Vet­eran po­lar sailor and moun­taineer Bob Shep­ton re­flects on los­ing his rig while sail­ing with a crew of school leavers in the Drake Pas­sage

Yachting Monthly - - CONTENTS -

‘What I learned from a dis­mast­ing in Antarc­tica.’ Bob Shep­ton and crew over­come trou­ble in the ice

We were sail­ing W round the world via Antarc­tica and Cape Horn, the ‘First School Group to sail Round the World’. True, they’d all left school re­cently – leavers – but they had all been at King­ham Hill School in Ox­ford­shire where I’d just re­tired as chap­lain. We wended our way from Fal­mouth to Madeira, on to the Ca­nary Is­lands, Cape Verde Is­land, Rio de Janeiro and the Falk­lands on my 33ft Westerly, Dodo’s De­light. The lads were des­per­ate to reach the Falk­lands by Christ­mas and we made Port Stan­ley in the early hours of 18 De­cem­ber.


Af­ter the fes­tiv­i­ties and at­tend­ing the cathe­dral on Christ­mas Day, there was some de­lay. The army at Mount Pleasant had kindly promised some help with stores but for what­ever rea­son, they were a lit­tle slow in com­ing. We were chang­ing two of the crew at this stage – Dood and Pebs were com­ing all the way round and we were due to change two at six or seven places round the world. Bar­ney and Ian flew home; Henchy and Howesy came out. Liv­ing in close prox­im­ity at school and on the boat and with my hav­ing run youth clubs in the east end of Lon­don with its rhyming slang, names were of­ten changed to some­thing shorter or eas­ier!

We pre­pared for the next leg of the voy­age, and it is im­por­tant to point out in view of what hap­pened later that we un­der­took a rig­ging in­spec­tion there in Port Stan­ley. We’d also had this done pro­fes­sion­ally in the UK by Proc­tors, who made masts for Westerlys in those days, be­fore we had set off three months be­fore. But at last, to­wards mid-jan­uary, we took our off­ing for Antarc­tica.


Con­sid­er­ing we were cross­ing the in­fa­mous Drake Pas­sage, the tra­verse was not that dif­fi­cult or stormy. It did get colder, and there was one mi­nor gale with fairly lively seas, but we were sur­prised to be run­ning be­fore with both head­sails poled out to round the east end of King Ge­orge Is­land to­wards the end. Trade wind sail­ing in the Drake Pas­sage?

It was at this junc­ture that Dood pointed to where both aft low­ers were destranding at the top where they en­tered the Talu­rit fit­ting. I had noted some­thing up there but hadn’t re­ally un­der­stood what it meant. We im­me­di­ately set about set­ting up some sort of backup to the shrouds. Tak­ing spare 12mm lines from the cock­pit locker, Dood climbed up to the spread­ers and at­tached them level with the top of the aft low­ers. We ten­sioned them with handy bil­lies – 3-to-1 or 4-to-1 block and tack­les. We sailed on and next morn­ing, en­tered the Brants­field Strait and saw our first ice­berg, and some hump­back whales. We put into Maxwell Bay on the south­ern side of King Ge­orge Is­land.

Maxwell Bay was a big dis­ap­point­ment. This was Antarc­tica, surely re­mote, iso­lated, pris­tine. We found no less than seven or eight na­tional Antarc­tic bases dot­ted around Maxwell Bay. Chilean and Ar­gen­tinian of course, but also Chi­nese, Korean, Ja­panese, Rus­sian – you name it, it was prob­a­bly there. We had dif­fi­culty find­ing depth for an­chor­ing that first night so moved fur­ther down the bay the next day. That evening, two Chileans came across in a RIB. All seemed friendly, de­spite the lan­guage bar­rier. But in the course of con­ver­sa­tion, one of them said ‘Nice of you to visit us. Well, you are in our ter­ri­tory.’ When I re­counted this to the cap­tain of the James Clark Ross later, his com­ment was, ‘What a cheek!’ One of the main points of the Antarc­tic Treaty is that no na­tion owns land there or has rights on any part of it.


