Un­der­stand­ing the Gem at the Bot­tom of the World.

Passage Maker - - Seamanship -


the leg­endary con­ti­nent be­yond the south­ern tip of a crowded world, still beck­ons and thrills. This white land has never been in­hab­ited, and while re­searchers re­turn ev­ery sum­mer, few stay through the win­ter. For the small-boat ad­ven­turer, the sea­son lasts about three months—De­cem­ber, Jan­uary, and Fe­bru­ary. Get­ting there can be a chal­lenge. Be­tween South Amer­ica and the Antarc­tic Penin­sula stretch 600 miles of Drake Pas­sage, swept fre­quently by ex­treme weather sys­tems spin­ning unim­peded around the globe be­tween lon­gi­tude 50 south and lon­gi­tude 60 south.

Fore­warned, we watched weather trends in Ushuaia, the south­ern­most city in South Amer­ica and the sup­ply port for yachts, as well as cruise ships, bound for Antarc­tica. The har­bor had al­ready been closed to ship­ping twice due to high winds when at last we es­caped south­ward to Puerto Wil­liams, a Chilean Navy base. Our voy­age ap­proved by the navy, we bounced out into the steep chop of a westerly gale in Bea­gle Chan­nel.

The an­chor­age in Bahia Lien­tur on Isla Wol­las­ton looked re­ally good that evening. Then, just be­fore mid­night, the rachas (willi­waws)—the sud­den gusts of wind com­ing down from the moun­tains—changed di­rec­tion and Whale Song, our 94-foot ex­pe­di­tion yacht, be­gan a slow slide down­wind. Our mon­ster wind­lass sounded un­usu­ally short of breath pulling up the chain. As we moved to a new spot, our spot­light showed that we had gained another an­chor—a large rusty Ad­mi­ralty an­chor was locked in a tight em­brace with ours. Since Whale Song carries two anchors, both on 800 feet of chain, we dropped the port an­chor. In the morn­ing light I used a heavy line looped from the bow over this an­tique, slacked our chain and our an­chor slipped free. Winch­ing up the loop brought our trea­sure high un­der the bow where it looked even larger cov­ered with all kinds of al­gae, sea let­tuce, mys­tery sea­weeds, starfish, and myr­iad crabs.

Grant Wil­son, Whale Song’s owner, thought this an­chor a great adorn­ment for his lawn at home, and though its 1,000-pound heft would not have been a chal­lenge for our davit, the ex­tra weight on the bow seemed like a bad idea with the South­ern Ocean ahead of us. Con­sult­ing the Chilean Wol­las­ton Pre­fec­tura Naval solved the prob­lem—they con­curred with our as­sess­ment, and we re­leased the an­tique an­chor in deep wa­ters north of Cape Horn.


Dur­ing three days of pow­er­ing up and down the long and gen­tle swells of Drake Pas­sage, the most ex­cite­ment came from royal al­ba­trosses glid­ing out of the fog as we crossed lon­gi­tude 60 south and en­tered colder seas. The land­fall on King Ge­orge Is­land in the South Shet­lands—the out­liers of the Antarc­tic Penin­sula—was a gray out­line of shore un­der thick, low clouds. On the south side of the Fildes Penin­sula emerged some build­ings—a promi­nent struc­ture of joined con­tain­ers painted vi­cious blue—turned out to be the chapel at the Chilean base, Te­niente Marsh. On a hill nearby stood a to­tally dif­fer­ent house of wor­ship—an Or­tho­dox Rus­sian church built of weath­ered planks, com­plete with three tur­reted onion tow­ers—the sign of the Rus­sian Belling­shausen Base. A helicopter weighted with fuel drums in a net bag made deaf­en­ing runs to the shore from an orange sup­ply ship. Here, in what seemed to be the mid­dle of nowhere, my wife, Nancy, no­ticed a good sig­nal on her cell phone, di­aled her mother, and got her voice­mail. Tech­nol­ogy!

The skies over De­cep­tion Is­land, a de­funct cen­ter of the whal­ing in­dus­try, were bless­edly quiet. As we nav­i­gated Neptune’s Bel­lows—the nar­row chan­nel to Port Fos­ter, a cir­cu­lar caldera of a self-de­struc­ted vol­cano—we were seem­ingly within arm’s length of the bur­gundy red cliffs. Yet we had to keep close to them. Ravn Rock, in the mid­dle of the ap­proach, reaches up within 8½ feet of the sur­face, which is ex­actly the draft of Whale Song. Cape pe­trels, the pin­ta­dos of whalers, wheeled over­head and dot­ted the craggy pin­na­cles above. Snow flur­ries be­gan as we dropped an­chor near the beach in Whalers Bay. Snowflakes floated across the land­scape of large rusty boil­ers, crum­bling sheds, hulks of weath­ered, dou­ble-ended whale boats and crosses lean­ing over graves, lend­ing the scene a mood fit for some sad away-from-home Christ­mas tale. Chin­strap pen­guins, how­ever, cared not a hoot about the bloody past and whale slaugh­ter— they came run­ning up as we landed. To ex­am­ine us closely they turned their heads side­ways as if say­ing, “I’m not that in­ter­ested; you are just like one of us, only four times taller.”

