Tuesday, 6 November 2018

....and north up the Atlantic


It took me 9 days to sail from the Antarctic Peninsula to the Falkland Islands where I arrived on 17 February 2018. The Australian yacht Kraken the British yacht Novara, both of whom I had met in Antarctica, were tied up to the public jetty. I could have rafted outside them but anchored off for a quiet night. Navara had left by the time I had cleared customs the following morning, but I caught up with Kraken's news. They had made a very fast passage of 3-1/2 days from Deception Island to Stanley and had got in before the wind veered as the next depresson arrived. A larger, faster vessel's speed advantage over a small vessel such as Iron Bark is much increased on a short passages if they can make port with a fair wind before the next weather system brings a foul wind. In contrast to Kraken, Iron Bark had to weather three lows on her way from Antarctica to Stanley, each one bringing sustained strong headwinds.
Anchored off Stanley in front of the whalebone arch
I immediately set about reprovisioning and preparing for the voyage north up the Atlantic. The Falklands are at the end of a long, irregular shipping route, so food other than local mutton is expensive and the vegetables are of poor quality. I spent 10 days refuelling, reprovisioning, repairing sails, checking the masthead and in general preparing for sea. A few people from Stanley remembered Iron Bark from her previous visits and I ran into Skip Novak who was in the Falklands to join the training barque Tenacious as a lecturer for a South Georgia voyage, Surprisingly, he remembered Iron Bark from a meeting many years before. My stay in Stanley was was interrupted by a several NW gales. They were well forecast and each time I moved Barky to Moody Brook at the west end of Stanley Harbour, where the protection is better than off the town.
It does not always blow a gale in Stanley
The lateness of the season and poor weather combined to make even a short visit to other parts of the Falkland Islands impractical. I was ready to sail on 26 February but a another gale sent me scuttling down to Moody Brook. Kraken and Iron Bark lay there windbound for five days. Eventually the gale blew itself out and I sailed back to Stanley, topped off the water and on 4 March departed for Ireland.
It is about 8000 miles to Ireland along the sailing ship route and I expected it would take close to 100 days: a long voyage but one with the interest of crossing all the major wind systems except the polar easterlies (which I had crossed on the way from Antarctica). The passage begins in the westerlies, which can be boisterous but with South America only a few hundred miles to leeward, seldom produce really dangerous seas. Next comes the south-east trades, then the South Atlantic variables followed by the doldrums. The North Atlantic is a mirror image: the north-east trades, the horse latitudes then finally the westerlies from the Azores to Ireland. Although I did not expect any really severe weather, it is not going to be a downwind romp; I would be close hauled for several thousand miles.
The wind was a light when I sailed from Stanley, but freshened to a strong breeze from the north-west. Progress was excellent with the wind a point free and a lift from the Falklands Current. A week after leaving Stanley I crossed 40°S, leaving both the Southern Ocean and the westerlies behind. Here a strong, later gale force, NNE headwind set in and I hove-to for 36 hours. I got moving again when the wind eased, but within a day was again hove-to in another short-lived north-east gale.
After that boisterous start the wind eased and the daily runs fell, predictably as we were now in the variables. The days merged into one another as I fell into that timeless routine only possible when the land behind is a distant memory, the land ahead to far off to anticipate and the weather benign. The days had a cadence: all night in thanks to the AIS, a coffee at dawn, breakfast of oats, raisins and nuts, some rather ineffective cleaning of the cabin using seawater, lunch of bread and cheese or similar, reading, then an evening meal usually of soup and bread. I baked a small loaf of bread every other day as in warm weather anything larger quickly gets mouldy.
The passage up the Atlantic was bedevilled by calms
The days were occupied with the endless jobs necessary to keep a vessel on a long passage seaworthy. Most days a sail needed to come down for a bit of stitching, halyards and sheets were checked for chafe and slipped to renew the nip, the steering gear oiled and there was time to read my stock of books. Another fair-weather job was to strip and varnish the companionway and main hatch. Part way through the varnishing a pair of noddies adopted Iron Bark. They spent the days fishing and returned to Iron Bark at night. One insisted on perching on the companionway coaming, tail inboard, streaking the still-tacky varnish with guano. When dislodged it would fly a couple of circuits and return to its original perch and deposit more guano on my new varnish. This went on for three nights. I like having birds around but that one should be thankful I did not have a rifle.
The wind generally had an easterly component to it, but remained light and fluky. The variables merged imperceptibly into the SE trades without any increase in wind strength. Eventually, in 11°S and 700 miles ESE of Recife, the trades freshened to SE3-4 I had the first day's run of 100NM since leaving the westerlies a month earlier. Six days of steady wind carried us to within 50 miles of the equator. There it fell calm – we were in the doldrums.
There were rain squalls in the doldrums, but none heavy enough to fill the tanks
Barky drifted across the line in 22°40' W on 17 April, 44 days out from Stanley. The doldrums are fairly narrow on the west side of the Atlantic and there is a north-setting current to help get through them so it took only four day at an average of 55 miles/day to find the NE trades. Predictably, the NE trades this close to the equator were in fact NNE and we slopped off close-hauled to the north-west, a full four points from the desired course. Initially the NE trades were as languid as their southern counterparts. The combination of light winds and an ever-more foul bottom meant daily runs averaged only 90 miles.
The North Atlantic had calms as extensive as further south
The trades generally veer from NNE to ENE as one sails north, allowing a vessel to alter course in an arc until it is laying the rhumb line to Europe with the sheets free. The sooner this happens, the faster the passage. This year the trades did not veer until I was north of the latitude to the Cape Verde Islands and almost through the trades before the wind veered enough for me to start the sheets. By this time Iron Bark had been close-hauled on starboard tack for so long that gooseneck barnacles were growing on the topside to within a hand's span of the rail. There was also a thick carpet of barnacles on the bottom of the keel where I had been unable to paint when I antifouled between tides before sailing from New Zealand and more barnacles along the waterline where ice had knocked off the antifouling. I scraped those I could reach, but enough remained to seriously reduced our speed.
I scraped off as many barnacles as I could reach, but enough remained to be a significant drag.
There were rain squalls about and some came with enough wind to need a quick reduction of sail, but none heavy enough to fill the tanks. The lack of fresh water mean the everything – cabin, galley, clothes – were grubby. It is difficult to do a proper job of cleaning with salt water.
The trades, never strong, trickled to an end in latitude 30°N, about 1000 miles west of the Canaries. For eight days we drifted through the horse latitudes, which lived up to their reputation for light, fickle winds. The best day's run was 67nm, the worst 21nm. Our accompanying flotilla of Portuguese men of war jellyfish often seemed to be sailing faster than Iron Bark.
Sunset in the variables
On 18 May, in latitude 36°N, 75 days out from Stanley and 350nm WSW if the Azores Islands, the wind freshened and veered to WSW. I gybed, which put us on port tack for the first time in nearly two months. My hopes that this was the start of steady west winds were dashed when the wind veered further to become N6 then, a day later, died away to NNE2. After four days of headwinds, the westerlies returned but were at best fitful. On the few days that the wind was fresh and free I made runs of over 100nm despite the foul bottom, but more often there were light headwinds and a contrary current. Eventually we drifted on to the continental shelf some 150nm off the Irish coast in a glassy calm. There were enough fishing boats about to make drifting with no steerage way unwise so I abandoned my intention of making one last long passage entirely under sail and started the engine. The breeze never returned and I motored the rest of the way to Bantry, anchoring off the town at noon on 8 June 2018, 96 days and 9116 nautical miles out from the Falkland Islands.
Irish landfall at dawn, 96 days from Stanley
Since leaving New Zealand about 7 months previously I had sailed 16,270 nautical miles and spent 165 days at sea. No voyage of that length including rounding Cape Horn is ever going to be easy, but the weather was more benign than I have encountered in those seas in the past, and I got to Antarctica, too.

