I have had a difficult time writing about our Antarctica trip. I think this is mostly due to the scope of the trip and the crew undertaking it. It is just too much to write a blog summarizing a 4 week trip to Antarctica with 4 sailors on board. So I’ll start with sailors, the Drake passage and Cape Horn.
Cape Horn and the Drake passage are arguably the roughest bits of water in the world. Even with modern weather prediction a 38 ft sailboat will get hit by one or in our case two of the low pressure systems that regularly pass through there. These generally bring a pleasant 40 knots of breeze with gusts to well over 50 knots. These are weather conditions none of our crew have experienced for sustained periods of time.
Our crew consisted of myself a double amputee ½ way into a solo circumnavigation attempt, Jaap Bel a professional sailor from the Netherlands, and Stash Wislocki a professional filmmaker and adventurer who thought a trip across the Drake and around the Horn would be a good way to learn to sail. Our captain Barry Kennedy is a professional helicopter pilot and experienced sailor whom did a solo passage across the Atlantic to bring out faithful chariot Spalpine to southern Chile.
We left Puerto Williams on a sunny day with fair winds. All of us telling stories and joking in our t shirts. We got our 1st taste of 50 knot winds about 80 miles from Cape Horn and they came straight on the nose. We motor sailed through a tight channel with the 3rd reef in the main until we could fall off and head to sea. We were hoping to get close enough to Cape Horn to see it but that would have to wait until the trip back.
The Drake passage is a notoriously difficult thing and not disappoint. Even with choosing good weather windows we still saw 50 knots 4 out of 6 days both ways. The other 2 days were pleasant motor sailing. Despite the constantly changing weather and rough seas it seemed surprisingly easy for me. I’ve have done most of my sailing alone and having capable crew on board made it pleasant even with the constant sail changes and reefing. The trip down was trouble free other than Stash getting seasick and hibernating most of the trip. I have to give Stash credit. Though he had no choice but to keep going he always had a smile on his face when we saw it. He mentioned how the only reason he kept calm was because of Me, Jaap, and Barry continuing on as business as usual. Despite our brave faces and demeanor I can say personally there is a constant stress in sailing in conditions this rough. I can’t speak for Jaap or Barry but it has been my experience that something always breaks when dealing with weather this rough. The only real failure we had was the boat’s heater really didn’t like winds over 40 knots and would smoke out the cabin under protest. This made the roughest days really cold as well on board.
Fast forward 2.5 weeks. Usually you can get a bit of rest on anchor and get some repairs done. Sadly Antarctica didn’t allow this for us. We had constant changes in weather making anchor watches necessary and had a 3 day battle to keep brash ice from pushing Spalpine and her brave crew onto the rocks. Our 1 casualty was a part for the windvane (mechanical autopilot) which rendered it useless for the trip back. Luckily Spalpine has an electric auto-pilot as well.
Our 1st route leaving Antarctica was blocked by ice which made us choose an alternate route that made our trip to windward the whole way back. Our tensions were high, our energy level low, and still had the Drake Passage and Cape Horn between us and our well deserved anchor beer. Of course the wind was over 40 knots on the nose leaving. The heater didn’t work and we had to stay at the helm on shift to avoid iceburgs in a hurry if need be. In these conditions visibility isn’t great so you need to be ready if you see something. For the 1st 2 days I never got warm. We had 2 hour shifts usually with an extra ½ hour of sail trimming with 2 crew on deck. Stash was once again sick and hibernated through the rough bits, every once in a while emerging from his cabin with a smile on his face. Once the weather calmed down Stash came up for a few games of backgammon and we started recovering a bit. Our food and spirits improved. Jaap even made an Apple pie for Christmas.
We were hit by a 2nd low pressure system 2 days from the Horn. With it came 40-60 knots of wind and waves to match. After a day of this we were broadsided by a large wave that killed our auto pilot bracket. This is a part not easy to get to and even harder to fix. It was all hands on deck. Barry and I took turns at the helm. With very little protection from the elements we took 30 minute to 1 hour shifts. This was about as long as we could handle before starting to get numb from the cold. Stash despite being seasick powered on to help remove every thing necessary from the storage locker to get at the problem. Once the bracket was out Jaap went to work to try to make it useable. Stash retreated to his bunk. Barry and I continued to take turns at the helm and trying to assist Jaap in finding things to use for the bracket repair. This was about a 4 hour repair job and once again we were all exhausted. Jaap took the 1st watch and some extra time to let me and Barry sleep/warm up.
About 40 miles from the Horn we started to get in the lee of the NW winds. We had been beating to weather for 2 days and the winds dropping to 35 knots felt like we were suddenly in the tropics. Even joked about shaking a reef out of the sail. 15 miles out we got our 1st view of Cape Horn. It was all hands on deck including Stash with his camera. We knew once in the lee of Cape Horn the winds would calm and the seas flatten out. There were a few celebratory beers and an overall sense of relief and accomplishment knowing that we were nearly in protected waters.