With hind­sight, I re­alise we should have dealt with the aft low­ers there and then. We had spare rig­ging wires and U-bolts on board. But they looked much the same, and a backup was in place just in case. I had heard that Yan­kee Har­bour to the west would be a safe, well-pro­tected anchorage for the job. We set sail. All went well at first and then the wind headed us but it was still only Force 4-5. Then, in 18-20 knots of wind at 0400 in the 24-hour day­light, there was a loud bang and the mast fell over the side. I thought we must have hit an un­charted rock and rushed up on deck to find the mast in two halves with the sails over the port side. The star­board aft lower had bro­ken and to my sur­prise, the safety line had also burst. Pebs on watch, a lit­tle shaken as the back­stay had just missed him, said ‘Cut it all away’. But be­ing Scot­tish, and with four strong lads to help, I replied, ‘Let’s save what we can.’ We man­aged with dif­fi­culty to heave both halves of the mast and the sails back on board, not badly dam­aged but heavy, act­ing as huge scoops of wa­ter. What a mess! Mast sec­tions, sails and rig­ging ev­ery­where. Henri Lloyd had asked for pic­tures of their gear in ex­treme con­di­tions, so we took pic­tures of their gear in ex­treme con­di­tions. I’m not sure that’s quite what they meant though!


What should we do, and was this the end of the ex­pe­di­tion? First of all, we tried mo­tor­ing to Yan­kee Har­bour but soon found this was hope­less against the wind, so we cut di­ag­o­nally across to Dis­cov­ery Bay where for­tu­itously, we found the Chilean Naval Antarc­tic Base of Ar­turo Prat. They were tremen­dously help­ful and hos­pitable, lend­ing us tools where needed, and it did mean we could bring ev­ery­thing ashore and do the work on land. Dood, one of the

older school leavers, had worked in a boat­yard and took charge of pro­ceed­ings helped by the oth­ers; we cut the truck off the top sec­tion and fit­ted it on to the slightly longer bot­tom sec­tion. We could just raise this up on board by push­ing and pulling on ropes, and then tried to mea­sure for cutting rig­ging down to size. We did not get this all right but could com­pen­sate with thim­bles and U-bolt clamps to make eyes at the ends. We had raised half a mast.

At this stage, the Chilean Naval Res­cue ves­sel ar­rived for a visit. We were of­fered the op­tion of float­ing the boat on to the flooded aft end of their boat and be­ing trans­ported back to Punta Are­nas – os­ten­si­bly a safer op­tion, but it was go­ing to cost a lot and we’d still have to sail from Punta Are­nas back to the Falk­lands. And no­body ex­plained how they were go­ing to sup­port the boat when they pumped the wa­ter back out from their aft basin!

My in­stinct was to at­tempt to sail back to the Falk­lands with a jury rig, which we duly did. I thought we were bound to get caught out there in the Drake Pas­sage sail­ing slowly at 2-3 knots but we found putting the No 1 jib on its side (the foot act­ing as the luff and sheet­ing it right back to the aft moor­ing cleat) made an ex­cel­lent reach­ing sail. We were cutting di­ag­o­nally across back to the Falk­lands and the pre­dom­i­nant winds in the Drake Pas­sage are north­west and south-west. We used the try­sail as a small steady­ing main­sail. We could sail at 4 knots, 5 knots and even 6 knots with a fol­low­ing sea, and it only took us seven days to do the 738 miles back to Port Stan­ley.


Pan­tae­nius sent out a new mast. We had a marvel­lous time in fine weather back in Antarc­tica, rounded a fre­quently but not too stormy Cape Horn to Easter Is­land, and com­pleted the Round the World via the Tor­res Strait and Cape of Good Hope to UK.

My in­stinct was to at­tempt to sail back to the Falk­lands with a jury rig… which we duly did

Push­ing through the Meek Chan­nel, Antarc­tica

Bob and his crew man­aged to re­cover much of the mast and rig­ging

An­chored at Fara­day, a former Bri­tish Antarc­tic Sur­vey Base

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