Thursday, 21 February 2019

Port Stanley, Falkland Islands, 20th of February 2019

Sailing to the Ends of the Earth

We left Puerto Williams on the 18th of January and headed for Caleta Martial, a traditional anchorage where to wait for favourable winds before rounding the Horn or crossing the notorious Drake Passage. Although we were in the windiest place on Earth we had to resort to motoring for lack of wind in order to get to the anchorage. The situation changed dramatically during the night when the winds started to pick up and didn’t seem to know when to stop. We couldn’t remember when last we had experienced such a gale if ever, with wind speeds between 50 and 60 knots, in gusts over 70. Naturally, our anchor started to drag, and we had a real struggle getting it up. We then moved into a smaller bay nearby that gave us a little better protection against winds. There we went as close to the shore as we dared, dropped anchor in five metres of water and let go more than 60 metres of chain, and this time the anchor held. 

Strong winds kept us in Caleta Martial until the 21st by which time the seas had calmed down considerably. We motor-sailed to Cape Horn where we saw two cruise ships in front of the island, and a stream of dinghies carrying passengers to the lighthouse. As it seemed far too crowded for us, we took the compulsory photos of the rock and the lighthouse, and continued our journey down south. 

We had prepared ourselves and our good boat Sarema for the vicious winds and high seas of Drake Passage. All the jerry cans that we normally carry on the deck were hauled inside, the dinghy was tied exceptionally well with brand new lines to the davits and filled with fenders so as to leave as little room as possible for the freak wave that would inevitably crash down on to our boat during the crossing. But what we eventually found was a calm and tranquil Pacific. In fact, there was so little wind that we had to motor-sail most of the way to Antarctica. We later learned that calm conditions are actually not so uncommon to find in Drake Passage which in this case is known as Drake Lake.

After five days of motor-sailing we arrived in Enterprise Harbour where we tied Sarema to a rusty wreck, a nesting site for the Antarctic tern (Sterna vittata). Our arrival didn’t seem to bother the birds too much as they have probably become accustomed to seeing a number of boats there every summer the wreck being one of the safest and hence the most popular anchorages in the area. 

Although we had had an extremely gentle crossing of the Passage, we stayed two days in Enterprise Harbour just to get our bearings so to speak. While in Antarctica, we noticed that our conception of time and distance indeed differed from normal; hours stretched into days, and objects that seemed to be right next to our boat were, in fact, miles and miles away, the latter probably being due to the sheer magnitude of things in Antarctica.

Later in the evening, a Russian boat came alongside us, and to our big surprise, the captain of the boat was Daniil Gavrilov whom we had last seen in 2013. Daniil had organised the RUSARC sailing event from Saint Petersburg to Frans Joseph Land, wherefrom we had continued to the Northeast Passage. It would be interesting to know the probability of a chance meeting like this!

From Enterprise we sailed to Cuverville Island, only about 25 miles to the south. When nearing the entrance to the anchorage there seemed to be far too much ice and not just any ice but huge icebergs blocking our way. Fortunately, a closer inspection revealed a narrow passage between the blocks through which we were able to motor into the anchorage. And Hurray! - we had entered a penguin-lovers’ paradise!

On a rocky promontory to the north of the anchorage, there was a breeding colony of hundreds of rowdy and smelly gentoo penguins. We spent two days taking photos of the penguins or just watching them go fishing, return from fishing, or groom themselves which seemed to be their main preoccupation.

It was good to see that they didn’t seem to mind our presence at all but went about their daily activities as if we were invisible. And maybe we were to them as one gentoo almost bumped into Riitta who was standing still on the beach. 

One day when returning to the boat, an ice floe with a leopard seal sleeping on it drifted by. We had heard lots of stories about leopard seals attacking humans and their dinghies. Most of the people attacked were walking on sea ice when the seal sprang out of the water at them.

Quite possibly the seal mistook their upright posture for that of an emperor penguin. The only human killed by leopard seal was a British scientist who was snorkelling (2003). As we didn’t intend to go walking on sea ice or snorkelling for that matter, we were not particularly concerned about our own safety but that of our dinghy.

Before we left for Antarctica, our friend Ezequiel in Puerto Williams told us how he had barely managed to escape a leopard seal although his 15 hp outboard engine was running at full speed. He also advised us never to leave our dinghy in the water but always lift it up.