At an­chor a few miles into the caldera, off Pen­du­lum Cove, we could see va­por ris­ing over warm pools. Some of our crew stripped down and rolled in the luke­warm wa­ter like so many white, uhh… dol­phins. Far­ther in­land I ex­plored the hill­side, which grad­u­ally swept up to snow­fields, fire-red rocks pok­ing out here and there. What looked like black sand was solid ice cov­ered with vol­canic dust. Still a vol­canic hotspot, De­cep­tion Is­land has erupted 10 times since 1800, with count­less tremors in be­tween erup­tions. In 1967, an erup­tion rose up in a mon­strous mush­room cloud, ac­cord­ing to our friend, an ice pi­lot who was serv­ing on a Chilean Navy ves­sel at the time. Their ship lay a-hull while their helicopter saved per­son­nel from the Chilean and Bri­tish sta­tions.

When the sun­shine peeled off the low over­cast, the 1,800foot Mount Pond came into view. At this sign of good weather we weighed an­chor. De­cep­tion has one of the largest rook­eries of chin­strap pen­guins, most of them on the high­lands of the eastern outer coast. There, once again, the ice cap looked like cliffs of black ice. In one place, wa­ter jet­ted un­der great pres­sure,

ap­par­ently out of a solid wall. By the lat­est count, some 50,000 chin­strap pairs gather there, de­spite an over­all de­cline in num­bers. Whale Song fi­nally set­tled at an­chor south of Baily Head by rock pin­na­cles named Sewing-Ma­chine Nee­dles. Here, too, chin­straps lined all ac­ces­si­ble ridges un­der a ver­ti­cal wall of ei­ther rock or black ice—we couldn’t tell while stand­ing far away on the black sand beach.


As that is­land of hellish color and his­tory dropped be­hind us, we re­al­ized what a world of white moun­tains lay ahead. On Hosea­son Is­land, an im­mac­u­late peak dom­i­nated the an­chor­age. The south­west wind came af­ter mid­night, schuss­ing down the heights in a howl so that while head­ing south in the morn­ing Whale Song hugged the steep white shore. In open sea un­der blue sky the wind dropped, yet the sea heaved up and down, lumped into con­flict­ing peaks. Tur­bu­lent seas sent gey­sers of spray on passing pin­na­cled ice­bergs. On one of them a gang of pen­guins had de­cided to take a rest. They would catch a surg­ing wave, surf up the ice, then try to cling to the glass-smooth ice sur­face as the wa­ter re­ceded. Now we bet­ter un­der­stood their huge, mus­cu­lar feet with claws fit for a bear. The 30-knot south­west­erly re­turned near Bra­bant Is­land—the jagged moun­tains, some over 8,000 feet, ac­cel­er­ated that day’s gen­er­ally mod­er­ate breezes. Heavy spray drummed on the pilothouse win­dows fram­ing the peaks that tum­bled from the clouds and threw them down­wind like rags— hur­ri­cane-force winds ruled up there.

With Ger­lach Strait astern, the sea flat­tened in Neu­mayer Chan­nel. The soar­ing peaks, now closer to the boat, rose in a crescendo of white, still rip­ping the clouds to shreds. All was calm in the Port Lock­roy an­chor­age with the old Bri­tish sta­tion now act­ing as a mu­seum with the earth’s south­ern­most post of­fice for cruise ships. Gen­too pen­guins crowd­ing around clearly thought hu­mans a wel­come di­ver­sion. The scenery here could only be Antarc­tic: Whale Song swung to an­chor un­der a snow-white ice cap topped by a 4,642-foot peak, while across the chan­nel on An­vers Is­land, the white cone rose 6,000 feet. To star­board, a range of saw-tooth black basalt “nunataks” dom­i­nated the sky­line.

