Friday, January 24, 2014

To Antarctica With Imvubu

To make a long story short:

The scenery is even more impressive (the adjective breathtaking is actually appropriate) than I remembered. Traveling on a (relatively) small boat allows up-close and personal encounters with icebergs and wildlife and you can go where you want to go (on a private yacht). I would highly recommend visiting Antarctica by yacht. Crossing The Drake Passage (renowned in sailing lore for strong winds and big waves) is not such a big deal when you have the luxury of waiting for a good weather window (a 35 ton steel boat doesn't hurt either), and the weather along the Antarctic Peninsula is actually quite calm much of the time (at least in summer, and in winter you couldn’t get here on a yacht on account of the ice). People talk about the challenging sailing conditions, and I guess they are but not much more so than some other places. I suppose the biggest challenges are the dearth (love that word, it comes from dear) of good all-weather anchorages, the ice, and that some of the areas are not well charted/surveyed.

Penola Strait

There are no trees in Antarctica and almost no plants (on land)--just a few patches of moss and the odd clump of grass where there is exposed rock. 99% (just a number I made up but probably not far from the actual number) of the land is covered by ice. There is lots of wildlife and it is "in your face" as one charter yacht skipper put it--that is to say it is near and abundant (in the summer) and most of the wildlife is still relatively unafraid of humans. Penguins (the 3 one typically sees are Gentoo, Chinstrap, and Adelie) are what one sees most of, followed by seals (Crabeater, Wedell, Leopard, and Elephant), and finally whales (mostly Humpbacks). There are also some flying birds--shags, sheathbills, and even gulls. 

     The Antarctic Peninsula and South Shetland Islands is not exactly an unexplored wilderness anymore. There are numerous bases (some more scientific than others, but all of them serve the function of staking various nations’ territorial claims in Antarctica), and in the summer around 37000 tourists come--most by cruise ship, but some on the 12 or so charter yachts that operate out of Ushuaia, Argentina; Puerto Williams, Chile; and The Falkland Islands. The visitors’ center at Port Lockroy had 18 000 visitors last year. The cruise ships (and charter yachts) tend to go to the same places but the ships make an effort to avoid being in the same place at the same time. We encountered (or heard on the radio or saw on the AIS) 20 cruise ships, 12 charter yachts, 2 fishing vessels, 2 research vessels, and 1 Chilean navy ship. 

To make a short story long: 

