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...


  1. Congrats on a tremendous achievement!

  2. Great post.
    How do you park the yacht and have you tried a Jordan Drogue?
    Cheers Drew

    1. Hi Drew - We heave to by backing the main, or trysail if it's really blowing, and lashing the wheel with bungie cord so that we're steering up into the wind. We do have a Jordan, and for every big passage we lash it on deck, completely assembled in a bag with the bridle attached to our massive stern cleats and the bridle legs tied to the boat with bits of cotton string. So all we have to do is open the bag and throw out the chain on the end of the drogue. But we've never been close to needing to use the drogue. I would like to give it a try in a "regular" gale some time, but we've always been too leery of the difficulties in retrieving it to consider putting it out unless necessary.

  3. Another great post, which answers many unasked questions in a sane and persuasive way. You understate your achievements - which is a great part of the Galactics' charm - but the pix tear that modesty to shreds. Those icebergs. Holy shit. And the wear and tear on you and Alisa....hope the South Africans are feeding you up!! x

    1. Thanks, guys. The funny thing is - no lie - Alisa and I, and I suspect the boys as well, find marina life in South Africa more wearing in some ways.

  4. Great write up, enjoyed it immensely. There is a majestic beauty to those tabular bergs. Respectfully, in the first picture, I think you look like Alisa and the boys just plucked you off Steven Callahan's raft. Thanks again.

    1. New contest - come up with the best metaphor for how crappy Mike looks on passage.

  5. That contest has already been won - the prize went to the "cross between Joshua Slocum and a pile of sh*t" entry. (I laughed out loud.)