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North Sails 2021 Innovation - LEADERBOARD

S/V Sea Wind sails to the penguins - RoRC Report from Antarctica

by Susanne Fyr Hellman 7 Jun 05:09 UTC
Capatain Lars © Susanne Fyr Hellman

Lars and Susanne take us along with them on their journey to the ice. Antarctica, the southernmost continent, is a virtually uninhabited, ice-covered landmass. You will want to read all three parts...

Towards Cape Horn

We weigh anchor at nine o'clock. It is a quiet morning and the sea is calm and the rays from the sun are reflected in the mirror-like surface of the cold water. It feels totally unreal that we are finally on our way to the mythical Cape Horn and about to start our journey toward Antarctica. The wind slowly increases from the northeast and fills Sea Wind's sails and she starts to pick up speed. The cliffs and rocks here are black and jagged and provide a barren and inhospitable impression but when we see the albatrosses gliding around the Cape Horn rock the impression softens and it becomes like a beautiful dance where the sea, the wind, the birds and rocks swirl together. We hail the Cape Horn lighthouse keeper on the VHF to announce that we are now leaving Chile and that our next destination is Antarctica. He wishes us a safe journey and asks if there is anything he can help us with in terms of weather forecasts etc.

Many ships have for centuries experienced Cape Horn's stormy weather, high seas and poor visibility but we are lucky. The weather is reasonable the visibility is good and we have a following wind. Lars and I have quite different approaches to passing this cape. Since childhood, Lars has read about all the famous sailors who rounded the Horn and dreamt of the opportunity to do so himself. For him, it's an emotional and magnificent moment to finally have his dream fulfilled, while for me, who started sailing late in life, it is just another headland that we have to pass. The nature is beautiful, but the sensational feeling of passing Cape Horn does not really strike me. It may be that I simply do not understand the magnitude of what we are doing right now.

Drake's passage

Drake's passage is considered one of the most dangerous waters on the planet and the thought of sailing from Cape Horn to Antarctica in a small sailboat with a small crew would probably make many sailors shudder with discomfort. Of course, we also experienced how the stomach tickles due to the challenge of sailing in these stormy waters. We had prepared ourselves both practically and mentally, but do not know how the Drake will treat us. Legend has it that it is either "the Drake lake" which means it is no wind and is like a calm lake or the more frequent, "the Drake shake", which means that the sea is in rebellion and the sailing feels like being inside a washing machine. We can only hope that it will be more "lake" than "shake". One has to take into account that as an average there's a depression (read gale) passing the Drake every third day. If you're lucky you will be hit by only one.

For us the 500 nautical miles down to Antarctica was a smorgasbord of weather systems. Rapid wind changes, two gales, calm, rain, fog and beautiful weather every now and then in between. For the most part, it was OK and possible to endure but one of the days life at sea felt like something I could live without. Sea Wind heels and stomps its way into the rough water. From time to time she takes a violent hit with a sound like she's going to break into pieces. I know Sea Wind is strong and patient, but today I feel small and fragile. I'm tired and a little sick of the arrhythmic and hard shocks when Sea Wind is fighting with Neptune. I look out the window and see only a grey-white inferno of sea and sky. It is no longer a visible line between the two elements but they blend into each other in a violent dance. The sea looks so awe-inspiring out here on the Drake, like nowhere else we've sailed. The sea is white, cold and demanding. No crew is allowed to pass without doing its very best. If you want to get to the penguins, you have to bite the bullet and just go for it until you arrive. That's what I'm thinking.

The screaming sixties is showing its true self and the sound from the wind screaming in the rig penetrates your body and soul. A small lump of anxiety spreads in my stomach. Am I being silly, or is it just common sense to feel as small as you actually are out here on Drake's passage?

After five days we finally arrive in Antarctica and we can see the high snow-covered mountains towering above the horizon in front of us. Suddenly, in the early morning light, I see something moving in the water. A large number of tall, black, pointed fins moves majestically towards us. It's Orcas, or killer whales, steaming in the opposite direction. A whole pod of around fifty individuals comes in a united troop swimming north as we continue to sail south. It's dawn and a light snowfall starts while the black fins disappear behind us on their way out to open water. This magnificent welcome committee compensates for all the hardship we have endured on the Drake. What a magical moment.

