Through the Southern Ocean on a square-rigger

Thirty sailors from three different watches toiled and scurried about to perform what we in the 21st century boating world call a jibe, a maneuver accomplished in modern-day sailing with a flick on the tiller or turn of the wheel.

Life is drastically different aboard tall ships, and Endeavour is no exception. She was a famous ship — beginning life as a collier or bulk carrier named Earl of Pembroke. The British admiralty chose her as the vessel to carry Lt. James Cook and his crew on their voyage of discovery in 1768. Nearly 240 years later, I was lucky enough to join Endeavour, a replica of Cook’s original Endeavour, built with up-to-date navigational and safety equipment but few modern conveniences, and crew on a leg of her journey from Fremantle, Australia, to Whitby, England, by way of Cape Horn.

My first view of Endeavour came when she rounded Land’s End in Bluff, New Zealand. “What a magnificent ship,” I thought to myself. I could hardly believe my fortune at spending the next several weeks aboard. One week later and several hundred miles at sea, I was still becoming accustomed to the motion of the ship and the symphony of gurgles, hisses and groans that make up the acoustic repertoire of a sailing vessel. My habituation to Endeavour’s voice would come with time, but right now I wanted sleep! Little did I know then, but sleep was a precious commodity aboard a working sailing ship. As I quickly learned and was reminded throughout the voyage, many little things that we landlubbers take for granted often become projects at sea.

For example, the apparently simple act of taking a shower had to be planned around sea conditions and ship’s maintenance. Meals presented a special challenge even though the galley was located in the lowest part of the ship. My entire body was put to use while dining: one hand for a chosen utensil, the other to hold my plate or bowl. My wrist often functioned to block my glass against a condiment dispenser. And one or sometimes both legs and feet were used to help me remain in my chosen seat and not end up on the deck. In short order, many of the inconveniences became routine; in fact, small tasks took on the flavor as if one of life’s daily adventures. One of my favorite memories from the ship was a sign in the galley saying, “Be excellent to each other,” and we were.

My job, the reason I was even aboard ship in the first place, was to assist in the making of two films: one for theatrical (i.e., Hollywood) release and a documentary for television about Endeavour’s Cape Horn voyage. My colleague, Paul Atkins, and I were charged with the dubious distinction of filming rough-weather scenes during a Southern Ocean storm. No small feat from the deck of a pitching and rolling tall ship.

Each day was new and interesting — no two were alike. We came to know the crew over time, and they grew more comfortable being the subjects of our cameras. The first part of our journey was relatively sedate, yielding good weather and winds. While this afforded a certain amount of time needed to shoot film and video of the ship and create a plan of attack before the big storms came, Mother Nature’s delays made the folks back in Hollywood edgy. Days were long and ran together, while nights were short and often sleepless. Nonetheless, the exposed camera rolls continued to amass at an astounding rate. Paul and I went everywhere on Endeavour. Out on the bowsprit. Up to the fighting tops. Harnessed in and hanging out-board in order to shoot down the side of the ship as swells slammed into her timbers. But my personal favorite was when we got the opportunity to film Endeavour under sail from the ship’s inflatable. There was something invigorating about being in the middle of the Southern Ocean in a 16-foot inflatable boat filming an 18th-century square-rigger under full sail. Not too many people can say they’ve done that! With or without the photos and film shot, I will always remember her image under sail.

One of the unique things about life so far south is that the critters are mostly new and different but always spectacular! Nothing prepared me for Hourglass dolphins riding our bow wave as we lumbered along. Or seeing a pod of killer whales surfing a 50-foot storm wave. Or the ever-present clouds of Albatross against the setting sun. Many of these things happened so quickly, so spontaneously that there was no time to set up a camera, but they will forever be exposed into the emulsion of my mind. I recall one such memory born immediately following a successful fishing foray by our shipwright, Andy. With a hand line and trolling an artificial lure, Andy hooked and landed what looked like a prehistoric tuna with large scales and huge teeth. Encouraged by his recent catch, the lure was cast out again, this time with different results. Later that day, when the line was checked again, it was discovered that there was indeed something on it — an albatross!

The next day brought an eerie stillness and a falling barometer: an unusual combination. The Southern Ocean had something in store for us and by that afternoon we had an inkling of just what that might be. An easterly wind had risen that combined with building seas to slow our progress to less than 1 knot. By 6 that evening, we were smack in the midst of a force-10 gale, complete with blowing snow and sleet. It was a bit disconcerting the first time I saw Endeavour’s bow disappear into a wave and the headsail bursting with so much air that the hanks were popping off.

With all forward progress now stymied, we hove-to so we could ride out the remainder of the storm, hoping not to be blown too far off course. The feel and sound of the wind howling through the rigging is one that can best be described as a forest full of howling banshees trying to blow you off your feet. Capt. Blake said the peak of the storm passed us at about 3:30 a.m. By the time I rose (can’t say woke, because I was not sleeping), wind speed was a mere 25 knots and the sea had settled substantially.

