New Zealand to Antarctica
It is the 8th of April 2014, a battered sailing yacht with torn sails, a barely functional engine and 16 presumably pungent sailors has just limped into Puerto Natales, Patagonia. SY Infinity and her crew have just endured a 76 day, 8200nm voyage from New Zealand via Antarctica and the infamous Southern Ocean. They have battled hurricane force winds in iceberg-infested waters, confronted Japanese whalers with the notorious eco activists Sea Shepherd and sailed further South than any other sailing yacht on the planet in 2014, not to mention surviving eleven weeks at sea in some of the most hostile and remote conditions on the planet. All of this took place on a salvaged, forty-something yearold, 120’ fero-cement sailing yacht kept running on a shoestring budget and loosely held together with blood, sweat, tears and hope.
Infinity was acquired by Captain Clemens Oestreich, a lifelong nomadic adventurer from Germany, in the 1990s. Since then, she has clocked about 100,000nm, mainly in the South Pacific. Not only is Infinity home to Clemens, he has brought up four children aboard as well as hosting hundreds of international travellers and adventurers. It is a constantly evolving, always-eclectic mix of characters ranging from ex Nasa scientists to acrobats and everyone in-between. There are no passengers on Infinity, everyone gets involved, some stay years and others disembark on the same island where they joined. Unlike many other expedition yachts, Infinity is no well funded, professionally crewed, luxury craft. There are no hydraulic operated sails, there is no autohelm, there is no air conditioning, there is no expensive art collection or silverware. Everything is basic but reliable, most of the time. Joining Clem on this voyage was a motley international crew of wanderers. Experience varied from never having sailed to professional sailors, of which I was one. The one thing we all had in common, which Clem had specifically sought in a recruitment campaign, was a love of adventure and a high-risk tolerance. With its strong sailing heritage and strategic location, New Zealand provided the perfect place to prepare for the perils of the Southern Ocean. We worked on the yacht’s systems, bought spare parts, installed a rudimentary heating system, topped up the fuel tanks, a lorry load of provisions had been delivered and, at the very last minute, we swapped the original engine, from the 1970s, for a new (to us, but not exactly new) 10 cylinder Mann engine. Having the right clothing for an extreme trip to the South is also fundamental. Luckily, a thrift store in Auckland had just received a container full of ex-Antarctic Survey clothing. With everyone geared up, we were finally ready for what lay ahead. Unable to wait any longer before the seasons changed and Antarctic navigation became too perilous, Infinity slipped her lines and left Viaduct Harbour, Auckland on a starry night at the end of January. The further South we got, the colder and windier it became. Storm sailing became the norm, as did tearing and repairing sails. Thankfully, the days got longer, but nocturnal Southern Ocean snowstorms were brutal regardless of whether it was light or dark.
"WITH ITS STRONG SAILING HERITAGE AND STRATEGIC LOCATION, NEW ZEALAND PROVIDED THE PERFECT PLACE TO PREPARE FOR THE PERILS OF THE SOUTHERN OCEAN."
Ten days in, we spotted our first iceberg. The colour of the ice, the waves crashing around it and the knowledge of the countless ships who had met their fate on other icebergs left us mesmerised. Ice became a very common sight, whether it was on our rig, threatening us in the water, or in the form of glaciers, it was omnipresent. Finally, after almost a month at sea, and during our only truly sunny day of the voyage, we glimpsed Antarctica. Glacier-covered mountains towered from the sea, birds flew overhead, seals and penguins rested on ice drifts and to top it off, a pod of about 30 orcas escorted us to our anchorage at Cape Adare. After addressing the minor problem of dropping the frozen anchor (boiling water and sledge hammers helped…) we were on our way. Getting ashore was easier said than done, floating hunks of ice the size of cars surged above the surf. Had we been trapped by any of the ice, our tender would have been destroyed and we would have been stranded. Our trip ashore was mind-blowing, lifelong dreams of meeting penguins in the wild came true. The one thing they don’t always mention on Planet Earth is the incredibly strong stench; Antarctica is a desert, penguins aren’t bothered about where they go to the toilet and with little rain When we returned to Infinity an intense storm was heading our way. With no other reasonable option, we headed South, deeper into the Ross Sea in the hope of riding out the storm in an anchorage and avoiding the full brunt of the winds. Having arrived at our bay of refuge, we were shocked to see it had already iced over for the season. With no other choice, we had to ride out the storm at sea. All too soon, the wind was hurricane force, gusting almost 80 knots. The storm showed no mercy for three days. Spray turned to ice in mid-air, pummelling anyone unfortunate enough to be outside. The noise of the wind was deafening. Waves dwarfed us. All the sails were taken down and the four strongest crew took it in short shifts to hand steer Infinity. Despite having no sails up, Infinity was surfing down waves and frequently topping 12knots. Hitting ice at these speeds meant certain death. To compound the situation, seawater had syphoned itself into the diesel tanks through the breathers leaving the engine, generator, heater and stove almost inoperable. Miraculously, we kept ourselves together and, fuelled by adrenaline, survived the storm.