     Imvubu departed Puerto Williams 12:00 local time Sunday 29 December 2013. A fresh northeasterly breeze pushed us through the eastern end of The Beagle Channel, Picton Pass, and finally Richmond Pass. A smooth ride so far, as little swell gets into these protected waters. Around 23:00 local time, in 40 knots of wind from the northeast, we passed 23 miles east of Cape Horn and into The Drake Passage. Fortunately there was not sufficient time and fetch for a big swell to build and conditions only became more pleasant the further south we got.
     By the next afternoon (Monday) we had a 12 knot breeze from the NNW and the sun was shining.  Tuesday the 31st brought more of the same and I took advantage of the pleasant conditions to practice celestial navigation.  Morning, noon, and afternoon sun sights gave me a fix 3.5 miles off from the GPS, which I was pleased with. A cruise ship on its way back to Ushuaia from Antarctica passed us in the afternoon (one of three we passed in The Drake Passage).  Ralf, Jenny, and I celebrated New Year’s Eve at 24:00 UTC with a shot of Aquavit. I went to bed soon thereafter, as I would be on watch in a few hours.
     At 12:00 local time Wednesday the 1st of January 2014, exactly three days out of Puerto Williams, we spotted land—Snow Island in The South Shetland Islands.  A few hours later we were approaching Neptune’s Bellows, the entrance to the Deception Island caldera, and spotted the first ice berg of the trip. By 19:00 we were anchored in Whaler’s Bay (site of the ruins from a Norwegian Whaling Factory and later a British Antarctic Survey base) inside the large crater of Deception Island. The cruise ship Polar Pioneer anchored nearby 30 minutes later, and the tourists were shuttled ashore to explore for a couple of hours before they upped anchor and moved on. We kept anchor watches that night as the bottom shelves steeply toward the shore in Whaler’s Bay. Thursday morning we went for our own little explore among the ruins. Motor yacht Hanse Explorer (well, ship is a more appropriate term since it is157 feet long) showed up and took their guests ashore to join us for a look around. They moved on after a few hours. Imvubu raised anchor after lunch and motored, past shuttered Spanish and Argentinian bases, to the NW side of the Deception Island lagoon where we found a much more secure anchorage in Telefon Bay, called Stancomb Cove. Penguins and Crabeater Seals inhabited the shore.  No anchor watch that night.
     Friday morning we upped anchor and departed Deception Island, followed by the Chilean naval vessel, Lautaro, which had spent the night anchored in Fulmarole Bay on the NE side of the caldera. Setting a course for the Antarctic Peninsula, we sailed due south across The Bransfield Strait in a westerly breeze, sunshine, whales, and ice bergs.  By the afternoon we were at the southern end of Trinity Island and decided to check out what we later discovered is called Mikkelsen Harbor. Threading our way through the ice bergs into a bay for which we had no chart was a little stressful but also fun. We anchored near an Argentinian hut/refugio erected in 1954 on a small rocky islet. A bag of mate (South American tea) and a few cans of food and a medical kit were inside. Aside from that, the hut was not in great shape. Hundreds of Gentoo Penguins inhabited the small rock the hut is on. They keep themselves occupied by sitting on their eggs and stealing pebbles from each other’s nests (the nests are made from small rocks). We can see across Orleans Strait to the mainland of The Antarctic Peninsula.
     Saturday the 4th, AM, finds us motoring south in The Gerlache Strait in light winds and overcast skies. Stunning, spectacular, etc. This landscape is something to see. Big, steep, snow/glacier-covered mountains—the mainland of The Antarctic Peninsula to port and numerous mountainous islands to starboard. In the middle is Imvubu, penguins, ice bergs, and more whales. Ice bergs are like snowflakes in that no two are alike--the possibilities of shapes and colors are endless.  20:00 local (Chile) time, tied up to the grounded wreck of a whaling vessel on the east side of Enterprise island, home to many Antarctic Terns.
     Around 04:30 early next morning we are rudely awoken by French charter yacht "Paradise" rafting up to us. We decide to move on before they can get too comfortable.  Our destination:  Paradise Harbor where 3 years ago I and the rest of the AMLR team enjoyed a few hours off from counting krill and played around in the ice bergs and snow. The scenic route through Wilhelmina Bay turns out to be well worth the extra couple of miles. Our second detour takes us through Errera Channel. Also amazing. Not surprisingly both are favored routes for the cruise ships and charter yachts.
     In the afternoon we reach the appropriately named Paradise Harbor and anchor next to the Chilean Videla base. Several Snowy Sheathbills (funny, curious, charming--at least so says I-- all white birds, roughly the shape and size of a pigeon) fly over and land on our dinghy which is hanging on the davits. No scientists there, only navy and air force personnel, but they are welcoming and give us a tour of their facilities which are surrounded by a few thousand Gentoo Penguins (including one albino) and their eggs.  Motor to south end of Paradise Harbor and check out anchorages by Argentinian Brown Base. A northerly breeze is sending all the ice to this end of the harbor, so we go back to anchorage in the lee of Videla Base.
     Monday the 6th:  Up anchor 6:00ish and take the long way back to Gerlache Strait via the north side of Lemaire Island. Then sail south along east coast of Wiencke Island, across Butler Passage into the spectacular Lemaire Channel (1000+ meter mountains on both sides and less than a mile wide. Also on the cruise ships itineraries if ice allows). Wind increases to 30 knots and we are going too fast through the bergy water. Drop sails and turn on engine for increased maneuverability. Concerned we might have to turn back due to ice, but we make it through and into Penola Strait. More of the same with incredible mountains and glaciers to east and south. See sailboat anchored on eastern shore. It’s charter yacht “Pelagic.”  We continue to Ukrainian base, Vernadsky, on Galindez Island, in the Argentine Islands group. Anchor in very cozy nook in Stella Creek (not a fresh-water creek, just a narrow channel between the islands). Not enough room to swing at anchor, so we run two shore lines from stern. Pelagic joins us 30 min later. They just drive into the thin sea ice and take one line ashore to hold them in place. Cool.
     The next day (Jan 7) we get a tour of the base along with Pelgaic crew and passengers (BBC folks making penguin doco) and later in the evening we’re invited to celebrate Christmas at the base. Turns out Jan 6-7 is the Orthodox Christmas. Fun evening with singing, eating, and drinking (the world-famous homemade Vernadsky vodka).
     Morning of Jan 8 we depart Vernadsky and head south into The Grandidier Channel but the ice soon becomes too much for us and we make a U-turn. Coming back north we see the British RV/IB The James Clark Ross. We call them on the radio and ask about the ice conditions further south (where they’ve been, resupplying The British Rothera Base). Since Imvubu’s satcom has stopped working, we also request the latest forecast. They not only print out forecasts and ice maps, but give us fresh bread, fruit, and milk. Continually mesmerized by the scenery. Vow to come back with own boat.

     We take French Pass westward toward open ocean as recommended by James Clark Ross crew. We see amazing bigass icebergs and patches of sea ice. Decide to call it a day and find a nice nook to anchor on the southside of Betbeder Islands (with one line ashore as the cove is too narrow to swing at anchor). I cook pinnekjøtt and turnips (traditional Norwegian Christmas food) which is well received by Ralf and Jenny.

