Monday, May 2, 2016

Big Big Big

This is my favorite picture from the passage between South Georgia and Cape Town.

I'm doing my best impression of the guy who was up for most of the night, keeping sleepless radar watch for lurking icebergs, and the guy who was also doing most of the sailhandling on the passage.

Oh, wait.  I was that guy.  I guess that's why I look like a cross between Joshua Slocum and a pile of sh*t.  It was a long passage, and it took a certain toll.

The boys, meanwhile, have this semi-quizzical look of kids who have been raised to know no other life, but are starting to suspect that there might be some other alternatives out there, somewhere.

For reference, our path is roughly indicated on the map below.  I think I screwed up the location of Cape Town, but you get the general idea.

Getting to South Georgia is much easier than getting away.  We weren't keen to head back upwind to the Falklands once our time in South Georgia was done.  So that left us looking at the passage to South Africa.

This was so so much bigger than any crossing we've done before.  We're quite used to the company of genuinely salty people who take this kind of passage as a matter of course, so I'm reluctant to make too big a deal of it.  But for was a very big deal.  Water temperatures below 2°C/35°F, icebergs, the possibility of really violent weather, and the guarantee of gales at least.  And, as with any ocean passage, it's an arena where you are utterly on your own.  So, again, a big deal to us.

Given all that potential downside, you might ask yourself if this was really a passage for children, five and nine.  Well, believe me, we asked ourselves that many many times before we set off from the Falklands.

We've known a lot of people who have sailed with their children, and I can think of only one set of parents who we thought were being irresponsible.

Taking young kids to sea means that you need to be as sure as you can be sure of anything that you are up to the challenges of your chosen passage.  Almost every parent who we know who sails with their kids understands that standard, and meets it.

But consider our situation.  We've been sailing with young kids for nine years come next month.  We've gradually been branching out from the delights of downwind sailing in the tropics and exploring more challenging areas.  How do we know when enough is enough?  Where do we draw our own line in the sea, beyond which we think it imprudent to venture?

We can't ever let ourselves go too far, and find ourselves committed to a passage that is so difficult that we aren't able to properly care for the kids.  If we got caught out on a trip like the one from South Georgia to South Africa and got into real difficulties, there would be a chorus of people jumping on the chance to condemn us as selfish idiots.  And well.  If we really did get caught out on a trip that was too much for us, we would agree with that assessment.

A haircut in Grytviken before setting out.
So we thought about it for years, the idea of going to South Georgia, and committing to the passage that would get us away.  For most of that time, we thought that we wouldn't go.  It seemed too ambitious a trip for our family crew of amateurs.

But in that time when we weren't thinking we would go, we were laying the groundwork for a successful trip without really meaning to.

We sailed across the Tasman Sea, from Hobart to Bluff.  We made the very moderate crossing to the Aukland Islands, in the New Zealand subantarctic.  We made the much bigger crossing from New Zealand to the Tuamotus, and came to grips with what a less-than-ideal passage might look like.  We got ourselves to Chile without drama, and then spent the winter season on the move in farthest south Patagonia.

In other words, we served an apprenticeship.  We gradually bit off more and more.  Over time we brought the boat into good nick for harder trips.  And more importantly, we turned ourselves into crew who were competent at these sorts of trips.  And we started to meet more and more like-minded people with much more experience than we'll ever have.  We learned to ask these people the right questions, and we listened very hard to their answers.

For reasons of tactics, we left Grytviken in somewhat unreasonable conditions.  Williwaws were pouring off the mountains as we made our way to sea, and once we were out of the lee of the island we found ourselves holding on while Galactic, well reefed down, sailed her wandering path over the steep seas that came charging up behind us.  We all felt rotten (except Elias).  But we figured we'd have conditions much rougher than that soon enough on the trip, and leaving while things were still rough after the passage of a low allowed us to get one more day to the north before the next gale caught us.

I love these pictures of the four of us early on in the trip, hanging out in the cockpit and wondering when the hell our sea legs will catch up with us.

All that I think was so much time spent making our own luck.  We had plenty of the real kind of luck, of course, the luck that was not of our own making.

But we also had some fairly representative lousy conditions on the trip.  We had three gales, all blowing from the north, and thus halting our progress northwards towards ice-free waters.

Once we made it to Cape Town, we heard the reports from four other boats that had sailed from South Georgia or the Antarctic Peninsula, and we heard the stories from locals about other boats arriving in seasons past.

The damage list for those boats was long, and severe.  Broken rudders, exploded sails, rigging failure and boats rolled over.

(Our favorite post-passage quote was from Olivier.  Me:  "Wow, 17 days, that's a really fast passage." Him: "Yes, I had to be fast.  I wanted to get here before I sank.")