Thursday, 16 August 2018

A voyage from New Zealand to Antarctica

Having spent the winter of 2017 pleasantly in New Zealand, I decided my next voyage would be to Europe. The obvious route for a wind ship is to run her easting down in the westerlies to Cape Horn then turn north up the length of the Atlantic Ocean. To sail past Cape Horn without making a diversion to Antarctica would show a lack of enterprise, so that went on the itinerary. The voyage promised to be an interesting one of about 15,000 miles crossing all the climatic zones from polar ice to the tropics.

Preparation was simple. Iron Bark is a 35ft gaff cutter, tough, simple and easy to keep seaworthy at all times. As I have been that way before the necessary charts, clothing and gear were already aboard. I checked my long-unused cold weather clothing, snow shoes and ice axe, stowed provisions for six months, slapped a coat of antifouling on between tides and sailed to Opua to clear customs.
A final coat of antifouling between tides before sailing
I sailed from the Bay of Islands on 21 November 2017. A high pressure system over New Zealand brought light easterlies and gave me an easy return to ocean voyaging after a sybaritic winter of coastal idling. For eleven days I beat slowly southeast under all sail to topsail – I do not think I have ever before carried that kite for so long. On crossing 40°S the wind freshened and backed to NW; I had reached the brave west wind of the Roaring Forties. As I bore away for the long run towards Cape Horn the Southern Ocean birds appeared – wandering and royal albatross, five species of mollymawks, pintados, whalebirds and storm petrels of various kinds. The temperature fell and I added another layer of clothes.
For two weeks the wind held fair and never exceeded 30 knots and I made fast, easy progress east and a little south until, in 46°S 143°W, the wind backed to a gale-force easterly with sleet. Beating into this was unrewarding so I hove-to, reckoning that an easterly gale in that latitude was likely to be short lived. It was, and within 16 hours Barky was slatting in light airs and heavy swell.
The westerlies soon returned and I got sailing again. The wind remained moderate or fresh until on 26 December, 36 days out, the first hard gale struck as we crossed Point Nemo, the oceanic point furthest from all land. The gale followed the usual Southern Ocean pattern: strong to gale force north-westerly, a brief lull, then south-west gale to storm force as the cold front arrived, kicking up a nasty cross sea. I ran before it steadily reducing sail until Barky was scudding along at 5 knots under only a small staysail. By evening even that sail was more than she could bear and, much as I hate to waste a fair wind, down it came. The cross sea was battering Iron Bark so I deployed the Jordan-type series drogue and ran off. At irregular intervals a sea hit Iron Bark with stunning force, but she is a stout little ship and took no damage. The wind eased quickly; after 15 hours it was down to 25-30 knots and I started to retrieve the drogue. In more temperate latitudes I would have waited until the wind had eased below 20 knots before doing this but in the Roaring Forties that could be a long while. Hauling the drogue back aboard took four hours of hard work and I was reminded that my shoulder ligaments are not as supple as they once were.
Running before a Southern Ocean gale with drogue deployed
I continued running slightly south of east in generally fresh to strong westerlies and on 29 December, 39 days out, crossed 50°S in longitude 115°W, about 1600 miles west of the Chilean coast. The water and air temperature were both about 10°C, the humidity was 95% and there was no more than 10 or 12 hours of sunshine per week. Every surface in the boat dripped condensation and my bedding and clothes were permanently damp.
Early on 2 January, about 1400 nautical miles WNW of Cape Horn in 52°S 105°W, a particularly vigorous cold front passed over. In a couple of minutes the wind backed from N to SW and increased from force 4 (11-16 knots) to force 11 (55+ knots). The barometer had given some warning of the front’s approach so I had already furled the mainsail and was running under staysail alone. As I scrambled forward to get the staysail off, one of its sheet blocks disintegrated and its remnants punched a fist-sized hole in the plywood dinghy before disappearing over the horizon. I am glad I was not in its path. The sea surface was smoking with spume as I got the madly flogging sail secured, streamed the drogue and ran off.
The wind eased slowly and it was 26 hours before I could start to get the drogue back in. Again it was heavy work as it was still blowing hard. The job was further slowed because it was cold and I was wearing gloves to protect my hands. To retrieve the drogue I lead a line forward from a cockpit winch, through a block near the bow and back to the stern where I tie it to the drogue with a rolling hitch. Hauling on this retrieval line lets me get 8 metres of drogue in before the knot reaches the turning block. I then secure the drogue with a short strop attached near the stern, pull the retrieval line aft to the cockpit, re-attach it and repeat the process. Tying that many rolling hitches with cold fingers in thick gloves is tedious.
There was another gale on 8 January that briefly reached force 9 (40+ knots). Again I stripped Barky of all sail and ran before with the drogue. The sea was never more than rough and in hindsight there was no need for the drogue. Running under storm jib or bare poles would have made better use of the fair wind and saved me the labour of hauling the drogue back aboard. As it was, I wasted 21 hours before I could retrieve the drogue and get sailing again. My excuse is that I was intimidated by the very low barometer (958mb) and the latitude (55°30'S, about 30 miles north of the latitude of Cape Horn).
Two days later, on 10 January and 51 days out, I crossed the latitude of Cape Horn, but was still 630 nautical miles to its west. Unexpectedly the wind was moderate and I set the topsail for the first time in weeks. It was not up for long.
I was finding the succession of gales and dismal, grey weather depressing. In these conditions it is difficult to do much more than the minimum necessary to keep the boat sailing and myself fed and rested. The cabin was grubby, my clothes were damp, cold and dirty and I had not enough energy for more than basic cooking so the food was unappetising. It was tempting to take the easy option and round Cape Horn as quickly as possible then turn north into the relatively protected waters of the South Atlantic. However I gathered up what remained of my resolve and turned south towards the Antarctica.
On 16 January, 57 days out, I crossed the Antarctic Convergence and the water temperature dropped from a comparatively mild 8°C to chilly 2°C. I piled on another two layers of clothes and took to lighting the cooker before going out to reef or furl a sail. This was to let me warm my hands between bouts of sail handling. When taking in a reef I found that by the time I had pulled down the tack and hauled out the clew my hands were too cold to function. They were completely numb and useless, not merely painful. Once they reached this stage I dived below to warm them (painfully) over the cooker then went back on deck to tension the halyards and get a few reef points tied before my hands again refused to function. Then down below and warm them before going out again to finish tying the reef points with perhaps one final warm-up before coiling down and tidying up. It was a painful process and my fingers took months to recover. Twenty years ago I would have scorned taking breaks to warm up while reefing and got the job done by beating my hands on the sail until they regained some circulation and continuing on, but damage from repeated frost nips and the general effects of ageing now made that impossible.
Aside from the cold, the final southward leg towards Antarctica was easy enough; the maximum wind was 30 knots and the sea never unduly rough. This was iceberg territory and with visibility generally less than a mile it was difficult to get much sleep. The first ice loomed out of the mist when I was 120 miles north of my intended landfall in the Melchior Islands. Shortly afterwards the wind died and I started the motor. This far south it was never so dark that it precluded me seeing an iceberg before it was dangerously close, even in foggy conditions, so I motored on through the night. As Iron Bark has no radar or electronic autopilot, motoring requires standing in her open cockpit to steer while peering into the mank. I was  cold and tired when I reached the Melchior Islands 26 hours later.
As I entered Andersen Harbour in the Melchior Islands, I saw familiar a red sloop anchored behind a large grounded iceberg. It was Sarah W Vervork, Henk Borsma's charter yacht; we had first met in exactly the same spot 19 years earlier. Henk recognised Iron Bark and greeted me with ‘Hello Trevor. You are just in from New Zealand I would guess, and need some fresh food, same as last time. Come alongside and I will pass it across. Welcome back to Antarctica.' It had taken me 60 days and I sailed 5912 miles to get there.

I did not anchor near Sarah as the ice was moving about enough to require an anchor watch, always difficult for a single hander. Instead I motored across Anderson Harbour and into a narrow channel that has a well protected nook with room for several yachts to moor. There were already two yachts there, rafted together with anchors ahead and lines ashore. They sprung apart to allow me to slide between them and tie up without needing to run any lines myself. Thus I was securely moored and enjoying food, drink and company aboard the Chilean/American yacht Ocean Tramp within 10 minutes of arriving, but soon slithered back to Iron Bark and bed.
We lay rafted together for 36 hours, waiting for suitable weather for the other yachts to cross the Drake Passage. I used the time to top up the water tanks, scrub the cabin deckhead and do some laundry using water from a meltwater stream issuing from the ice face. Running water is a rarity in Antarctica even in summer and melting ice for water is a tedious affair besides using a lot of kerosene, so I made free with it while I could. I also patched the dinghy using epoxy and plywood. The epoxy had to be preheated and needed a hot water bottle to keep it warm until it kicked off.
The long approach voyage from New Zealand meant I needed to keep Iron Bark light enough to rise to the great breaking seas of the Southern Ocean, which limited the amount of fuel that I could carry. I expected to do a lot of motoring as in Antarctica as there is generally no wind or far too much of it so one tends to move about by motoring in the calm periods. In addition it is difficult to make much progress under sail if there is ice about, particularly if working to windward. Consequently I reserved most of my fuel for the engine and rationed use of the heater to two hours per day. This meant cabin was generally chilly, but in summer in Antarctica a heater is more of a luxury than a necessity.
When the other two yachts in our raft sailed north for Argentina I left the Melchior Islands too, but went in the opposite direction, down the Gerlache Strait and the Neumeyer Channel to Port Lockroy. Port Lockroy is on Wiencke Island and a place I know well, having spent the winter there in 1999. Gerlache Strait and Neumeyer Channel are flanked by icecliffs and mountains and are noisy with the constant rumble of avalanches and roar of ice calvings that fill the channels with brash and growlers.
There was little wind and I motored all but a few of the 50 miles to Port Lockroy. The weather was clear and the vistas stupendous. Antarctica is a place like no other. Everything is on a gigantic scale: the scenery, the wildlife, the ice. What is undoubtedly impressive from the warmth of a cruise ship is almost overwhelming from the deck of a yacht, especially one that has made the long, stormy approach voyage from New Zealand. That approach  seems to me to be a more fitting introduction to Antarctica than the relatively short dash across Drake Passage from South America.

