Force 10 to Antarctica
It was all hands on deck for an expedition cruise aboard the tall ship Lord Nelson
As usual with a Drake crossing, when the wind died between weather systems we motorsailed. The object was to cross quickly as the axiom of “it can only get worse” is fundamental with anything that has an engine. We passed south of the Antarctic Convergence on February 19. This boundary zone, now redefined in science circles as the Polar Front, is where the cold water of the Southern Ocean meets the super cold water of Antarctica. Accompanied by a proliferation of black browed and wandering albatrosses, Cape pigeons, Wilson’s storm petrels and a plethora of all those “other petrels,” the water temperature dropped and settled in at about 35 degrees. This zone contains the upwelling of nutrients that provide a base in part for the Southern Ocean food chain, and being a continuous ring around the continent, isolates to a great extent the unique polar ecosystem.
With the hurtles of the Drake successfully passed, we made first misty landfalls on Smith and Snow islands on the morning of the 20th, and later that afternoon passed through Neptunes Bellows, the entrance to Deception Island. This area is the usual first shelter after a Drake crossing and it affords an easy landing beach head and walk ashore to stretch legs and spin wheels at Whalers Bay inside the drowned caldera of this semiactive volcanic remnant—a truly unique feature in the Antarctic. After giving way to a cruise ship that had scheduled an afternoon landing, we came to grips with getting our people ashore that evening. For me these landings were the object of the voyage. Here, the attractions were the industrial ruins of the Norwegian whaling station from the 1920s and 1930s and what is left of the British Antarctic Survey base destroyed by the last volcanic eruption in 1969.
Piers Alvarez-Munos, my supernumerary colleague, is a master mariner, superb raconteur and jokester who spares no one. He had just finished a stint as first mate on the cruise ship National Geographic Explorer operated by Lindblad. Doing his time on Lord Nelson through its early years from the bottom up, and knowing how things worked on board, he took over the organization of the disembarkations and re-embarkations for the landings and did all the tender driving, leaving me to swan around on shore enjoying myself. The group enjoyed the time ashore in dull gray conditions that gave way to an euphoric burst of sunlight over the rim of the caldera just before nightfall.
Lord Nelson usually lays alongside jetties in ports of call and disembarks her crew via a
gangway. Although the ship was designed for wheelchair users with electric lifts to access the lower working and upper decks, and having no sills through the various watertight doors, getting people into the inflatable tender was a different story. Disability is a relative thing, and while we had three wheelchair users, the average age of the voyage crew pushing 60, and they moved slowly while descending a vertical ladder hanging over the side to a heaving inflatable tender. The various layers of clothing and the PFDs required for this climate sometimes brought the process to a near standstill.
It took an hour and a half to get 40 people ashore, but it was a good first run. There is nothing like a walk (or a wheel) ashore at Deception to cure chronic seasickness from a Drake crossing, or relieve the anxiety that this whole voyage might have been a mistake. Once on terra firma, engaged at close quarters with a pair of chinstrap penguins looking you up and down or having a fur seal growl at you for being too close, all is forgotten, and the Antarctic adventure really begins.
The next day we headed south across the Bransfield and into the Gerlache Straits, dodging bergy bits and growlers spotted on radar or visually during the dark night of late summer. Pier’s and my job was six on and six off at the end of the bowsprit with a VHF radio and a projector lamp. However, with a modicum of pressure off, having at least arrived on the Peninsula, I could relax to some extent. Not the most sociable of characters at the outset, my disposition and tongue were loosened to a degree in the pub on the lower deck most evenings. This was not a dry ship. Well stocked, you simply pencil in your drinks taken on a charge sheet.
Over the next few weeks, we mingled with the penguins and the seals onshore and off, observed whales and icebergs, and enjoyed the vistas when they appeared. I met high flyers, mid flyers and low flyers (by their own admission). I met a banking executive, financial gurus active and cashed out, health care workers aplenty, teachers, a geologist, a retired fireman (Derek the cook), a Royal Navy helicopter pilot recently retired with his charming daughter along, consultants of various types, an IT man and an occupational therapist. Certainly a cross section of British society with a few Irish, a Kiwi, a couple of Aussies and a Croat to mix it up. The majority had been on previous voyages, a few as many as 20 times, which is accolade enough when judging the ethos of the trust. However, I don’t recommend this voyage to anyone with an overly sensitive nature. Conversation was refreshingly not politically correct in just about every respect. You had to take it and be able to dish it back to survive.
Over the course of 12 days on the Peninsula we made six good landings in amongst some false starts and periods hunkered down at anchor. We failed twice going through the Lemaire Channel due to ice blockage, once going south and then once going north after we finally got through on the second go. The weather was generally windy, closed and hard going with only one truly stellar day ashore at Peterman Island. At the end of our cruise, having retreated on March 3 from trying to pass the Lemaire Channel, again due to ice, Capt. Chris brought us back into our safe anchorage in the Argentine Islands in a blinding snowstorm in one of the finest pieces of seamanship I have witnessed given the conditions and the nature of the vessel. This was our last shelter before striking out north on the homeward passage.
Just underneath Cape Horn a new low, predicted at 956 milibars ripped across the top of us and a Force 9 southwest drove us under topsails and jib up into the Beagle Channel for an exciting finish. We dropped the hook at the pilot station on the evening of March 10 and had the next day to tidy the vessel (harbor furls on the square sails) and reflect. Most officers and voyage crew admitted that this has been the most demanding, yet one of the most satisfying voyages on Nelly. We were all pleasingly exhausted. And isn’t that the way a true sea voyage should end?
At the captain’s debrief before signing off, I felt it was appropriate to address the voyage crew. I told them how the word expedition is probably one of the most over used, misconstrued words in travel these days. Everyone on a cruise ship is on some sort of expedition or another, in spite of some very passive situations. Sailing Lord Nelson, a collective effort of 50 people, on the other hand, is very different. I told them if someone ever asks them if they have been on a sailing expedition, they can put their hand on their hearts, and say yes, they have.