“It’s going to be blowing 60 knots, with 10 metre seas”, Zeek says very matter-of-factly. We all just look at him in silence, searching for his emotion to know if we should be worried, or totally petrified. I try to imagine what it would actually feel like to be blown by such strong gusts and bounced around by a swell – or multiple competing swells – twice the height of the tiny yacht. That’s force 11 – a violent storm with exceptionally high waves. “The sea is completely covered with long white patches of foam. Everywhere edges of wave crests are blown into froth”. I had heard people talk with wide eyes about crossing the Drake Passage in 40 knot winds, so was 60 knots suicide? The notorious 500 miles passage from the Antarctic peninsula to Cape Horn takes around 4 days and 3 of those were likely to be “rough”. But we have flights to catch from Ushuaia so there is no way to delay our departure more than a day. Zeek comes up with a plan to try to avoid the worst of the tempests which has the bonus of us spending an extra 24 hours in Antarctica.
Our home base the Spirit of Sydney yacht
We’ve made the most of our 18 days here and paddled 16 of those, covering close to 200 nautical miles. 4 times we camped overnight on the ice, feeling totally at peace and privileged to be sleeping on such a pristine, unspoilt wilderness, with views of craggy glaciers, towering icebergs and the resident penguins and seals. Our paddles varied from tracing the contours of ice cliffs a hundred metres from shore to visiting noisy, smelly, vibrant colonies of Adelie, Gentoo & Chinstrap penguins. From weaving in between low rocky islands, to open crossings dotted with multiple icebergs. We paddled 5 miles south of the Argentine islands to a small group of islands rarely visited due to the increase of ice that impedes travel further south. We bashed and dodged our way through dense rafts of bergy bits from cup-size to chair size, and temporarily adjusted our compass bearing to weave around larger bergs. The 5 mile journey to our southernmost point felt committing and wild and I hoped the settled forecast would hold true. A gentle swell rolled under the carpet of ice, and unencumbered by it’s dense load exploded onto the small rocky islets that broke up our journey. Get out points are rarely easy or abundant along the icy coast of Antarctica and lunch was spent at one of only 2 options – a rocky almost-beach on a small island that we shared with a couple of lazing fur seals. Back on the water, mist then snow descended and the mainland coast which disappeared from view behind soft swirling snowflakes. We noisily crashed though an almost solid barrier of ice and found our way around a barrage of grounded icebergs in the direction of land. Steep black spires slowly took shape again as we followed the impressive skyline north for a couple of miles. At the end of an atmospheric day, the yacht provided a home, a warm haven with fresh vegetables and delicious meals even at the end of our month away.
Blue sky days
Our last day on the frozen continent was back in the Melchior islands, where we began 18 days earlier. We’d already explored 3 of the 4 main islands on day 1 so my idea of fun was a 3 mile crossing due north to a tiny island that was shrouded in mist, and beaten by the swells that our anchorage in the heart of the islands filters out. As we paddled north, the increase in wave height and chop was instantaneous but the confusion of rebounding waves soon died down. It was an act of faith in our compasses for 45 minutes as nothing but bouncy waves and white sky lay ahead. Finally we heard waves crashing on the mystery island and 10 minutes later it’s black craggy outline appeared directly ahead as if in a mirage. Although I was confident of hitting our target, I confess a feeling of relief and excitement at finally seeing the rocky land. I tried to convince everyone that we we on a grand adventure and actually everyone enjoyed the challenge and variety – or did a very good job of humouring me. Our last day ended with some paddling along low icecliffs and black rocks, strewn with fur seals. Every so often we spotted a lone chinstrap penguins standing nonchalantly on the rocks, stragglers left behind after all the other parents and chicks have taken to the sea. Like us, they were amongst the last visitors of the Antarctic summer, perhaps like us, reluctant to leave the magical icy beauty of this frozen continent. We are amongst the last humans to leave Antarctica before the inhospitable winter sets in. Apart from a few scientists, everyone else migrates north with the whales and the Arctic terns.
Some of the happy campers!
Perhaps the timing is why we have such a stormy forecast for our crossing back to our family, friends and regular lives? We set off at 6am and are immediately slammed by a gale that the forecasters predicted would have already passed in the night. Dirty breakfast dishes are hurriedly slung into the sink and everyone disappears into their bunks. Some reappear with bags full of regurgitated conrnflakes, while others rush on deck or to the toilet to do the same. The wind gusts 45 knots over the shallow continental shelf. Almost everyone is sick. There is a respite and 12 hours later we have a lull in the wind. Most people reappear at the central table with some colour in their cheeks. On day 2, the wind gradually picks up and on my late afternoon watch I am encouraged to see that the wind is already 45 knots but the boat is coping really well and the ride is fairly comfortable. It gusts over 50 knots and we surge down a wave at 12 knots. Zeek has adjusted our course so that we are running with the storm. We are heading too far West but it’s a better option that trying to bash, crash and bounce through the powerful waves.
In the evening it gets scary. Zeek sends us all to bed and takes over the watch for the whole night. I lie in my bunk, unable to sleep as every 15 minutes a wave slams the yacht sideways with an alarming thud. Water rushes over the top deck, anything not tied down goes flying and I anxiously wait for that tipping point when the boats stops being pushed over and starts to bob back to upright. My brain analyses every noise for irregularities. Once we lean over so far that the cutlery, usually safely encased in plastic tubs flies across the kitchen and hits the curtain that protects my bed. I wonder whether I should put on my drysuit. In truth, the yacht is made for these conditions, it is us humans that struggle. In the morning, the violent hits are less frequent and we can see things are slowly improving. An exhausted Zeek says the maximum windspeed that he saw on his instruments was 67 knots and he confesses he was wishing he was sailing on the French canals with his family. When I thanked him for keeping us safe, he laughingly said that ‘he was keeping himself safe’!
So as a grand month-long Antarctic adventure draws to a close, I again feel lucky to have experienced this wild, untamed land by kayak, which surely has to be the best way to see all the nooks and crannies. We have had time to linger, to take in the vast vistas and the tiny lichens. We’ve seen krill swimming and whales breaching, ice cliffs tumbling into the sea at the end of a thousands-of-years journey and penguin chicks ready to take their first plunge into the same ocean at the start of their own life. Our stormy journey back in some ways intensifies the whole experience, putting it in context, adding an extra edge of appreciation of life in general and specifically to the only continent where man is unable to live full time. We enjoyed visiting.
Our first campsite in Paradise Harbour