Exploring Antarctica

During our research, while planning this trip we received lots of tips and handmade sketches describing bays and ports that could be used as anchorages. Our first "port of call" is the Melchior Islands and it's indescribably beautiful. We are surrounded by snow-capped mountains, the water is crystal clear, the gulls and terns play their serenades, it crashes and rumbles when the nearby glacier calves every now and then. Inside the bay, it is completely quiet and it's nice to rest after the passage. The following morning is somewhat disappointing though, if not entirely unexpected. We wake up to the sound of the outboard engines from a row of RIBs coming from a nearby cruise ship. The passengers are taking pictures of us and the seals in the bay. The calm subsides when the cruise ship leaves and we can once again indulge in just enjoying the magnificent surroundings.

The next few days offer fantastic weather and we continue south to Cuverville Island. Here we will finally get to see the long-awaited penguins. Not long after we leave Melchior we see the first penguins in the water. They jump or porpoise up and down in the water, just like small dolphins. It's Gentoo penguins out on a hunt to catch food for their young. Their small black and white bodies shine as they move quickly along the boat. They are so cute. They are so nice. My little wonderful penguins, finally! We have sailed to the penguins and here they are. Further out we also see how a humpback whale blows and then like in slow motion dives below the water surface. What an experience. Now the wind picks up a bit and we can roll out the genoa and sail on a nice beam reach. The cold Antarctic water rushes along the hull of the Sea Wind and we sit on the railing in our warm and cosy Anti-Exposure-Flotation coveralls and feel like the happiest sailors in the world.

When we arrive at Cuverville Island we see that the whole island is full of Gentoo penguins. You can see groups of penguins strolling around and building or improving their nests. Tracks in the snow on the mountains are discoloured by brown penguin poop on their way down to the sea. They look so funny when they are rocking and jumping down the mountain on their short legs and those who do not have the strength or will to walk are sliding down on their bellies. In the "next door" anchorage, just north of the thin isthmus, large icebergs have run aground and there is a beautiful panorama scenery with the snow-capped mountains far away on the horizon.

When you go ashore the recommendation is that you should try to keep a distance of at least five meters from the penguins, but they are so many and so fearless that you will soon be completely surrounded by penguins. After a day with the penguins, we continue south towards Paradise bay. We are now starting to encounter more and more floating ice and Sea Wind is pushing forward like a small icebreaker.

Sea Wind's riveting account of sailing to Antarctica continued... Catching Covid in Antarctica?

Most of the anchorages in Antarctica are tight and narrow and do not provide enough swing room for being on anchor. Instead, you have to secure the boat with long shorelines in every direction to stay in a fixed position. Here in Paradise Bay is an Argentine research base now invaded by Gentoo penguins.

After some fantastic days in Paradise Bay, we woke up to a real winter country. It is snowing profusely and Sea Wind is covered in a thick white blanket and the bay is full of ice of all shapes. Now the water temperature has dropped below freezing. It feels like a dream when we slowly push our way through the ice while large snowflakes fill the air. The snow and the haze muffle all sound and all you hear is the ice crashing against the hull when Sea Wind slowly makes its way forward.

It's 20 nautical miles to Port Lockroy and Alice Creek, which is our next stop. On our way, we motor through the beautiful Neumayer channel. Not only are there beautiful glaciers and mountains, but in the channel, we also get to see large humpback whales up close while they are feeding on the abundance of krill present in these waters.

In Port Lockroy we have our first experience of an Antarctic storm. Many anchoring bays are surrounded by high and steep mountains and when the strong catabatic winds rush down the mountains it accelerates and hits the boat abruptly with incredible force. Eventually, we manage to ride out the storm with four lines ashore in different directions and two anchors from the bow.


We could not believe that one of the toughest challenges in Antarctica would be Covid! When we were anchored at Hovgaard Island, we were invited to dinner on a French boat and here we, unfortunately, became infected with Covid. The French crew was asymptomatic but obviously carried the virus from another boat they had visited three days ago. Within three days we were both lying with fever and cough and were seriously short of breath.

Not only is Covid now ravaging freely in Sea Wind, but a new gale from the southwest is also forecasted. We realize that we cannot stay where we are as the bay is already full of ice and open to the southwest. We need to get to an anchorage where we can rest and recover from Covid, not having to get up in the middle of the night to handle ropes and battle with ice. Ten nautical miles south of us is the Ukrainian base Vernadsky where there is a very protected anchorage in a bay named Stella Creek. While the fever and cough are ravaging our bodies, we stuff ourselves with ibuprofen and jump into our floating coveralls and leave the anchorage.

When we think we've seen a lot of ice, Antarctica always manages to offer a new dimension. Slowly, slowly, Sea Wind moves forward by pressing, cutting and pushing ice. I stand in the bow to guide us past the largest ice floes. Sometimes we just have to stop to catch our breath and think about whether we should really continue or not. What if, instead of putting ourselves in safety, we expose ourselves to more danger by getting stuck out here in the ice? In some places, the icebergs and floes are so large that it's impossible to continue and we have to find alternative routes. Sometimes, despite everything, we manage to enjoy all the beautiful ice formations and the penguins and the seals on it.