The pa­rade of black peaks push­ing through white ice bor­dered our ser­pen­tine course through the ice growlers of Peltier Chan­nel. At Cape Renard, thick ice barred its way into Le Maire Strait. I thought of fol­low­ing a small Rus­sian cruise ship that pushed through ahead. Whale Song has an ice-class hull and pro­pel­lers, but the two sta­bi­liz­ers stick­ing out from the bot­tom were no match for half-sub­merged growlers. We had to reroute north­ward, and the same day Whale Song ar­rived off the U.S. Palmer Sta­tion. The calv­ing res­i­dent glacier choked the main bay. The dock­mas­ter, who had just re­ceived a fore­cast of gale-force winds, ad­vised moor­ing in the creek right by the sta­tion. Our drums of long moor­ing lines came into play—two went onto the shore ahead and two on the rocks astern. When the wind came, a river of ice streamed to the open sea clear of the cozy creek. The sta­tion gave us a tour of var­i­ous projects, sent an in­vi­ta­tion to lunch, and opened the store where we loaded up on Palmer Sta­tion fleece hood­ies.

Dream­ing of the Arc­tic Cir­cle at lon­gi­tude 66° 33’ south, the Whale Song ex­plor­ers pow­ered out bravely into a snowy morn­ing ocean. Although the wind eased to 15 knots, the sea was rough and mas­sive ice­bergs ap­peared like ghosts in poor vis­i­bil­ity. High on ner­vous ten­sion, we some­how worked in­side the Ar­gen­tine Is­lands and be­gan a long search for a place to an­chor. The beau­ti­ful col­lec­tion of grand, though un­friendly, bergs plugged up all pos­si­ble spots. In the end, we man­aged to squeeze into Skua Creek. In this nar­row slot we couldn’t re­ally put out enough scope and test our anchors in re­verse. One shore was steep, smooth ice, with noth­ing to hold our moor­ing warps. So for ex­tra in­sur­ance, us­ing our smaller dinghy, we stuck our

huge, yet portable, alu­minum Fortress an­chor in a shal­low bot­tom crevice off the bow. The stern warps went onto the rocks astern. While the gale that had been for­casted never came to test our setup, the crew’s stamina was tested later dur­ing a morn­ing visit to Ver­nad­sky Sta­tion, a cou­ple of creeks away. In “the south­ern­most bar in the world” our hosts un­corked enough home­made vodka for sev­eral toasts to the friend­ship of the U.S. and Ukraine in main­tain­ing this project. Then, that ice­berg at the en­trance cap­sized. Our ten­der had to go ahead to check the depth over an ice spur clearly vis­i­ble in the wa­ter. Skua Creek was a thrill.


With the ice to the south thicker than our ves­sel’s ca­pa­bil­i­ties, we headed north along the main­land, the west side of the Antarc­tic Penin­sula. The ice of Le Maire Chan­nel cleared in this cor­ri­dor lead­ing through enor­mous coal-black basalt peaks so steep that nei­ther snow nor ice could cling to them. Soon af­ter, the chan­nel willi­waws ar­rived, whip­ping wa­ter into ris­ing twisters. Port Lock­roy beck­oned once more. We pow­ered right un­der the glacier’s wall to keep in smoother wa­ter, but the squalls still pounced on the boat. Twice the an­chor had to come up when we dragged—a mus­cle-build­ing job for the per­son who had to flake the 5/8-inch chain in the chain locker. A lucky third at­tempt brought con­grat­u­la­tions from a sail­boat at an­chor nearby: They had al­ready done this four times and were happy to be spec­ta­tors.

Our visit to Par­adise Bay—clearly a mis­nomer—ended up as a mis­sion of mercy. The Chilean base, González Videla, was out of drink­ing wa­ter—the sup­ply ship had been de­layed. A few thou­sand pen­guins along with a cen­tury’s worth of their drop­pings cov­ered the nearby ice field—for­get melt­ing that ice. Plus the Antarc­tic Treaty bans open fires. Equipped with two wa­ter­mak­ers, we pro­duced 400 gal­lons for the sta­tion be­fore the wind ar­rived again, the an­chor be­gan slip­ping on heavy kelp, and a cou­ple of res­i­dent bergs aimed straight for Whale Song.

There is one chance in these wa­ters to ac­tu­ally tie the boat along­side—not to a wharf, by any means, but to the wreck of a whal­ing ves­sel, the Governøren. Whale Song pow­ered north along the rugged Danco Coast. While watch­ing a dis­tant sail­boat beat­ing across And­vord Bay we got another bag­ful of willi­waws stream­ing from the ice cap of For­bid­den Plateau. At En­ter­prise Is­land, though, the wreck of the Governøren rested in calm wa­ter. Run­ning warps on the slant­ing deck was a bit like rock climb­ing. But once moored, Whale Song couldn’t drag, so there was no need for an an­chor watch—a wel­come change from rou­tine. On this peace­ful evening we counted our fuel stocks against dis­tances ahead—in Antarc­tica larger yachts have no chance to top up. All aboard agreed to head north again and in a few days see how much longer we could cruise.

