Pole around a Pole

Pol­ish sailor Mar­iusz Koper ar­rived in Auck­land in May aboard his Oys­ter 72 – Kathar­sis II – af­ter a non-stop, record-set­ting cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion of Antarc­tica. We chat­ted to him about the voy­age.

Boating NZ - - Contents - BY LAWRENCE SCHÄFFLER

Circumnavigating Antarc­tica. Sail­ing around one of the most in­hos­pitable parts of the planet is hugely risky, but also very re­ward­ing. Or so we’re told.

A self-de­scribed ad­ven­tur­ist, A Koper en­joys sail­ing in some of the planet’s most ob­scure (and ex­treme) places. Let’s see – his re­sumé in­cludes ex­ten­sive sail­ing in and around the Arc­tic Cir­cle, tran­sit­ing the North­west Pas­sage, two pre­vi­ous trips to Antarc­tica (one be­yond the 78th par­al­lel), sail­ing around Cape Horn (twice) – and now, a cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion of the frozen con­ti­nent.

I thought ask­ing ‘why’ would be a good way to start the in­ter­view. “I like chal­lenges – and I love Antarc­tica.” This cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion – 72 days, non-stop un­der sail – has been rat­i­fied by Guin­ness World Records and the World Sail­ing Record Coun­cil as the ‘south­ern­most’ cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion of the con­ti­nent by a yacht. The boat re­mained just off the ice, sail­ing clock­wise (west-to-east) be­tween the 60th and 70th par­al­lels for the en­tire voy­age. The pre­vi­ous record (in a much wider band, be­tween the 45th and 60th par­al­lels), was 102 days.

To get around the ice-cap within the nar­row ‘sum­mer’ win­dow avail­able to sailors, the boat left Cape Town on 23rd De­cem­ber 2017. She ar­rived in Ho­bart, Tas­ma­nia, in April, nearly 16,000 miles later.

Koper’s choice of ves­sel for th­ese ad­ven­tures is a 22m Oys­ter 72 (he’s owned var­i­ous other ves­sels be­fore, in­clud­ing a smaller Oys­ter, Kathar­sis I). Built in GRP, Kathar­sis II is a heavy, ro­bust yacht (50 tonnes) and, though she doesn’t have strength­ened bows, her 225hp Perkins en­gine is per­fectly ad­e­quate, he says, for push­ing through the ice. Since her launch­ing in 2009, she has car­ried Koper some 120,000 nau­ti­cal miles.

Sail­ing around Antarc­tica sounds hellish – well, a cold­ish hell. Is it?

“Ac­tu­ally, the wind in the roar­ing for­ties and fu­ri­ous fifties is much worse. Around those lat­i­tudes the pre­vail­ing wind is westerly, and it’s rarely mild. But once you slip be­low 60o South the wind is much more vari­able – about 40 per­cent head­winds, about 30 per­cent fol­low­ing, and about 30 per­cent very lit­tle wind.

“In fact, we were be­calmed on more than a few oc­ca­sions, and be­cause we wanted to do the cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion un­der sail only, it be­came a lit­tle frus­trat­ing. But on the other hand, we also shel­tered in the lee of ice­bergs when the weather turned nasty. So it’s very mixed.”

Kathar­sis II is equipped with so­phis­ti­cated weather

Judg­ing the ice sit­u­a­tion is a lit­tle more tricky. There is no ice fore­cast – only satel­lite maps

mon­i­tor­ing gear – does that help in plot­ting the route?

“To a lim­ited de­gree. The weather radar and satel­lite imaging show an ap­proach­ing low, but its po­si­tion and, more im­por­tantly, its depth, aren’t par­tic­u­larly pre­cise. And the weather fore­casts – such as they are – aren’t re­ally re­li­able. Be­sides, the weather changes very quickly down there.

“Judg­ing the ice sit­u­a­tion is a lit­tle more tricky. There is no ice fore­cast – only satel­lite maps. So while you’re see­ing the ice field in real time, you have to make your own judge­ments about its move­ment and likely change in di­rec­tion.

“Even though we re­mained be­tween the 60th and 70th par­al­lels – sup­pos­edly well clear of the ice, we still came into con­tact with it. Ice­bergs aren’t the prob­lem – they’re easy to see and you can sail around them – or, in­deed, shel­ter be­hind them.

“But the growler ice – just on the sur­face – is much more dif­fi­cult to see and it’s very danger­ous. On three oc­ca­sions we were semi-trapped in it, but for­tu­nately man­aged to sail free. Sail­ing through ice de­mands a gen­tly-does-it strat­egy – you push your way through. Speed is not a good idea.”

The boat was also cov­ered in ice from time-to-time. “Even though her Dyneema sheets han­dle the cold

bet­ter be­cause they don’t ab­sorb as much wa­ter, they still froze and it’s very dif­fi­cult to work with solid lines. Some of the in­stru­ments were also af­fected – in­clud­ing the anemome­ter. So you don’t re­ally have an ac­cu­rate grasp of the wind’s strength. The dial might show 25 knots – but it’s ac­tu­ally blow­ing 40 knots.

“We weath­ered 18 storms dur­ing the trip. For­tu­nately, the Oys­ter is an ex­cel­lent heavy-weather ves­sel. In 50-60 knots she is very happy with a fourth reef in the main – that’s about the size of a try­sail – and a well-reefed stay­sail.”

Still, for all the hard­ship, says Koper, Antarc­tica is one of the most ma­jes­tic parts of the planet – “it’s dif­fi­cult to de­scribe the si­lence, the grandeur, the clar­ity of the colours on a sunny day, the raw power of the el­e­ments. Sail­ing among the whales is a won­der­ful ex­pe­ri­ence, and the birdlife is sublime.”


