97% of the Antarctic continent is made of ice… the rest is rock. The Antarctic Peninsula extends northward for about a 800 miles, but the sailable area is the top 300 miles. Further south ice become more impenetrable for a small boat, protected anchorages are rarer, and the wildlife disappears.
We arrived in the continent through the South Shetland, anchoring first at Deception Island and then waving our way southward protected on one side by the Barbant and Anvers islands and on the other side the continent. We went as far south as Hovgaard Island until blocked by ice .
Floating ice was particularly abundant this year, and increased as we progressed South. On the move, big icebergs are not an issue as they are visible, but small growlers, the size of a car, are harder to see when there are white caps around and can inflict a lot of damage in case of collision. They can easily rip your rudder off, or your propeller or even sunk your boat if it is made of plastic. As we moved south pack ice became an issue.
We had some interesting if not tense moment trying to pick our way through the Lemaire channel, when ice became more and more dense and the current started to swirl. At the narrowest point of the channel there was mostly ice and little free water and we just simply had to bash our way through for a couple of hours. The noise and jarring impact on the boat were heart stopping …. but we went through and the boat showed little damage saved for scarred anti foul paint and the frayed nerves of the skipper and crews!
The bigger challenge we faced was to find anchorages protected from floating ice. Ice movement is erratic and is driven by both current and wind. The safer anchorages are those shallow enough to stop big ice, but they are few. Deeper anchorage often required ice watch at night. We had to move during the night quite a few times , once in a real hurry as we became threatened by the arrival of large ice floes which could have locked us in or pushed us against the rocky shore. With 8 lines to shore as we were expecting a blow and Vera our buddy boat was along side us, we had to do very quick dinghy work and as we lifted the anchor the ice was starting to graze our side, we then motored in semi darkness amongst threatening ice floes and gale force wind to a relatively more protected anchorage.
We had decided to take on an extra crew for this journey, something we rarely do as we prefer sailing the two of us, Lynn and I. We met Javier , a professional bee keeper, on the pontoon in Ushuaia as he was looking to acquire some sailing experience in Antarctica. He turned out to be an excellent crew and a safe pair of hand at the helm having raced dinghy as a teenager. An additional crew was a real peace of mind for us for sailing the Drake, keeping ice watch, and arranging ( or removing) shorelines in challenging conditions. Thanks to him.
We also sailed most of the trip in the company of Vera a Swan 47 skippered by our good friends Michael and Britta. It was great for company , but also comforting to know that in case of problem there would be another boat around. We spent quite a few evenings together watching ” Pride and Prejudice” BBC serie. A very enjoyable time and perfect way to escape the vagaries of the ice down South.
Haiyou performed very well, and is perfectly suited for this type of work thanks to the indoor watch keeping station , panoramic view, sturdy aluminium construction and redundancy in most systems.
I can reasonably say that of the handful of sailing yachts our size we met sailing these waters, none were better equipped for comfort and safety than Haiyou. But this journey was not a “walk in the park”, and as a skipper I felt the weight of being responsible for the safety of the boat and its crew in this unforgiving environment where minor problems can quickly turn into life threatening situation. The pressure was always on for the almost 2 months we were South without respite as no anchorages were totally safe from the ice and only lifted off my shoulders once we reached the safety of the Micalvi back in Terra del Fuego.
But the sight of Antarctica’s pristine environment, glistening in the sun or foreboding under stormy conditions and the satisfaction of having conquered our fears will stay with us forever. Both Lynn and I are keener than ever to explore the more remote part of this world… I am a very lucky man!
Here are some technical details for all the maniacs like me.
The diesel drip stove I installed was a success, consuming 2.2 liter per day ( on for 16 hours per day) and keeping us warm and dry. All in all we consumed about 500 litres for motoring and heating the boat. The engine died once , of course at the most critical time when fighting the ice in Lemaire channel. But I correctly identified the issue as an air leak at the parker filter and switched to the other filter. For once I was happy to have a turbo engine, resulting in a lot of power in the few critical instances we needed it, as well as reducing overall fuel consumption. The boat performance when motoring with a fixed prop ( as opposed to our usual folding J prop) has increased by 20% the impact under sail is a loss of 1/2 knot of speed in apparent wind below 15 knots which I feel is acceptable. I might keep the fix prop on if I can resolve the annoying whistling noise when sailing with the prop locked in reverse. I have permanently rigged the 4th reef in the main and it is great in wind of 35-40 knots forward of the beam. No serious issues to report except for slightly brackish water from the water maker, and some klonking noises in both jefa autopilot power units, which the Jefa technician assures me is normal???