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THE COOLEST TRIP IN THE WORLD

Posted Nov. 12, 2016, 12:05 p.m.

 

THE COOLEST TRIP IN THE WORLD   (This complete editorial can be found at: www.yachtingmatters.com Edition 31)

 

Fidelis Heads South

 

By Guy Frazer

 

Sailing the Magellan straights West to East, navigation instructions are simple, keep right and clear of the Argentine coast.  SY Fidelis (British registered) sailed past Ushuaia, side stepping this strategic port for Antarctic exploration.  The recent ruckus created by Jeremy Clarkson while driving a Falkland Island number plated car filming the (now defunct) popular UK Top Gear TV program was fresh in our minds, not to mention the 1982 sinking of the HMS Sheffield by an exocet missile. The discovery of offshore oil has brought the resource curse into full effect. Around 1bn barrels of oil, discovered in the 1970’s, are thought to be recoverable within an area no further than 200 nautical miles away from the Falkland Islands.

 

REELING AND RIDING IN PATAGONIA

 

Guests and two very happy crew depart by helicopter to camp overnight for some big trout river fishing and horse-back trail riding in the spectacular Torres de Paines National Park. The deck crew scout out a perfect marsh landing pad, one mile inshore from our remote uncharted kelp infested rocky anchorage near Rio Cascada. With a 50/50 chance of the chartered government forestry helicopter making the 09.00 o’clock rendezvous our guests and crew wait anxiously in the freezing rain. The whir of a helicopter reverberates around the cloud enshrouded granite walls as our chopper buzzes out of the mist, thumping down bang on schedule.  Guests away and anchor up, the next challenge is the 24 hour forecast for Punta Arenas indicating 100 knot winds. A leaking cargo ship laden with coal lists heavily at anchor off Punta Arenas as we pass with emergency repairs in progress, confirming the hazards of navigation using century old charts to thread through the narrow current and windswept remote channels often with limited visibility. Wrecked ships and Catholic shrines are in abundance in the fjords giving an insight into past disasters. The high wind forecast thankfully blew itself out on our arrival into Punta Arenas. In the town square, ropes tied to posts are hand holds for the locals used when ferocious winds howl through the straights.

 

THE MOST SOUTHERLY YACHT CLUB IN THE WORLD

 

High winds close Port Williams on arrival in Chile. SASYSS agent Tomas Miranda secures Fidelis last minute permission to go alongside the Naval pier without a pilot to take fuel allowing guests to stretch their legs and explore ashore. The gracious Royal Huisman S.Y. Pumula sits tied snuggly astern as deck crew quickly make fast lines in the wind driven rain. Fuel topped up, clearance in hand and guests back on board, lines are quickly slipped and the bow pointed South.  Due to complications fitting a fuel hose, a visit to Micavi Bar on the grounded ship Micavi that serves as the world’s most Southern yacht club is postponed. The Fidelis Antarctic exploration cruise is finally in motion. Weather conditions improve as the Horn looms into our early morning vision. Cape Horn and Drake Passage, nemesis to sailors past and present lie directly ahead. Sails set Fidelis pushes ever onwards South, tip toeing through the den of dormant sleeping white giants with very favorable 25 to 30 knot breeze.

 

NASAL NAVIGATION

 

The chunks of floating ice encountered while cruising the 1000 miles South from Port Montt to the Beagle channel were mere ice cubes in comparison to the frozen islands adrift and sighted on arrival at Nelson Passage, the entrance to the Bransfield Strait.  With barometer high, seas calm and clear skies, the sun slips below the horizon like a whale sounding, slowly rising up again after a long dive. GPS, chart and radar are not required to locate the Gentoo penguin colony as the aroma of guano guides us directly to Hannah Point, Livingston Island.  With great care our Ice Pilot/ Antarctica Observer Ashley Perrin leads a shore excursion viewing nesting birds without disturbance.