Once in Port Lockroy I moored in Alice Creek in the same spot that I had spent the winter of 1999, frozen in for eight months. Alice Creek is a narrow cove separated from the main part of the bay by a shallow reef with a skerry on it. The creek's entrance is about 10 metres wide, crooked and there is no room to swing to anchor inside, but it is a safe berth once moored with lines to the skerry and the shore. Mooring requires quick dinghy work with the warps, which can be difficult when single handed.
Iron Bark in Alice Creek, January 2018

Iron Bark in the same berth in spring 1999
 I spent a few days in Alice Creek working through the inevitable list of items needing attention after a long passage, then made an attempt to push further south to the Argentine Islands. Heavy ice at the entrance to Le Maire Channel discouraged me and I returned to Alice Creek. If I had been more persistent I probably could have found a way through but my heart was not in it and the attempt deservedly failed.

I enjoyed being safely moored in the familiar environs of Alice Creek, surrounded by wildlife while overhauling the rig, patching sails and occasionally socialising with the crew running the Antarctic Heritage Trust Museum on nearby Goudier Island. The weather was mostly bleak and grey with sleet and a little snow, but there was a comfortable familiarity to sound of thousands of Gentoo penguins a few metres astern, and even to the pungent smell of their rookery. Most days I went for a walk and used a couple of calm days to sound Alice Creek from the dinghy for a sketch chart. Whenever the weather was fine I rushed out and took numerous photographs, thus perpetuating the myth that in summer Antarctica is a perpetual blaze of brilliant sunshine. Actually there is about one sunny day in ten.
A calm and sunny day - a rarity in Antarctica

