Written by Steve Powell, original owner of Oyster 62, UHURU.
Mike looked at my list of requirements and gave me a sideways look saying “It’s unusual for new owners to know the name of their boat this early” and then promptly stuck it in a draw as if to say, “as for the rest, all our boats can do that”… well we were about to find out if that was true.
My plan was to depart from Grenada around about the 1st October and start heading south down the east coast of South America. Visiting Guyana, Suriname, Devil’s Island, French Guiana, Brazil, and Uruguay before heading down to the Falkland Islands for Christmas.
A journey of approximately 6,500nm, the first 2,000 of which was up wind and against the prevailing current, not an unusual situation for UHURU. We tend to ignore the old adage that “Gentlemen only sail downwind”; we prefer “Sailors go where they want”.
The journey down was both eventful and enjoyable, we had toyed with hurricane ‘Otto’, gone up a rainforest river, slugged it out against the wind and current for nearly 3,000 miles, been chased by ‘pirates’ (or possibly innocent fi shermen, who knows), crossed the equator, been hit by a whale, visited amongst others Devil’s Island, Salvador, Bouzios, Rio and finally crossed from Punte del Este, Uruguay to Port Stanley whilst getting lashed by three separate gales.
Christmas and New Year in Port Stanley was a joy, singing carols under the Whale Bone Arch and many a lively evening in the Victory pub, just like home. Th e locals were very friendly and helpful and took a genuine interest in what we were planning, but mainly we were there to do the final preparations for heading south.
The preparations had been plentiful, and had started with the build of the boat. Conscious of the fact that I had never sailed to Antarctica before, or any high latitudes for that matter, and that taking a glass fibre boat down there came with its own set of risks, I took on Richard Haworth of High Latitudes as a consultant on the build from the early stages. I explained that I didn’t want to build an icebreaker, but wanted to make sure that she would be safe in those waters. His input was invaluable and covered many areas of the build and outfitting, but was centred on a simple philosophy. Where possible, on all critical systems, have a backup of everything.
Two autopilots, installed and ready, two raw water inlet systems, two separate Racor Fuel filter systems, pre-heater on the water-making system, two heating systems, re-enforcement on all key areas of the sail, extra high cut for good visibility and deep-reefing, double bolt ropes on all sails, double leach lines on main and genoa, plus stitched in sail hanks up the luff of the genoa and staysail, hydraulic windlass and extra weight ground tackle, and so on, the list wasn’t endless but certainly extensive.
When it came to outfiting her it all started again, two tenders, two outboard engines, three anchors, two eight-man life raft s, two EPIRBS, two full sets of safety equipment and grab bags, two communication systems, diving equipment, 400m of floating line for tying off to rocks, two ice poles, etc, etc. Th e spares and tools list was endless, everything from a spare propeller, bolted under one of the bunks, to mountains of spare fi lters and pumps, every critical component had to be covered.
The spares list ran to five A4 pages and the tools list ran another two pages in addition to the extensive range of tools we already carried, including sledgehammers, crowbars, and a machete! At times I wondered what we were getting into.
By the time we had loaded everything it was a wonder she could sail. But she did, and well.
Our final preparations in Port Stanley included rigging a double-glazing system for all the windows, hatches and port lights to reduce condensation. Th is was done with a mixture of perspex, dual lock, gaff er tape and cling film, not very elegant, but effective. We didn’t have any condensation problems throughout the trip. We then bolted, screwed or lashed everything down. We were ready!
My crew for the next month were to be Chris Durham, (1st mate and engineer), Richard Haworth, (ice guide, diver and mountaineer), my brother Mike Powell, (photographer, diver and mountaineer) and Alistair ‘Buzz’ Keck (sailor and good friend) who came on as a last minute stand in when unfortunately David and Tamsin Kidwell, owners of the Oyster 435, Twice Eleven had to fl y home from Stanley aft er a family bereavement.
