Looking at the nicely rounded globe, one would think that speaking about an end of the world is a nonsense. During my solitary Sothern ocean voyage and maneuvring among icebergs several times taller than the mast of my sailing boat, I had entirely different feelings. The end of the world seemed to be within the reach of my hand.
Following article summarises the most remarkable moments of the ocean passage on a 11 meter sloop Waterbird from New Zealand to Antarctic penninsula.
I set sails on December 17. 2008 in Tauranga harbour (Bay of Plenty, NZ). The brighteness of the sea off the East Cape overcome all stary nights I have ever seen. A fishingboat lights nearby, the last human mark seen during the whole voyage. Starry-eyed start indeed. Long passage in the stormy ocean was going to last two month and to be five and half thousand miles long.
I have learned about the southern forties and fifties latitudes since I was a child. Sailors named this area after the noises so often heard around here. (roaring, screaming, furious etc.) I had absolutely no doubts about this and I was preparing my boat for heavy conditions for three weeks in the boatyard. I am not afraid of wind, but I am afraid of huge braking seas created by the strong longlasting depressions. Two main things were essential: strong, practicaly waterproof deck and oversized rigging. To be ready for a capsize. If such a thing happens you want to stay afloat and – if the god allows – not to loose the mast. Books written by those who set sails before convinced me to leave my girlfriend at home.
Running with a stong winds and awesomenly long waves (unique for the Southern ocean) is an exalting experience. The ocean makes a noisy company really and this will evoke fear in everybody´s heart. But I had to live with it. The Southern ocean allowed me to get used to it because extremes storms kept out of my boat for a long time. My windsteering was doing its job perfectly and I was able to sleep in the night while Waterbird was flying. Life could hardly be sweeter.
January 4th I look out of the companionway and what I saw behind me was a huge white mountain. Higher than my mast. My first iceberg. Seven more around. Latitude 51° South. How close I had passed by I did not want to imagine. I quickly understood several important facts: 1. I was quite lucky. 2. Radar alarm is not working. (It did not take long to have radar out of order completely) 3. Sleeping part of my sailing was over. I was going to spent hove to to every single night since this moment. (heave to with a rudder to windward and small trysail. Plus small jib on my backstay for heavy storms). Days of poor sleep and wary watches followed.
Icebergs and bergy bits become a daily scenery. Unfortunately nightly scenery as well. Drifting iceberg is vastly slower than a drifting boat. I had to wake up every hour and check for dangers around. (When an icefield become too dense I did not have much sleep). One iceberg looked like St. Venceslas church by architect Pletschnik, which is right above one Prague´s undeground station. What a strange idea that Prague´s underground would come as far as here! It was scary and it was everywhere. I went into my sleepingbag in the evening, I closed my eyes and I could see them again!
One day I was passing along a huge tabular piece – 4 miles long. I had to avoid many smaller pieces nearby. What a relief to find a little piece of clear water just before dark. I was thinking about a name for the scary place I have just passed : Trap of horrors. But I found it too exagerated. On the contrary – I felt a lot relieved, the extraordinary dimensions of the iceberg explained that many pieces I encountered around. It had to be better since now. According to Antarctic pilot I just got closer to the area of 45 miles average iceberg distance.
Next morning brought a beautifull sunny day. I was in the best mood preparing a luxury snack: scrambled eggs. As it happened I could not eat them that day but morning after. They certainly taste better fresh, but it did not matter. I was happy to be still alived. An adventure started when I realised that the mist in the front of me was not hiding many pieces of ice but just one. A gigantic tabular iceberg – to the northeast disappearing in the clouds and to the southeast in the mist. It could have been 50 meters high but it is not easy to make an accurate estimate. First idea was to turn south. My fear did not let me – who knows where it ends. Who knows wether it ends with a free water! So I turned to the north. And I immediatlely hit a small growler – for the first time at all. (The name growler comes from the noise which the smaller piece makes when it scratches around passing ship. I hate the noise since the first moment.) Westerly wind was picking up and I started to feel more anxiety. My escape to the north involved a zigzaggery among icebergs and bergy bits. Scary icy barrier threatenning me from the leewardside.
I saw an end of the huge iceberg late in the afternnon. Not much to celebrate. A dense barrier build up of many icebergs of all shapes and sizes followed. With the dusk some of them became black. (Interesting, but under a certain light icebergs are black!). They looked like coffins. The night was comming, wind picking up and it started to rain. The name from the day before was becomming alarmingly apposite. I trembled for my life.
And it was here when the most wonderfull encounter of the whole journey happened. A strange floating thing caught my eye. It looked like a fender sticking out of the water with its sharp end. I almost ran over a sleeping Ross seal. He woke up in the last fraction of a seccond and it seemed that he saw a sailing boat for the first time in his life. He was opening his mouth idly to give me a fright. His big beautifull can hardly scare anybody. But I felt uneasy when he got close to my windpilot rudder. Nobody wants a broken selfsteering in the middle of the ocean. Everything ended up all right. He disappeared that quickly as he showed up. The nearest land (Antarctic) was about1000 miles away.
