Mina2 Probably Breaks Record
Position: 64:45.84S 064:04.86W
Date: 16 January 2012.
Both when I came down here in February last year and on this expedition to Antarctica, one thing is conspicuous by its absence – sails. There are a number of yachts down here – mostly professional charter yachts, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen one actually with any sails up – they simply chug around everywhere under Perkins Power. There are reasons for this. Whilst the Drake may be the windiest passage of water on the earth, on the peninsula itself most of the time it is a flat calm. On those few occasions when there is wind it tends to be a screaming gale from the wrong direction. And if there is ice around it is much easier negotiating it under power than under sail.
However Sunday was one of the few brilliantly sunny days we have had and there was a light breeze. We had made an appointment with the US Palmer Station scientific research base to visit them only 15 miles to the west on Monday; we couldn’t head south, as we had discovered the day before, because of the ice so basically we had nowhere to go and nothing to do. So we decided to break all the rules of Antarctic sailors and actually go for a sail. Barely off the anchor in Port Lockroy and we had the mainsail up and pulling us through the deep blue water. Just south of Port Lockroy is Doumer Island. It is diamond shaped, only about 4 miles long and 3 miles wide but it forms one side of a spectacular fjord, the Peltier Channel. We sailed slowly up one side towards the enormously wide Thunder Glacier, glistening in the sun as it stretched higher and higher up Wienker Island. When we reached the glacier we turned almost through 180 degrees to tack and tack gain against the light breeze down the other side of the island with the spectacular range of high peaks of the Fief Mountains, other wise known as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, to our left. At the bottom of the island we turned again and romped back in the direction of Port Lockroy to complete our circumnavigation under sail – possibly the first circumnavigation under sail since sailing ships started using auxiliary engines more than 100 years ago. We are all keen sailors on board and all of us delighted in these few hours of using Mina2 for the purpose she was intended – to use God’s own energy to sail past wondrous scenery. It was magical.
Rather than going straight into Port Lockroy again, we sailed just beyond and tucked into the entrance of Dorian Bay. We tried to enter this small shallow bay but touched bottom at the entrance, so we backed out and, as the wind was very light, put the anchor down just outside from where we dinghied ashore. Overlooking Dorian Bay are two huts – an Argentine refuge hut with the colours of the Argentine flag painted across the side, and a British hut that was used almost as an arrivals and departure lounge for British scientists in the 1950’s who were being brought in and taken off the peninsula by a small plane that used to land on skis on the glacier behind. Across the peninsula there are a number of refuge huts built by different countries to provide shelter for anyone who needs it in emergency. There is a stove and a supply of fuel and some tinned food (water, of course, is to be found just outside the door in white quantity). None of these refuges are ever locked. Indeed, no building in Antarctica is ever locked. Even those bases that operate only in the austral summer months, including Lockroy, are left unlocked when the team leaves in the autumn – just in case anybody needs the shelter they could provide in emergency.
The following morning, once again in brilliant sunshine, we left Port Lockroy for the last time, bidding farewell to the Ladies by radio as we left. We had been asked by Palmer Station to be there at 2pm sharp when they would be able to show us around, fitting into their busy schedule. (Palmer has a reputation for being unwelcoming to yachts – but we found exactly the opposite. So long as you give them notice and fit in with their schedule, they are enormously welcoming). We might need a little time to tie into the small creek called Hero Inlet off the base, so we set off to arrive at about midday. En route we received an email from the station head which said “Please be aware that we have a fairly tall iceberg in Hero Inlet at the moment and a good deal of brash ice as well”. This was some understatement . We arrived to find a particularly beautiful ice berg wedged in the entrance to the creek but allowing a narrow passage round it to the tying in point …. if you could get to it. The whole of the bay outside the creek was just one solid mass of brash ice. It was so thick, you could walk across it. You could see no water between the ice at all. As we are not used to this sort of thing and being acutely aware of our vulnerability if our propeller got damaged, we edged our way through with the carpet of ice crunching as our bow slowly pushed its way through. Having inspected the whole thing, I concluded that there were risks involved in tying in here, not least that if the wind picked up from the west and more ice compacted into the inlet, we might not be able to get out. And we were by now beginning to look for a weather window to leave Antarctica and return across the Drake Passage. So using the dinghy to push the bow round (the danger to the propeller would be substantially greater if we were going astern) we made our way back out through the pack to the open water beyond.
Just to the west of the harbour are a group of islands and we found a convenient place to put the anchor down and tie ourselves in. No sooner had we completed the exercise than one of the inflatables from the base passed by and advised us that this area was restricted due to research on the nesting Adele penguins and we would have to untie and move to another place which they showed us too. But getting tied in, in the right place, was only the first part of the challenge. The only way to get to the base for our appointment was to take the dinghy through half a mile of the solid brash ice, which took a great deal of time. It was a total of two and half hours from the time Mina2 arrived and our presenting ourselves at the base. Flying proudly from the flagstaff were the Stars and Stripes, but below on the crosstrees fluttered the Union Flag, a courtesy to us during our visit. We felt quite touched.
The Palmer Station is the smallest of the three US scientific research stations. It operates throughout the year with 45 personnel in the summer and about 18 in the winter. There were so many contrasts with the Chilean base we had visited at Water Boat Point. There, there were a whole bunch of military personnel, chefs at a ratio of 1:7 and all of them with nothing to do but play with their Playstations. At Palmer, OK it was a warm sunny day with little wind, but the place was buzzing with scientific activity. Inflatables buzzed around the area loaded with personnel in their orange survival suits, and scientific equipment, monitoring seismic activity (there had been an earthquake in the South Shetland Islands, just north of us, only the day before), atmospherics (ozone hole etc) meteorology, and marine and terrestrial ecology (did you know that a tiny flightless midge is the largest animal that spends its entire life on Antarctica? – good one for the pub quiz). The facilities on the base are as you would expect of a government funded base of the richest country in the world. Their own satellite provides them with telephone calls and broadband internet connectivity. A desalination plant provides all the fresh water they could want (endless hot showers – can you imagine). They even had barbecues and a steaming hot tub outdoors. The restaurant had everything an American could eat including fresh coffee and popcorn machines. A gym and a widescreen cinema with enormous plush leather reclining seats. You name it, they’ve got it!
They’ve also got some brilliant fauna around. Adele penguins are cold-loving and as the Antarctic peninsula has been warming (the winter temperature has increased by no less than 6 C over the last 50 years). This is the most northerly rookery of Adeles this side of the peninsula and these were the first we had seen. However, the population is reducing so quickly that the experts think they will all have moved further south by 2014, so we got here only in the nick of time. They also have lots of Elephant seals here – the big ones where the males have the long nose proboscis. In our anchorage we are surrounded by them. And even if you didn’t see them, you sure hear them. They make a noise like a cross between a frog and a burp, but incredibly deep and incredibly loud. The sound reverberates around the anchorage day and night long.
So with this background noise and after an excellent meal of Dolly’s left leg we settled down for the night, albeit always with one person on ice and anchor watch.