It was all now down to the weather. Having read all the recommended texts on crossing the Southern Oceans, I was understandably apprehensive. The Drake Passage has a well-earned reputation. But I have been using a combination of daily weather reports from Chris Tibbs, on the challenging sections, and ‘Clearpoint’, a downloadable subscription forecasting system based on Grib files that has proved to be remarkably accurate so far. Th e helpful thing I have found down here is that the weather systems are so well defined that it is relatively easy to passage plan. Providing you are fl xible with your departure date and are willing to wait, finding a suitable gap between fronts isn’t that hard. Th e trick then is to make sure you keep to the plan, don’t ‘dilly dally’ out there, and use the engine if necessary to maintain your planned mileage. And, of course, keep an eye on the forecasts because it can change in a heartbeat. We left Port Stanley early on the 4th January in near perfect conditions. Our first 48 hours were fantastic, 25 knots out of the NW, just aft of the beam and moderate seas. Everyone was well and getting plenty of sleep. Chris discovered early on just how cold the water is by getting a good dowsing while up forward setting a preventer line. We saw our first wandering albatross within hours of leaving Stanley, very impressive. Apparently they mate for life and only meet the wife once every two years on the same patch of land on one of the sub-Antarctic islands, aft er a bit of ‘slap and tickle’ they hatch their chicks together, then both head off again, separately, flying around the southern oceans feeding for the next two years. Sounds like a sailor’s life to me!
After two days of absolutely perfect sailing, 20-30 knots north-west, just aft of the beam, and moderate seas, we were then becalmed! Winds dropped to 2-3 knots. Who would have thought, we never expected this one. So the engine went on and we motored along playing sports trivia cards. We did have a taste of the southern oceans later that night with 5-metre plus swells coming in from the west, and took quite a lot of water over the bow. But other than that it was a beautiful night that never really got dark, we had what looked like a permanent dawn on the horizon directly south of us.
Th e last 24 hours before getting into South Shetland Islands, were more like what we had expected, cold, wet and ugly. Aft er being effectively becalmed in the middle of the Southern Ocean, the weather turned on us as 35-40 knots of wind from the SSW (on the nose) straight off the Antarctic mainland, bitterly cold, with 5-6 metre seas. Everyone was very stoic and remembered our nation’s seafaring traditions. Well... they didn’t whinge too much! And we got through it well. As we sailed into Deception Island through the Boyd Straights, escorted by squadrons of cape petrels, we saw our first iceberg, a huge majestic looking thing, which had us all up and excited. We dropped anchor in the middle of Deception Island, a flooded volcano that last erupted in 1970. Never a dull moment really.
I knew months ago when I started using words like, fantastic, incredible, perfect, unbelievable and amazing in my blog that I would eventually come South and run out of superlatives. Well, it happened.
Our arrival in Antarctica was just ‘astonishing’; we spent the first day at anchor in Deception Island. We managed a few very important maintenance jobs in the morning then spent the afternoon on the beach with the penguins. Yes, there are beaches, all be it black lava sand, and the penguins love it because the hot spring water seeping out of the still active volcano gives a water line of hot water for about 18 inches out.
We set out very early the next morning in near-perfect conditions, sunshine and wind. Th e moment we came out of Deception Island, through Neptune’s Bellows, the aptly named gap into the volcano, we were greeted by whales and penguins. Penguins swimming are hilarious, they jump like dolphins, but it’s more of a little hop out of the water, then every few minutes they all stop, pop their heads up to check where they are going. Th en off they go again, ‘hopping’ across the ocean.
The rest of the day we were entertained by whales. And icebergs – there were hundreds of them, and nasty little ‘growlers’, which are large chunks of ice, oft en weighing several tons that have broken off an iceberg and are floating just on the surface and very difficult to see, anyone of which could easily rip the bottom out of UHURU. Which is a rather sobering thought while you are on watch, and tends to focus the mind.
We spent a lot of time pinching ourselves; we just could not believe this place, Antarctica was truly out of this world. It was universally agreed that it doesn’t matter how much we try we will never be able to explain what it’s really like. Even Mike’s great pictures cannot come close to explaining what it’s really like. How do you adequately describe the feeling of sailing along under a deep blue sky, with the wind whistling through the rigging, little penguins ‘hopping’ alongside, birds circling constantly, whales popping up every now and then, all with the ‘ever present danger of growlers’. And I don’t care who you are, every now and then that very deep and dark thought will creep up on you. ‘We are at the end of the world down here, and if anything goes wrong…’ Well let’s not finish that thought, but I am sure everyone who has ever come down here must have had it.
