Silence is Black and White Day (Day 1 in Antarctica)
Anyway, here I am in Antarctica. The first thing to strike me about being here was the noise. There is none. The second thing was the realization that everything was one of two colours, black or white. So there we are, silence is not golden after all but black and white. I haven’t heard such silence below mountain tops and it is so refreshing. Although not as refreshing as that satisfying noise a can of beer makes when it’s opened. It has not been quiet all day though. Just a couple of hours before arriving at Deception Island I was sitting outside beating into a 39knot blizzard squinting through my new glasses trying to spot icebergs. It was freezing. So cold that the snow was accompanied by ice getting blown around in the wind. The spray off the bow was freezing on its way down the boat making itself nice and sharp for its impact into my cheeks, nose and ears. It’s hard to believe I am now sitting outside in a little cove in Deception Island in my T-shirt at 1am. Despite the cold I endured earlier today I can’t complain about the guests though. Aside from the occasional head buried in a bucket the guests seemed to love the idea of sailing through a southern ocean storm, albeit from inside a heated pilot house. They took it in good spirits, pausing in between bouts of filling up the bucket to smile at the camera. It was good for them to see how difficult the sailing can be after a dream crossing from Argentina. The rest of the passage was calm or perfect sailing and I even spotted 3 whales (2 fin, 1 Minke). Enough for now, I am off to join the others for a drink to celebrate our arrival. I will try to take some photos tomorrow.
A hot bath in cold water day (day 2)
After getting to bed at 0200 the guests suggested that if anyone gets out of bed before 0900 they would get thrown overboard. Music to my ears as I had to sleep in the pilot house to keep an eye on our position and make sure we didn’t drag anchor. Unfortunately I didn’t get into a good deep sleep all night as not only was it broad daylight all night long but I was also waking every half an hour to check our position. The real kick in the teeth was when people started to get up at 0700. You can pretend to be asleep all you like but there’s no actual sleeping while people are walking around muttering and making tea right next to you. So at 0800 I eventually gave up and sat up. After doing a few chores and inflating the zodiac I was interrupted by rumours of upping anchor and headed across deception to a steaming bay for an Antarctic spa experience. Soon enough I am loading the guests into the Zodiac and dropping them off on the beach armed with their towels. Laura has a cold and Mag wants to stay onboard so that leaves me with the opportunity to haul the Zodiac up on the beach and hang out with the guests. We see two chinstrap penguins and a Crabeater seal on the beach among a few ruins from a Chilean research base destroyed 40 or 50 years ago. Despite the steaming sea nobody seems that keen on actually going for a swim. They start complaining that it might be bad for their heart or that they forgot their shorts. I decide I should go swimming regardless although I may wait until just before we leave in case it’s really cold, also because I am a little scared as I am not a strong swimmer and I keep seeing seals swim past. I am sure everyone was doubting me and I set off to explore some ruins. Almost immediately I noticed someone getting undressed on the shore. Martin is preparing to swim. I run to the beach and join him. As I run into the water it is absolutely freezing. I can see an iceberg a few hundred metres away and I feel like I have been conned. But then as I head along the beach and duck under it is suddenly scolding hot. I feel my feet burning and dive back toward the cold patch I was just in. It turns out there is a trick to swimming in volcanic Antarctic waters and I don’t know it. I keep jumping from boiling water to freezing water and it soon wears me out. Back on the shore I crawl out and grab my towel feeling a bit shocked and soon notice a tender full of Spanish cruise ship passengers headed to the beach. I can only wonder what was going through their head as they arrive in Antarctica for the first time and find an English man jumping about and yelling in the water. But there we are, come to Antarctica and get burnt swimming next to an iceberg.