 

 

THE TAIL THAT WAGS THE DOG

 

The Antarctica Treaty System formulated in 1959 and signed by 53 nations in 1962 was created to regulate earth's only continent without a native human population. It was designed to reduce human exploitation allowing only transparent peaceful activity and scientific research to be carried out. The agreement was also the first arms agreement established during the Cold War. Any activity in Antarctica is heavily regulated. The permit Fidelis obtained to  explore these waters was a 271 page application outlining every detail of the yacht, crew credentials, provisions, auxiliary launch tenders, emergency supplies, medicines, contingency plans, anti-pollution and oil spill containment methods. Ashley, our intrepid British Antarctica Survey  (BAS ) trained guide ensured boots were scrubbed with disinfectant prior to beach landings to reduce the risk of contaminating the local wildlife, fragile marine eco system and extremely rare moss and lichen. Strict ATS protocol was practiced at every site. Sled dogs, the principal means of transport in early Polar exploration are no longer permitted in Antarctica due to infestation of their fleas infecting local seal populations.

 

A RING OF FIRE

 

Neptune’s Bellows marks the entrance to Deception Island, an active caldera with a strong rotten egg sulphur smell confirming entrance into one of Antarctica’s safest anchorages. One thin layer of the earth’s crust is all that protects exposed skin from the molten heat boiling up from the sea under the black sand beach off Pendulum cove where  guests and crew soak in the thermal waters . Meters away sea water temperature hover a few degrees above freezing.  Exuberant Jurassic flatulence from mother nature could be the difference between enjoying a relaxed steam bath or becoming a steamed lobster.  Penguins spa themselves nearby undisturbed by our human presence.  While scuba diving into the depths of the remote caldera, our brave guests and crew witness a variety of colourful underwater sea growth while on constant guard to fend off the friendly but deadly leopard seals that inhabit the area.

 

A FROZEN SCRAP YARD

 

Whalers Bay, a museum type scrap yard reveals a collection of rusting oil storage tanks and whale rendering machinery that thankfully lays abandoned near a deserted base camp opposite the remains of an Argentine base buried by lava during recent volcanic activity.  The bustle of past seal and whaling activity is palatable in this remote outpost. During the middle of the last century whale oil was the world’s most precious commodity used to brighten city street lamps from London to Moscow, lubricating the machinery of the industrial revolution and seriously depleting global whale populations.

 

SLIP SLIDING AWAY

 

On passage from Cuverville to Danko to land our guests on the Antarctic continent proper (Graham Land), two robust cruise ships are overtaken standing by discharging passengers in zodiacs as our bridge teams keeping watch for Zombies (icebergs) lurking at every turn of wind and tide. Our guests proudly summit after hiking up the snow ridge at Deville Glacier and are rewarded by an exhilarating glissade back to sea level.  Back onboard the guests could watch humpback whales circling deep beneath the boat, blowing bubbles to entrap krill, then to emerge from the dark frigid depths, barnacled mouths wide open, splayed flukes splashing down for another choreographed feeding folly. It is impossible to know what direction to point the camera lens as dozens of humpbacks feed in the krill infested waters.

 

 

CHUNK AFTER CHUNK

 

The sound of the hull scraping against ice increases as Fidelis crunches her way gently down the 11 mile maze of frozen Lemaire channel (AKA Kodak Gap) flanked by lofty  frozen vertical rock peaks ablating glacial ice. It was like navigating a colossal ice cube dispenser.  The days plan to venture further South to Peterman Island is shelved due to the ice blocking 90% of the channel.  With no squeezable route further South , two Minke whales play alongside Fidelis as we thread our way back through the narrow gauntlet of shifting ice, exiting in the early morning hours, relaying by VHF to the nearby cruise ships the hazardous ice conditions. The anchor splashes down in 45 meters of water off Dorian Bay, a welcome refuge following the continuous days of polar navigation, allowing guests to venture ashore to explore another large and odorous penguin colony. To the shore party’s surprise, two staff from Port Lockroy are encountered out on a day trek maintaining a nearby emergency shelter.

 

CLUBBING AND HOT TUBBING IN ANTARCTICA

 

Discovered by the French in 1904 and utilized by whalers, Port Lockroy remains the location where Winston Churchill executed ‘Operation Tabarin' (name reference to a Parisian night club) to establish a British presence following alleged US government non commitment to assist the Allies in safeguarding this remote area. It was used to monitor Nazi infiltration following the illegal capture of several Norwegian whaling ships by German warships seeking glycerin (key ingredient in the manufacture of explosives).

