Saturday, January 25, 2014


Whale bones laid out inside a volcano crater.
     Planning for Antarctica started in November of last year.  I flew from Michigan to Holland to sail to the Falkland islands.  This didn't happen, but it was the first attempt to make to Antarctica.  Eight to ten meters seas in the English channel prevented us from passing through, so we put the twenty-seven meter sailboat on a container ship and sent it to Brazil.  We also scrapped the idea of making it to Antarctica by January, and though contacts had been made and plans set in motion, it was all shelved for another day.  
     A few months in Brazil, a couple thousand miles sailed, and then flying back to Michigan for me.  Some time went by, and I ended up flying back to Brazil by March to become the permanent engineer and mate.  But instead of South, we went West.  We crossed the Caribbean, and went through the Panama Canal.  Months went by.  Thousands of miles were sailed.  Gear was ordered, planning began again.  Antarctica was hard to imagine while sitting in Ecuador, literally at 00 degrees latitude.  Picking out cold weather clothes while wearing board shorts and flip-flops is a difficult mental exercise.  Our sailing direction became Southerly.  When November rolled around, we were in Chile, and at last it was cool enough to wear long pants during the day.  Antarctica started to feel real.  Distant, but looming.  Books on the great explorers started being read.  Scott, Shackleton, the Rime of the Ancyent Mariner all became familiar.  
     After a Chilean cruise through fjords and inlets and estuaries, planning began in earnest.  Our guide became a permanent crew, and so talk of the South became part of every meal and coffee.  And excitement for it, and fear of rounding the Horn and sailing amongst calving glaciers grew into our nightly dreams.  
     We moved everything off the boat we didn't need.  Wakeboards, swim noodles, short sleeved uniforms, and sun awnings all made their way into storage.  A hundred trips were made to and from the storage unit, carrying things off, bringing some of it back, then carrying it off again.  Debates were had every day over wether or not a wash-down bucket or water hose were necessary items to have aboard.  
Granite peaks and ice formations. Photo by A.H.
     And then we sailed South.  And less than a week before the owner was supposed to fly in, the bearings on our propeller shaft gave out.  The shaft would turn, but it sounded like a blender with marbles in it.  And water was coming into the boat.  Not a lot, but when the shaft turned it sprayed saltwater through seals in the engine room.  Without a working shaft, the entire trip would have to be scrapped.  
     Turns out, the Southernmost boatyard in the world was only a day and a half sail away.  They had a floating dock designed to lift six hundred foot long vessels, and though they weren't used to pulling something as little as 88feet out of the water, they were willing.  So we sailed and lightly motored when we could through Estrecho de Magellenes, The Magellan Straits, to Punta Arenas.  And we spent Christmas day at anchor, sleeping and eating chocolate.  
     Then a technician from Holland flew in, and we hauled the boat out of the water.  This is no easy task, and divers were needed, about ten line handlers, five guys on the boat to position us just right, dock workers and yard workers running around looking busy.  
     As soon as the boat was dry the guy from Holland went to work.  Watching a master do his craft is a huge pleasure for me, and I felt I'd quickly made a friend as we dismantled the shaft from inside the engine room, removing nuts, bolts, bearings, seals, housings, and random parts I can't put a name to.  And then outside we went, standing in cold Chilean wind under the boat, dismantling the propeller, and all the outside bearings and seals, cold rain running down the hull and dripping onto us.  
     We got a crane and six men and we were able to pull the shaft completely out of the boat and take it to a metal shop in the yard.  There we put it on a lathe and cleaned up any wear spots and polished it smooth.  The technician rebuilt, fixed and replaced the compromised parts, and late that night we were able to put the shaft on a forklift, take it back to the boat, lift it with a crane, put it into position with six guys, and with shear manpower, slide the thing back into place.  Then it was to the hotel, and time for bed.  
     In the morning we were able to reinstall everything.  And then lubricate, adjust, double check, and call it a day by five in the afternoon.  The next morning we were in the water, and the trip South was back on.  
     At this point I was fatigued.  We'd been on watches from Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas, and that's tiring enough, piloting through narrow passes over shallow rocks, which is something I'm comfortable with and have trained for, am probably more qualified than most people in the world to do, but it still takes a lot of focus and vigilance.  And then the haul out, the repair, the reentry, and going back on watches.  
     But we sailed and motored farther South, through the Beagle Channel, to Puerto Williams, the Southernmost town in the world. 
     We had a day there to work on the boat.  Clean the teak decks, wash down the topsides and hull, touch up the stainless, and then organize the aft lazarette from cruising mode to owner's trip mode.  And the next day the owner and guests arrived.  
     We left shortly after that for Cape Horn.  A grey day with wind hammering between islands and across any large fetch of water, we left early in the morning and were rounding the Horn around ten a.m.  
      I was on the wheel to go around the Horn.  The big genoa was out full, which scared me, because I thought it was too much sail, but I didn't say anything, I was having too much of a "feeling of accomplishment" moment, thinking that "I am exactly where I am supposed to be, doing exactly what I'm supposed to be doing."  I was thinking about the thousands of sailors over the last five hundred years who have rounded the Horn, who've failed at rounding the Horn, and I was feeling pretty damn pleased with myself.  
