11-13 January 2018
The outer limits of the Antarctic Davis Sea are delimited by two floating ice platforms: the West Ice Shelf in the west and Shackleton Ice Shelf in the east. Both of them are surrounded by pack ice reaching the 63rd parallel south. We were slowly approaching the first shelf with wind dying off. As we were nearing the 64th parallel, nights were already white. There were more bergs in sight, what did not unnerve us as we could easily navigate around them.
I have to admit that I was very concerned about the gathering deep low. Most lows circulating around Antarctica fail to reach its shores as they are bounced back by the high system hovering above the continent. The atmospheric low that left me anxious was approaching us at very high speed from the Kerguelen Islands and had barely 930 hPa in its centre. Such low pressure is a very serious matter. The weather forecast predicted winds blowing at 55 knots and waves gushing up to 15 meters. But I know from my experience that wind tends to be more violent than it is predicted, and it may gust faster by 40%. We were to find ourselves in the upper half of the low with weaker winds whose speed would exceed 40 knots, blowing in the exactly opposite direction to our course, while close to the continent the forecast predicted less winds and gentler waves.
Last time, we encountered a raging storm of such magnitude with winds blowing in the opposite direction, we were entering the Walvis Bay on the Antarctic Ross Sea in 2015. It subsided after 12 hours after its hit. But now we had to brace ourselves for 48 hours of unforgiving weather. This is certainly not something you look forward to – spending two days in violent storm in the vicinity of sweeping expanses of drift ice. A several mile long passage from the area covered by ice pack to the Davis Sea was visible on satellite photos. I was tempted to sail there and reach the Davis Sea, what would give me more than a dozen hours to leave drift ice behind and get ready for heavy weather sailing. Ice pack from the West Ice Shelf appeared in front of Katharsis II shortly after midnight on Thursday, 11 January. Watching it closely, we saw piles of floating ice and bergs stuck between them. It seemed to be impassable. We could not see a single stretch of water that wasn’t littered with ice.
Sea ice maps always depict history for the previous day. You need to analyse a series of maps for several consecutive days to accurately predict what lays ahead. Photos depicted a narrowing inlet and drift ice dispersing to the north, what left me hoping that we could find a passage a bit more further to the north. Luckily, with feeble wind we were easily able to navigate along the edge of ice whose shards tend to cluster together. Such ice structure may be only broken by powerful currents or wind. With absence of strong winds, drift ice was merged into a solid long ice spit. Several hours passed before we finally found floe-free water. We sailed inside it to realise four hours later that there was no way out. We had to retreat. It was pointless to look any further for a passage. We went back and sailed north, searching for the outer limits of drift ice. Its edge was located 30 miles further than indicated by satellite photos.
We reached the limits of ice pack just before midnight. The wind stiffened by then and we had to reduce the main to the fourth reef and get ready for sailing in rough weather. Reefing the mainsail, we detected a major leak of the hydraulic fluid from the kicking strap. But stiffening wind and deteriorating weather prevented us from pinpointing the source of leakage. We had no other choice but roll down the main and carry on with only the front staysail.
Our headsail was coping fairly well with the ever increasing wind and surging waves. We were sailing north, going upwind. With gushing waves, we were not able to exceed 4 knots. To continue sailing upwind, we had to keep starboard to the helm. We were desperately missing the mainsail. On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine sailing in such conditions at more than 5 knots. Higher speed would expose us to the risk of being thrown into the abyss of gaping waves that were becoming steeper every hour.
The wind brought snow that was painfully lashing crew members working on the deck. Despite goggles and balaclavas, we were all severely affected by frigid weather that made our hands grow numb. Only rubber gloves protect you from humidity in such cold. We replaced oilskins with overalls (yellow Musto one-piece suits) that effectively protected us from waves flooding the deck.
The yacht was surrounded by numerous bergs and shards of ice we had to watch out for and avoid. The storm wind was pushing the yacht to one side, impeding manoeuvres and adding more than 30 degrees of sway to our course.
After twelve hours of harrowing voyage in a completely unfavourable direction, we eventually decided to make a turn. But the growing sway was pulling us back after we turned. As a result, nearly twelve hours later we nearly returned to the place we left the day before in the area where our winward sailing began. But now we were moved several dozen miles to the west. This is how ice pack changed its position. We found ourselves in its shadow, surrounded by the expanse of ice rubble. Such massive volumes of ice made the sea surface smooth. It also turned out to be the best place to wait out the second day of the storm. We were drifting in the shadow of ice pack, on relatively smooth sea, but we were still braving strong gusts. We had to adjust the position of the yacht in relation to the ice that surrounded us, but it proved relatively easy. Being there, we felt rather safe despite the fact that on several occasions our yacht was gently grazed by passing floes.
In safer conditions and with the calmer surface of the ice-clad sea around us, the crew found time to take a nap and recharge batteries. We were also able to finally inspect the kicking strap. Without its repair we would be struggling with our mainsail. Several hours later, the hydraulic failure was fixed. The yacht was 100% fit to continue the journey.
Following 18 hours of sailing in rough stormy weather in the shadow of pack ice, the wind speed went down to 30 knots. On Saturday afternoon (13 January) we raised the mainsail to the third reef and resumed navigation – this time in the desirable direction. Nearly three days after reaching the West Ice Shelf we crossed the 85th meridian again. This time, we were able to leave it behind and sail into another Antarctic sea – the Davis Sea.
Greetings from Katharsis II which is sailing east again.
– Mariusz Koper