Also, Daniil had had a bad experience with a leopard seal, which he called the polar bear of the south. The seal had made more than 50 holes in his dinghy, and when the dinghy was being lifted up, the seal had lunged from the water like a torpedo and bit into the dinghy one last time. According to Ezequiel, when you see a leopard seal on ice, give it a wide berth but when the seal is in the water, stay on board. Just to be on the safe side, we hoisted our dinghy and for the rest of the day stayed on board!

From Cuverville we continued first to Port Lockroy and then towards Hovgaard Island. As we approached Lemaire Channel the ice situation ahead didn’t look very promising. A French cruise ship nearby called us on VHF and told that they had been unable to go through the channel because there was far too much ice. We thanked them for the information and told that we would at least give it a try. And try we did for hours on end zigzagging between and around icebergs, bergy bits, growlers, and through brash ice. 

When we finally reached Hovgaard Island it became clear that we could never reach our intended anchorage as the channel on the north side of Pleneau Island was still partly ice-covered. We tried to find a way through the rocks further up north but the water there was too shallow. When our keel hit the bottom we had but one option and that was to turn around. By now dusk had already fallen but as we didn’t have a decent anchorage where to spend the night we decided to continue further south to Petermann Island. When we got there we saw, to our huge disappointment, that three big icebergs had run aground in the only anchorage we knew in the area.  

As the passage to the south looked too ice-studded to our liking, we made our second U-turn of the day and headed back to where we had come from. On the south side of Hovgaard Island, we found an indentation with less than ten metres of water and dropped anchor there in the midst of hopefully grounded icebergs. It was now well past midnight, and because we were dead tired after spending the whole day trying not to collide with icebergs, we went straight to bed without even bothering to check whether our anchor was holding or not. Thankfully, there was no wind!

Because of our more or less improvised anchorage, we awoke already at 4.30 a.m. and headed back into the ice- infested Lemaire Channel. The conditions there had improved somewhat since the day before, and we had no major difficulties finding our way through. We now continued to Paradise Bay to see the whales that are known to congregate there. Unfortunately, the day was grey and drizzly which hindered photographing but a few days later we had two separate encounters with whales that we were able to record.

While on our way back to Enterprise Harbour we saw the distinctive tall dorsal fin of a killer whale coming from behind a bergy bit. We slowed the boat as we could see more and more fins coming towards us. After a while, there was an orca family of twenty or more feeding all around the boat. What a treat! What surprised us was the colour of the orcas which was not black-and-white like in the Arctic but more yellowish-brown. The culprit it seems is small yellow-brown phytoplankton that often stains the colouration of the otherwise white eye-patch and underside of orcas in the Antarctic waters.

The next perhaps a bit too close encounter with a whale took place just a few hours later. There were whales in abundance in Gerlache Strait feeding, diving, breaching (=jumping), and slapping their pectoral fins or tail flukes. We saw one humpback jump quite close to us on our starboard side. Riitta went to sit on the deck with her camera to wait for the second jump as whales often jump several times in succession. But lo and behold, the whale materialised right next to our boat as if ready to jump again! At this point, there was nothing we could do but hold our breath and hope for the best. Luckily, the whale, like the sensible creature that he is, opted for an immediate panic dive, and we were able to breathe again. Nowadays, whenever we see a whale nearby we kindly ask him not to come too close to our boat!

While in Enterprise Harbour waiting for a low pressure area in the west to move further to the east so that we could again cross Drake Passage in favourable winds, a French Caledonian boat came alongside us. After tying their lines the boat’s captain said that he recognised our boat and that we had met before in Sand Point, Alaska. We remembered well our arrival in Sand Point: it was in October 2013 in the middle of the night, we were coming from the Northeast Passage, the weather had been nasty for several days, and for the last few hours we had been struggling against 45 knot winds and a countercurrent in the narrow passage leading to the harbour. Because the harbour was full of fishing vessels, we went alongside the only sailing boat we could see. As we were wet through and dog-tired, we retired soon after our arrival, and because they left early the following morning, we never actually met. It seems that we had to sail all the way to the ends of the Earth to see Jean Pierre and Janine again. What a small and strange world this is!

During our visit to Antarctica, we had been extremely lucky weather-wise as we had had a number of sunny days, the temperatures had seldom been below zero, and there had been either no wind or only a moderate breeze.

But then the weather changed overnight and, on the 6th of February, we awoke to find leaden skies, snow- covered decks, and it was sleeting so hard that, within minutes, we were soaking wet and cold to the bone. It was clearly time to bid farewell to Antarctica, to its snowcapped mountains, magnificent glaziers, gigantic icebergs, and our favourite Antarctic inhabitants - the penguins!