A Day in Deception Island – Hot Baths and Amputations

Mina2 in the Caribbean - Where's The Ice Gone?
Tim Barker
Fri 6 Jan 2012 21:51

Position: 63:37.4S 061:46.5W

En route to Enterprise Island

Date/Time : 6 January 2012 1800 – Gin o’clock (2100 UTC)


When I came down here on Pelagic Australis as a recce last February, we had hoped to stop off at Deception Island but had been beaten back by strong easterlies, so this was the first visit for all of us. Having anchored in Whalers Bay at the east end of the caldera, we had a much needed sleep before launching the dinghy. The crew went ashore for an explore, whilst I stayed on the boat to do some skipperly things. (Generally, in these waters, we will always leave one person on board, not only to look after the boat in case the wind picks up and we drag the anchor, but also to be available to launch the spare dinghy in case anything were to happen to the shore party or its dinghy – swimming back to the boat is not an option). After a couple of hours Richard came back with Venetia and I went ashore.


Whalers Bay was where the big Norwegian whaling station was in the first half of the 20th century. It later became a meteorological research station run by the British until the 1960’s when the volcano erupted again and destroyed half the buildings. It was abandoned, but some of the original buildings still stand, albeit in an increasingly dilapidated state, together with vast rusting tanks and boilers, relics from the whaling past. Still lying on the beach are the wooden hulls of the waterboats that used to ferry fresh water out to the whaling ships, and piles of disintegrating water barrels. Standing at the back of the site are two lonely crosses of whalers who died in this desolate spot (many more were buried here but their graves were engulfed by the ash and lava during the last eruption). The site is now protected under the Antarctic Treaty. Dozing on the dark sandy beach were a lone Elephant seal and a lone Weddell seal around which waddled a number of Chinstrap penguins and the occasional Gentoo penguin. As a constant reminder that we were anchored in a still active volcano, the waters edge steamed with the geothermal heat which is just below the surface. The whole place had a rather surreal feel to it. A swim in the hot springs was not possible as you have to do it at low tide. This may have been a disappointment to Peter and Ewan but came as a relief to Venetia, Richard and me.


As we were approaching the entrance to Deception Island on our arrival, we were surprised and delighted to see a beautiful three-masted barque coming out. It was Europa which is a converted lightship that does charters down here. In the afternoon Hans Explorer, a small expedition cruise ship came into the bay and anchored, bringing its guests ashore for a tour of the site. At drinks time another yacht sailed in and went down to the bottom of the island to anchor in Telephone Bay. It was beginning to get crowded. At the far end of the island are two scientific research stations, one Spanish and the other Argentine. Overnight two support ships came in and anchored off the research stations. At breakfast time yet another yacht appeared. So much for the solitude of Antarctica. Deception Island was now resembling Newtown Creek on a Bank Holiday weekend.


On an expedition yacht such as Mina2, one has to be prepared for all and any emergencies and eventualities. Yesterday evening, we had to perform an amputation. Venetia, who is best qualified in these matters, scrubbed up (again) and selected her sharpest scalpel. With considerable skill and dexterity, the skin was opened, the muscle tissue cut away and the tendons severed. The limb came cleanly away and was rushed to the galley where it was stuffed with garlic and popped in the oven. Dolly had lost her first shoulder, and very delicious it was too.


Having awoken at 0430 to make an early start for our passage to Enterprise Island, I got the latest shipping forecast and we decided to defer our start, allowing us time to motor right the way round the caldera, a distance of about 10 or 12 miles. We passed the research stations and the now numerous ships and yachts, and arrived at Pendulum Cove where the best of the thermal springs are. We anchored, got the dinghy down and Richard rowed Ewan and Peter through the steaming sea to the beach. There was much posturing and breast-beating from the young males until they stripped down to their swimmers and threw themselves in. Seemingly it was rather nice as we had some difficulty in getting them to come out. It was the first time in a week that Peter’s body had seen fresh water, and he was seen grabbing handfuls of volcanic sand and giving himself an exfoliating scrub. Eventually the two brave Turks emerged from their bath and extremely quickly got dressed (the air temperature was 1C) and returned to the boat for a warming cup of hot chocolate fortified with a tot of Drambuie. As we weighed anchor we heard over the radio that yet another ship, Ushuaia, was entering the caldera.


