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.