We have some sailing friends who were in Antarctica many years ago and they wrote in their blog that they tried to avoid hitting anything larger than a football, but for us, it was rather to avoid hitting something larger than a football field. We did not see any open water, everything was covered with ice of all types and shapes. Sea Wind sometimes went up on the ice floe only to slide down back again but sometimes an ice floe got stuck under the keel and then it was just a matter of hitting reverse and backing off.

We finally arrived at Vernadsky, but instead of safety in the protective anchorage, there was a large ice floe covering everything. Together with three other sailing boats we simply had to put our stern anchor on the ice floe and some bow lines to the nearest rocks. From now on there will not be a quiet moment for the next two days. We will have to push icebergs with our dinghies, move shorelines and change anchorages. When the storm had passed, we leave Vernadsky and start our return journey north. Our Covid infection eventually subsides after ten days and we can once again start to really enjoy our Antarctic adventure.

"Devil's Island" Deception -- as if Covid wasn't enough, hurricane-force winds, a grounding, a rescue, and a swim in frozen waters follows...#OCCAdventureSailing

Our last stop in Antarctica is the volcanic island Deception. It's very different from all the other islands we visited in Antarctica. It is a semi-active volcanic island and you anchor inside the crater itself. The whole island is covered with black volcanic sand and soft round hills surround our anchorage. We know that it will blow hard from the west for a couple of days so we anchor in a small, sheltered pool, another crater inside the crater, called Stancomb cove. It's tight here and not much swing room so we have to attach four shorelines to prevent Sea Wind from ending up on the sandy beaches.

For several days we have gale and storm winds and when the wind turns more south, we get it right into the port side of Sea Wind and she heals over about 45 degrees in the gusts. The anchor that was originally placed in the direction of the wind no longer does any good. The wind is roaring down the sandy hills and brings with it both volcanic sand and rocks. In the strong wind, our wind generator finally retired itself. The blades eventually break away and smash two of our solar panels. The yaw shaft is bent and the bearings wasted. Lucky enough the blades did not hit any of us while flying away. That could have been fatal. When the wind reaches hurricane strength in the gusts, the boat lies on its side and the force on the ropes and anchors is enormous. We have laid out extra anchors, but believe that we need to get the main anchor up in the wind direction. While I pick up the main anchor Lars is at the helm. Suddenly Lars spots that one of the lines has ended up under the keel. With the gear in neutral, the wind quickly brings the boat closer to the shore and Lars realizes that he must do something before Sea Wind runs aground. He put the gear in forward again and soon there is the unmistakable sound of a line stuck in the propeller!

Now "good advice is expensive". I try to set the main anchor again to reduce the drift, but it's too late. Sea Wind runs aground. We are in Antarctica, it is only a few degrees in the water, and it blows 50 - 60 knots. This is not a good situation! Luckily, we now see a small cruise ship in the outer bay. Lars sends out his first (and hopefully last) May Day and they promise to launch a tender boat and come to help us.

Before help arrives though we manage to put a second anchor from the dinghy and winch Sea Wind afloat. The crew from the tender boat helps us to get the main anchor out in the wind direction, but the boat still seems to be stuck in some way. Lars then realizes that the other end of the line that is stuck in the propeller is connected to our third anchor. We must cut the line stuck in the propeller before there is any damage done to the propeller, shaft or gearbox.

I jump in my dry suit and go down the steps in the stern. I think for myself that this is completely crazy. I'm going for a dive in freezing water while it blows 50-60 knots and also starts to get dark. The wind again reaches hurricane strength in the gusts and the small bay is like an inferno of wind, water, foam and sand. I manage to cut the line and now Sea Wind finally settles in the direction of the wind. Two tired heroes can, after five hours of total chaos, go down below and start the heater and have an invigorating whiskey.

The following day I have to dive into the water again to get rid of the mess of line wrapped around the propeller. Eventually, everything is resolved, the storm has passed and we can set sail and sail back to Chile without any further problems.

Our eight-week sailing trip to Antarctica offered everything we wished for and a little more. It was beautiful, magnificent, close to nature, challenging, scary and absolutely, absolutely wonderful. Once we have digested all the impressions of Antarctica, the next adventure awaits. Patagonia's beautiful channels along the west coast of Chile.

If you want to read more and see more pictures from our Antarctic adventure, check out our blog.

This article has been provided by the courtesy of OceanCruisingClub.

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