Alisa and I are careful not to ascribe merit to a lucky outcome.  But our biggest gear failures on the passage were a chafed-through leech cord on the main and an telescoping whisker pole that wouldn't extend.  We wonder if part of the reason for that happy outcome wasn't that we heave to very quickly.  Once the wind is much over thirty knots we just park the boat and wait for things to get better.  This is a much lower threshold than that exercised by most boats in the Southern Ocean.  And I suspect that there is some real merit to that conservative approach, that it keeps us out of all sorts of difficulties that might arise from the combination of big seas and high boat speed.

Eric tucked his stuffed animal in to keep me company.
Eric and Alisa bunked on the sole for the duration.

The biggest surprise of the passage was how far north we saw icebergs - we encountered them almost daily all the way up to 46° South.  They were mostly huge tabular bergs from Antarctica.  And they made me nervous as hell.

We relied heavily on the advice of our friend Leiv, who counseled that we would find smaller bergy bits only near, and downwind of, their large parent bergs.  The bergy bits are particularly dangerous, since they are like floating rocks, just at the surface where radar can't pick them up.  We trusted in the idea that the parent bergs, easily seen on radar, signaled the presence of any danger.  It worked out.

On our second or third day out we came across a berg with a long fogbank behind it.  When we realized that the fogbank was actually another berg, 10s of kilometers long, our worldview took a bit of a shaking up.  It was one of those bergs that gets tracked from space.

Hard to photograph, but this iceberg fills the horizon.  The scale was a little horrifying.
Eventually we left the ice behind.  The temperatures moderated and we settled down to simply sailing the miles required of us, and wondering how many gales we would meet along the way.  The family spent each day in the cockpit, reading aloud and drawing for hours on end.

Even when the conditions had eased, I found myself under the chronic tension of taking responsibility for a good outcome on such a big jump.

The seas are famously difficult to photograph.  I have some great video, but with my time commitments to science, I draw the line at posting video online.  To quote a Scottish friend, I can't be arsed with it.
Elias is always keen that there be a prize for the person spotting land at the end of a passage.  He very much likes the story of Columbus nailing a gold coin to the mast for the man who first spotted land.

Unfortunately for him, it's always been me who spots land first, even if I'm not really trying to.  I just know where it should be, and am paying more attention to the problems of navigation.  But this time it was Elias who was the first - he spotted the Cape of Good Hope before anyone else.  What a classic landfall.

We dealt with a tremendous amount of shipping coming around the Cape.
Elias was overjoyed to receive permission to strip the insulation from our portlights and hatches as we approached Cape Town.  Our year in the South was over, and this was a fitting act of transition for our arrival in Africa.
Lion's Head, with Table Mountain in the background.
Cape Town!
I shaved for landfall.
She's laughing because she's wearing a jacket but no bibs, and just got soaked while working on the bow.
Cape Town is one of the great ports of the world.  The Royal Cape Yacht Club is the mandatory destination for inbound yachts.  It is tucked right in the heart of the working port, which gave a great feel to our arrival.

So now, after all our years in the Pacific, we've crossed the Atlantic, too.  

We made Cape Town 21 days out of Grytviken, and put a bit more than three thousand nautical miles on the log in the process (though this wasn't our noon-to-noon distances).  Considering that we were hove to four times on the passage, once for two days, we were very happy with the speed of the trip.

The next morning we cleared customs, and had a cook's night out at the yacht club restaurant to celebrate our achievement.

Cape Town marked a tremendous transition in our sailing lives.  More of that, and what we found waiting for us in South Africa, in our next post...

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Requiem: For a Dream Lived

Way back in Puerto Montt, Chile, around a year ago, we met up with the Canadian/Australian crew of the yacht Illawong, old hands at the sailing scene in the global south, and friends of good mates of ours.

When the subject came to South Georgia, Illawong had one word of advice: go.

Elephant seal, boy, and GoPro on a pole.  He's 5 m from the seal - the telephoto lens collapses distance in this shot

At the time, we thought there was no chance.  Gradually we warmed to the idea, of course.  And now that we've been, I would repeat their advice to anyone who was thinking of sailing to South Georgia.  Go.  Great things await.

Fantastic wildlife interactions aren't just possible, they're literally inescapable.  All of the ice-free beach that is available in South Georgia is what makes the place such fantastic breeding habitat for the pinnipeds and penguins.  Now that whales have been largely removed from the ecosystem, populations of other krill-eaters - notably Antarctic fur seals and king penguins - have exploded. So the beaches are packed to heaving with charismatic megafauna, and those same beach are of course the natural route for wandering humans.

Luckily, outside of the fur seal breeding season the wildlife interactions are Antarctic-chill.  The beasts don't mind us.  And we very much don't mind them.

Sharing the beach

Elias made great use of the combination of a boat hook and our GoPro camera, which had long been gathering dust in a locker.  Lots and lots of shaky footage of animals doing not much of anything was collected that way.

Husvik Harbour.  One of the finest places in South Georgia, and we both had day after day of weather like this, and had it to ourselves, except for some very convivial old South Georgia hands who were staying at the station manager's villa for a few days while doing some weed control work.

Fur seal pups were Eric's favorite.  Walks on the beach were punctuated every two minutes by Eric singing out, "look at that cute fur seal!"

