Back Problem Strikes - Twice
Date: 23 February 2011
Position: Secret location
Early yesterday morning and Xplorer slipped away with a rearrangement of our various shore lines. The weather had deteriorated and was cold, wet, windy and miserable, but nevertheless I was looking forward to going ashore to sit amongst the largest penguin colony I had seen so far. It contained not only the ubiquitous Gentoo penguins but also a couple of Adélie penguins and an example of a Chinstrap penguin as well. But there was a higher priority still, and that was to finish my blog for the day.
I was doing nothing more strenuous than typing another dull account of engagements with whales when twang – my back disc decided for the first time in a couple of years that this would be a good time to slip a bit and trap a nerve or three with rather painful consequences. I am prone to the occasional back problem and therefore travel with the full armoury of back braces and a killer cocktail of drugs. The drugs turn my body into a comparatively pain-free lump of jelly so long as I am horizontal, but they also turn my brain into a lump of jelly as well. Once I had made my painful way down below to my bunk and swallowed the potent combination of pills, I drifted into a slightly hallucinogenic coma. My credentials as being a macho sailor preparing for this challenging cruise in my own boat next year was being somewhat compromised but nevertheless everyone was very kind and sympathetic. But if you have to spend the day in a drug-induced coma, this shitty inhospitable day was the one to choose.
We stayed overnight at Port Charcot and left this morning to head further north in readiness for the return crossing of Drake Passage in a couple of days time. I was now just about able to get out of my bunk without passing out, but I was still moving very gingerly and not able to make any useful contribution to the workings of the boat.
One of the occupational hazards of tying the boat in with four or more very long lines is the possibility that one of them will foul the propeller as they are hauled in. This morning, for the first time in Miles experience, this hazard became reality. Quickly the anchor was dropped, and thankfully held, whilst everything was sorted out. This involved Miles in the unenviable task of donning semi-dry suit, goggles, gloves, boots and aqualung and going down underneath the boat to sort it out. Without this gear, he would be dead from hypothermia within about three minutes in the freezing water. He cut away the offending length of rope and like the true pro that he is, came back on board like he’d just been in for a Mediterranean dip and started issuing instructions to weigh anchor and make our way out of the tricky anchorage. What a hero!
Meanwhile it was time for my next dose of narcotic pain-killers and valium and I slept very peacefully whilst Pelagic Australis punched her way into the freezing chop through horizontally driven snow. Snugged up in my bunk I was the only comfortable person on board. We tied in in a wonderfully protected nook to the south of a small island. This perfect haven is not widely known and its location so jealously guarded by those in the know, that I am unable to give its position in this blog. This snug anchorage was to be our jumping off point for the return journey across Drake Passage, but first we had to wait for a vicious low-pressure system to pass through. And vicious it was. In the early hours of the morning the wind rapidly increased and outside of the anchorage the seas began to build. By breakfast time the wind was howling. One of the few things that doesn’t work on Pelagic Australis is the wind speed indicator which packs up when the wind increases to more than about 50 knots. For most sailors this would be irrelevant as they would experience wind speeds of that strength only once in a blue moon. But here, down in the “Screaming Sixties” it is not so uncommon. Suffice it to say that after the indicator packed up in the mid-50 knots the wind continued to get stronger and stronger. Even though Pelagic Australis was almost completely protected apart from the top of her mast, we were still heeled over at a crazy angle. Outside the anchorage, the air was completely white with spume being whipped off the tops of the waves. By our reckoning this was a full Hurricane Force 12. Only Miles and Laura had ever experienced such awe-inspiring wind before. We were relieved that we weren’t out in it.
By midday the wind had abated and we (except for me, as my back was still extremely vulnerable) went through the long process of releasing and winding in all of the seven long lines we had secured to rocks on the shore, deflating the dinghy and stowing it below with the outboard, and battoning down everything on deck. At last we were away and heading north through the islands to the open Southern Ocean and home.
But Antarctica was to give us one last memento of our fantastic time here. As we passed through the islands we saw pod after pod of Humpback whales at close quarters going through their whole repertoire to bid us well on our dangerous passage home. Fluke after fluke rose to wave us goodbye; their enormous flippers slapped the water and their enormous heads, dripping with krill, reared above the water in a final salute. It brought tears to the eyes of many of us. I had tears in my eyes for other reasons. In the excitement, I had missed a step coming down a companionway and had jarred my already chronically damaged back. So whilst everyone ooh’ed and aah’ed at the cavorting whales I somehow managed to make my way to my bunk where I collapsed feeling sick with pain.
For the next 36 hours I didn’t leave my bunk, dosing myself up on the Killer Cocktail of drugs that blissfully released me from the agony by sending me into a coma for eight hours at a time and allowing my back to relax and heal itself.
Date: 26 February 2011
I came to about 12 hours ago to find that during the night the wind had picked up again to more than 50 or 60 knots and the seas had been very big. I had been oblivious to it all. But when I returned to the deck once more the wind had moderated; it was a glorious star and moonlit night and perfect sailing. Today, the sun is shining, the albatrosses have returned to escort us across Drake Passage, the water is a deep, deep blue, and the sea and air temperature has increased to a positively balmy 4-5º C, the wind blowing at a pleasant 20 knots. Perfect conditions.
But it’s not over yet. We are about one third of the way across and we are expecting a low to pass through tonight and tomorrow which could bring some boisterous conditions and 50 knot winds again. We shall see.