Blue glacial ice.  Photo by A.H.
     Then the wind gusted to fifty knots and came forward fifteen degrees.  The boat heeled over on it's side, and the port rail dipped into the water, and then kept going under.  I dumbly sat, holding the wheel in place, my only thought was that I had to get the sail down.  I hoped the wind would relent, I tried to stand up but my feet came out from under me and I fell back down to my sitting position, so I scooted and slid to the autopilot button, and a moment after pressing the auto-pilot, I realized how dumb that was to do.  
     I watched the rudder indicator turn hard right, into the wind, which only increased the apparent wind speed (picture running into the wind as opposed to running with it, it feels stronger if you go into it).  The boat rounded up and heeled over even further, and I thought we might end up tacking, but the auto tried to correct itself, and sent the rudder hard left, so we went whirling to port, and the boat started to right itself a little, at least making the port rail visible in the water, and in that short moment of being able to stand upright, the Captain made it to the aft deck to turn auto pilot off, and I made it to the genoa furler controls and the sheet lines, still thinking the sail just had to be rolled up.  He turned the boat away from the wind, decreasing the apparent wind and righting the boat, and I started to furl the sail.  But as the sail rolled itself up, a tear from the center of canvas ripped from top to bottom.  We lost our biggest sail.  Kind of like losing fourth and fifth gears in your car's transmission.   
     Our other two sails lasted about twenty-four hours.  Cold weather, brittle fabric, wind gusts to sixty knots, and a tired crew unable to react fast enough, meant we damaged all three sails.  So we motored mostly, and were able to keep just enough sail out to make the boat ride a little better in the seas.
     We made it around the Horn and across Drake's passage with more respect for the part of the world we were in.  Learning that mistakes or letting diligence falter bred severe consequences
     I understood there was no vegetation in this part of the world.  It is too cold, too windy, not enough rain, not enough sunshine, and I knew there was going to be tremendous amounts of ice, but knowing facts and seeing pictures about something didn't prepare me for the moment the sun broke through a dense grey stratus of cloud cover, and shone brilliant white on glacial ice that was hundreds of feet thick and miles in length.  
     The sea was a dark grey, and it met a white snow field with a deep contrast to one another.  The sun shone and made the white glow, so if you stared directly at it, it would sting your eyes.  The snow field rose higher, and with it the radiance grew, and at the top of the hill of the snow the wind was stronger, whipping up and whirling snow and ice into a cloud, which seemed permanently affixed to the top of the island.  In the center of the island, at the highest point, it was impossible to tell cloud from mountain peak.  There was no contrast of color or difference of shade.  It was blazingly white snow, and a dazzling white cloud base, and no way to tell the difference between the land ending and the sky beginning.  
View from just outside our anchorage, cut the tender motor and just floating in the current.  Photo taken with A.H.'s camera that I stole for a tender ride.  
     We motored through a passage between two islands of ice, and collectively felt we'd entered a new world as the boat stopped rolling so violently that we could sit down without having to hold onto a handrail to keep ourselves in place.  After three days eating with one hand holding both a plate and the table, while your feet were locked onto a table leg or pressed against a bulkhead to keep yourself still enough that  your other hand could be shoveling food into your mouth, it was relaxing to be in the lee of something and to be protected from the wind and seas.
     Then cleaning up of the boat commenced.  Getting the interior in order and rinsing the outside, washing encrusted salt off of everything, and then anchoring in an area that had a ten thousand strong population of penguins fifty meters away, we launched the tender and went ashore to stretch our legs and see the world in which we had arrived.  
That's me on the wheel, trying to spot ice ahead of the boat as we go through the narrows.   Another A.H. picture.
     Penguins stink.  They wreak of bad shrimp and birdshit.  But they are curious, and not very cautious towards humans.  Our guide was able to get them to come to her and stand right in her lap.  It takes patience, and you have to be good at making penguin sounds.  I could get them to come near me, but my bird calls are limited to, "Hey.  Hey bird!  Lookuphere, lookuphere, lookuphere."  This didn't call any penguins to me, but it didn't scare them away either.  
A "Chinstrap Penguin."  Taken on another tender ride with A.H.
     Back on the boat, repairs were made to things that had broken.  A water hose cracked and flooded the bilge with a thousand liters of freshwater, so the whole crew was up emptying bilges trying to find the leak and then repair the plumbing at one in the morning.  Heads got clogged and motors burnt up and filters stopped filtering, the normal things that happen on boats when you need them to work.  But nothing dire, the only real casualty was sleep.  Nothing breaks at eight a.m. when you have all day to fix it.  
     After a few anchor watches we figured out that it never actually got dark.  At eleven at night you could still read a book beside a window, and at two you might need a light to read, but you could still plainly see icebergs floating by the bow, or small pieces the size of Volkswagons you'd have to go outside and push away with a spare sail batten.   