A few pups are born blonde.
Chinstrap penguins.  The Galactics were divided over the question of calling them "chinnies" or "strappies". 
A big bull elephant seal.  He's ashore to molt and to sleep off the bloody melee of the breeding season.
South Georgia's history is built on the bones of whales.
Molting gentoo penguins, far from the sea
The walking was fantastic once we left the beach, too.  There are three bays side by side in this area: Husvik, Stromness and Leith.  Each held a whaling station in the day.  Stromness was the place where Shackleton found succor after the legendary voyage of the James Caird.

We visited Husvik and Stromness.  Each bay has fantastic upland walking, easily accessed.

Husvik.  The dot is Galactic.
Husvik.  The gravel bars of the river lead right up into the hills.  Reminiscent of the best walking in the Alaskan Arctic.

Stromness station.

Elias beholding the view that greeted Shackleton on the final stage of his journey from Elephant Island to Stromness Harbour.  And there's Galactic, patiently waiting for our return.
Eric above Husvik station.

Very good alpine terrain is supremely easy to access in these places, well within the ability of both boys.  Walking with them in these places is one of the great pleasures of family life.

Looking down on Cumberland Bay West
Trying to make pancakes.  The flour exploded.

And when we were visiting these places, all the routines of daily shipboard life were still going on.

The kelp-pocalypse.  Three tons of kelp on the anchor rode, being cut away one swipe at a time.
And finally, there were the issues of operating the yacht in these places.  We had our share of blows and moments, like dragging anchors and massive kelp entrapment.

We might have made some of our luck by being reasonably well prepared.  Our anchor is massive, and it is one of the modern designs that makes the traditional plow designs look like a joke when the chips are down.  Our second anchor is easily-handled aluminum and always ready to go in the water in an instant.  Luckily, anchors number three and four never came into play.

But, as all these pictures show, we also got lucky with the weather.  Things could have been much worse.  That's the game with sailing to places like South Georgia.  You prepare as well as you can for unreasonable conditions, and then see what you get.

Next post - the biggest biggest biggest passage of our lives.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Notes For Landsick Sailors

We've been in South Africa for 18 days now.

We've found our feet to a certain degree.  Figured out the currency, and internet access, and how to load our boat to the gills with fresh fruit, and started making very tentative inroads into the routine problems of boat maintenance.

We even had a fantastic five-day visit from my mom and sister, who happened to be in Ethiopia and jetted down to Cape Town to see us.  Other end of the continent to a local, but it seemed like the same neighborhood to us tourists.  We took the opportunity to trek out to our first African nature reserve.

Everything, in a word, is going fine.

Nonetheless, Alisa and I had a moment today when we looked up at each other and said, at the same time, that we felt like just going to sea again.

Land.  It's not really all that.

And the sea becomes a hard hard habit to break.

So, this is in the spirit of looking back to the great seafaring that we've had over recent months, and some of the simpler land delights that we bought ourselves along the way. 

These shots come from Cooper Bay, on the south end of South Georgia. 

We were there during our spell of outrageously good weather.

One of the delights of that particular place was cruising the beach in our inflatable, Smooches, and watching the wildlife from close up.


Cooper Bay
Selfie with strangers
Cooper Bay was the one place where we had a close encounter with cruise ship goings-on.  The Zod in the picture above actually tapped into our anchored dinghy in an effort to make sure that the punters got a good view.  Or to make sure we knew who was cool and who was new.  Or something like that.

Alisa got ropeable.  She is, after all, now officially Australian, and therefore allowed to occasionally spit the dummy.

Luckily (below) the Galactics don't stay down for long.

We also got ashore at Cooper Bay, being very careful to follow the rules concerning various closed/open areas.  One hundred meters this way - ok.  One hundred meters that way - you must not do this!  The rules are for the greater good!

As our good friend back in the Falklands says, South Georgia is that perfect experiment, a government without any population to be responsible to.

Macaronis on land...
...and macaroni at sea.
After a delightful few days on the south end, it became time to bid a fond farewell to Cooper Bay and make tracks back to the northwest.

There were still some great spots to check out upwind of Grytviken, the "port of entry", and we were keen to use the tail end of our 11-day run of miracle weather to get to them.

No dust on us, mate.

North to the future!
I'm modeling the freezer suit that Lars the Swedish singlehander passed on to me in Puerto Montt.
What a refuge on a chilly day.  Any fool can have a wheelhouse.
Here and below - the views on the way

Still calm calm calm
There is so much climbing to do in South Georgia.  I can't imagine that ten percent of these routes have been done yet.  Given the dual demands of having the energy of your twenties to get up them, and the budget of your forties to get you and your friends there on your own yacht, I imagine it will be this way for a long time to come.

A day of traveling from Cooper Bay got us back to the perfect shelter of Ocean Harbour.

Ocean Harbour, with a wreck from a very different era
I feel better - thinking about it all is more than enough to ease the landsickness.

The delights of Husvik await...