While the record-break­ing cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion was the prime fo­cus, Koper also used the voy­age to par­tic­i­pate in two oceano­graphic projects. One was de­ploy­ing three so­phis­ti­cated buoys which will col­lect var­i­ous types of data over the next few years; the other col­lect­ing wa­ter sam­ples for mon­i­tor­ing the pres­ence of mi­cro-plas­tic par­ti­cles.

“We were keen to do some­thing to help with re­search into

ar­eas of the South­ern Ocean which are rarely vis­ited – if ever – by sci­en­tists. And the re­search was con­ducted un­der the aus­pices of the Pol­ish Academy of Sciences’ In­sti­tute of Oceanol­ogy. Among our crew mem­bers was one of the Academy’s pro­fes­sors, Piotr Kuk­liński.”

The buoys will drift around the con­ti­nent for a num­ber of years but will spend much of the time un­der wa­ter. They are pro­grammed to sink to depths of 2,000m, col­lect data, and then resur­face to trans­mit that data to satel­lites. Each will sub­merge and resur­face some 100,000 times per an­num.

“Specif­i­cally, the buoys will mon­i­tor sea tem­per­a­tures at var­i­ous depths, the speed and di­rec­tion of ocean cur­rents, salin­ity – that sort of thing. They will help to iden­tify changes in cli­mate and give sci­en­tists a bet­ter idea of how the con­ti­nent might be af­fected over com­ing decades.”

Check­ing for the pres­ence of mi­cro-plas­tics, says Koper, was a lit­tle eas­ier.

“Go­ing through the con­ver­gence zone, the ob­jec­tive was to check for mi­cro-plas­tic par­ti­cles. We chose 10 lo­ca­tions stag­gered around the con­ti­nent. We would slow the boat, de­ploy a spe­cial­ist net and drag it for 30 min­utes to col­lect the sam­ples. Th­ese have been sent to land-based lab­o­ra­to­ries for anal­y­sis.”

Any­one who’s spent any time blue­wa­ter sail­ing will ap­pre­ci­ate that when a crew lives to­gether in con­fined spa­ces for an ex­tended pe­riod, things can be­come – um, a lit­tle brit­tle. How does Kathar­sis II’S crew stay sane?

“We typ­i­cally sail with nine – me and eight crew,” says Koper. “And I know many of your read­ers will think 100 days to­gether sounds like an eter­nity. I guess it helps that the crew mem­bers are all Pol­ish. And many of them are ‘core’

crew. They’ve been on most of the voy­ages. So we all know each other very well. Still, ev­ery­one wel­comes the op­por­tu­nity for a bit of shore free­dom in places like Auck­land.”

Kathar­sis II will spend the New Zealand winter in Auck­land while Koper en­joys a sunny break in the North­ern Hemi­sphere’s sum­mer. While here she will en­joy some much-needed TLC – in­clud­ing the fit­ting of a new boom, courtesy of South­ern Spars.

The yacht has a car­bon-fi­bre rig, and soon af­ter com­plet­ing the Antarc­tic cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion, just when the crew were cel­e­brat­ing their ac­com­plish­ment and think­ing the worst was be­hind them, they ran into a se­ries of storms on the way to Ho­bart. The boom snapped in a crash­gybe, forc­ing the boat to limp the re­main­ing 1,000 nau­ti­cal miles to Ho­bart un­der fore­sails only – and per­versely, in very light winds.


As yet Koper has no firm plans. Though he has pre­vi­ously cir­cum­nav­i­gated New Zealand, he has never vis­ited her sub-antarc­tic is­lands – Auck­land and Camp­bell – so that’s one pos­si­bil­ity. “Th­ese is­lands are renowned for their birdlife – see­ing it would be fan­tas­tic.”

But there is an­other draw­card – back on the other side of the planet, above the Arc­tic Cir­cle – the north-east pas­sage across the top of Rus­sia. Of course. I don’t want to sound pedan­tic, but just how does the boat’s name fit into this life­style? My dic­tionary’s def­i­ni­tion of ‘cathar­sis’ has zero ref­er­ence to high-stress sail­ing in ex­treme con­di­tions.

“It was my daugh­ter’s sug­ges­tion – she thought it was a good name at a par­tic­u­lar point in my life. For me, sail­ing is an in­vig­o­rat­ing ex­pe­ri­ence and de­spite the con­di­tions, it al­ways brings an el­e­ment of peace. It also pro­vides a wel­come ‘dis­tance’ from my busi­ness – and that’s al­ways re­lax­ing. So the name is kind of ap­pro­pri­ate – and even though the English word is spelt with a C, it de­rives from the Greek word, where it’s spelt with a K.” But there is also a far more pro­saic rea­son for the name. “One of my pre­vi­ous yachts was called Kiwi – yes, a New Zealand boat. I bought her in Europe – many years ago – but the seller wanted to keep the name. I know it’s bad luck to change a boat’s name, but I didn’t have a choice. Kathar­sis was of a sort of com­pro­mise – at least the names be­gin with the same let­ter.”

A krazy Pole hav­ing an­other kathar­sis in Ki­wi­land. Sounds kinda kool. BNZ

RIGHT Mar­iusz Koper (in­set). “I like chal­lenges – and I love Antarc­tica.”BE­LOW Ice­bergs are not re­ally a prob­lem be­cause you can see them – and some­times you can shel­ter in their lee.

TOP LEFT The best strat­egy through the growler ice is gen­tly-does-it. The gim­balled cooker says it all. ABOVE A cold­ish hell. De­spite the mid­sum­mer con­di­tions, the boat’s rig­ging was cov­ered in ice. LEFT A pleas­ant day in Antarc­tica.

RIGHT Are you sure you know where we are? It seems like we’ve been go­ing round and round and round...it all looks the same???

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