"TEN DAYS IN, WE SPOTTED OUR FIRST
ICEBERG. THE COLOUR OF THE ICE, THE WAVES
CRASHING AROUND IT AND THE KNOWLEDGE OF THE COUNTLESS SHIPS WHO HAD MET
THEIR FATE ON OTHER ICEBERGS LEFT US MESMERISED."
Having survived hurricane force winds, been at sea for over a month, torn most of the sails and almost destroyed the engine, we now had the small matter of a 4500nm trip to Chile. The winds never relented but, gradually, the temperature became less savage. We still encountered ice every day until the very end of the trip. Each day blended into the next, the sun never shone, it was always grey and so was our mood. The final couple of weeks were the toughest, the big excitement was over and for many, the trip really dragged. Chile could not come soon enough. Arriving in Patagonia and traversing the fjords during sunrise, seeing mountains, glaciers, birds, trees and even the odd fisherman after weeks of only grey skies was a day I will never forget; sensory depravation quickly turned into sensory overload. Three years on, our photos of penguins, whales and icebergs make it easy to forget the weeks of hardship and suffering. The adventure gave me some of my life’s highs but also lows. The contrast between the two only served to accentuate both emotional extremes. But these memories aren’t all we have to sustain us. One of our crew was filmmaker Nico Edwards who turned the experience, warts-and-all, into an award-winning documentary, Sea Gypsies: The Far Side of the World which gives a rare insight into what it’s like to undertake one of the planet’s most dangerous journeys. So would I sail to the Ross Sea again? Absolutely not. And neither should you. However, having survived, I don’t regret the trip. All the hardship, joys, suffering, fear, risks, laughs and sorrow has not only helped shape who I am today but will stay with me as I navigate the rest of my life. Infinity’s next voyage is scheduled for summer 2018, when we aim to transit the fabled North West Passage before attempting to set a world record for how far North a sailing yacht has travelled, in a bid to highlight the shrinking ice caps. Sea Gypsies; The Far Side of The World, directed by Nico Edwards, is the multi-award winning adventure documentary which captured this epic voyage. From the monotony of life aboard for weeks on end, mistakes made along the way, to abject terror in hurricane force winds, to the light side; the often-hilarious rum fuelled parties aboard, nothing is left out. After premiering at Telluride Mountain Film Festival last June, it enjoyed a successful film festival circuit. It is currently touring on both the Banff Mountain Film Festival World Tour and Oceans Film Festival World Tour. You will be able to watch the movie online in the coming weeks, for the latest on the project, join the mailing list at www.seagyspsiesmovie.com Sea Gypsies: The Far Side of the World is released on iTunes on 18 July and on DVD on 8 August
"THREE YEARS ON, OUR PHOTOS OF PENGUINS, WHALES AND ICEBERGS MAKE IT EASY TO FORGET THE WEEKS OF HARDSHIP
AND SUFFERING. THE ADVENTURE GAVE ME SOME OF MY LIFE’S
HIGHS BUT ALSO LOWS. THE CONTRAST BETWEEN THE TWO ONLY SERVED TO ACCENTUATE BOTH EMOTIONAL EXTREMES. "
PREVIOUS PAGE: Infinity reaches the most dangerous section of the Southern Ocean ABOVE: The crew of Infinity in Auckland preparing to depart RIGHT: Sea spray crashing off an iceberg as the vessel approaches Antarctica FOLLOWING PAGE: Penguins on Antarctica with a moored Infinity in the background