Monday, March 14, 2016

The Other Side of the Coin

Oh, yeah.

Of course it happened.

All of our readers who have memories of their own trips to South Georgia and who have been feeling jealousy over the unreasonably perfect conditions that we lucked into can now relax in the knowledge of our comeuppance.

The Expert Sailor whose writings about Patagonia ("these are Challenging Conditions!") inspired such mirth on board Galactic and who complained in print about being generally boat-bound by weather while in South Georgia ("this is High Latitude and Extreme! I am inspired to beat my chest!") can rest assured that the world is not becoming unreasonably soft.

The wind returned to South Georgia. It came tumbling off the hills and funneling through the valleys. We sat out a day of williwaws in our erstwhile millpond of an anchorage. Wind smote the water. We could watch the fields of smoking sea coming swiftly towards us, and know when they were with us by the way that Galactic heeled over hard and went swirling around, describing big arcs around the anchorage.

Confidence in our 40-kilo Rocna anchor was, as always, complete. Bring it on. We had out 85 meters of chain in 12 meters of water, mud bottom, and felt justified to laugh at the conditions.

And then we dragged a tenth of a mile.

This was only the third time that we've dragged in our sailing lives, and the other two were examples of operator error, times when we got caught with too little scope for the conditions.

The Fortress stern anchor was, as always, ready to go. We motored up, chucked it out, and felt it bite immediately. Calm was restored to our hearts, if not to the anchorage.

The next morning we retrieved the Fortress with the windlass alone, pulling the anchor to us rather than Galactic to the anchor. This revealed that the anchor had pulled free at some point and was simply lying on the seafloor. Which sunk our confidence even lower, as the Fortress has always been our fortress within a fortress, our doubled redoubt, the bolthole in our back pocket, our smug knowledge that if anchoring gets squirrelly we can have effective metal in the water on no notice at all.

We qualified the generally negative reviews of our anchors' showing with the observation that the Rocna had at least reset itself, and hadn't continued to skate forever across the bottom the way that a traditional plow anchor might.

Pulling the Rocna then put us in the next circle of South Georgia anchoring difficulty. We call it the kelp-pocalypse.

A couple tons (no lie) of kelp came up on the chain and anchor. Our kelp knife, a half a machete hose-clamped to the end of a boat hook, proved not to be up to the challenge. That half a machete is still hose-clamped to the end of the boat hook, somewhere on the bottom of the anchorage.

A deck knife quickly clamped to the business end of our second boat hook eventually did the job. But it seemed to, and probably did, take hours to cut ourselves free. The boat was actually immobilized by the stand of kelp that we had sucked the anchor into; even once the anchor was off the bottom we could not motor free. A big part of the problem was the trip line that we had deployed on the anchor against the possibility of fouling whaling station debris. The trip line ended up taking a turn around the stand of kelp and giving it another grip on us; the trip line eventually got the business end of the kelp knife as its knot had gotten pulled too tight to untie.

Another gale was forecast for the night. When we were finally free there was a quick confab concerning the choices open to us. I was relieved that the idea of retreating to soft living at the dock in Grytviken failed to gain traction. We re-anchored right up against the beach, within turning radius of the shore, normally a no-no, but we hoped to land the Rocna in the plume of silt delivered by a little river, inside of the kelp zone. I also rowed out the Fortress, now on its setting for soft mud, and thus double-anchored, we went ashore for the company of fur seals.

The gale was meant to come through in the small hours of the night, when any problems of dragging would be made that much more serious by darkness which would preclude avoiding patches of kelp while motoring or re-anchoring. We have a lot riding on our ability to anchor securely in a blow in a place like this, and I thought for a while about taking the unprecedented step of setting out a third anchor.

Luckily we didn't go that far. We passed the night without drama, and in the calm of the morning found the two anchors in flagrante delicto, their rodes sensuously entwined. Having a third rode involved would have made the resulting knot Gordian.

So a few more hours were passed in untangling and retrieving the Fortress, and much was made of the way that the sailing life sometimes presents you with the opportunity to run in place just so you can stand still. I also reflected on the rare value that the sailing life offers in terms of the chance to employ muscles in useful tasks (kelp chopping, second anchor rowing) rather than pitting them against the energy-consuming fitness devices of some gym. But then I also, and at more leisure, got the chance to reflect on how my sore-back moans and groans afterwards were sounding thoroughly middle-aged.

The anchoring dramas behind us, we continued to watch the weather come in waves. A dusting of snow all the way to the beach in the night was followed by perfectly blue skies in the afternoon. There was still plenty of walking to be done in the very accessible mountain valleys of the anchorage. But we found ourselves boat-bound as often as not. On the boat we're quite safe, but the dinghy ride between boat and shore is a potentially problematic undertaking, and we vigorously applied our informal safety limits for small boat ops.

So, boatbound, Alisa and the boys worked away at the school work that would see the end of the term reached before we set off for South Africa. Conflating the parent-child relationship with the teacher-student relationship continues to strike me as such a spectacularly bad idea that I can see why it is the religious who have so often taken the lead on home-schooling their children in the US. You would need to think that you belonged to a select group of people whom the Creator of Life, the Universe and Everything had chosen to let in on the secret of his divine plan in order to justify such familial self-flagellation.

Anyway, that's the way it seems to me.

Boat-bound, I managed to make some inroads on writing and science projects. The boys and ourselves both needed to burn off steam. We needed to get up in the hills and walk walk walk, to get some movement in the bank before the weeks-long confinement of our passage to South Africa. But the boys, for relief, were reduced to watching penguin documentaries that had been given to us by one of the videographers involved in their production.

So, after a few more short walks and a few more weather-curtailed days, the morning came when we we woke Elias not long after dawn to stack the anchor chain as we picked the hook. Another set of hard blows was coming in the near future, and our chance to set off for Africa was appearing on the far horizon of weather futures. It was time to head back to Grytviken, where a dockside hose would make it a soft proposition indeed to water the ship, as opposed to the hardier expedient of ferrying jerry jugs from some convenient waterfall to the anchored boat.

And if Grytviken offered some soft dockside living thrown in with the easy watering deal, the chance for the boys and ourselves to walk ashore on gale-besot days, that was fine, too.

This post was sent via our high-frequency radio as we're far from internet range. Pictures to follow when we reach internet again. We can't respond to comments for now, though we do see them all!


  1. Loved the reference to the anchors mixing it up! And your description of homeschooling is hysterically funny and spot on. May humor continue to be your best navigating skill, it certainly entertains me!
    Deborah Carver

  2. Hi Mike, great story. As you know, Nancy home-schooled all our kids until about mid-high school, and it was definitely a challenge-not-to-mention-full-time-job. Just the other day, however, she mentioned the pleasure that came from home-schooling; the joy of imparting knowledge (especially when recipients of said knowledge were willing). Kudos to both of you, its a gift to your kids which will last forever. Cheers, John (and safe travels!).

  3. Ah, homeschooling. Good times right there. I vividly remember some of the "discussions" my mom and I had growing up on our boat, lol! My parents, too, where big proponents of education, so there was no slacking off! But my attention difficulties did not help.

    Hope the passage to South Africa is going well.

  4. I have just finished the book and love reading this blog. Your story is so inspiring - especially as I have recently bought a boat and am sailing with my family here in Scotland. Having 2 young boys of my own makes me realise that you are in fact superheroes!
    Keep it coming and good luck with the passage.