Furious and Screaming Conditions in Southern Ocean
Date: 12 February 2011
Position: 59:48S 063:38W - more than half way across
In a couple of hours we pass through the 60th parallel of latitude and officially we enter Antarctic waters. No vessel can enter without a permit which, in the case of Mina2, will mean going through an exhaustive process with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office lasting several months. The rules to which permit holders agree are numerous and any contravention taken extremely seriously. This is all part of The Antarctic Treaty, a multinational agreement to maintain and preserve this, the last great completely unspoilt wilderness in the world.
One of the rules is that we can no longer throw ANYTHING overboard – even organic biodegradable waste we will have to store until we return north of the line in a couple of weeks. Another consequence of passing over this line of latitude is that we leave the Furious 50’s and enter the screaming 60’s, but the only thing Furious and Screaming round here is me. I won’t say it’s like a mill pond as we still have the long majestic oceanic swell which is always around, but we do not have enough wind to sail. I signed up for this damned trip so that I could experience the fury of the Drake Passage for the first time on an immensely strong boat with an immensely experienced crew. So far we managed to get the sails up for a blissful 10 hours yesterday when a breeze sprung up from the west, but apart from that we have been and continue to motor.
However we could be getting a little action later. A strong easterly is forecast to build this afternoon and last until tomorrow evening. Our first Antarctic gale. One characteristic of a gale in these parts compared to temperate or tropical climes is that, being much colder, the wind has greater density and is therefore stronger than a warm wind of the same speed. And cold it is getting. Yesterday the sea temperature was about 8ºC but we have now gone through the Antarctic Convergence (see yesterday’s blogs for details) and the sea temperature is now down to about 2º or 3ºC, so the chill factor in a strong wind will be fantastically low. Time to pull out the balaclava and get the over-mitts on. Also, if one falls in the water in these temperatures you have about 2 or 3 minutes before you would fall unconscious from hypothermia then drown. That is longer than it would take to turn the boat round and rescue you, so Miles, the skipper, has now forbidden any falling overboard.
Not that there will be any alcohol-induced falling over. Pelagic Australis is a dry boat when on passage and this has probably been the longest period without alcohol passing my lips since I put myself on a diet a couple of years ago. I told Miles that Mina2 was also a dry boat, normally between about 0300 and 1000.
Let me tell you a little bit about life on Pelagic. There are three professional crew and eight guests (including me). Being an expedition and not a luxury cruise we are not waited on but we are encouraged to participate. So we all stand watches and help sail the boat, putting sails up and down and pulling on the ropes. We are divided into three teams or watches, each watch led by one of the professional crew, and two or three guests. We are on watch for three hours then are off watch for the next six hours. This is the same system I have on Mina2 and it works extremely well. I am on Miles’ watch with Jochen, an elderly German who is a lovely friendly guy who sadly speaks very little English. So that leaves plenty of time for me to wear poor Miles down with endless questions about everything to do with cruising in this challenging playground.
We all share cooking and washing up duties, and Mina2’s faithful crew members, not to mention the DS, would be amazed to see me up to my elbows in suds on a regular basis. It makes a very pleasant change for me.
There are six double cabins each with two bunks and I am sharing a cabin with Charlie who is an American who does all sorts of action stuff like diving and flying, together with sailing.
Provisioning for a three week trip for eleven people when you can’t exactly pop down to the local corner shop if you’ve forgotten something is an exact science, but Miles, Laura and Dave are old hands and have it down to a fine tee. Fortunately their last cruise was over to the Falklands so, apart from stacks of local produce, there is also an almost inexhaustible supply of marmalade, Colman’s Branston, brown sauce, Yorkshire Tea, Kit-Kats and other invaluable British supplies. This is supplemented by enormous hunks of succulent Argentine beef, cratefuls of various fruit and veg and, finally, two entire lambs which are strapped to the rigging – in these temperatures they last for weeks.
Given the cold temperatures, meals are of the solid variety – homely stews, warming soups, roast meat with lots of potatoes etc. Lots of calories to keep the cold out. Pelagic is built for high latitudes (i.e. cold places) so there is no fridge or freezer. What would be the point when the outside of the fridge is colder than the inside? At the back of the boat down below, there is an enormous saloon next to the galley, and a large table around which up to 15 people can eat together when we are at anchor. When we are at sea, food is provided in bowls to eat off your lap wherever you happen to be. In the saloon is a diesel burning heater that pumps hot water round one or two radiators by the cabins and this keeps the temperature down below up to about 10º to 15º - chilly by normal standards, but fine if you are dressed for it.
I’m now going to get my head down for a quick kip ready for the boisterous conditions that are forecast. More to follow….