Dramas in the Anchorage and Preparing for the Drake.
Position: 64:45.84S 064:04.86W
Date: 17 January 2012.
So, we’d settled ourselves down for a peaceful night with the anchor down and two lines ashore had we? The wind, which had been light and from the south during the cloudless sunny day picked up a little in the evening as a bank of cloud came in from the north west. At 0130 Peter, who was on ice and anchor watch, called me on deck. The wind had picked up considerably, blowing 35 to 40 knots from the northwest. The wind was now on our beam, strapped as we were between our anchor and the two long ropes that were tied to the shore, secured by wire strops that had been placed over rocks. Peter was concerned as he thought we had swung way across the channel and we were getting close to the rocks off the island the other side.
When we arrived in Antarctica two weeks ago it was completely light all night, the sun just over the horizon. But now the nights are closing in. Each night it becomes noticeably more dark and in the middle of the night now, it is not fully dark but it is distinctly gloomy. The rope on the windward side seemed too slack so we started to tighten it. We were hauling it in rather too easily and it quickly became apparent that it had detached itself from its rock. So that was why the boat had swung. There was now just the last remaining line holding our stern to the shore, and it was bar tight. If that broke, Mina2 would very quickly swing round and be on the rocks downwind of us. We needed to do something and do it fast.
I scrambled Ewan, and Peter dived down below to get his foul weather gear, boots and lifejacket on. They lowered the dinghy (with some difficulty as our bar-taut line was lying obliquely underneath it). They shot off in the now boisterous waves and driving icy sleet towards the shore. Ewan leapt ashore with the spare line and wire strop and re-secured it to a different rock, whilst Peter held the dinghy steady on the rocks as the surf pounded the shore. By now Richard, who had been alerted to the emergency by the sound of the engine running as a contingency, had joined me on deck. With the handheld VHF Ewan radioed back to us that the line was now secure and Richard and I hauled it tight, secured it to a winch and winched it tighter still. Slowly Mina 2 crabbed round and away from the rocks. The boys came back to the boat. The wind was still increasing and both lines were straining. We decided to put out a third line, so we went through the same procedure, my heart in my mouth as I saw these two brave young men disappear once more in the bucketing dinghy into the glim across the icy waves. Once we had the third line braced up, we all felt much more secure and went below for a hot drink.
And where, might you ask, was Venetia during this life-threatening crisis? Was she down below brewing up hot drinks for our returning heroes? No, she was not. Was she standing by the anchor chain ready to cut it away to allow us to escape from its clutches as it swung us onto the rocks when the final rope snapped under the strain of the storm-force winds? No, she was not. Venetia, was curled up in her bunk fast asleep during the entire episode. Snoopy was nowhere to be seen either. He had legged it to join Venetia the moment the trouble started.
The wind continued to howl throughout the night, heeling the boat over during the squalls. Highest wind speed recorded was 58 knots.
This morning the wind was still strong at 40 to 45 knots, so we decided to stay put. Even going ashore for a stroll amongst the Adelie penguins and the Elephant seals would not be without risk. So it was a lazy day with many of us catching up on sleep and reading. The one thing we didn’t have to contend with last night, thank God, was ice but today, as the wind swung round a little, the odd berg started moving slowly down the channel towards us. This afternoon, one small berg, about 2 metres high and 10 metres long and wide came bumbling along and decided its chosen route would be between us and the shore, exactly where our three shorelines were. It may only have been two metres high but there was probably another 10 metres below the water. It probably weighed close on 1000 tons so slicing through three ropes with a breaking strain of just 5 tons each would not have represented a problem. Action stations again. Our SBS Rapid Reaction team donned their assault gear again and leapt into the dinghy. As the berg was touching the first of the ropes, the cockpit crew slackened it off and the boys managed to flick it over the front of the berg and along its top. Whilst re-tightening the first line we were letting off the second line for the same treatment. It was going well. But the third line got jammed on a protruding piece of ice. The berg continued its destructive course as we in the cockpit let out more and more line. The bitter end of the line however got jammed and as the line got tighter and tighter, I rushed below, grabbed a sharp knife and cut the rope before it started pulling the stanchions off the deck. It whiplashed into the water, went slack and was recovered and brought back to the boat by the SBS team for re-connection whilst the berg went majestically on its way.
Over the last few days, I have been studying the weather charts which we pick up by satellite phone, looking for a window in the weather for the 580-mile four day crossing of the Drake Passage, past Cape Horn and back to the comparative safety of the Beagle Channel.
The return journey across the Drake is the most perilous part of the entire expedition. The winds in the Drake are generally very strong and from the west or northwest. Whereas on the way over, sailing east of south, the winds are most often on your beam or slightly behind you, on the way back you are punching into the enormous seas unless you get lucky. Weather forecasts nowadays are pretty accurate over a couple of days, but looking out over four or five days they become much less reliable. The worst of the Drake weather tends to be round Cape Horn at the north of the passage and that is four days after you commit yourself and set sail. By the time you get there the forecasts can have changed dramatically, and rather than a benign crossing you can find yourself in the middle of a screaming Southern Ocean storm with enormous seas. To cap it all, as you approach Cape Horn you reach the continental shelf. The sea bed rises from several thousand metres to a few hundred metres and the enormous waves that accompany the storms are known to break violently and dangerously.
We had identified a window starting possibly this Wednesday. This was a couple of days sooner than I had hoped for, but the next window might not appear for a week or more. I have subscribed to a weather routeing service for yachts which is run by a bunch of qualified meteorologists who are also sailors. The data they have access to is a lot more comprehensive than the forecasts I can pick up, and with their own expert interpretation of the weather systems and the local conditions they can provide a better insight into the conditions we might expect. They emailed me this afternoon, confirming that the only window on the horizon was to start tomorrow evening (Wednesday). Even then, as the forecast looks now, it would be a race against time to get past Cape Horn and into the safety of the channels as early as possible on Sunday to avoid a good slapping from a deep low pressure system that is expected at that time. If it transpires that the front comes through sooner than currently forecast we will simply have to grit our teeth and battle it out.
So early tomorrow morning we will be leaving our anchorage at Palmer, get everything lashed down and make our way 70 miles north, past the Melchior Islands and out into the Drake Passage.