A much more typical summer day
Although the museum in the former British Antarctic Survey base on Goudier Island was only a few hundred meters away, I only visited if invited. The staff were generally too busy with cruise ship passengers to have time to socialise. The museum is occupied from November to March by a staff of four, double the number that ran it during my visit in 1998-2000. Then and now it was deemed too dangerous for quasi civil servants to have a dinghy so they are confined to their tiny island except for visits to cruise ships. Then and now I lent them my dinghy so they could cross to Jougla Point to stretch their legs in new surroundings.
The strongest winds in Port Lockroy are always from the north-east. Most summer gales on the Antarctic Peninsula come from that quarter and the wind accelerates as it funnels between the mountains that flank the Gerlache Strait and Neumeyer Channel. By the time it reaches Port Lockroy, an unpleasant gale force wind in the general area is  accelerated to storm force, making Port Lockroy much less attractive as an anchorage than it appears on the chart.
The skerry deflected the bigger bits of ice and the rest rumbled
harmlessly down Iron Bark's side
There were two such storms while I was in Port Lockroy. I was safely moored in Alice Creek with a skerry close ahead to deflect the bigger bits of ice, but a yacht anchored in the main part of the harbour had a hard time of it in the second blow. That vessel was Kraken, a lovely 50 ft aluminium yacht entirely built by its owners, Guy and Allison, including the 22m carbon fibre mast. The ice cliffs that ring Port Lockroy were actively calving and the wind sent growlers and brash ice spinning across the harbour towards Kraken. After being repeatedly bashed by growlers weighing several tonnes, Guy and Allison decided to move to the lee of Goudier Island to get out of the stream of the ice. Although it was out of the stream of ice, the holding in their new berth was poor and when the wind increased to 50-55 knots gusting 65 knots, their anchor, a 55 kg Rocna, dragged. Their engine was just powerful enough for them to return to their original berth where the holding was good but now had even more ice streaming by. They spend what must have been a very unpleasant night hoping the anchor would hold and that they received only glancing blows from the bigger bits of ice. The wind was far too strong for me to use a dinghy so all I could do was peer into the horizontal snow and hope Kraken was safe.
Kraken and Iron Bark  in Port Lockroy on the only sunny day we had there together
On 3 February I sailed from Lockroy for the Melchior Islands, followed a few hours later by Kraken. I moored in my old spot in the East Channel nook with an anchor ahead and lines ashore, and was later joined by Kraken. The ice cliff immediately opposite our berth had an unstable pinnacle  that looked ready to collapse into the sea at any moment with a strong chance that the resulting the waves and ice might damage the moored yachts. Guy and Alison decided they would rather be in Deception Island than looking at that ice cliff and left the following day.
I remained in Melchior, preferring to wait for a break in the weather in a protected berth despite the risk from the icefall. Deception Island has poor holding in scoria and is subject to locally accelerated wind and can be a difficult place for a lone sailor in a vessel with a small engine. Shortly after Kraken left the charter yacht Kotic arrived from Ushuaia and anchored near Iron Bark. Her skipper, Alain Caradac, remembered Iron Bark from her 1998/2000 voyage to Antarctica. Kotic remained anchored nearby for several days waiting for the persistent strong north wind to ease. One evening the serac collapsed with a mighty roar and both yachts surged violently in the resulting wave and were jostled by brash and growlers from the fall, but neither were harmed.
Kotic and Iron Bark in the nook. The serac behind Iron Bark's mast collapsed
with a roar shortly afterwards.
The number of cruise ships has increased enormously
Kotic has an Iridium phone so each morning I would row across for a coffee and to get a weather forecast. Yarning to Alain about changes in the Antarctic Peninsula since his first visit in 1984, he thought there was now generally more wind and rain, less snow and fewer clear, calm days. Over the past 20 years the number of private yachts has remained steady at about six per year, the number of charter yachts has increased considerably, and the number and size of cruise ships has expanded enormously. Iron Bark was an anomaly in 2018 (and probably  in most years). She was by a considerable margin the smallest vessel to visit Antarctica that year, the only yacht sailed single handed and was the only vessel to have sailed direct from Australia or New Zealand rather than making the 500 mile dash across Drake Passage from South America. As far as I could ascertain only two yacht have wintered in Antarctica since I did so 19 years previously.
Heading north from the Melchior Islands, bound for the Falklands
The strong north winds eventually relented and I sailed north from the Melchior Islands on 9 February 2018. For three days I made good progress in strong south to south-west winds. I hove-to the first night as it was now dark enough for several hours to make ice a real danger. Sixty hours after leaving the Melchior Islands, while running north under staysail alone in a gusty southwest 25-35 knot wind, Iron Bark was knocked down far enough for her mast to tap the water. We were crossing the Antarctic Convergence at the time and perhaps that caused that odd breaking wave. Conditions were certainly not rough enough to justify heaving-to and wasting a fair wind, so I carried on.
Three lows passed over in the next six days, bringing winds up to gale force. The first of these lows began with a prolonged squall that briefly reached storm force (45+ knots) and frightened me into running off and deploying the drogue. Within an hour the wind had decreased to barely gale force and the drogue was unnecessary, but it was too windy for me to retrieve it so I wasted nearly a day of fair wind. It was still quite rough when I finally retrieved the drogue, with a few waves breaking right over the boat. Whenever I saw a bigger than average breaking wave approaching, I quickly belayed the drogue and dived below for shelter. Once I was a bit slow closing the hatch behind me and the wave chased me below. Not much water got in – a couple of dozen strokes on the pump cleared the bilge – but water jetted forward soaking the interior as far forward as the mast and wetting some odd places, including filling the baking dishes stored in the oven. The next two lows barely reached gale force and I rode them out hove-to so as to lose as little ground to the east while retaining the ability to get moving as soon as the wind moderated.
Reaching north in the Drake Passage with a deep reefed mainsail
At times it looked as if I was being driven so far east that beating back to the Falklands against the westerlies would be scarcely worthwhile. The next ports to leeward were Cape Town or St Helena, both over 3500 miles away. Although I had plenty of food and water, I did not want to make such a diversion as it would add months to the voyage to Europe. Thankfully, eight days out and about 150 miles south-east of Stanley, the wind eased enough to make it possible to use the engine to get to windward. For 32 hours I plugging to north-west under power in light airs and a heavy swell. Frustratingly, when Stanley was close enough to see the houses, the wind increased to north-west 25-35 knots. This is really too much wind for Iron Bark’s 15hp engine, but I opened the throttle to maximum and crawled into the shelter of Port William. The two hours to took make those four miles were hard on the engine and wet and miserable for me, but once in Port William I could set more sail and give the engine a rest. I sailed down Port William, into Stanley Harbour and anchored off Stanley at 1430 on 17 February, nine days from Antarctica.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Meanderings in Australia and an unplanned trip to New Zealand


Iron Bark and I arrived in Western Australia from Newfoundland on 31 March 2016 after a slow and not always easy passage of 171 days.  I spent three months in Fremantle catching up with family and friends while refitting Iron Bark and in late June sailed northward for the Kimberley coast of Western Australia. The Kimberley has an area of 430,000 sq km, which is a bit bigger than Germany, with 40,000 people, 100,000 saltwater crocodiles (no one counts the smaller Johnstone River crocodiles) and 40,000 humpbacked whales. I like places with more wildlife than people. Most of it is rugged country with no roads; transport is by sea or helicopter. As it is 1500 miles to windward of any city, the number of yachts is trivial though there are a few charter boats and small tour ships. The tidal range is up to 12m, the largest in Australia, with tidal streams to match. Large areas of the coast are unsurveyed and the turbid water makes pilotage by eye challenging. Altogether it is a fascinating place.

The passage northward from Fremantle was straightforward with generally fair winds, as one would expect given the latitude and time of year.  Unusually, I had a crew for the first 230nm (nautical miles). John Clarke, an old friend, came along as far as Geraldton, which took two and a half days. When servicing the Aries wind vane in Fremantle I had reassembled it incorrectly so we had to hand steer most of the way to Geraldton. That was no great hardship with two of us and once at anchor it did not take long to fix the Aries.
I continued north from Geraldton with a fair wind that held for 12 days. Then, having got within 150 miles of my destination, Yampi Sound, the wind backed and strengthened to E7 (east force 7, 30-35 knots). This was a dead noser and I spent two and half uncomfortable days bashing into it, making minimal progress; I should have hove-to and waited it out. Eventually the wind eased, allowing me to beat into Yampi Sound and come to anchor in Myridi Creek on 16 July, 18 days from Fremantle. It was a pleasant, uneventful passage whose details would soon blur without reference to the logbook.
Myridi Creek

