gap. Once inside we could see the remains of the old whaling station on shore. We anchored in 30 feet a couple of hundred yards from the buildings. As Fiona sheered the depth suddenly fell to two feet. I was still suspicious of the depthfinder, but a quick probe with the boathook showed the reading was for real, and we raised anchor. It appeared the bottom was a series of deep ridges, the depth varying between a few feet and 200 feet over a distance as small as 100 yards.Mud like glue
As we maneuvered, the bow gently plowed into volcanic mud while the depthfinder (located toward the aft end) still indicated three feet. We stuck fastthe mud was like glue, and the tide was dropping rapidly. We set an anchor in deep water and waited. Within three hours Fiona was almost high and dry, canted at an angle of 45°, lying on her port bilge. This large tidal range was unexpected, as we had seen only slight tides at Port Lockroy. Fortunately, the wind was light. We used the time to explore the abandoned station. There was an old hangar, half full of ice and snow. Inside were wings and aircraft parts, the fuselage of a large singleengine plane lay outside. There was a substantial pile of coal in one building and piles of rusty cans in an old storeroom. Penguins and seals populated the shore. As the tide receded rivulets of warm water ran into the sea, raising plumes of steam and smelling strongly of sulfur. At this juncture a ship came through the entrance. It was a former Soviet icebreaker, Professor Malchanov, operated now by Russia. Malchanov was chartered to an Australian company offering adventure tours. The captain invited us over for lunch, which we accepted with alacrity. The tour guides were clearly delighted to find some crazy yachtsmen in these dramatic surroundings. Mike, Bruce, and I were seated at different tables and invited to regale the Australians with stories of derringdo. When we returned, the tide was making up, lifting Fiona free of the mud. We left in a few hours without any further problems.
Our destination was South Georgia Island, about 900 nm to the northeast. We could have beat up the Bransfield Strait against the prevailing wind to the Nelson Strait and entered the Scotia Sea that way, but I reckoned that glaciers on the islands of the South Shetlands to windward would generate plenty of icebergs in the Strait. We backtracked to the Boyd Strait, west of Snow Island, to get to the Scotia Sea. Once in the open sea we were mostly free of bergs. The trip along the north side of the South Shetlands degenerated into a beat in somewhat unpleasant conditions, and we gave King George Island, with its off lying reefs, a wide berth. This pushed us north, but above 62° S the wind began to veer, and finally it became northwesterly.
Any yachtsman who sails this leg to South Georgia must think of Ernest Shackleton and his companions who sailed there from Elephant Island in 1916 in a 22foot open boat. It was a desperate attempt to save the men from his ship Endurance, which had been crushed by ice on the Weddell Sea, and who were marooned on Elephant Island. Abeam of Elephant Island I thought of Shackleton and looked at the huge swells building up behind us. During Shackleton’s trip the water temperature was 32° F and their boat was constantly waterloggedit must have been a frozen hell for them.
We ran wing and wing toward South Georgia making excellent time, but the strain on the Aries selfsteerer was immense. The huge swells yawed Fiona violently and the servo blade seesawed from side to side. Finally the shaft fatigued and broke, allowing the blade to be swept away by the sea. We rigged a spare and pressed on. The wind varied between 20 and 35 kts, and we surfed down the swells, often seeing nine to 9.5 kts on the GPS as our average speed over the bottom. At one stage the wind veered to southwesterly; we gybed the main and reset the whisker pole. When we were 100 nm from South Georgia the wind died entirely for about 16 hours. Then we sailed through the Stewart Strait at the northwest end of South Georgia and finally had an exhilarating run down the northeast coast under reefed sails. We dropped anchor at Grytviken eight days and 1,192 nm out from Deception Island.Strange allure of South Georgia
There are many reasons for the allure of South Georgia. The scenery is magnificent: as we sailed down the coast the dramatic outline of two mountain ranges more than 9,000 feet high was etched against a deep blue sky. Gleaming white glaciers cascade in slow motion down valleys to deeply indented fiords. The wildlife is prolific; a dozen species of birds wheel and scream overhead, and on the beach elephant and fur seals jostle for space and king penguins shuffle nervously at their approach. The island is little more than 100 miles long, and there is peak population in summer of perhaps 50 people, and much fewer in winter. It was not always so; in its heyday the whaling factory at Grytviken, which was started just after the turn of the century, employed nearly 1,000 men. Whaling operations ceased in the 1960s.
When we arrived there were three yachts in the harbor: Curlew, a 28-foot Falmouth Quay punt sailed to South Georgia eight years ago by Pauline and Tim Carr; Taonui, a Canadian sloop; and Wanderer III, Eric Hiscock’s old boat, which is now owned by a young Danish couple. Curlew was tied up to a halfsunken whale catcher; the Canadian boat was moored to the decaying wharf. On the shore lay the remains of the extensive factory buildings and their equipment: huge boilers, centrifuges, generators, bone cutters, and storerooms. As I wandered through the disintegrating structures I was impressed by the difficulty they must have experienced in setting up this complex facility in such a harsh environment. All this effort to eradicate a whole speciesabout 175,000 whales were “processed” at Grytviken during its working life, 500,000 in the Antarctic as a wholea holocaust indeed.
We left in mid January for Tristan da Cunha. When the sun set, the jagged skyline of South Georgia faded at the stern and the last rays of the sun illuminated a huge, flat iceberg looming out of the mist on the port. It was a fitting symbol of our farewell to Antarctica.