Our next stop was Enterprise Island where we raft ed up to an old sunken factory whaling boat, called The Governoren, which caught fire back in the 1930s. To try and save it they were going to run it aground, but before it could hit the shore they ran into a shallow rock bar. The stern sunk and there it still sits today. Th is is remote, really remote, we get the feeling that we have gone back in time here as everywhere you look there are reminders of a bygone era. Whaling was massive down here in the early 1900s, and the whalers established supply bases all around Antarctica. Th is is one of them.
Edging our way in stern first to a narrow and shallow gap between the wreck and a rocky ice wall was testing at best. But once we had lines across to the wreck we found it to be a very secure berth, if a little noisy from the screaming Arctic terns that have taken over the ship’s boilers.
Right behind us was a glacier wall, which immediately became the object of much interest to brother Mike and Rich. No sooner had we tied off our last line than out came the climbing gear and off they went. It seemed like only minutes later and they were halfway up this ice wall. It was here that we harvested our first crop of 1,000 year old, Antarctic ice, straight off the bergs. It made our early evening gin and tonics go with a zing. Th e next day we spent exploring the area, discovering old wooden water supply boats and bollards that had been painstakingly chiselled into the rock. We also had our first Antarctic dive, on the wreck – cold but very exciting.
Words cannot possibly begin to describe Friday, 14th January 2011, we set off from Enterprise Island at 05.00, with a plan to stop at a couple of spots on the way to Port Lockroy. From that point on it all became rather surreal. Th e weather was perfect, blue skies and little white fluffy clouds. A strong and stable high had settled over the peninsular.
We started off with the usual escort of penguins and terns, and then we had a full display from a pod of humpback whales. As we eased our way into Orne Harbour a pair of crabeater seals obliged by posing on a berg right next to us
Mike, Buzz and Chris then went ashore to climb Spigots Peak to photograph the penguins and get a picture of UHURU creeping through the ice in Orne Harbour. From there they had the most spectacular views of Orne Harbour and the Gerlache Straits.
As we left Orne Harbour we came across a leopard seal basking in the sun having just finished a snack, evidenced by the blood still on his chin. Th en a large pod of orcas (killer whales) followed us for about 30 minutes as we gently cruised down the Gerlache Straits towards Port Lockroy. By this time there was a very distinct holiday atmosphere onboard, we were running around the boat snapping pictures here and there, at the wildlife, at the scenery, at each other, like kids in a sweet shop.
So please excuse me if this gets a little bit over the top! But this is the reward you get for pushing it all out there, those bitterly cold nights, scary seas and long, lonely watches, eventually lead to the ultimate winter wonderland; Antarctica in all her glory.
On arriving in Th under Bay, Port Lockroy, the climbing team immediately set about planning the ascent of Pico Luigi, a 1,530m peak that looms over Port Lockroy and the Seven Sisters. Armed with alpine skis, ice axes, miles of rope and a couple of day’s supplies they set off at 04.30 the next morning.
Meanwhile we went exploring ‘Base A’, Port Lockroy (pronounced: Lo-ckroy). Th is base was established in 1944 by a secret British military expedition, code-named ‘Operation Tabarin’, to monitor German movements in the Antarctic and provided weather information. They established a number of small bases all around the Antarctic Peninsula.
After the war the base was used by the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey for weather research and the important early studies of the ionosphere. Th e base closed in 1962 and fell into disrepair. In 1994 the site was identified as a key Antarctic historical site and restoration began in 1996. Since then the restoration work has continued by volunteers who come out and spend the whole summer season on this tiny island.
Th is year there was a team of four glamorous young ladies led by Nikki from Surrey. They arrived on site in November and their first job was to dig the huts out of the snow, which was a full metre above the roof – tough ladies! They spend the summer clearing snow, monitoring the penguin population, restoring the buildings, and welcoming visitors to the wonderful museum that they have created here. Th eir only support is visiting expedition ships and passing yachts, they don’t even have a small RIB to run around in, they are literally trapped on this small island for five months. Idyllic on a sunny day like this, but you can imagine it’s not always like this and must be quite harsh at times.
The penguins wander all over the base, creating little footpaths as they go. You can never tire of watching penguins; they are hilarious, and very, very cute.
