I sailed to Antarctica on a 21 day adventure!
Not on Coconut, but on Skip Novak’s boat, Pelagic Australis.
We sailed past C a p e H o r n! And through Drake’s Passage! So much cool stuff up ahead, everyone.
As a disclaimer, all photos are mine. I put my favorites into a 2019 Calendar if you would like to see (some of) these images every day while helping keep me afloat! Thank you to everyone who has already purchased one 🙂
The boat left from Puerto Williams, Chile, which is just across the Beagle Channel from Ushuaia, Argentina. Both cities claim to be “The End of the World” but Puerto Williams is further south. The Beagle Channel is a very windy area in the afternoons/evenings because it is surrounded by beautiful snow capped mountains on both sides.
Leaving at 3 pm, we had a good 40 knots of wind with 50 knot gusts for the first few miles. This is going to be disappointing, but that was the roughest part of the entire three day passage. We had a beautiful day of sailing without the motor, the sun was out and the swells were minimal. We saw minke whales, albatross galore, and it was damn near perfect. We were sailing at 9 knots steady, so we did the usual 5 day passage in 3 days which was pretty astounding.
Just like that, we saw our first iceberg! And then some Antarctic Islands! We went into Deception Island and anchored, went ashore and saw our first penguins (Chinstrap and Gentoo), and a couple of Weddell seals to boot. A few of us did a short little hike up to Neptune’s Window and passed whale bones laid out as if it were in a museum. Perfectly in place, probably as it had died who knows how many years ago. I am so used to seeing trash on the beach, at first I thought a random vertebrae was a piece of styrofoam. We picked up anchor and headed further south, and from there I will just post the highlights because it is just too much to recount what happened every day. Just a side note, the trip back was… much more what I expected. Sea sickness, giant swells, 40 knots of relentless wind, etc.
We saw minke as I said, humpback, and… ORCAS! Several moments literally took my breath away, the orcas was definitely one of them. I’ve always wanted to see them, and we saw a TON of them over the course of two days! We saw so many whales, I could eventually tell when we were going to get some tail. I missed plenty of shots and still got several. I even got such good shots of them I could see their nostrils… They have nostrils that look like upside down noses, and for some reason that really weirds me out.
I was aware of albatross, but only the brown type that is in the Pacific. Our crew informed us of every type of bird flying around the boat, and it was pretty wild. I never would have thought of myself as a bird watcher (I mean, I am an old soul but not THAT old) but they are pretty interesting to watch! While kayaking we saw a bird-on-bird murder (perhaps protecting their nest but gee, could have just stopped at a few pecks of the neck), plenty of skua’s doing what skua’s do (being jerks), gulls stealing eggs, sheathbills trying to steal penguin eggs, of course PENGUINS being cute AF, petrels galore, antarctic terns, etc. They are hard to snap a photo of especially with a zoom lens, but I managed to get a few good shots.
Oh there is so much to say about the giant masses of ice floating around down south. They are so magnificent! Each one has a story to tell, of storms weathered and days gone by where their only visitor was a penguin or skua if they were so lucky. Antarctica is a really uninhabitable place, not many living beings can survive in the harsh environment. I am really curious about how the icebergs came to be shaped the way they are, as it is fascinating. Some looked like dinosaurs, some looked like cauliflower, or a fishes lips, or drips of candle wax, or a fire pit full of ice chunks that would probably burn you just the same. Others looked like abstract works of art, while some, shining in the sun, looked like 3D rendered/printed objects. We saw icebergs pretty much everywhere, we moved anchorages every night. The ice doesn’t just sit in one spot, it keeps moving wherever the currents bring it. Every morning there would be a completely new scene to enjoy.
My favorite bits were the anchorages. We could go kayak through icebergs (shhhhh, don’t tell anyone!), dinghy to shore to see penguins, see all kinds of wildlife, etc. I was more interested in seeing how we anchored, though. There are so many techniques I could learn online from any Jimbozo, but I wanted to learn from the pro’s. I didn’t realize that Antarctica is really poorly charted. We had several times been “on land” according to OpenCPN, but we obviously weren’t. The holding is crap, and there is no good way to get an anchor to set on top of volcanic rocks which have been smoothed out by glaciers for thousands of years. Dragging is just a part of the game. Unless, there’s a boulder or two or four that you can tie strops around. You’ll need a lot of line, and basically lifeline sized wire (covered in a plastic tube if possible) with two eyes on the ends to be able to tie a shackle to the line attached to the boat. It was by far the safest way to anchor, and yes, even when we had four lines out we still set the anchor first. It was pretty time-consuming, and not something I would try to do on my own (although I am sure it is possible if you have the patience!). It’s also pretty wild to sit still and watch the ice move all around you. It is constantly ebbing and flowing! It went like this: you hear a slight crackle in the distance, maybe you’d even see a cloud of snow, and suddenly a bunch of ice chonks would float on by until it would be clear a few hours later for the process to repeat.