     Only once did we anchor in the same place two nights in a row, because there was too much ice in the pass we wanted to traverse.  But other than that we were always in a new place to explore.  After a day in an ice flow we found an inlet with granite cliffs on three sides, dropped the anchor in the mouth of the opening and backed in between the cliffs, tying to shore with cables from our stern, and we spent the night sleeping deeply.  In the morning there were penguins all around the shore and after a tender ride to drop guests off I motored in-between ice bits the size of houses and cut the engine and just drifted with the ice.  
11 p.m.  What passes for sunset in these parts. Taken by A.H. as he tried to hide from the rest of us.  
     I examined the shapes and stared into the blue ice, some of it formed over ten thousand years ago, and I closed my eyes and recreated it in my memory, only looking occasionally to add more detail to the image in my mind.  I did this with the volcanic peaks nearby, and the granite cliffs jutting hundreds of feet out of the water, and then I did it with the sounds and scents.  I put my camera down and tried to capture the moment within myself.  A meditation of assimilation and awareness.  The sound of breaking ice and the salt water splashing around it, the scent of crisp, cold air, and penguins.  And the sun in a blue sky radiating atop the white surface of ancient, untouched glaciers, which look soft and smooth as bare skin, until they reach the water's edge and break off into sharp shattered edges, like a pile of broken glass shards a hundred feet tall, and at their center a blue impossible to capture with a lens.  It starts as a pure white that fades to a sky blue, but with depth to it, like the looking at the sky from under calm, clear water, or looking into a person's eyes and discovering a shade and meaning within them.  
I think I took this one, but it might have been A.H.  
     Tender rides and shore ties and hauling lines and raising anchor, ice watches all night, avalanches, glaciers cracking like thunder, never sleeping more than five hours at a time, normally getting less than four.  Snow suits and boots, hats and gloves and layers of clothing.  
     It was cold, but never brutally cold.  No colder than a normal winter in my hometown.  And not nearly as cold as a December night on the deck of a freighter in Lake Superior, I felt comfortable in Antarctica.  A place I could never call home, but a land that wasn't foreign to me, wasn't a barren wasteland or a place devoid of life.  Contrary to that, a place filled with beauty and unique species.  It would be common to be on deck with six people and have a camera pointed in every direction, and each camera capturing something amazing that could never been seen anywhere else.  It's a place beauty is easily recognizable, and there to experience.  But it is severe.  Forgetting to refuel a tender, or tying a knot incorrectly could end lives.  It's a place you have to go slowly, and think clearly.  A place where adventure is not achieved through recklessness or happenstance, but through preparation and thought.  
     The guests flew out and the crew collapsed.  We all slept.  We woke, ate, and went back to bed.  I tried to watch a movie, but fell asleep before I even pressed play.  We refueled and organized the boat for a day.  Moved anchorages thinking it would be nice to find a protected place to wait for a weather window and get more sleep, but it's Antarctica, and our anchorage turned into an ice field with wind gusts pressing us towards a lee shore.   An anchor watch had to be started, and then in the early morning we had to move to a safer place. We couldn't get very comfortable after that, and when a weather window opened, we took it.  Our stays'l repaired with duct tape and thread, we motorsailed North.  The ride was awful.  Following seas that were unrelenting, not necessarily that big, seven to ten feet, but steep and with short periods between crests, it meant we had to hand steer in snow and freezing rain.  
     To sleep in my bunk in rough seas has taken a year of practice.  I have to stick my immersion suit under the lee edge of my mattress, and then tie it into place with a lee cloth (which is like a hammock with one side attached to the side of my bed) and then fold myself into the mattress like a hotdog in a bun.  This will stop me rolling from side to side in my sleep, but being all the way forward means that when the bow rises and then falls over the crest of a wave, I experience a moment of intense gravity, where my weight is increased as the boat rises, and then weightlessness as we peak and descend.  
That's me, waving.  Photo by A.H.
     Three days and nights of this brought us back to The Horn, and we back into semi protected waters.  My brain shut down.  I was physically and mentally done.  We anchored back in Puerto Williams, and tying shore ties broke me.  I got so frustrated with tangled lines and failed attempts to fairly lead a line that I just threw one end into the water, which is an act I don't think I've done anything similar to since I was six years old, patience and composure something I thought were boundless in myself.  But I've been tired for three thousand miles.  I needed a day off a month ago, and now I need a week of sleep, but there's still over a thousand miles North to go till we'll be in a good port, and then a couple thousand miles passed that until I can truly feel like this trip is over. 
     But we made it back from Antarctica.  It'll take years to fully appreciate this trip.  I'll have to tell the stories a hundred times before I believe them myself.  Someday I'll nonchalantly drop into a conversation that I once anchored on the inside of a volcano, looked through Neptune's window at mainland Antarctica, and then skipped stones in the flat water as penguins waddled by.  It's a trip filled with things hard to believe, and it really does feel like it's at the end of the earth.  I'm grateful for every minute of it, the beautiful moments, and the miserable ones, and I'm grateful now that we're in a safe harbor, and that I have a full night's sleep ahead of me.       

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