Mod­er­ate winds came from the west, and a no­tice­able fair cur­rent helped some, too. Liv­ingston Is­land ap­peared clearly ahead. Though it rises to 5,500 feet, we al­most missed it in the heavy fog on our way south. At close quar­ters it un­folded such dra­matic moun­tains that Whale Song soon turned to Half Moon Is­land an­chor­age and found a friendly tee­to­tal re­cep­tion pow­ered with mighty espres­sos at the Ar­gen­tine Cá­mara Base. A beach led to rocky steeples where chin­straps tended big downy chicks. Across the wa­ter two blind­ingly bright glaciers rose to a tremen­dous peak. Ac­cord­ing to one world-class clim­ber who had made it to the top, Liv­ingston Is­land had “the worst weather [they] ever ex­pe­ri­enced!”


And the weather surely came the next day just as we de­cided our fuel could last through a visit to the tip of the Antarc­tic Penin­sula. Three hump­backs, re­peat­edly breach­ing, kept the same easterly head­ing for a while as heavy wa­ter be­gan fly­ing

in a steady 40-knot gale out of a cloud­less sky. We turned tail to King Ge­orge Is­land. The is­land is rich in sci­en­tific en­deavor, Chilean, Rus­sian, Ar­gen­tine, Korean, Chi­nese Great Wall, Peru­vian Mac­chu Pic­chu. En­ter­ing Ad­mi­ralty Bay first came the Pol­ish Arc­towski, and the an­chor went down off the Brazil­ians in Copaca­bana. The snout of an ice cap right off the bow re­duced some wind but kept drop­ping large chunks. A few times I had to turn on the en­gines to swing out of the way of heav­ier growlers. An­chored in 150 feet, we had enough chain out to al­low this trick.

Our last dream wish aimed at pen­e­trat­ing into Ere­bus and Ter­ror Gulf, a north­ern part of the Wed­dell Sea. Pow­er­ing south to­ward Antarc­tic Sound, Whale Song wove a zigzagged course among in­creas­ingly mas­sive ice­bergs, the shapes vary­ing from sky­scrapers top­pled on their sides, some­times in pairs, to vast tubu­lar bergs that would di­min­ish nu­clear air­craft car­ri­ers to bath­tub toys. And there were even bergs formed into dry-docks of ice. Reach­ing a strange red rock phe­nom­e­non called Brown Bluff stopped us for a cou­ple of days. Over 2,000 feet high, Brown Bluff is an ex­tinct vol­cano termed a “tuya;” its flat top was cre­ated when the erup­tion burst through heavy ice cover. The shape and red hues of Brown Bluff were never be­fore seen in Antarc­tica.

The bluff tow­ered over thou­sands of Adélie pen­guins, many chicks in molt. On one chunk of grounded ice dozed a sa­ti­ated leop­ard seal, its lips still bloody af­ter chomp­ing on some luck­less pen­guins. Tide­wa­ter glaciers stretched out on ei­ther side of the red mono­lith; a few thou­sand pen­guins kept busy on shore while higher up nested cape pe­trels, Wil­son’s storm pe­trels, and kelp gulls. From dawn through mid­night dusk, troops of Adélies hur­ried out to sea, por­pois­ing through the an­chor­age.


Ere­bus and Ter­ror Gulf com­mem­o­rates the two ships of James Clark Ross, who ex­plored most of the coastal wa­ters of Antarc­tica—in the 1840s and to­tally un­der sail. For the ice-class, steel Whale Song, how­ever, it didn’t take long to get stuck. Only a few nar­row leads wound among thick floes while far­ther ahead the ice thick­ened into small bergs. Although the fore­cast for sunny-calm to pre­vail a while longer in Drake’s Pas­sage, I was con­cerned about Whale Song’s ul­ti­mate sta­bil­ity, be­cause she was now light on fuel. For a lit­tle as­sur­ance I flooded some empty tanks with fresh wa­ter, and we headed north through the ice­berg al­ley of Brans­field Strait. With 24 hours of sum­mer day­light, our watch would spot ice for at least two days north of the South Shet­land Is­lands. Our luck held in vari­able light winds, and the “Drake Lake” never stirred up in anger. In the fad­ing light un­der a bright moon, with a comet high­tail­ing across the sky, Cape Horn came into sight—a spec­tac­u­lar end to an ex­cit­ing three weeks of an Antarc­tic cruise.


Sum­mer in Antarc­tica un­cov­ers some of her ser­crets.

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