As a subtle reminder WW1 was a monumental disaster not just for humans, but also for whales whose lives were taken so that men could die. Between 1914 and 1917 over 175,000 whales were killed at South Georgia in the South Atlantic. In 1996 the historic base was made a museum and a post office was set set up and operated by the United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage Trust. It is a frozen smelly outpost without running water. Successful applicants that run the worlds most southerly post office are forewarned of the harsh realities of spending five months on a base the size of a football pitch. An alternate vibe resonates from the US manned Palmer Station where Fidelis visited the previous day to avoid inclement weather.  The base sported an outdoor hot tub, WiFi internet, a large film library with a comfortable TV viewing lounge. In true British style Port Lockroy continues its spartan operation utilizing the original prefabricated buildings transported and erected by SAS forces during the Second World War.

 

 

SKETCHY CHARTS AND WATER SPURTS

 

Shoe shoes are strapped on for another successful summit along a steep snow ridge at Danko, with Gentoo marching alongside following their pinkish krill stained guano trails leading up and down the slope.  Making way in the afternoon and arriving at Enterprise Island, SUP’s and kayaks are launched in the brilliant sunshine to explore a half submerged whaling wreck, stuck fast in the rocks, another rusting reminder of the enterprising seal and whaling era.

 

On overnight passage to Gerlache Strait, S.Y. Pumula is picked up on the AIS heading South with iconic Antarctic mountaineer and world class sailor Skip Novak on board as ice pilot.  An attempt to land at Cierva Cove in the early morning is thwarted by ice blocking the shoreline and the ever present aroma of guano. Heading further North, Fidelis hovers in uncharted waters while guests are entertained exploring between rocky outcrops blocked with ice, both falling over head and awash in the melee of bath tub like passage ways.  Our nine foot RIB with a 15hp OB is the perfect platform to zip between (and across) submerged ice bergs while dashing alongside vertical frozen rock cliffs. Think real life frozen water park amusement ride that neither Walt Disney nor Hollywood could recreate.

 

EAST MEETS WEST

 

Maxwell Bay, King George Island, is home to Argentina, Brazil, Chile, China, Ecuador, South Korea, Peru, Poland, Russia, Uruguay and USA research stations. East and West occupied bases stare across the wind swept frozen waters of the protected bay. Our chartered King Air 300 touches down to collect our guest within a good weather window to ensure safe passage back over the notorious Drake Passage to Punta Arenas on schedule for connecting chartered flight to Santiago.

 

ENGRAVED WITH LETTERS OF FIRE

 

No Antarctica voyage would be complete without allocate of praise to Polar pioneers such as Sir Edmund Hillary, Sir James Clark Ross, Nobu Shirase, Sir Edgeworth David, Richard Evelyn Bryd, Sir Robert Falcon Scott and the most famous Polar explorer of all time Roald Amundsen, who’s praise for Ernest Shackleton’s heroic actions in Antarctica would be ‘engraved with letters of fire’.

 

Motor sailing with staysail set in 50 knot plus winds and high seas proves effective as the relentless march of mountainous waves drive Fidelis swiftly away from the Furious Fifties. Graceful Petrels and Albatross wheel solemnly millimeters above the foam whipped troughs in the calm between the wind driven waves crashing astern. The giants are awake. At anchor in Port Stanely, safe in the knowledge our guests arrived  safely home from Terra Incognito, Captain and crew relish in pride and relief with images of remote outposts,  barren rock and ice infested channels, wind , waves, waterfalls, magnificent ice flows, whales, seals, sea birds and penguin frozen solid into memory.

 

Photos with thanks to Cpt. Guy Frazer and Cpt. Brian Carver

 

Brian Carver - Co Captain

Joyln Sewell Brayton - Engineer

Rene Vogel – Chef (The Mozart of Food)

Grant Keenan - Mate

Catrin Norris - Ch. Stew

Rene Nele Walters - Stew

Tessa Rivers - Stew

Nino Watrelott - 2nd Engineer

Rob Davies - Bosun

Ryan Adams - Deck

Ashley Perrin - Ice Pilot Antarctica Observer

Tomas Miranda - Chilean Agent

The owner and family of the yacht for allowing such a wonderful adventure.

 

 

Contact Cpt. Guy Fraser: superyachtmaster@gmail.com

 

 

 

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