48 days and 7,200 nautical miles since Cape Town
Katharsis II’s voyage around Antarctica is slowly approaching its halfway point. Seven weeks have passed since we left Cape Town; for the past month, Katharsis II has been sailing waters of the Antarctic – between the 60th parallel south and the Antarctic continent.
We are leaving the Ross Sea behind, a reservoir I am hugely sentimental about. I yearned to enter these waters again. We were here back in February 2015. While that had been the Antarctic midsummer, a wide ice barrier prevented all access to the sea’s interior – the barrier we would have to cross when sailing into the Bay of Whales, Earth’s southernmost navigable cranny. Today, the ice barrier safeguarding the entrance to the Ross Sea is narrower than three years ago – yet the wind pattern proved more than efficient in discouraging us from entering the Sea and creeping even closer to the geographic South Pole. Two consecutive vast low pressure areas prevented us from sailing south for no less than one week – yet they afforded favourable conditions for navigating the Sea’s peripheries, which is why we chose this route when continuing east. Coincidentally, we crossed the antemeridian – or the International Date Line – on 3 February, on the same day as we had three years earlier, during our memorable expedition to the Ross Sea. Travelling on, upon having crossed the 180th meridian, we set the ship’s clocks back 24 hours. We are all a little younger, for the time being.
Fair winds in Antarctica’s coastal strip are a rarity. For the first four weeks since entering these waters, we had to struggle against weak winds from ever-shifting directions, or against storms precluding any regular travel in the desirable direction. Yet for a few days now, northern winds have been dominant, allowing passage along the pre-set optimum route. We have finally begun “gobbling up miles” again. 😉
While high daily runs are a source of joy, my crew and I are all paying for the thrill with a steep price of stress. Once you go deeper south and reach the 70th parallel, conditions become much more harsh. For this past week, visibility has rarely exceeded several hundred metres, occasionally dropping to a mere two lengths of the yacht. We are sailing in misty glare, accompanied by blizzards. Although icebergs are less frequent than in the eastern Antarctic, they tend to be much older, and thus more damaged, with more ice debris around them. Our eyes are weary with the constant scanning of the sea surface for hazardous icy obstacles. Paradoxically, the task has become much easier since the removal of the sprayhood, which had been a major forward vision impediment when domineering over the boat’s superstructure. Yet that had not been our decision. The sprayhood was shredded to pieces by a rogue wave during the storm we encountered when crossing the International Date Line (on Hania’s birthday). The marine “gift” proved a double danger, as the same wave swept Hania out of the cockpit. Fortunately, the ship’s safety procedures worked – when on watch, Hania was tethered with a lanyard to the life line stretched along the entire length of the deck – the harness and jackstay prevented her from being taken by the ocean.
With regards to the loss of our cockpit’s wave protection device – since December 2014 and the Sydney-Hobart Race, we have had another, smaller sprayhood installed, which at least protects the companionway. And it prevents any flow of water below deck.
We have had an uninvited guest with us for some time – our yacht is gradually growing an ice cover. Ice is slowly depositing on shrouds, cables, and the mast. The frozen upper section of the mast resembles a Christmas tree bauble. Our anemometer stopped working as a result. Moreover, our telltales – ribbons attached to shrouds to help determine proper wind direction – have begun freezing over as well. This does not make sailing any easier. It is cold, wet, and slippery on deck. Fortunately, whenever drier air comes blowing in, ice drops off our tack. We try to help however we can by knocking ice off with rubber mallets.
The Amundsen Sea is the next Antarctic reservoir on Katharsis II‘s route – and it decided to welcome us with our second storm of the week. While short, it was very violent. Before its arrival, we had been sailing very close into the northern wind, in an attempt to avoid being forced into pack ice visible on ice maps. While a risk in any conditions, it becomes a major danger during a storm. After more than ten hours of difficult sailing into the wind, we managed to avoid the pack ice – conditions remained extremely difficult nonetheless. Wind of over 50 knots caused steep waves to rise. Hugely forceful, they made manoeuvring between icy obstacles in increasingly dense ice debris particularly arduous. After three hours of a wild ride with no mainsail and the forestaysail furled to the bare minimum, it turned out that there is too much ice to continue sailing safely. The only solution was to come about and seek shelter in the shadow of a large iceberg. With a side several hundred metres long and probable mass of several dozen million tonnes, it became a natural harbour, efficient in alleviating waves. We spent five hours there, all the time drifting south in parallel to the shading berg. Once conditions became more advantageous and a passage appeared, we left our temporary ice shelter and resumed the voyage east.
When sailing Antarctic seas (the Ross and Amundsen Seas) this past week, we encountered storms, blizzards, fog, and considerable quantities of ice debris. Navigating in the region is a gruelling and demanding experience. So far, we have logged seven seas of the Antarctic, seven weeks of sailing, and seven storms. Another seven seas await – how many weeks and storms? Time will show.
Keep your fingers crossed.
My warm regards to All,
– Mariusz Koper