The base museum is a fascinating insight into an era where ‘men were men’ and survived horrific conditions, with two jars of Marmite and a pair of woolly mittens. It has been beautifully restored in all its details and the families of the original occupants have donated many of the artefacts. All the rooms have been laid out exactly as they were back in the late 1940s, and the kitchen features all your old favourites from tins of corned beef to Camp Coffee and Marmite. All of it original, dug out from the old store hut and preserved in the cold.
But one of the most intriguing recent discoveries has been a number of paintings of glamorous pin ups of the era hidden underneath a coat of paint. These were only discovered last year when the covering paint started to peel. Many of these paintings were painted on doors, which were used as shutters during the winter. Local legend has it that on seeing these paintings outside the huts Argentinian fisherman assumed it was a British brothel in the middle of Antarctica. Resourceful lot the Brits! It is believed that they were painted over by the artist as he left the base, to avoid embarrassment to the following team.
At about three o’clock in the afternoon while we were on the base chatting with the girls about the museum and its artefacts, well that was our excuse, we received our first radio communication from the climbing team saying that they had reached the summit and could just make out the base as a tiny speck. In amongst much cheering and celebrations we invited everyone over for drinks that night aft er supper to help celebrate Mike and Rich’s achievement, including some guys from a Brazilian yacht anchored close by. It took Mike and Rich another six hours to descend. We got lots of interesting local insights and had a very unexpected, and enjoyable evening, finishing sometime in the early hours. But as it is pretty much daylight all-night nobody was really sure what time it finished, the only indicator was the size of the hangovers the next morning, or was it afternoon?
As we headed further south the ice got thicker and the going got slower, but all the time the spectacular scenery kept us spellbound. Mike and Rich dissected every peak as a possible challenge one day. I spent my whole time dodging growlers and trying to find clear routes through the ice. Th e occasional heavy thump of ice hitting the bow reminded us all of how potentially perilous this endeavour was.
We successfully navigated the Lemaire Passage, aka ‘Kodak Alley’, one of the most spectacular scenic spots in the world, but the weather wasclosing in. We anchored that night in Port Charcot, site of the first expedition to winter over in Antarctica lead by Jean-Baptiste Charcot, a Frenchman, in 1903. The wind changed constantly that night and we had to change our anchorage. We finally settled into a small sheltered cut, with shorelines out to rocks. But despite that, bergs started to move during the night and the sight of Rich and Buzz at three o’clock in the morning in their thermal long johns using the tender to push large ‘growlers’ out of our anchorage would have been comical, were it not so serious.
I had been monitoring the weather forecasts closely over the last few days and all the signs were that there was a big weather front coming in. We had had the most incredible weather so far for our trip but it was all about to change. Choices had to be made, and they were, as always never simple, but in a nutshell; leave Antarctica immediately and try and beat the front across or wait until it passes through.
The risks of waiting until it passed through were sitting for possibly five or six days in Antarctica in bad weather with all the associated risks of shifting ice and a fibreglass boat, and also using up our vital diesel reserves. Followed by a very rough passage in the big seas that follow a front like that, with the risk of a lot of growlers on the loose in those seas.
"Or leave now and miss a few days of our planned trip in Antarctica and get across before the front kicks in. However, if it sped up or we don’t make the daily mileage I planned we risk getting a good kicking around the Horn. I guessed that would be likely anyway.
So I reviewed the situation again at 06.00 and woke everyone up at 07.00 to tell them that we were leaving in two hours. Not the most popular decision I’ve made, but one all agreed with when the options were explained.
We headed out through a very challenging un-surveyed section of rock and ice to exit through the Nimrod Passage then north back across the Drake Passage."
"We rounded the Horn three and a half days later in 30 knots of wind from the north-east, and headed directly to a safe anchorage in Porto William. Nine hours later, a 50-knot plus north westerly swept through the area, with 10 metre seas around the Horn, but we were happily having a beer or two in the ‘Micalvi’.
It had been a fantastic trip across to the Antarctic Peninsula, a little shorter than we had planned but safe, no one got hurt, and the only damage we sustained to UHURU was a lost Windex aft er it got caught up with the masthead burgee, and a ‘pecked’ through outhaul button cover. Not bad really, we also managed to get down to 65 degrees South, which although is no record, was no mean achievement for a glass fi bre hull. Was it worth it? All the months, no years, of preparation... all the agonizing and doubts, and, of course, the cost. Every moment... every sleepless night... worth every penny!"