The rocks are alive with the sound of humming day (day 3)
I got to sleep in bed last night and I made the most of it. I made sure I was one of the last people up drinking wine and almost the last up out of bed. I knew nothing was going to happen before midday (these guests are in favour of relaxing) and so didn’t get up until 0900! So waking with a smile on my face I was happy to clean the boat a bit before taking the guests ashore. Laura still has a cold (I think she has caught man flu) and Mag was keen to stay behind as the wind picked up to 35knts today so I was lucky enough to get to lead the guests on a hike ashore. We landed just a couple of hundred metres away from where the PA is anchored, hauled the zodiac up out of the tidal range by some Crabeater seals and set off. Volcanic mountains, snow and ice is the entire island. No plant life or any colour other than black and white (even the seals are white, penguins black and white and birds black and white). We saw a few Chinstrap and Gentoo penguins as we hiked along the beach, got to a flat plain, sat down for a cup of tea and a biscuit. The guests sounded like they were ready to hike back so I ran round the next headland just to see what there was. Around the corner I found a small bay which was a dead end but it contained a fantastic collection of rock formations not too dissimilar to the rocks at Indian Village, Port Stephens, Falkland Islands. Great rocks 100ft high with their base eroded away to just 20cm thick so they had the classic giant mushroom look and cliff tops with a big 10m circular spires every 50m and small 2m spires ever couple of metres creating the vision of a great castle. The other guys soon noticed I was gone and came to see what I had found. As they approached I enjoyed the last few moments of silence in this spectacular place and soon noticed it wasn’t silent at all. Each rock, tall or short, flat or round was humming, buzzing or hissing. The guests arrived to find me laying with an ear to the ground and then running to press my ear to another rock or feeling the temperature of all the rock pools. There was gas bubbling out of every pool and hissing out of rocks. Volcanic islands really feel alive when you explore them. They feel like they could change shape, appearance or move at any moment and it’s very exciting explore them. Rocks explored, we began to head back. I was all up for a hike back over a ridge and up to a peak but some of the guests were keen just to go back the way we came. Unfortunately I would have to be back to the zodiac first in order to ferry guests back to the boat. So the group split into two, some going the exciting way and me going the quick way. Back onboard the guests insisted we were done for the day and sat down to watch James Bond and drink wine. These guys are definitely growing on me. Now tonight we are splitting the anchor watch between the 3 of us and then up at 0600 for a 100nm sail to another island. Not quite the 9 person split of the anchor watch I was hoping for but it’s definitely an improvement on keeping the watch myself all night.
Whale soup day (day 4)
We got up at 05:45 this morning, raised anchor and set sail for Enterprise Island. Initially, the wind was strong and the sky was cloudy but we pressed on in the hope that the weather would improve. We were in luck. As we made our way down the west coast of the peninsula, we found a whole new colour in Antarctica. The colour was blue and it came from the sky! Clear blue skies and sunshine all day, 5 knots of wind and the most incredible views. The air is so clear you can see for 60nm and the mountains are so high you can see them from 60nm away. Icebergs littered the Gerlache strait of all shapes and sizes, some had sheer cliffs with penguins clinging on half way up using their beaks as an anchor (how did they get up there? maybe evidence of flying penguins), some great circular icebergs with arches showing glimpses of a turquoise pool in the middle looking so appealing, some easily mistaken for a mountainous island. Best of all, you can’t look at an iceberg without some bloody whale leaping out in front of it fighting for your attention. Humpback whales were everywhere. I stopped counting at 20 but I estimate I have seen about 6 an hour and I have been on deck looking for them from 1100 until 2000. Initially I would try to observe the whales’ movements and stop the boat roughly where I expected them to surface next. But after a short while I realized this wasn’t necessary because they all swam over to see the boat anyway. The best sighting was a group of 3 whales, 2 adults and one calf. They played around the boat, ducking underneath and popping out the other side, rolling around alongside and covering everyone in whale breath. I ran up the mast (didn’t even stop to put a harness on) and got the best view in the house. From half way up the mast I was able to look down through my polarised lenses and see every inch of all 3 whales through the water. It was really fantastic. Now dinner over we are counting down the last few miles before we reach Enterprise Island. One of the few places in Antarctica where we don’t have to anchor as there is a big old wreck in the bay which we can tie up against and of course we don’t have to worry about arriving in the dark as the sun never sets. Antarctica is a barren place but after a day like today one can’t help but love it.
(Day 4 continued)
We arrived at the wreck last night; it was a fairly tight space to moor between the wreck and a cliff face and there are no real charts around here so we did a fly by with me up the mast spotting rocks and shallow patches with the height advantage. A safe route found I climbed back down and got ready to jump onto the wreck. It did not look easy to get onto or get around on. All rusty and leaning over showing us nothing but a smooth wall with the occasional port hole the size of a dinner plate. I didn’t much fancy my chances of getting aboard without falling into the sea so at the last minute I whipped up a lasso and caught the bollard high up on the wreck first shot, all within seconds. Feeling rather pleased with myself I ran back whipped up another on the stern, climbed onto the pushpit and went for another bollard, this one a little higher and further away. It was not as successful as my first lasso and I missed at least the first 4 or 5 times but it didn’t matter as my first line was holding us alongside nice and steady. Two lines on I could now climb across and find places to tie the other two. It turns out the wreck wasn’t completely unoccupied though. Immediately 50 Antarctic terns rose up and began their attack, they organised themselves into squadrons and flew in from all sides. As I swung my arms at one squadron another would dive down from behind. For once I wasn’t tempted to sit outside with a beer in the evening. I did however go outside to check the lines at about 0100 before going to bed and discovered the sea was just beginning to freeze around us. There was 0 knots of wind and I was standing in my t-shirt watching the sea freeze over. A rather surreal situation.
