SEA GYPSIES

New Zealand to Antarc­tica

Adventure - - Contents - Words and Im­ages by Gre­gor Cu­bie

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. "

PAGE 24

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

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