Yampi Sound is about 18nm by 4nm and separated from the Timor Sea by a fringe of islands. The spring tidal range is 9m. By the standards of the Kimberley coast, Yampi Sound is a busy place. There are abandoned iron mines on two islands, a barge selling fuel is moored in of its creeks and there is a permanently occupied camp in another creek. I soon met Scottie, the occupant of this camp in Silver Gull Creek, and we got on well. The camp has a tank fed by an artesian spring that is the most reliable water source for many miles and provides a swimming pool/bath heated to 32°C. This brings a trickle of tourists from charter yachts and Scottie sells them mother of pearl trinkets to pay for his provisions.
After a week of pottering around Yampi Sound, I sailed around for King Sound to have a look at an unsurveyed bay irresistibly named ‘The Graveyard’. The tidal streams in King Sound are strong and at times Barky was doing 10 knots over the ground in winds so light that she barely had steerage way. ‘The Graveyard’ is so named because an island near its entrance was used by the pearlers to bury their dead, mostly divers killed by the bends before the need to decompress was understood. Inside ‘The Graveyard’ I found a good anchorage where I spent four weeks grinding and repainting Iron Bark’s decks, exploring and charting ‘the Graveyard’ and scrambling over the islands and mainland hills. The country surrounding ‘The Graveyard’ is harsh and inhospitable, even by Australian standards, and I saw no evidence of past aboriginal occupation; no rock paintings, no discarded spearheads, no fire blackening of the roof of rock shelters. The monsoon rains had failed for the past three years and ‘the Graveyard’, like the rest of the Kimberley, was drought-stricken. The steep hills are composed of blocky siliceous sandstone covered with spinifex and half-dead scrub. Spinifex is a spiky, tussocky grass with sharp, siliceous tips that penetrate the skin then break off and become infected. I have spent a lot of time working in spinifex country and still find it unpleasant. I also found the clouds of voracious sandflies and the unremitting heat discouraging, so my hiking was limited.

I sailed back to Yampi Sound late in August and stopped at Silver Gull Creek to visit Scottie and top up with water. Yarning with Scottie, it emerged that he had not been out of his camp for a year and wanted to visit his family as well as do some shopping for luxuries like a VHF radio and a pair of boots. He needed someone to look after the camp while he was away. Would I do it?
It was too good an opportunity to refuse. Camping at Silver Gull Creek for a month would let me get to know the area in a way that I never could on short trips ashore. I need time to get to know the landscape and its animals in order to appreciate an area. That is why in the past I have chosen to spend a winter in one place in the high Arctic or Antarctica rather than attempting to cover the maximum amount of territory in the time available. Admittedly, the sea being frozen for 7 or 8 months during the winter had a lot to do with not moving on in those cases.
Scottie arranged a ride to town on the fuel barge that was anchored a few miles away in Dog Leg Creek when it made its next trip to Derby. That was due in two weeks; I promised to be back before then and set off to look at Camden Sound in the interim. It took me a couple of days to sail the 100 or so miles there, anchoring along the way at Deception Bay and Samson Inlet and arrived in Camden Harbour on 3 September.  
Ruins of the Government Camp at Camden Harbour
In 1864 this was the site of the first attempt at colonial settlement of the Kimberley district, by farmers from eastern Australia. The country is rugged, rocky, covered by spinifex, has no permanent water and little topsoil. The settlement failed with considerable loss of life and the survivors retreated south leaving a few ruined drystone chimneys and graves to mark their efforts. It is a testament to the harshness of the country that the area remains uninhabited.

The lonely grave of Mary Pascoe, who died during the failed attempt to settle in Camden Harbour.

I spent ten days there exploring the shores and sounding the harbour for a sketch chart. The numerous shoals and muddy water made it difficult use Iron Bark for much of the survey, so I did most of it from the dinghy using a hand-held echo sounder, and rowed 20 or 30 miles in the process. The area was charted at a reconnaissance scale in 1970, but since then two islands have disappeared and the harbour has shoaled considerably. My sketch chart should help if visiting the area, but go warily as I undoubtedly missed some shoals. There is a large resident crocodile to watch out for when landing from a dinghy.
Low tide in Silver Gull Creek
High tide. The dark shape on the raft is the resident crocodile.
I returned to Silver Gull Creek on 10 September and Scottie departed to sample the joys of civilization for the first time in a year. The nearest float hole for Iron Bark was 2 miles down the creek and out of sight of the camp, so I brought Barky up the creek and moored her opposite the camp and let her dry out on each tide.

Nigel the barking owl
Scottie’s camp is quite sophisticated, with a waterproof tin roof, solar panels to run a fridge and even an intermittent internet connection (satellites, sunspots and cloud cover permitting). The camp has a dirt floor and there are no walls so the local wildlife wanders through, uninhibited. Resident in the kitchen area was a small group of dunnarts (marsupial mice) and three Kimberley rock monitors. 