Today I we had a 50nm journey to make to our next stop. However it was such a nice place to wake up we didn’t want to leave without at least a chance to look around. I inflated the Kayak and Laura went in the kayak and I ended up in the zodiac again. The zodiac cruise was fun, I took the guests to see some seals, penguins, collect ice for gin and tonic, got a couple of them driving and explored lots of icebergs. I wanted to go find some whales but nobody else seemed over enthusiastic about the idea. Back on-board we untied the lines and set out for our next stop. I stowed the lines and fenders, did a couple of other routine jobs and took my place running the deck, sailing the boat. I seem to be doing roughly 90% of the navigating, steering, sailing at the moment but I am not complaining about that as I love it. There was only one hick up en route when I found my path completely blocked by frozen sea. From mainland to island there was not an inch of liquid sea so the channel was completely impassable. I called up Mag, gave him the helm and ran up the mast with a camera to video us driving into and onto it just for poops and giggles. Once thoroughly wedged into the ice we took it in turns to rope up and go for a walk along this frozen sea. We even got the football out but it wasn’t really solid enough for that. If it had just been a bit thicker we could have all had a game without having to be tied to halyard etc. . . but that didn’t matter because we lost all interest when a group of 5 Minke whales started popping up right by the edge of the ice and swimming around underneath us! Another amazing moment that many people I’m sure will never believe happened. Moving on we sailed a bit further and then I set about cooking dinner. I just about got it finished and then set straight about getting the boat ready to dock here. Docking is a complicated process in this part of the world as the ground won’t hold an anchor and there are no pontoons so we had to dock by running line to rocks ashore from the four corners of the boat. This is not an easy process and by the time I had finished I was soaked up to my waist with icy water and my boots and even my waterproof socks were full to the brim. I suddenly became very aware that I had not sat down since I got out of bed in the morning. I ate breakfast and lunch with one hand whilst working with the other and now all I had left to do was restow the forepeak (very hard work and a little bit horrible) and help change a diesel transfer pump. I was too tired to argue that we should do it in the morning as it was already 2200 and fortunately Laura helped out with the forepeak. I had a fantastic day sailing, the scenery was the best yet. Really breath taking. But it’s hard to be so enthusiastic right now, I need to sleep.
Whoops forgot to name day 5. . . Sea ice football day? Standing on a piece of ice while whales swim under it day? Any suggestions?
D(unking)Day (day 6)
Got up, had some breakfast, nice and relaxed. Took the guests ashore at Paradise Harbour (where we were moored) to a Chilean Antarctic Base. They were so welcoming and made us really feel at home. We were first invited in for a Coffee in leather sofas where the base commander joined us and then proceeded to give us a tour of the base. The tour included showing us a helipad which they use to help yachtsman and airlift casualties back to the nearest doctor (very unusual for these bases to offer support to sea farers) couple of nesting Gentoo Penguins with a rare genetic strand which makes them beige instead of black and a stray Adelie in the Gentoo colony. As we were headed back toward the dock the base commander pointed out a small hut which they were currently working on. It looked very much like a store room when we looked through the door and I was more interested in a little penguin chick near me but the commander insisted we looked upstairs. Up I went and was overjoyed to see more sofas, a bar and a table covered in glasses of Pisco Sours. After a bit more quizzing the commander very openly told me that the base was run entirely by Navy and Air force personnel and it was run entirely for political reasons. We know this to be true for most bases in these parts but others try to disguise themselves as research bases. The commander said they loved having guests round for BBQs, drinks and parties and that the more people who knew they were there and talked about Chile’s presence in Antarctica the better. This was very honest of them and I thoroughly enjoyed my visit. Back on board I changed into a dry suit and set about untying our shore lines. Shore lines back onboard and with the boat in the outer bay I headed back to join it, jumped onboard and helped put things away. One of the jobs that needed doing was to drop our rudder back down which we had lifted to ensure it didn’t get hit by any rocks as we backed out of the shallow bay. Unfortunately although we had it lowered down we didn’t seem to be able to get the locking pin to fit in. I tried to slip away to take my dry suit off before anyone spotted the obvious answer but I was too late. “Hey, Edd’s in a dry suit why doesn’t he jump in and see what’s wrong”. Oh bugger. I reluctantly agreed, donned a mask and approached the back of the boat. I decided I could reach if I just hung over the back while someone held my ankles so with people in place to pull me back out I lowered myself in, head first to waist height. There was