I was worried about being the youngest person on board, which as far as the paying passengers, I was. I didn’t take into consideration the crew. I had a decade on them and I thought that was AWESOME! I love seeing young sailors, and the fact that they are in charge of a professional charter vessel in Antarctica simply amazed me. Well, the boat goes from South Africa to Antarctica and back, with several trips in between, so yeah, they get their miles in! First off, whatever breaks they have to fix and manage to keep the boat going for several more trips. On our maybe 5th day the mainsail ripped. They repaired it for several hours in the freezing cold, of course without gloves because that made it more difficult to use the needle and repair tape. Pretty much every day they were repairing something, whether it be chafed lines or the fussy dinghy outboard. It was great to see, they were more than competent and I loved how resourceful they were. It was also SUCH a relief knowing that we could sit back and relax, take pictures, video, etc. while they maneuvered us through the thick patches of ice at 2 knots for several hours. I wouldn’t want to be down there on my own boat, that is a fact. I wasn’t sure how it would be being on board with 10 strangers, and honestly, it wasn’t my favorite. I was worried since the trip was so pricy that some people would be unfazed by what we saw, and I was right. Although the oldest men on board were also the kindest, and most in awe of everything despite having seen practically everything out there in all their travels. That was refreshing! I was also the only American on board, so I learned a lot of Aussie / British / South African terms and started a dictionary to translate. I am not a fan of small talk, constant banter, or people who push your boundaries to see just how uncomfortable they can make you. The oldest passengers, the crew, and my bunk were my refuge. And podcasts, and meditation, and staying up on the bow for as long as I could handle. I’m not a group person, so yeah it’s not much of a surprise I prefer sailing solo!
I think what kind of boat you take down to Antarctica can make or break your experience. First off, no fiberglass boats would fare well down there. The ice gourds you will hit can smack/crack your hull and that would be bad. Metal boats can withstand the conditions. Steel is common, and aluminum is even better. Pelagic Australis is a custom-made boat, the second one and specifically built to do this voyage for decades. Its hull is 1′ thick aluminum. Why is aluminum better than steel? Because its softer, so any hard ice you hit will cause a dent if anything and it isn’t prone to rust as steel is. The bottom paint scrapes right off, so its kinda funny seeing it on the ice or snow you push past. Also, because it is so cold down there, bottom growth isn’t really a thing.
So back to the boat. Skip Novak is a well-known adventure sailor, and he did an outstanding job building Pelagic Australis. There are two private cabins for couples, along with 4 two-bunk cabins (bunk beds). There is plenty of room for storage of gear, I personally liked the three separate canvas bags hanging in your bunk. That’s where I kept the essentials: hand and foot warmers, undies, socks, phone/ear buds, etc.
The boat has a lifting keel, so when we were offshore the keel was locked in place and when we got closer to shore it was “unlocked” if you will, essentially allowing the keel to swing back if we collided with anything. Which we did. It wad pretty wild! We definitely found a rock. Because the keel design takes up the entire center of the boat, the port and starboard cabins are somewhat like a catamaran. Three bunks on each side, with a head. Up forward was the v-berth which was the unheated area of the boat and contained loads of items. Spares of everything, food stores, dinghy outboards, etc. There was no watermaker on board, nor was there any refrigeration. Most foods such as milk, cheese, butter, deli meats were stowed under the floor boards in the saloon where it was naturally cooled by the hull. I thought this was brilliant, especially because they go from Cape Town, to the Falkland Islands, to Chile, Antarctica 3x, and then back. There aren’t many places to heavily provision, yet we were urged not to hold back (and we didn’t, we ate realllly good!). The best and most practical hack I took away from this trip? Forget the storm sail, just put a fourth reef in the main. #mindblown
The other invaluable design of the boat is the pilot house. I would not want to be outside on watch on a passage, period. The crew did an amazing job steering us through thick areas of chunky ice, which they had to do outside, but there was always one person outside and one person inside. They could switch to warm up, and there were always another set of eyes looking out inside for whoever was outside. We didn’t have to get snowed on if we didn’t want to, and we could stay (relatively) warm and dry on watch. It was still cold inside, but for someone who doesn’t care for the cold I would have been miserable had there not been a pilot house. There were also board games and plenty of books to read on board, but I can’t read while underway. I am too afraid I’ll zone out and miss something!
Next up, I will write a post on how to plan a trip to Antarctica. I have been asked several questions about doing this. Now that I know a little more about how it works and what gear is good and not so good down south, I will add my two cents! Thanks for reading 🙂