Kimberley Rock Monitor resident in the kitchen
These lizards are about 700 or 800mm long but very thin (a big one might weight 500gm) and are quite shy. Intermittent visitors to the kitchen included golden tailed tree rats (endangered so tolerated though they make a dreadful noise running back and forth on the roof at night) and greater bowerbirds. The bowerbirds are bold and thievish, with a particular liking for blue kitchen wipes that they use to decorate their bowers. There were a lot of other birds around the camp including a barking owl living in a tree overhanging the kitchen. The wallabies in the surrounding scrub seldom came into the camp. Various reptiles including large skinks and a variety of snakes were occasional visitors. Most of the snakes were fairly harmless (a python, a whip snake and the like), but I did see a taipan, which is of the world’s more venomous snakes. I threw rocks at it from a safe distance. There was inevitably a resident crocodile in the creek below the camp. It was a wee timid thing just over 2m long and I never managed to get within 150m of her. In contrast, her neighbour in the next creek (saltwater crocodiles are territorial) was a big, aggressive bastard who chased dinghies. Apart from the wildlife, there was a steady trickle of visitors, and it was rare to go three days without seeing someone.
Silver Gull Creek

Scottie got back to Silver Gull on 13 October by flying across Australia to Derby then hitching a ride for the final 150 miles with a fisherman. I took Iron Bark down the creek on the next tide and two days later sailed for Fremantle. The North West Monsoon had set in so the first part of the passage, from Yampi Sound to North West Cape, was to windward. That took two weeks with long tacks to seaward, during which I sailed 1200nm to make good 650nm. By the time I got to North West Cape, the prevailing summer southerly winds had set in along the west coast so the remaining 1000 miles to Fremantle was also to windward. That took another two weeks. I was getting tired of life on a heel with the hatches dogged by the time I arrived in Fremantle on 12 November, having taken 28 days and sailed 2579nm to make good 1600nm, but it was an easy enough passage.
After sorting out a backlog of personal matters and reprovisioning, I set out from Fremantle on 20 December 2016, hoping to get around Cape Horn to the Falklands before winter set in, with the option of diverting to Tasmania or New Zealand if delayed. The voyage would be largely in the Westerlies of the Southern Ocean and likely to be rough. I expected to have to beat south from Fremantle to reach the Westerlies. I thought this might take five or six days, but it took 18 days. For that time there was nothing but strong headwinds frustratingly interspersed with calms and I was 900 nautical miles southeast of Albany, in 45°24’S, 131°11’E, before I found fair west winds.
As expected, the Westerlies were boisterous and almost immediately rose to gale force. That first gale briefly reached SW9 (south west 45-50 knots) the eased to W7 and I ran off under bare poles with the Jordan series drogue astern. I streamed the drogue as much for comfort as for safety. The gale only lasted 12 hours but the next depression was on us within 24 hours. The wind quickly built to violent storm force, NNW11, so I streamed the drogue again. Iron Bark ran steadily before it with no sign of broaching and shipping very little water while I cowered below. The seas were huge, majestic, terrifying and worthy of all that has been written about the greybeards of the Roaring Forties. I have done quite a few miles in the Southern Ocean and the seas there never cease to overawe me. They are far bigger than anything I have ever seen in the North Atlantic. Some were so big that Iron Bark almost becalmed in the troughs. When that happened the tension came off the drogue, and on three occasions there was enough slack for one leg of the drogue’s bridle to take a turn around the Aries servo paddle. Twice I managed to free it; the third time I was not quick enough and the whole lower leg of the Aries was torn off.  The shear coupling in the Aries paddle proved to be stronger than the shaft it was meant to protect.
 I have a fairly full set of spares for the Aries gear but not enough to fix this, so was henceforth without any self-steering. In the short term this was not a problem as while running with the drogue astern the tiller is lashed and self-steering disengaged. In a vessel of Iron Bark’s size there is little option to running off once the wind reaches force 10 (45 knots), at least in the sort of seas found in the Southern Ocean. To remain hove-to in those conditions is just too dangerous; the strain on the rig and sails is enormous and a great weight of water breaks aboard. In the Atlantic, where the seas do not have the same weight and size, the upper limit for Iron Bark to remain hove-to is probably slightly higher, perhaps near the top of  force 10.  Lying ahull in force 10 or above seems to me an invitation to a rig-destroying knock down and I now regard a drogue as essential equipment for Southern Ocean voyages. From my limited experience a Jordan series drogue is by far the best option, despite some problems with damage to the cones after prolonged deployment.
Iron Bark running with the jib backed for self steering
Having lost the self-steering, I now had to decide what to do next. Although she does not have an electronic autopilot, Iron Bark can of course be sailed without a self-steering gear, either by hand steering or with the sails trimmed sails for balance so she will steer herself. The first option was unattractive; I had no desire to be tied to the tiller for 16 or 18 hours per day for a month or more. Trimming the sails to achieve self-steering rather than for maximum speed is not difficult but slows Iron Bark down by about a knot when running before a fair wind. My timetable to get around Cape Horn was tight when the self-steering was functioning. Now, with the loss of 25 miles per day, it would be early winter before I was past that draughty corner. I decided to give up on Cape Horn and head north to refit.