ice floating around and the cold was shocking as I went under. I had a look, moved the pin a bit and realised I needed to go back up to communicate what needed doing. Struggling back onto the boat the cold suddenly hit me HARD. As soon as my head was out of the water I was hit by the most painful brain freeze of my life. It was intense and I shouted rude words as I curled up in a ball and clutched my head. 20 seconds later I was able to stop shouting and realised I was dizzy and felt a little bit sick. A minute later and I was almost good again. I told the guys what needed doing and prepared myself for dunking no.2. This dunk was longer and consequently I almost threw up as I curled up on the deck for a second shouting. Unfortunately the problem still wasn’t fixed. I came up with a plan so that I could tie ropes to certain parts of the rudder really quickly and then do the hard work with just my arms in the water and keep my head out. Much pain later and this plan didn’t work either. I said I had done everything I could from the water and that the problem lies elsewhere. We raised the rudder and dropped it again and it all worked perfectly this time, locking pin in place without any dunking and we were underway. I will never forget the pain in my head after mere seconds in that icy water. Before I swam in water warmed by volcanic activity or didn’t get my head wet but this was pure icy sea which froze at night and my head was under for prolonged periods. I was dizzy every time I went in and I can’t imagine if anyone fell in the water here they would stand a chance of surviving more than 1 minute. Recovering someone from the sea often takes a lot longer than 1 minute. Thinking about the pain whilst writing this is enough to make me feel sick even whilst sitting here at the computer in a heated room in shorts and t-shirt. Later as we were sailing to our next stop in Port Lockroy (a British heritage base, previously run by BAS) we encountered all the usual old Antarctic tricks; whales, 9000ft high mountains visible from a thousand miles away, incredible icebergs of every shape and size all of which would fit into an art gallery, seals, penguins, glaciers, avalanches, sunshine and calm. We were also treated to our first leopard seal. I know a little bit about leopard seals, they have very large heads, can open their mouths incredibly wide and are vicious. Nothing however can prepare you for seeing them in the wild. There are certain creatures which just look evil. Designed to kill. Sharks are one example, snakes, crocodiles and Leopard seals definitely belong in that category. Its head looked like a 2ft snakes head, the body was large and muscular and it had the look of a predator in its eye. It wasn’t watching us with curiosity but seemed to be waiting for one of us to make a mistake and fall in. Around the corner from the Leopard seal we entered the Gerlache strait which we had a 12nm straight line in. The wind was up to 10 knots (bugger all really) and it was directly behind us but we decided to turn the engine off and sail with just our Genoa down wind. We sailed at 4 knots, my favourite speed to sail, nice and slow, relaxing in the sun, gin + tonic in hand, I put my sun hat on and lay down on the boom for a spot of sunbathing. I looked up and spotted Laura asleep in the zodiac, Mag sitting on the foredeck, Peter and Luka asleep on the side deck, Niko asleep in the cockpit, Martin on the helm with G+T in hand, Ozren asleep in the pilot house and Wolfgang asleep in his cabin. Very relaxing, my kind of sailing. The wind died and everyone was so relaxed we just sailed slower hoping we would never reach the turning point. Whales came and went. Penguins fell off of icebergs. Seals slept on icebergs. Mountains boomed with the sound of avalanches and Glaciers creaked with the sound of miles wide and 200m high ice grinding the rocks as they slide down toward the ocean. Round the corner we entered Port Lockroy and dropped the hook. There was one yacht when we got here and another has joined us, Pod Orange (said in a French accent) who the boat has had a long relationship with and who we carried sail for from Cape Town to Stanley. The first yacht Sarah W something (which from a distance I thought said Stick It Upwind and didn’t understand who this Sarah was everyone was talking about) had guests ashore when we arrived, visiting the station. We watched as the skipper got into the Zodiac to drive to the island and pick up his guests. We watched him as he shot across the harbour at full speed. We watched him as he headed straight toward some really obvious rocks. We watched him as we thought he must be about to turn or know a short cut through them. We watched him cringing as he drove straight into them at full speed and stopped dead with enough force that we expected the driver to go flying out. We watched each other as we tried to work out if everyone saw it or we were just imagining it. We radioed him to see if everything was alright and then watched as he didn’t reply because he was too busy trying to pry himself off the rocks with an ore. We watched him as he very slowly paddled out, started the engine and went around the rocks and to the island at a snails pace, limping with embarrassment. We laughed, clinked our glasses of wine together and went to eat our roast lamb silently making sure we committed to memory the location of all the rocks in the bay before we go ashore tomorrow.