The following week graced us with mild weather in which to continue our filming and our easterly progress. At this point, two-thirds of the way through our voyage, we had a considerable amount of film in the can, including some solid weather footage. Still, we had yet to see or film one of the large storms characterized by massive waves for which this area is famous. Yes, we were actually wishing for rough storm seas. We were about to get our wish: some 900 miles off Chile’s east coast, the barometer plummeted again. Only this time, it did not stop — dropping past 980 millibars to the very bottom of the instrument! This storm was much more powerful than the last. That evening, Blake said to Paul, with just the hint of smile on his face “You’re going to get your storm footage!”

Morning dawned. The larger swells topping 50 feet and wind speed approaching 70 knots, the air temperature had fallen to -18° C (-1° F) with wind chill. Once again, Endeavour’s mettle, as well as our resolve to capture the gale on film, was tested by Mother Nature and Father Neptune. Endeavour experienced pitch and rolls that made the deck incline impossible to stand on without hanging on, even if the ship were still. It was easier for me to stand on the wall of the cabin at the apex of these rolls rather than the deck.

Responding to my query, the first officer informed me that Endeavour was designed to take a knockdown of 120° while retaining the potential to right herself. Fortunately, we did not test her degree limit. I had left one of our camera’s tripods strapped in and set up in the waist of the ship from the previous day’s shooting. Thank goodness I had the forethought to rig it then, because it would have been impossible to do it now! It still took me nearly 20 minutes to mount the head and camera and ready it for filming, normally a five-minute job. The sea was beautiful, in a scary sort of way. Huge rolling swells towering above the deck that already stood more than 15 feet above the surface. Powerful, breaking whitecaps larger than any wave I had ever experienced. The result of a 10-foot whitecap slamming into the hull might be compared to an earthquake followed immediately by a tidal wave with you as the target! In spite of experiencing our own personal tsunamis, Paul and I were able to shoot several rolls of film during this storm that we hoped would wow the folks back on land. While we were involved with making a movie, the crew was involved with keeping Endeavour pointed in the right direction and seeing that we didn’t turn into a submarine. With the wind as strong as it was, and Endeavour screaming down the face of these storm waves at more than 12 knots (a new ship’s record) a unique phenomenon occurred: Air movement went almost completely still in the trough. All the wind was shielded by the wave but continued blowing overhead! Once we started to sail up the other side, however, the wind returned with a vengeance. The storm began to abate after about a day and a half, but we were still roughly 700 miles from Chile and now up at 52° south latitude. We had been blown roughly 200 miles north, and we were running out of sea room, so to speak.

Throughout the next several days, Blake and his crew worked to regain our more southerly position while trying to sail in an easterly direction. Since the lower part of South America tends to curve off to the east, we were able to sail with the wind that we had, even though it was blowing from the wrong direction. We approached the Chilean coast to within 40 miles with this unfavorable wind. Not wanting to be caught on a lee shore, Blake decided to head back out to sea, away from land, while trying to tack south toward Cape Horn. After 34 days at sea and land so close that you could smell it, the decision was made.

“Welcome to the 18th century,” Blake said, with a slight bit of irony in his voice. Retracing our steps and losing more time gave us another look into what the old sailing vessels must have faced quite often. The following day, the wind clocked around to a more favorable direction and we were able to continue our journey. Two days later, in an evening snow storm, we approached the Diego Ramirez Islands, whose rocky shores are the last landfall until Antarctica, and the first land we’d seen in nearly 40 days.

Uninhabited and inhospitable, these islands were a welcome sight and only six hours from Cape Horn.

At 4:30 the following morning, I heard the first officer waking people in preparation to see the Horn. The sight I observed was truly moving! The weather had cleared and the sea had settled, revealing the burnt-orange glow of the predawn sunrise as it silhouetted Cape Horn’s jagged pyramid-shaped peaks. As the crew gathered on deck in the early morning light, there was a hushed reverence observed by all, only occasionally punctuated by the flash of a camera strobe. Here before us lay what some call the Everest of sailing, and by an incredible stroke of luck, we happened to visit during one of it’s more peaceful moods.

As quickly as it settled, the sea changed her mood again with increasing wind and seas, as if to say, “Okay, time to get going.” The balance of the trip was uneventful except for a minor engine problem coupled with extreme offshore winds outside the Falkland Islands. That forced Paul and me, with the help of the crew, to offload our 40-some cases of equipment to a boat that took us into Port Stanley, because we had a morning flight. However, her mechanical hiccup was repaired, and Endeavour and her crew joined us later that day. We had been at sea for 43 days, and it was great to get to say our good-byes over a pint in the pub instead of over the rail of the ship.

John Anderson, who has been photographing ocean wildlife for more than 25 years, lives near the coast in Southern California.

By Ocean Navigator