New Island – Nature Reserve and Jumping Off Point
Position: 51:43.391S 061:17.93W
Date: 6 December 2011
We had decided to take the inside passage round the south west end of the Falklands to get to New Island – not to avoid the vicious seas on this infamous lee shore that has seen the demise of so many ships over the centuries, as there was, exceptionally no wind, no big sea, and we were motoring - but because it seemed more interesting.
We passed between the mainland and Sea Dog Island. Able Seadog Snoopy donned his polar outfit and came into the cockpit to scan the island through binoculars with great excitement. He claims he saw a couple of Sea Dogs but, as the Absent Downstairs Skipper would say, “I’m not so sure”.
We went through the notorious Smylie Sound – a narrow gap between two islands with a shallow sand bank between them. We were advised that at spring tides the water can race through here at 10 knots. It was not spring tides and we had fortuitously arranged for our entry with the tide with us. Us we approached the shallows, we saw our speed over the ground increasing rapidly; the water around us was bubbling like a cauldron and all around were whirlpools caused by the rapid water. We shot through with a 6-knot suck from the tide. We reappeared into what was almost an inland sea – islands all round and extremely well protected. The landscape at the west end of the Falklands is altogether more dramatic than the low lying hills of East Falkland. High sheer cliffs plummet from the many headlands into the sea. Even in these benign conditions the swell crashed into the sheer faces of rock sending spray shooting many metres up the cliff faces. This coastline in a storm must be awe-inspiring.
As we approached the sheltered anchorage off the tiny settlement at New Island at about 1600, we say another yacht anchored in the bay. It was our old friends Dawnbreaker whom we had met in Stanley. A big Swedish 65 – 70 ft aluminium yacht, it had an international crew of Lars, the Swedish owner, Bob the Welshman, Tomas the Brazilian and Peter the Canadian. They have the same itinerary as me – heading for the Beagle Channel then going over to Antarctica in January, so we will see more of them over the months. Having anchored securely, we were invited over to Dawnbreaker for a drink or three before dinner.
New Island is a world-famous Nature Reserve. Bought by Ian Strange in the 1960’s (we had been introduced to Maria and Ian Strange and had met them in Stanley) it is now owned by a trust and the island and is run by their daughter Georgina. Lying at the extreme western end of the Falklands, it is shaped like a crescent about 7 miles long. Georgina and her boyfriend are the only inhabitants, but in the summer months they are visited by a small number of scientists and conservationists who carry out research on the wildlife, of which it is stuffed full. It is also on the itinerary of some of the small cruise ships and, being an excellent point of arrival in the Falklands from the west and a jumping off point for going south west to the Beagle channel, they also see more yachts here than anywhere else apart from Stanley. Georgina said they saw perhaps six yachts a year. A supply ship visits every couple of months or so, but it carries no passengers so the only way on and off the island is by helicopter – extortionately expensive. The island has its own website whose address I can’t remember – just Google “New Island Falklands” – it’s well worth a look.
The following morning we awoke to a simply horrible day – foggy, damp and cold so we busied ourselves with maintenance jobs on board – refuelling from the jerry cans and, excruciatingly, drilling holes into my beautiful soleboards to screw them down so they don’t fly around and kill folk in the event of a knockdown or capsize in Drake Passage. Actually, the screws are pretty unobtrusive.
Talking of fixing things; a tribute to the greatest fixer ever. John is a practical and lateral thinking engineer and has been steadily going about the boat identifying all and any areas which could be fixed, strengthened or improved – whether it be devising the most secure way to strap the jerry cans and dinghy to the decks so they won’t be washed overboard in the enormous seas to come, to fixing a potentially dangerous problem with the mainsail reefing mechanism. And a million other things besides. His help has been absolutely invaluable.
By the afternoon the weather had improved and as we had been here 24 hours and hadn’t yet been ashore, we lowered the dinghy and motored over to the concrete jetty. There, tied to a post, was a note of welcome from Georgina. Having tracked her down, we went for a short walk, past the excellent little museum they have put together, and over a hill to an extraordinary amphitheatre of high rocks sloping down to a small bay which was completely covered in nesting birds. Sharing the same site were tens of thousands of Imperial Shags, Rockhopper penguins and Black-browed Albatross – which are absolutely enormous face to face. Amongst them strutted Skuas opportunistically looking for a distracted mother from whom to grab a snack in the form of an egg or young chick. Every type of bird has their favoured way of building their nests; the Shags have nests made of twigs and moss, the Rockhoppers build little conical mounds made from stones and mud, and the Albatross fashion extraordinary shaped mounds from mud alone – looking like potters’ clay at the start of making a big pottery bowl. There is the constant noise of arguments as one bird gets too close to the nest of another, and meanwhile the sky is full of wheeling Albatross and Shags. The Albatross are the most graceful bird in the world whilst flying but landing on their tiny landing strip tends to be an ungainly thumping crash landing. You could sit and watch it all for hours.
Yesterday, the wind was forecast to come in strong from the north in the afternoon so we decided to leave early for a long walk to the very north of the island. It took five hours in total, not least because we needed to stop every few yards to look in wonder at yet another wildlife miracle. As Linda said, it is soupy thick with wildlife. Wandering along a track about half a mile from the sea, we would see groups of Magellanic Penguins. Not for them the overcrowded nests on the rocks overlooking a bay; their technique is to dig burrows in the soft peaty earth. One moment they are there in front of you and the next minute they’re gone. Birds of every species abounded – all seemingly remarkably tame and unafraid of our presence. From the small crimson-chested Long-Tailed Meadow lark, singing joyfully on top of a wooden post, to numerous types of duck and geese all wandering around as families – mum, dad and several goslings. Skuas and Albatross wheeled overhead. Cresting a hill, all of a sudden John was being attacked by several scarce but aggressive raptors, the Striated Caracara. They swooped at him from every direction and would have taken a chunk out of his scalp if he hadn’t been wearing a hat. After a couple of hours we reached the north shore and the rookery of yet more penguins – this time Gentoo penguins – the first we had seen on New Island. We were also hoping to see one of two of the much larger King Penguins and some Sea Lions, but sadly there was none.
As we returned to the boat, we saw that another yacht was anchored in the bay (Dawnbreaker had left for Staten Island early that morning). This was Kotick, a professional charter yacht owned by Alain, a veteran in these parts of some 20 years, with a party of French and Belgian guests. Six yachts a year and three had visited in just one day!
Exhausted from our long walk we chilled out on the boat in the afternoon as the forecast wind rose and rose until it was blowing a full gale with gusts up to more than 50 knots. Kotick swung to her anchor close by with all her crew ashore. In the screaming winds we saw a Skua hovering near her backstay trying again and again to get close to something in the rigging. We realised that Alain had the best part of half a sheep hanging there (this is a not unusual place for storing mutton down here). “Oh look” said John, “He’s got a lamb kebab in his rigging”. “Lamb kebab? What do you mean?” I asked. “Well” said John “it’s been Skua’ed”. How we laughed.
We plan to leave New Island early tomorrow morning for the 215-mile passage across to Staten Island by the Argentine mainland. The weather window looks favourable for a comfortable passage without too much wind – well that’s the plan anyway.
As I know you are all gagging for some pics, I will try and send, separately, a few small low def ones. When I get to broadband heaven in Ushuaia in a couple of weeks, you will be inundated!