THE PLACE FOR WANDERERS
Wanderers are drawn to a remote outpost in the majestic Southern Ocean, where they find life abounds amid the barren ice and rocks.
THE Antarctic island of South Georgia is the most nerve-racking place I know. Along its spectacular coast — nearly 10,000 feet high in places, where hurricane-force winds can replace a flat calm in seconds — simply being there requires tenacity. Sailing away from the island is a kind of game of chance. Whether attempting the 800-nautical-mile upwind passage to the Falkland Islands or the 3,000-nautical-mile downwind one to Cape Town, South Africa, an oceanic gantlet of icebergs, fog and gales is unavoidable. And getting there? That is also far from child’s play. On our
Wanderer III, a 30-foot wooden boat with sextant and compass but no radar, weather forecasts or communication other than VHF radio, it’s pure psychology. Each phase of a voyage to the most fantastic island of the world is more than demanding.
When I first conjured up South Georgia as an idea, Kicki and I were still sailing in the Pacific. Later, in Cape Town, in 1997, after 10 years of being underway, a mere Atlantic passage separated us from a return to Europe. But I couldn’t get South Georgia out of my mind. I knew: If not now, then never. Rules and fees increasingly restrict the movements of curious sailors and simple boats like Wanderer III. Exploration has been replaced by tourism and orderly experiences, even at the far reaches of the planet.
So we recast our thoughts and actions. We sailed 55 days, first to Montevideo, Uruguay, for the cakes at the Cafe Rheingold, then on to a face-lift for Wanderer in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and finally to the Falklands — this last step in borrowed foul-weather gear. With our necks and backs suddenly no longer wet, we were encouraged to aim for South Georgia, after the winter.
On November 27, we had Wanderer shipshape for the passage into the cold, and had even stashed aboard some quebracho firewood from Argentina. The saloon table was in the forepeak; all four anchors and mooring lines were secured between the midship bunks. Diesel, kerosene and cocoa powder were topped up, and everything was ready; we just needed a forecast. So, in those pre-grib-file days, we contacted the met office. “Monday: Severe storm.”
Actually, that suited us just fine. It gave us two or three days to properly say goodbye to a place and people we had grown very fond of over the year. In my irrational habit of pursuing chimeras, I even proposed a return: We’d beat back 800 nautical miles through the Southern Ocean, from South Georgia to the Falklands, I told folks. The conviction with which I announced this fooled even me.
On Saturday it blew just like normal, but not a storm. Sunday likewise. In fact, there was no storm in sight.
“Never be impatient in the Southern Ocean,” came the advice from, of all people, French navigator and sailor Philippe Poupon.
On Monday, finally, hurricane-strength winds swept all impatience into outer space. Even the oldest Kelpers, the Falkland locals, couldn’t remember seeing their harbor white-washed for four solid days. A Spanish fishing boat steamed up and down the cigar-shaped harbor for three of them because the anchor would not hold and coming alongside was totally unthinkable. A multistory Princess cruise ship couldn’t retrieve 200 of its 2,000 passengers from their shore leave, and required the help of a tug to reach open waters, where it held its position through the blow.
Wanderer, well secured with shore lines, heeled heavily. Stanley Harbour came to a standstill and my knees went weak — both in direct relationship to the storm’s intensity. And once it abated, I promptly developed a mysterious fever. Coughing heavily, I retreated to my bunk. Nothing could be done.
The longer I stayed horizontal, the more consciously I coughed, perhaps a symptom of the impossibility of setting
Kicki Ericson keeps an eye out for bergs on a winter sailing foray.