Sailing along shores of East Antarctica
24 January 2018
7 weeks, 7 seas, 7 storms
9 February 2018

Balleny Islands

Antarctica, 68º06’27″S, 170º35’42″E.
40th day of the journey, 5,800 nautical miles from Cape Town

Nearly six weeks ago, Katharsis II left for her voyage around Earth’s coldest continent; for the past six weeks, she has been sailing the waters of the Antarctic – between the 60th parallel south and the Antarctic continent.

This past week was amazingly eventful. Firstly, we reached the Earth’s south magnetic pole. Constantly wandering, it is currently located on the D’Urville Sea, at 64º 28’ S and 136º 59’ E, over 2,800 km from the actual geographic South Pole. It is difficult to set a course properly with the use of a compass near the geomagnetic pole, as the magnetic field at the location points vertically upwards, which is why the needle of the compass cannot stabilise and deflects in all directions. For three days, the readings of our navigational instruments were erratic. The yacht’s position on our electronic map monitor was an amusing sight: sometimes it seemed we were sailing sideways, or reversing. When navigating, the helmsman had to rely on visuals rather than on compass readings. The simplest solution was to correct our course by taking early bearings on icebergs we had an abundance of in the area. GPS reactions to changes in the course are too slow to allow their use when steering.

Our encounter with a huge ice island was another astounding experience. The one we came across was over three miles long. Its steep sides suggested it was rather young, which reduces the risk of sudden calving. We were confident enough to approach it – sailing for more than half an hour along the edge of an ice island was hugely exciting, its monumental size truly intimidating. To add to the experience, whales appeared – they swam into one of the island’s bays.

It seems the encounter would not have been complete without an adrenalin rush: suddenly, an ice shower dropped from one of the island’s steps, just several hundred metres ahead of Katharsis II’s bow. Our manoeuvrability was limited with the mainsail fully raised and wind on the stern, which allowed safe course correction in one direction only – towards the island. Fortunately, we were faster than the ice chunks drawing near the yacht, and there was no need to engage in any sudden manoeuvre, such as a jibe, to avoid a collision. For some time, the experience cooled my inclination to approach large icebergs.

Balleny Islands were to be the first land we would see nearly six weeks after leaving Cape Town. They are located on the Somov Sea, 150 miles from the continent, and usually shielded by a pack ice barrier. There is visibly less ice this year, which is not to say it should be underestimated, as reported in 2015 by the crew of Selma Expeditions upon their having sailed into ice invisible on ice maps of the area. The ice strip is 100 to 200 miles wide. Earlier, 250 miles from the Balleny Islands, we moved towards the pack ice protruding from the Cook Ice Shelf – I wanted to verify ice map accuracy. Ice materialised approximately 20 miles earlier than maps would suggest. The front pack ice wall was facing south-east. We sailed around the obstacle and continued travelling east. By moving away from the ice, we gave ourselves space for manoeuvre for the storm we had known for a few days was coming our way. On satellite photographs, it resembled a spiral extending from Australia across to Antarctica. Atmospheric pressure was dropping by 10 hPa per hour. The wind was gaining force.

The storm first struck on Sunday, January 28th, with a north-eastern wind of up to 40 knots. With four reefs on the mainsail and the staysail furled to the allowable minimum, our passage was safe across rising waves. Unfortunately, we had to struggle against sailing into the wind again. With 40-knot winds, blizzards, and waves crashing across the deck and leaving freezing slush on body suits, travelling east was a tough job. The wind forced us between the Balleny Islands and the continent. Our having moved away from the ice paid off: during the storm, we managed to avoid too close a contact with pack ice flanking the continent. After twelve hours, we enjoyed a moment of well-deserved rest.

Near Young Island, Katharsis II crossed the Antarctic Circle for the third time in her history. Yet there was no time for celebration, the storm was about to give another performance. Theoretically, another Balleny Island could shield us from the wind. I wanted to sail into the shadow of the central Buckle Island. It appeared to be free of ice, as opposed to Young Island, where the size of the pack ice was identical to the size of the island itself. Regrettably, we didn’t make it, caught by an Antarctic south-eastern wind of over 50 knots. It seemed as if we would see the Balleny Islands in our mind’s eyes and as a radar image only. Visibility was reduced to several hundred metres in the blizzard. Ice floes were plentiful, yet fortunately not very dense. It took us over twelve hours in the raging storm to cover the mere 20 miles to the edge of the island. On Tuesday afternoon, the wind began subsiding, as did the fog: we saw the ice-covered island. We had to raise our heads high – the island was taller than our distance from its edge, majestic, austere, and unfriendly. This is how we saw our first land after 38 days of sailing.

The Ross Sea lies ahead, the only navigable reservoir along Antarctica’s shores jutting so deeply into the continent. Entering the Ross Sea will allow us to shorten our route around Antarctica, provided that we are not blocked by ice at the eastern exit – and ice is profuse over there. If ice does not give way, it will force us to retreat towards western shores, and make a detour. Today, I do not know how far we will sail into the Ross Sea. The wind pattern is rather unclear and several-day weather forecasts are reliable to a limited extent only. The next two days will allow an answer…

Regards to all!
– Mariusz Koper

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