You Asked For It, Tim - And You Got It

Mina2 in the Caribbean - Where's The Ice Gone?
Tim Barker
Wed 16 Feb 2011 11:31

Date: 14 February 2011

Position: 64:39.0S 062:57W – off the Antarctic mainland




The gale I rashly asked for turned into a severe gale, Force 9. The seas got bigger and bigger. 3 metres – 4 metres – then 5 metres high. It’s not exactly The Perfect Storm stuff, but probably bigger than anything I’ve been out in before. The wind speed was 40 knots and occasionally more. At its peak it was 49 knots – about 55 mph. We had the wind from the northeast  on our port beam, the 4th reef in the main (which leaves a sail about the size of a pocket handkerchief) and the small staysail at the front. Pelagic Australis is built for these conditions and she takes storms in her stride. When tucked away in the pilot house it is comparatively comfortable. But when you have to go on deck to shorten sail or whatever, it is indescribably cold. Sea and air temperatures are close to freezing and the snow lashes your face like a knife. Pelagic Australis is a proper boat – no namby-pamby push-button electric winches here. Its all hand grinding and the loads are terrific so it requires a bit of puff. After a couple of minutes exertion, breathing in drafts of this freezing cold air, it seems like someone has scoured out your lungs with a wire brush. And once you return to the warmth of the pilot house (at 8ºC the warmth inside is only comparative!), your cheeks and ears tingle and your fingers burn as they thaw out.


We had entered the South Shetland islands to the north of the Antarctic Peninsula between Snow Island and Smith Island (hope you’ve got a good atlas). Once past Snow Island, in order to make Deception Island we had to round up into the Bransfield Strait and head northeast, sailing as close to the wind as possible. As you are taking the wind and waves head on, everything seems more violent. After an hour or so of this punishment, Miles, our skipper, decided to heave to and stop the boat for a while until the wind moderated. Now just bobbing up and down, riding the waves like a duck, everything seemed a great deal more tranquil (but everything is relative!).


There was a real desire by all of us to get to Deception Island, and a real determination by the crew to get us there. It is one of the “must-do’s” for any yacht visiting Antarctica and it is quite unlike anything else on the peninsula. There aren’t many places in the world where you can literally anchor in the crater of an active volcano surrounded by the snow-clad mountains, swimming in the hot springs along the shore. But it is not a good anchorage in strong winds and, as the gale was showing no sign of abating, late yesterday evening the decision was reluctantly made to abandon the plan to visit the volcano. We turned south again to head into the islands to the west of the peninsula itself.


With such strong easterlies, Miles was concerned that ice would be being blown in our path through the Gerlache Strait. At this time of year there are a couple of hours of darkness at night and if you hit a big bit of ice at speed it could sink you (as the Titanic found). So with the wind having now moderated at last, we edged slowly through Dallman Bay in between Brabant Island and Anvers Island, heading for Port Lockroy. Visibility was very poor with mist as dawn was breaking. All if a sudden, Miles hurtled past me, grabbed the wheel and changed course. “We wouldn’t want to hit that, would we?” he said. Out of the mist, straight in front of us and less than a quarter of a mile away loomed an enormous, magnificent iceberg.