The nearest land was Tasmania, about 650 miles off, but I did not want to close that lee shore in the conditions prevailing; besides, New Zealand seemed a more interesting option. For the next two weeks I continued east, keeping south of 45°S to give Tasmania a wide berth. Running off with drogues in heavy weather is an excellent tactic, but it requires sea room. Almost immediately after deciding to head for New Zealand another force 10 storm hit, which I rode out by running off under bare poles towing the Jordan drogue. There were two more gales of force 8-9 before I had made enough easting to start edging north up the Tasman Sea toward better weather and warmer water. Again, I ran before both these gales under bare poles with the drogue deployed. By this time the drogue was looking pretty battered, with many of its cones frayed and some burst, testimony to a very rough passage.
On 23 January, in a fair weather interval between gales, I found the bobstay detached from the bowsprit and trailing from the cutwater. The inboard end of Iron Bark’s bowsprit sits in a fitting on the stem head and the bowsprit is merely a strut in compression without the long section on the foredeck between the bitts and gammoning that stiffens a traditional bowsprit. To my considerable surprise, despite the loss of the bobstay the bowsprit was barely quivering. I lost no time rolling the jib up to get the strain off the bowsprit then crawled very carefully down that now dubiously supported spar to re-attach the bobstay to the cranse iron by rigging a tackle in place of the missing rigging screw. The loss of the bobstay did not endanger the mast, as Iron Bark is a cutter and the inner forestay gives the mast its forward support. However losing the bowsprit and thus ability to set sail from its end would have made it difficult to get her to steer herself, at least until I could rig a jury bowsprit. I believe the bobstay detached when the shackle attaching its rigging screw to the cranse iron lost its mousing and worked loose.
Sunrise in the Variables
Becalmed off the north of New Zealand
On 29 January 2017, 39 days out from Fremantle, we crossed 40°S and left the Southern Ocean behind. The rest of the passage to New Zealand was straightforward but slow. Being in the Variables, the wind was seldom steady in direction or strength.  Daily runs varied from 20 to120 nautical miles, ending with an extended calm near the North Cape of New Zealand. After three days of creeping around the north of New Zealand on little more than the flap of the sails I finally got within motoring range of the Bay of Islands. Having no electronic autopilot, motoring in a calm required steering by hand and I spend 38 tedious hours at the helm in the next two days motoring the final 150 miles to Opua. Prior to this I had spent less than an hour at the helm in the 27 days since losing the self-steering gear; my preference for sailing over motoring is practical as well as aesthetic. I secured alongside the quarantine dock at Opua at dusk on 7 February, 49 days out from Fremantle.
I spent a couple of weeks in the Bay of Islands, enjoying fresh food and the company of some interesting voyaging sailors and doing a few odd jobs on Iron Bark, then sailed 45nm down to Whangarei to haul out and build a new self-steering gear. The upper section of the Aries was undamaged so I used its vane and bevel gears to drive a trim tab gear on the rudder. Unfortunately a tiller attached to the stub of the Aries shaft turned the trim tab in the opposite direction to that required. The method I used to reverse the action is effective but not elegant. After testing the new self-steering I returned to Parua Bay at the entrance to Whangarei Harbour for some final modifications and to visit my cousin Russell Smith and his wife Rosalie. I took the bits to be modified to their house and converted their garage to a welding shop while using their laundry and being wined and dined most hospitably.
Parua Bay is open to the SE and the next night it blew hard from that direction. Some squalls were well over 50 knots and during one the anchor dragged about 100 metres. By pure luck we did not hit anything, but we were uncomfortably close to a reef when the anchor finally held. I started the motor, retrieved the anchor with difficulty, then, with full throttle giving me bare steerage way, crept 400m offshore where I laid a 75lb fisherman anchor in addition to the 60lb Manson Supreme that had dragged, and never budged. It goes without saying that all this was in horizontal rain and complete darkness without a single shore lights to give me a reference point.
     With the urgent work on Iron Bark done, I declared a holiday and spent the next four months wandering up and down the coast from the Bay of Island to the Bay of Plenty, catching up with old friends and making new, and visiting favourite anchorages. The Bay of Islands is a celebrated sailing ground, but there are scores of other pleasant bays and harbours along the shores of Northland and the Hauraki Gulf. Good anchorages are close together and the only place I used a marina was Tauranga. Except in the immediate vicinity of Auckland, the anchorages are seldom crowded and most of the time Iron Bark had them to herself. 
Getting under way.  Photo by Helena Willes
    It was a pleasant, unhurried time. While anchored in Oneroa Bay on Waiheke Island, I met Helena, the owner of a handsome wooden launch called Margaret Ann that she (Helena) was in the process of restoring. We got on well so went for a sail together, spending a month pottering between the Hauraki Gulf and the Bay of Island. With the approach of winter most of the anchorages were empty of yachts but the weather was generally fine. The area is well charted and safe anchorages are not far apart, which makes for pleasant, undemanding, sailing. The weather forecasts are good so there was no reason to be caught out by bad weather; we rode out a gale anchored snugly in Kiwiriki Bay on Great Barrier Island and another at Te Kouma on the Coromandel Peninsula. The evenings were cool but Iron Bark’s home-built stove will burn almost anything and keeps the boat warm and dry. In this part of New Zealand there are plenty of pinecones to be scavenged and that was our normal fuel, augmented by coal when in a built up areas where foraging is difficult.

