Katharsis II, position: 67º28’S, 006º55’W
72 days at sea, over 10.550 nautical miles from the port of departure
The beginning of the 11th week of our uninterrupted journey around the Antarctic continent, from Cape Town, Republic of South Africa, to Hobart, Australia. With her skipper Mariusz Koper and a crew of eight, Katharsis II has been sailing the Antarctic waters south of the 60th parallel for the past two months.
The Weddell Sea is the eleventh Antarctic reservoir we have encountered during our Antarctic loop. Like the Ross Sea, it juts deeply into the continent. It earned its notoriety in the wake of Ernest Shackleton’s expedition, trapped in pack ice for many months one hundred years ago. In wintertime, the Weddell Sea is entirely frozen over, its dense ice sheets creeping up to the 55th parallel. During the austral summer, ice retreats, its northernmost boundaries frequently reaching the Scotia Sea beyond Antarctica. Only February offers an opportunity of sailing seas relatively clear of ice without the need to leave Antarctic waters.
Selecting Cape Town as our port of departure allowed us to reach the Weddell Sea in late February/ early March, when chances of ice-free sailing are the highest. This year, the area between the Antarctic Peninsula and South Orkney Islands cleared of ice in late January. Having left the Antarctic Peninsula behind, we were able to set a course east along the 62nd parallel, remaining at a safe distance from dense pack ice south of our position.
On the sunny and frosty morning of 25 February, we spotted a thin white strip on the horizon. It looked like a pack ice tongue, easy to circumnavigate. We had a few hours of daylight left. We decided to drop our mainsail quite quickly, having faced an abundance of growlers floating along the ice sheet rim. We were forced to reduce speed. Under staysail only, we slowed down to 5-6 knots, which let us manoeuvre in hope of entering safer waters before nighttime. Unfortunately, there seemed to be no end to ice-covered waters, reaching far beyond current ice chart readings. Wind and marine current patterns can move ice floating on the Weddell Sea by up to 30 miles a day. After dark, we slowed down to 2-3 knots, using a furled staysail to travel against the wind. The yacht’s sides grazed chunks of ice several times, triggering unpleasant vibrations and sinister sounds below deck. While the moment itself was unquestionably stressful, we had the situation under control. In the wee small hours of the morning, we were finally ice-free and could set all sails.
The shortest loop around Antarctica will take Katharsis II south again, beyond the Antarctic Circle. Yet this time, travelling so far south will not reward us with white nights. At summer’s end, that is simply not an option. Days have grown colder and darker than in January and the first half of February.
Weather patterns favoured us for over one week, running winds letting us surf the waves. For two days, winds blew from the south west, bringing frosty air from above the frozen Weddell Sea. While not depositing any ice on our tack, dry air turned soft wet ropes into iron-hard rods. This did not make working the sails any easier. Waves crashing on deck froze over, making all walking surfaces slippery and dangerous.
Despite having slowed down in night-time, our daily runs exceeded 180 miles several times this week. With no major effort, Katharsis II can reach a speed of 10 knots in favourable wind conditions. We slow down only when hazardous waves surge under storm winds, when sailing upwind, or in gentle wind conditions.
Night-time sailing has become exhausting. Constant lookout for ice in the dark absorbs all senses. Particular focus is required not only from the deck watch with their hand-held thermo-vision camera, but also from people below deck, monitoring images from the mast-mounted thermo-vision camera unit. The quality of image depends on the weather, at its optimum during dry nights. Moisture in the air results in considerably worse image quality, fog making camera use practically impossible. This week, our sense of security has definitely been improved by the moon; while no longer full, it continues dispersing the darkness.
We have covered two-thirds of the entire route and more than 80% of the Antarctic loop. With the light at the end of the tunnel already visible, we are not letting ourselves become overly excited. These coming 2 weeks will be as difficult as they will be demanding. We have to remain extremely focused. With fair diurnal runs, we have to slow down at night, which affects the overall distances covered, especially in high wind conditions. Yet safety first.
We have to cross 60 meridians before closing the loop around the Antarctic. While not much in comparison with the distance covered already, it is a still lot, in these ever-more difficult conditions. Next week’s forecasts include an outlook of two storms with headwinds we will in all probability not be able to avoid.
Keep your fingers crossed.
– Mariusz Koper and the crew of Katharsis II