I was able to see ice blink from the barrier untill late night. I was handsteering in the cockpit motorsailing untill the next morning. (By the way: when the engine starts all yachtmen are the more gratefull creatures in the world.) Bigger pieces were visible from half a mile, growlers just from a few meters. To pick up a dry gloves in the cabin seemed to be too risky. Cracking and bubbleing around – air bubbles in the ice could have been tens of thousands (or even more) years old. The wind was merciful finally. Nevetheless I recalled a lot of my life during that night. The dawn at last. I saw the eastern horizon free with an unexpresable relief. But I continued to the north just to be sure. Free and safe way south was closer to the Antarctic penninsula. What a paradox! Now sailing in the screaming fifties meant a delivery from the dangers. Anything if there is free water. (It is remarkable that the barrier was at least 30 mil long, resp. I could see thirty miles of it. Antarctic pilot knows it. One ship saw it before on a radar.)
I got closer to the Pacific pole of inaccesability. It is the point most distant from any land on the planet. Two interesting things happened: I was on a phone, calling a nurse describing her my problem and she said: „incredible, you have an absces there“. As far as here it was a dream. But a strange thing in my gum was REAL and it was getting more and more swollen and painful. (It is true however unlikely it sounds.) Seccond thing: windsteering was broken. I wished it was dream as well but the important bolt was apart, bearings were seized and I did not have spare ones. It was not difficult to take it appart but all balls and rollers had an instant need to run everywhere. So it took a while to put it back together. The bolt problem was not hopeless either. Welding near the Pole of inaccesability is a rarity and one full month to go without handsteering all the time – it was certainly good news. The strange thing in my gum was tamed by obsesive sage washing. Life could hardly be sweeter.
My company came from the skies. His majesty Royal Albatros. His wingspan exceeding the beam of my boat. A bit smaller giant petrels with a pre-historic beaks and sophisticated look. Sooty albatros watching you with maybe the cutest bird eye ever seen. Albatros youngsters sitting by the stern on the water again and again and waiting for their piece from the catch. No worries there was never a fishing line. But there might be! Thousands of restless prions or icebirds with a gentle line on the back of their wings. It took me a week at least to notice that they sometimes eat something from the sea. It seamed at first that they spend their time just flying around. All of them traveled huge distances to cheer up a solitary sailor who is traveling so slowly comparing to them. The same did the text messages for my satelite phone. The birds are an excellent company but it is not irrelevant to know that somebody on the other side of the globe is keeping fingers crossed and wishing all the best.
A boat is a fantastic invention. A sailor can be an adventurer and also home-bird. He (or she, yes of course) can be anywhere and make his place cozy. I had three kinds of heating for this purpose. None of them perfect but they all made great job together. A petrol stove in an inox case with a chimney, oven running with methylated spirits and a bus blower (engine cooling water heats air and a blower pushes it forward). I could mention another heating actually: hot drinks combined with good clothing are doing great job. (Troubles start when the drings have to go out again). Lovely cozynesscreator is a quitarr. Although in my hands I have to sail strictly singlehanded and at least 5 miles off shore. If so I love playing with a lot of passion. Writing lyrics was my every day entertainment. I wrote many on this trip. Verses about every country I have visited so far. More than 50 strophes. One was about South Africa, it did not matter I heve never been there yet. Poems – suitable genre for ice filled waters. A novelist would be shipwrecked shortly. It is also pleasant to listen to Radio Prague . But the best recipe to make a home is to make a bread. What a lovely smell! And the crunchy crust. Have a little bite and forget the storm 10B outside.
Crossing the latitude 60, my progress was slowed down. Westerlies stayed behind. Common weather of the polar latitudes in summer is light winds. Sometimes headwinds. But no reason to be in a hurry. More than 300 miles from the Antarctic penninsula I saw the first penguins. More and more birds every day. A celebration – Cape Horn Rounded (hundreds of miles to the north) and the next day – majestic Graham land mountains.
The first solo sailor to reach Antarctic – Dr. David Lewis was sailing on a similar route 36 years ago. Reading his book (Icebird) it seems to me that he was sailing another ocean. He hardly saw any ice in the Pacific. On the other hand he was blasted with heavy storms. Capsized twice, loosing his mast, having the steel deck of his 10 metres boat broken be the breaking seas he nearly lost his life. He arrived to Palmer station after many weeks, wet and cold in a terrible condition. His story sounds like a horror. But it is real. I had only one bigger storm (and 13 gales). I was hove to and the worst came in the night so I was ready anyway. (i.e. I was in my sleeping bag and sleeping most of the time)
To sum up I did not make any geographical discoveries. There was no land, just a lot of salt water and ice. But I discovered something. If you set off for such a long ocean passage on your own you might also meet a man you had not known before. It is not always necessarilly pleasant experience but for myself I can say that some reasons for a reasonable optimisim remained
Day 61. den –February 15th. 2009 the anchor was dropped
by American polar station Palmer. (64°46´S; 64°03´W) It was done at least
ten times. After that two nice polar women arrived in a Zodiak and helped me to
tie ashore between rocks. The long voyage was over but the Antarctic adventure
was about to start. It was a long voyage. Pehaps a mad one but it was worth.
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