     Jan 9: In our continuing quest to get further south we cross Southwind Pass and attempt the inside route (Grandidier Channel area) again but the ice is too much. We get to 65°34’ S before having to turn around.  Spend the night trying to get south on the outside but as we get further west, we are forced northwards by the ice. Abandon plans to reach Antarctic Circle. Come back into sheltered waters via French Pass and anchor at Vernadsky again (PM, Jan 10). There we find French charter yacht “Paradise” (same one that woke us at Enterprise Island) and we have another fun evening at the base with The Ukrainians and French tourists.

     11 Jan AM we head north through Penola Strait and Lemaire Channel. Just as amazing as when we came through here southbound. Again dodging bergs and growlers. Southbound Cruise Ship "Ocean Diamond" passes us and gives us a toot from their horn. From Lemaire Channel we head through Butler Passage to Neumayer Channel and drop the anchor at Port Lockroy where there was aBritish Antarctic Survey base which is now a visitors’ center and gift shop (yes, in Antarctica. In fact, every base we visited has a gift shop).  Port Lockroy is also on the itinerary of most of the cruise ships that go to Antarctica. We fail to get anchor to set 3 times. Try a different spot. Anchor sets but then drags in the middle of the night as wind picks up to 30-35 knots. Reset and drag twice then finally take a line to shore and hope the wind doesn't change direction too much. 
northbound in Penola Strait

     12 Jan. The inner bay and preferred anchorage which was full of ice when we arrived has been cleared by the northerly wind, so we move there—better holding, better shelter, and room to swing at anchor. 

     13 Jan. Hunkered down at Port Lockroy in northerly wind. 4 other yachts (all charter) also here. Quick trip ashore then back inside Imvubu.
     Jan 14 – winds have calmed down and we motor the 18 or so miles to the US (NSF) base Palmer Station and tie up as charter yacht Sarah W. Vorwerk leaves. Bow line to bolt in front of station and stern line to bolt on Bonapart Pt. We are invited ashore for tour and dinner. Get reacquainted with Dave and Carolyn who worked on the NSF (National Science Foundation) ship N.B. Palmer when I was aboard counting krill in August 2012. Ca 40 people work at the base: scientist and non-scientists, like carpenters, who keep the base functioning. I drop off a CV just in case.
     Jan 15. Blizzard at Palmer Station. Visibility less than 100 meters, so we will stay put. Even a dinghy trip to the nearby penguin and elephant seal colonies is out. Clears up in afternoon but dinghy motor is questionable so no shore trip.

    Jan 16 AM. Depart Palmer. Motor through Bismarck Strait. Sunny and calm. Good day for photos. Turn left and up Neumayer Channel, past Port Lockroy. Farther north in channel, pass southbound Brazilian yacht, “Franternidade.” Cross Gerlache and enter Paradise Harbor between Bryde and Lemaire Islands. Head for Brown Base. Much less ice now and the big grounded berg is gone. Anchor in secluded cove with spectacular scenery. Dinghy tour and later a short swim.
     Jan 17 Motor past Videla Base, through Errera Channel, across Gerlache and up Schollaert Channel. Lots of whales. Charter yachts, “Sarah W. Vorwerk” and “Golden Fleece” are going same way and everyone is enjoying the whale show. Anchor in Melchior Islands.
     Jan 18. Move around to other side of island into cozy channel between islands. Sarah is there and Golden Fleece show up later. Dinner on Sarah.
     Jan 19. Up anchor and head for Drake on Sarah’s heels. Soon pass her.  Easterly wind 30, gusting 35, then gradually eases.  Imvubu is in her element--trucking along. See 1/2 mile long ice berg--incentive to pay attention when on watch. 
     Jan 20. Light headwinds. Motor at 6-7 knots. 
     Jan 21. Motor then westerlies pick up. Sail w/ full main and genoa.

     Jan 22. Land ho! Cape Horn on the bow. We sail past the fabled cape and go up the east side of Horn Island and, conditions being quite calm, anchor in Caleta León on the E side of the island. As we dinghy ashore we are welcomed by the lighthouse keeper and his family (wife, 12-year old son, and poodle named Melchior). Guess what! Cape Horn has a gift shop. After a short visit, we up anchor as charter yachts "Pelagic Australis" and "Nekton" take their guests ashore. We motor through Paso Mardelsur between Herschel and Deceit Islands, across Nassau Bay and into The Beagle Channel via Goree and Picton Passes. 

     Jan 23.  Motor through the night. I'm on watch for most of The Beagle Channel. Feel serene and also excited at the prospect of landfall. Arrive Puerto Williams around 7:00 AM, just after Pelagic Australis. Raft up along YC Micalvi. Drink Beer and Pisco Sours. 

Thursday, January 23, 2014

back in Chile

Imvubu arrived back in Puerto Williams, Chile this morning. More to
come soon. In the meantime, please call (see number in previous post).