Monday, 24 October 2011

A passage to Antarctica

In 1989 I returned to Australia at the end of a west-about trade winds circumnavigation in Salvation Jane, a 30ft IOR club racer of the type that was popular in the 1970’s. Salvation Jane was unsuitable for high latitude sailing, which is what I wanted to do next, so I sold her and built Iron Bark. Iron Bark is a Wylo II class 35ft gaff cutter, steel-hulled, designed by Nick Skeates and built in Queensland. I had Jon Flynn, a professional welder, do the structural welding and did the rest of the work myself. The project took nearly six years including time away working for a living. 

 The earliest stage of preparation for the voyage

The first venture with Iron Bark was to sail to Antarctica intending to spend a winter there. After launching in 1997 I sailed to New Zealand by way of Vanuatu and spent nearly a year there fitting out for the Antarctic venture and working to earn enough money to pay for the necessary gear. At that time there was not much written about small boats in high latitudes (in part because this was pre-internet) and I had no relevant experience so was working in something of a vacuum. I assembled what seemed to be a mountain of equipment which I hoped included everything necessary to survive a winter in what is probably the harshest and most isolated environment on earth. Not everything I wanted was available in New Zealand, particularly boots, snowshoes and a sledge, but by October 1998 I had imported what I could not get locally and had everything I thought I needed. Most of what are called adventures are the result of poor preparation and the rest are due to poor execution and I wanted no adventures.

Iron Bark deeply loaded before departing New Zealand

The Antarctic Peninsula is directly south of the South America and 120° of longitude, a third of the world’s circumference, from New Zealand. It is a long approach voyage for a small vessel following the old wind ship route through the west winds of the roaring forties and furious fifties to Cape Horn before turning south to the Antarctic Peninsula. Iron Bark needed to be kept as light as possible if she were to rise to the great breaking seas she would encounter in the Southern Ocean so I could carry nothing but essentials. By the time I had loaded her with food for 500 days and my cold-weather clothes she was deep laden. When I added the rest of the equipment pile, things like a sledge, snow shoes, skis, 600 metres of rope to tie to shore, spares for the boat and engine, tools, pick, shovel, crowbar, ice axe and crampons, it was obvious there was no way Barky could carry all this as well as another 1000 or 1500 litres of kerosene to run the heater through the winter.  I compromised by carrying about 400 litres of kerosene in jerry cans, which I calculated (and was betting my life) was enough for cooking and melting drinking water from ice for 16 months with perhaps enough over to light the heater once a week. The winter looked as if it was going to be cold and dark. If this load proved too much for Barky once I got to sea I could jettison some of it and abandon my plans to winter over.

In an era of instant communication and EPIRBs going to sea without the full range is often held to be irresponsible but I strongly believe that as soon as a vessel has the capability of calling for help it has an obligation to abide by whatever rules are laid down by those providing the help. I do not want to ask permission to go sailing so do not carry any communication equipment except a VHF with a range of perhaps 20 miles. This philosophy has the additional benefit of being cheap and anyway no one could help me if I got in trouble Antarctica in mid winter.

On 17 November 1998 I cleared customs at Lyttleton and slipped out to sea. Four days later we (Iron Bark and I) passed 20 miles north of the Chatham Islands and for the next 10 days ran east between 42° and 44°S with generally fair winds and one short-lived gale. In longitude 150°W we began to edge south, crossing 45°S 18 days out on 4 December and 50°S on 16 December. It was windier and rougher down there and we generally rushed along under low, scudding clouds with deep-reefed mainsail and boomed out staysail or under staysail alone with the best day’s run of 157 miles, which is very good going for a small, heavily loaded vessel.

Iron Bark's route with a circle is for each noon position

The Aries self-steering gear needed repairs most days. It had already done a circumnavigation on my previous boat and was badly worn. I should have replaced it before leaving Australia but the cost was high so I did not. The prospect of hand steering to Antarctica appalled me. I hoped I could make the Aries last the distance.

The waves in the Southern Ocean are always impressive and often frightening. Nothing I have seen in a lifetime of sailing compares to those breaking seas of the forties and fifties south latitude.  Low pressure systems circle the globe unhindered by land and there is little respite between gales.  As a low approaches the wind veers from west to northwest and increases to gale or storm force and the swell builds up.  After two or three days the swell is mountainous and breaking, but the worst comes with the passage of the cold front when the wind backs to the southwest and blows as hard or harder. The new waves from the southwest wind are at right angles to the old northwest swell and the sea becomes a chaotic mass of breaking pyramids of water. These seas will break right over a large vessel or capsize a small one. The only option is to run before it with hatches dogged. Sea anchors, towed warps, hove to with headsails aback and other tactics may work in a North Atlantic winter gale but not in the Southern Ocean. The probability of capsizing is high and any vessel venturing into these latitudes must have a hull strong enough to take the pounding, hatches that will hold through a capsize and everything inside and out secured against movement when inverted. Many yacht’s engine or tanks can come adrift in a capsize with catastrophic effect.