Gin day (day 7)
Unfortunately I am writing this a bit late and am starting to forget some of the little things which happened on this day. We woke up in Port Lockroy and went ashore to see the museum etc. . . I know that much. Whilst the guests were in the museum me, Mag and Laura all went to have a coffee with the guys who live there. Eventually the staff from the museum came to get us saying the guests were complaining that they thought we were off enjoying Pisco sours in a bar somewhere only crews, officers and captains were allowed to go. In reality we were sitting in the kitchen of the staff quarters. The guests opted out of an optional short hike to a couple of huts round the corner and we moved on to Plenneau. On the way to our next mooring the sun came out and we saw a rather picturesque bay with a glacier in it. I motored us in there, switched the engine off and we all enjoyed a nice G+T drifting in the ice. The Glacier would crack and roar regularly but we never saw any new ice fall off. The guests had a couple more drinks and we moved on so we could stop for dinner. Round the corner we came into a bay which was littered with icebergs. Thousands of them had been blown into this bay and got stuck there. It looked like the workshop of an iceberg maker with all his different concepts, half-finished projects, offcuts and a few masterpieces littered around and we could hardly sail between them there was so many. Whilst a little way out in safe water I launched the zodiac and went ahead to check the depths and find a way in to where we would moor. There are no charts for where we were headed so it took a while to find the right bay in what seemed like a maze of rocks but once we were in there Mag recognised it and we set about mooring. I told Mag to wait outside in the big boat so I could set up strops on rocks for us to moor up to but when I had barely begun he charged in. Fortunately there was no wind so although he came in before I asked him to we weren’t too rushed. With dinner finished we found an incredibly clear piece of ice (so clear you could hardly see it). It was quite incredible and we set about breaking pieces off and drinking gin. Mag said we didn’t have to get up early as we only had 15nm to travel the next day so we should enjoy the evening. A bottle of gin later, me and 3 of the guests are the last men standing and we decide to go to bed. It is 0200 and just as I get into bed Ozren calls me and tells me a leopard seal is eating our lines. It was. Sitting there chewing our lines it took no notice of our attempts to scare it and I conceded that we should wake Mag up and maybe keep watch to make sure he doesn’t break one. Mag barely got up before saying it would be fine and we should forget about it and went back to bed. I wasn’t so convinced and sat up another hour watching the leopard seal chew various parts of various lines. Finally he headed off to sea and I got to bed.
Killer whale day (day 8)
0800 Mag wakes me up and tells me to lay the table for breakfast. Considering he told me to enjoy the evening and that we wouldn’t have to get up early I was rather pissed off. I set breakfast up, cleaned the boat and went back to bed. We set off after lunch and apart from sighting killer whales we had a reasonably uneventful trip. I sounded our way out of the bay again in the zodiac, got back onboard the big boat and took the helm. After about an hour we weren’t far from our destination and a great fin rose out of the water maybe 1km away. This fin was at least 1.5m tall and was followed by a few smaller fins and a few tiny fins. A pod of killer whales complete with calves. Unfortunately they didn’t get too close but I stopped the boat and watched them for a while anyway. I was very excited. At the next bay I re-launched the zodiac and set about finding a deep route in to the next anchorage, another maze of rocks navigated we came to a tiny little bay near a Polish base. This time I Mag didn’t bring in the big boat before I was ready for him and as a result it was a very smooth mooring. I had four lines, one from each corner of the boat, securely fastened to the shore before he had even finished dropping the anchor. With the boat secure I climbed on board, lifted the zodiac on deck, put a few things away, refuelled the zodiac, looked at my watch and decided it was time for dinner.
We are now sailing back to Argentina so at least I can be off watch and sleep for some of the day. I am feeling a bit bruised, battered and tired at the moment but at least I should be in the pub on my birthday and I have found all it takes to make some new friends in Ushuaia is to wear shorts and flip flops and the whole town thinks your some crazy surfer dude and buys you a drink.