Great Barrier Island looking down towards Port Fitzroy

I particularly like Great Barrier Island, which has a good harbour, few people or roads and some fine walks. It is about 55nm from Auckland, which is too far for most yachts to go for a weekend and so generally uncrowded except in mid-summer. The island was extensively logged early in the twentieth century but is now largely re-forested and the beds of the tramways that criss-crossed the island to get the timber out now make excellent walking tracks.
The old tramways make fine walking tracks
The fishing is good, too, and there is a very useful facility at Smokehouse Bay in Port Fitzroy. The Smokehouse Bay amenities can only be accessed is by sea: there is a bathhouse with a view of the anchorage (hot water from a wood-fired boiler, find your own wood, axe provided), a fish-smoking house, laundry troughs and an excellent set of piles to dry out against for a bottom scrub, all with running water from a spring-fed tank on the hillside. It is on privately owned land, covenanted for public use and has no caretaker. It is maintained by voluntary work by the landowners, the crews of passing yachts and a little financial help from the Auckland yacht clubs.
Smokehouse Bay

On the 7 June we returned to Waiheke Island for Helena to start a new job. Waiheke Island has a population of about 6000 so is rather busier than I generally choose, but I spent a pleasant couple of months there while I did some work on Margaret Ann before retreating to the quiet of Great Barrier Island. Back on Great Barrier, I dried Iron Bark on the piles in Smokehouse Bay to scrape the barnacles off her bottom before moving on to Kiwiriki Bay. There I spent several weeks in bush-surrounded seclusion, tramping the hills, catching up on maintenance, contemplating last year’s voyage and planning next year’s.