Iron Bark was pounded hard and knocked down far enough to put the mast to be in the water but never capsized. I believe with her short, stout gaff rig, she could probably survive a capsize with the mast still standing but happily have never had to test this.  An ordinary knockdown is terrifying enough. There is a momentary silence as a bigger than usual wave blankets the wind, then a hiss turning to a low roar of the breaking sea approaches followed by a mighty crash as it hits. The boat is thrown bodily to leeward and lands as hard as if she were dropped on concrete then the wave breaks over her, she picks herself up, shakes the water from her decks and carries on. The chances of survival if on deck when such a wave hits are minimal. The safest technique seems to be to reduce sail in a timely manner to a storm staysail or bare poles before the worst of the storm then go to bed. You are unlikely to get much sleep but are not going to be washed overboard while poncing around on deck nor injured by being thrown around the cabin, but there are no guarantees.
The great joy of sailing in the Southern Ocean is the birds.  They range from huge soaring wandering albatross to fragile fluttering Wilson’s petrels and in better weather I stood in the hatch and watched for hours.  Near New Zealand there were Bulwers and Chatham albatross as well as the huge royal and wandering albatross and white chinned and cape petrels (pintados).  Black-browed albatross replaced the Bulwers and Chathams albatross as we left New Zealand behind and white headed and grey petrels appeared. The number of birds increased greatly when we crossed the Antarctic Convergence and pedunkers and prions (whalebirds) as well as giant petrels first appeared and tiny Wilson’s petrels flitted over the surface of the biggest sea. I have watched Willies for thousands of hours all over the world, for they travel widely, and I have never seen one land on the water.

South of 45°S the water temperature dropped to about 4°C and the temperature in the cabin was a chilly 7° or 8°C. There was no more than six or seven hours of sunshine per week, breaking seas kept shut the hatches shut and the humidity was about 100%. Every surface in the cabin ran with condensation and the boat was cold, dank and cheerless. My feet and hands suffered. Since then I have solved the problem of keeping feet warm using boots with felt liners that can be removed and dried but have never come up with something that works for my hands. Amongst other things, I have tried expensive waterproof gloves, thin polypro gloves under latex gloves and mittens. The best solution I have found has been to wear thin polypro gloves under thick rubber gloves like the ones fishermen use. Tying a reef in with these gloves on was often impossible so I often ended up working with bare hands which has left my hands sensitive to cold.

The once or twice between depressions we had a few hours of light winds or even a short-lived calm but mostly we ran before the westerlies under short sail. Brave little Barky made between 780 and 902 nautical mile a week for six weeks until on 28 December, 160 miles south of Cape Horn, we crossed the polar trough into the polar easterlies. The average wind speed dropped by at least 10 knots and the albatross, the quintessential birds of the westerlies, left us and I saw the first blue petrels. Our daily runs dropped to an average of 75 miles and it was often foggy, which was a worry as we were now far enough south to run into ice. The cabin temperature was between 1° and 3°C and everything that was previously damp was now dripping wet, including my sleeping bag. The rain turned to sleet then snow and my hands really objected to the treatment they were getting.

This was my first voyage during where I did not rely on celestial navigation and I blessed my little hand-held GPS. It let me carry on with confidence in poor visibility as I approached land where if I had been depending on astro I would have had to heave-to and wait for the fog to clear. Unfortunately the GPS did not show ice, but then neither does a sextant. Radar, which was beyond my means, is the only answer for seeing in the fog or dark. South of 60°S there is no real night in midsummer so it was only fog that I had to worry about, but there was plenty of that. In poor visibility the only way of avoiding ice without radar is a constant lookout and I got little sleep in the final week and no sleep at all in the last two days as we approached land.

As we approached the South Shetland Islands I was peering into the fog looking for ice with nerves twitching when a minke whale surfaced and blew beside the cockpit. It gave me such a fright that I nearly jumped overboard.  We passed within 10 miles of Smith Island, which is 2103m high and mountainous, without seeing it. My intended landfall was the Melchior Islands in Dahlmann Bay between Anvers and Brabant Islands. The approach is a wide, funnel shaped sound which should be easy to enter in poor visibility and provide some protection as we closed the land.

Moored in Andersen Harbour, Melchior Islands

About 55 miles from the Melchior Islands the wind died and I decided to use the engine, burning some precious diesel to get in while was calm. Mid morning on 3 January the fog lifted a little and I could see land ahead fronted by a maze of grounded icebergs. We weaved through the bergs, which were not as closely packed as they first seemed, into Andersen Harbour in the Melchior Islands. Andersen Harbour looked bleak. It is surrounded by ice cliffs and had grounded bergs in most of the places shallow enough to anchor. I nosed around, found a corner least temporarily unoccupied at by ice, anchored and ran two lines to rocks at the base of the ice cliffs. We had sailed 5410 miles in 48 days from New Zealand to Antarctica. Exploring the area and finding a wintering site could wait. I crawled into my bunk and slept.

1 comment:

  1. Truly amazing and tremendously inspiring, and I hate/fear the sea!

    --You have my admiration.