Monday, March 21, 2016

When Convergence Isn't Enough

"Passage is a pain in the butt." - Eric Litzow, Ordinary Seaman (age 5)

This is more like it.

Alisa woke me at dawn this morning and I spent a half hour alone on deck, reefing down and adjusting course, as the day declared itself as a fair template of perfection. Blue sky, sunshine on the way, reasonable wind, low swell. We are very gently making 8 knots in more or less the exact direction which we would chose.

And! Water temperature has crept up to 4.5°. Still far behind the 5.5° that we saw a couple days ago, but also a vast improvement over the very Stygian 1.4° that we observed on the second day of the trip.

We are paying attention to the water temperature because it tells us when we have crossed the Polar Front, aka the Antarctic Convergence, and left Antarctic surface waters behind. About a 2° jump in temperature, say from 2° to 4°, tells us that we are in the subantarctic water mass, and that the chance of encountering icebergs is therefore greatly reduced.

At least that's the conventional wisdom. Unconventionally, our friends in Kestrel who are a week or so ahead of us on the trip to South Africa reported banging into a growler at 47°S, far north of the Polar Front. (Take-home lesson: having a steel boat, it's not so bad.)

So while we left South Georgia quite keen to cross the Front, we didn't expect that doing so would put an end to all consideration of floating ice on this, by far the biggest crossing of our eight and a half years of knocking about in sailboats. (Take-home lesson: we should have known better!)

After a day of rough sailing on the outset - williwaws were screaming across Cumberland Bay East as we left Grytviken - we hove to the first night out of respect for the ice and respect for the fact that neither Alisa nor I were much up for keeping a good watch.

Two gentle days of high pressure then let us do the high-latitude thing: make good time under sail when possible, and fire up the diesel when it was convenient in terms of forcing progress northward. Bobbing in place on a nice day and waiting for the next screamer weather to come along isn't in the cards on a trip like this.

We traveled through the night under that high pressure, keeping a sharp eye on the radar screen watch and watch about.

Then we crossed the Convergence. Temperatures shot up to 4°, then 5°. The boys celebrated with bags of chips given them on the dock in Grytviken by a friendly builder from the Falklands.

Soon after dark we saw ice on the radar and decided it was time to stand still. The blow that had been forecast for days, and had motivated us to get north as fast as we could, was expected to catch us the next day. So we hove to under the trysail, that little low triangle of orange sail cloth that lives bent to its track and lashed to the mast on a trip like this. The trysail is for your bigger winds.

Which we soon got. Forty knots dead out of the north. We all spent a day crashed out. Eric, occasionally vomiting, bunked with Alisa on the sole, Elias and I each bunked on a settee behind lee cloths. Every hour I got up to check the radar.

And then, after nightfall, as the gale continued, my consult of the radar screen showed that we had drifted into a field of massive-ish bergs, a half-dozen or so within a 12-mile circle drawn around us by the radar.

A casual statement by our friend Leiv, by far the most accomplished Southern Ocean sailor whom we know, came back to me. "A gale amongst ice. That's not a situation that you want to get yourself into."

I am happy to report that the panicked notion of "why are we here what are we doing?" never visited me. (I didn't ask the others.) We always knew that getting away from South Georgia is harder than getting there, and we knew exactly what we were letting ourselves in for when we elected to cross the Atlantic by this particular route.

Although I was struck at that moment by the idea that we might be taking the idea of world travel a bit far.

But it turned out to be the easiest thing in the world to jibe Galactic under trysail, and every few hours, as we had drifted in the driving wrack and dark too close to one berg or another, I jibed and hove to on the other tack, to send us slowly drifting away from the black blotch on the radar screen.

It was effective, but made for a very sleepless night. The motion was much less comfortable than the typical sailing motion, which can be uncomfortable enough, and this made things more than normally fatiguing. Alisa gave me a two hour spell late in the night and promptly became the second Galactic to spew her cookies on this trip. Now it's just me and Elias left standing. But I know enough not to go head to head against the master of not being seasick.

At dawn the closest black blotch on the radar screen was revealed as an ethereal blue vision, table-flat and the size of Hobart, triply unreasonable: existing at all, existing north of the Convergence in such dense society, and existing so close to us.

I made sail and we picked our way northeast through a miles-long line of bergs. Then, sleep-starved from the night before, I got a long day on deck in light rain and variable to no wind. Elias kept me company in the cockpit, and his company rewarded me with a three-at-once albatross trifecta that I would have missed: sooty, light-mantled sooty, and wanderer, all swooping around Galactic becalmed in the drizzle.

Alisa stayed below with Eric. She gives the poor little chancer lots of one on one on passage. The motion of no wind and lots of swell turned out to be as grave a challenge as lots of wind and more swell, and he vomited again.

But now it's that bluebird morning that I referred to at the outset. Eric is back in the cockpit after being confined below for days. We are still sailing swiftly and easily. It turns out that the berg we passed close to yesterday, while Elias was taking a spell of clinging to the bow, wasn't the last of the trip. There's a massive berg about 12 miles south of us as we sail, clearly visible.

Maybe that's the last one.

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!

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  1. Man you guy's are fantastic! I'm sure your words aren't conveying the angst at being in a storm in iceberg territory. Enjoyed your book and have followed your blog every since. All the best for the rest of the trip to South Africa. I grew up on a fishing boat and was regularly sea sick for days on end so I empathise with Eric.


    Jason from Brisbane

  2. You always craved challenge. You are so lucky to have Alisa as your mate...what a partner!
    We will be in South Africa in September; perhaps we can see you one day there.
    Good sailing!...M-R and Alan

  3. This is hard reading on a mother's eyes, and very challenging for a grandmother's heart.

  4. That experience takes the cake, Mike !! We've been amongst plenty of icebergs in recent years but always with 24 hour daylight and (thankfully) nothing over 25 knots (Except aboard Akademik Shokalskiy during the Antarctic debacle). Well done for keeping your cool. Makes us happier to have just installed a 3G radar on 'New Zealand Maid'. Fair winds for your post-convergence sailing - from Jon & Barbara