The plane we had taken from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia had largely been filled with a party of youngsters who were going down for an educational cruise. The tour leaders were veteran Antarcticans who Ewan knew. The ship they were on was the Ushuaia so as we passed them on our way out of the caldera we stopped for Ewan to have a natter with his mates over the radio. Ewan’s socialising in the middle of the deserted continent being done, we at last turned the boat and headed out of the caldera for our next 18-hour 110-mile passage across the Bransfield Strait. We were barely in the mouth of Neptune’s Bellows when the radio crackled into life again.


“Mina2 this is Verniki, over”. Rather than the usual Spanish or French accent, this caller had the clipped tones of a British naval officer. Who on earth was it? I hesitantly replied. “Verniki, Mina2. Go ahead, over”. The clipped tones came back “We are the blue motor yacht on your port quarter” I looked out of the window and saw this magnificent superyacht approaching the Bellows. I wondered what I’d done wrong. Had an infraction of the Antarctic Treaty Code been noticed. Or were we inadvertently flying our British ensign upside down?


The voice continued “As we’ve been coming down the coast of Brazil, we’ve been reading your blog so, seeing you, we wanted to make contact”. (Honestly, dear reader, this is not one of my slight fantasies). I’d never been called by a superyacht before, let alone one who was complimenting me on the honest prose of my blog. I felt quite important, and wondered whether I should put on my peaked skipper’s cap with “Cape Horn & Patagonia” in gold letters round the rim. The caller introduced himself as Richard, the captain. He said that he had spotted us in Ushuaia and had popped round to say hello and to see if we might need any support on our trip down south, but no one was on board. Support on our trip down south? Suddenly I had a vision of being piped on board and ushered to a shower with unlimited supplies of hot water, followed by a dinner of roast swan stuffed with truffles and foie gras. I nearly spun the boat round and followed Verniki back into Deception to take Richard up on his kind offer there and then.


One gets to see very few private motor yachts doing anything half as adventurous as coming down to Antarctica, so hats off to them. They were now on there way back north having been down to the peninsula and, before signing off, Richard filled me in on the ice situation on the peninsula.


We had heard from some of the pro-boats who had been down to the Antarctic before Christmas that there was more ice there than they could remember in years. This might restrict how far we could go. But, they said, the situation can change very quickly. Sadly, it would appear that things haven’t changed and it is still very clogged up. The Le Maire Channel (aka Kodak Valley) is impassable and it looks like we might not be able to get down to Vernadsky, the Ukrainian base in the Argentine Islands. Well, we will do what we can and there are many places further north that I didn’t explore on my recce in February.


We are now almost across the Bransfield Strait. The sailing has been good with more fresh, but not too strong, winds on the beam. But the weather has been atrocious: absolutely bitter, it has been snowing or sleeting most of the day. Whilst we have to have at least one person in the cockpit on the lookout for ice, the only person who has relieved the automatic pilot of its duties and taken the helm was Peter, and that wasn’t for long. He was in his black thermals, black Weazle suit with his black Sail Racing foulies* on top. On his head: black neck-warmer, black balaclava, black woolly hat and black ski goggles. He looks like Daft Vader.


* We owe a great debt to Skip Novak who has kindly loaned us our Sail Racing foul weather clothing for our trip south. Skip Novak, the legendary ocean racer and high latitudes sailor offers charters on the best specced yachts on the circuit, Pelagic and Pelagic Australis.  Representing excellent value for money, details can be found on his website: www.pelagic.co.uk.


(Skip, my blog readership is now almost in double figures, so I hope you’ll be quite pleased with this endorsement).