Antarctica: A Place of Exhilarating and Unforgettable Experiences
US sailors Deb and Pete Rossin have been boating for over 50 years with around 40,000 nautical miles beneath their joint keels in the last 10 years. However, nothing they have done before comes close to the experiences they had in the waters of Antarctica. Here is their story of a voyage below 60degS.
Published 1 year ago
This article published with kind permission from MB&Y
As I begin this, we are sitting in Caleta Olla, a beautiful little anchorage off the Beagle Channel in Chile. It was blowing 35 to 40 knots yesterday as we came into the anchorage. Shore lines are in order like most anchorages here.
Our procedure is to unship and launch the large dink with two sets of 3/4 inch poly shore lines, shackles and rigging strops to tie around trees or rocks on shore. On the way in, Jim runs a 5 meter depth contour in the dink while we set up a track on him using ARPA so we have a safe working depth contour. The charts down here are mostly inaccurate or lack depth information entirely.
While Jim was running to shore in the dinghy to set up the first, and most important shoreline, we were dropping our big 150 Kg Manson anchor and backing down toward shore against the wind as we let out chain, all while watching our scanning sonar for obstacles. By the time we had 60 meters out in 15 meters of water, Jim had tied off the first shoreline and run back to the boat. Once cleated off, we were secure, so the pace was more leisurely as we set the second shoreline at a 30 degree angle to the first.
Staying Safe at Night
In some of the anchorages, we have had as many as six lines out in addition to the anchor. You sleep much better at night when it is blowing with gusts to 60 knots and you are sitting in a little V shaped notch in the shoreline with just 10 meters between you and the shore on three sides.
We are watching the weather and planning our passage down the Beagle Channel, Canal O Brien and Canal Ballenero with a couple of long runs where we are exposed to the Southern Ocean before reaching safe harbor at Brecknock. Strong prevailing westerlies and rachas (katabatics) can make all this quite rough. There are few, if any, good anchorages where we can find protection once we go. Our destination is Puerto Natales.
High mountains and glaciers surround us extending down from the Cordillera Darwin ice field. Fortunately none of them are tidewater and reach the anchorage. There are several other boats in the anchorage and they join us aboard Iron Lady for the evening. One of the great pleasures of cruising is spending time with other cruising folk.
These were accomplished sailors all. Some have done both the Northeast and Northwest Passages, spent 18 seasons going to Antarctica and have even over-wintered in the ice. They are currently hauling scientists around doing various research projects. The other yacht is French and they currently only have reverse gear and that hasn’t slowed their journey down. You have to stand in awe of such people.
A Shared Sense of Community
The talk inevitably turns to Antarctica. While we laugh and compare notes about the anchorages and our experiences down there, there is a shared sense of community that only comes from those who have been and know it first hand.
Beneath the laughter and stories about the near disasters are the real ones. They were rolled twice in the Drake and were iced in for long periods in Antarctica when the weather went against them. The names and the places were the same – despite all the planning, we were just more fortunate.
After coffee aboard their yacht the next morning and parting wishes, we went out to try our hand at some fishing in the bay. Winds were still high, so much for fishing. Plan B was to gather driftwood for a beach fire tonight.
We went shore side for a walk after dropping off the wood. The fire, however, would have to wait for other cruisers as heavy rain started around 18.00. Nothing new here as rainfall approaches 3.5 meters a year in this area.
In the afternoon, however, the sun was glorious so Deb and I actually fell asleep sitting on shore, reading and enjoying a warm day in the sun. Remnants of all the sleep we lost in the Deep South – we are still catching up.
Near the end of our return passage through Drake, we were tired enough that we stood watch with two people instead of the normal one. Our weather window on the Drake closed as we approached the shallows around Cape Horn. We were treated to appropriately nasty weather as we completed our rounding by passing the west and north side before rejoining our outbound track that had passed down east side.
The Cabo de Hornes
Steep, confused four meter seas, gale force winds, and leaden grey clouds spitting snow and rain made the huge, bleak rock that is Cabo de Hornes look even more formidable. Having completed passages across the Equator and now around the Horn, I am of course entitled to wear the sailor’s traditional pierced gold earring. Deb put a rather abrupt end to that idea!
Jim and I came on watch at midnight and brought the boat in to Puerto Williams at 05.00 amidst 30 knot plus winds and snow. An almost laughable, but fitting end to our passage.
On the way back to the boat in Caleta Olla after our shore nap, I finally look closely at the ice damage to our antifoul. We are, rather unfortunately, down to bare aluminum all along the water line from the ice attacks down south. Badges of courage as our dear Iron Lady took very good care of us.
As I look at her, my thoughts turned back to the genesis of the idea that we would make such a voyage. Then it was an abstract and distant dream with no realities attached to it. I studied Pilot Charts, various cruising guides and the Admiralty Sailing Directions. It was all exciting and a great adventure without any situational awareness attached to it. And that can be a dangerous thing.
The Reality of a Voyage into the Unknown
As the date approached for our actual departure. I began to study weather patterns around the Horn and in the Drake Passage. The closer we came to our actual departure, the more the formidable history and names of these places began to weigh on me. The reality had set in, this was far more ambitious than anything my wife and I had ever attempted. She was scared, and I worked hard to hide my own personal concerns from her.
The moment arrived and, after the frantic last minute preparations in Puerto Williams and a celebratory last dinner at the Beaver Café (not a real name – it just had a stuffed beaver in the window), we were off along with FPB 78-2 Grey Wolf.
At midnight, we silently watched as the Cabo de Hornes light faded behind us. It was now very, very real. It was reassuring to see the lights of Grey Wolf, out the window and to chat with them on the passage. Some of the crew played battle ship over the VHF – I am pleased to report that they sank Grey Wolf whilst we only sustained minimal damage!
The Drake, as forecast, was very kind to us, but two day passages are difficult – at least for me. You never quite get into the rhythm of being at sea before it ends. We were standing watches of three hours on and nine hours off. One would think that nine off is enough to rest, but at sea, there are other obligations to attend to, even off watch. As is my wont, I was standing the 03.00 to 06.00 and 18.00 to 21.00 watches.
Simon aboard Grey Wolf told me I should exercise my rights as owner and select something other than the graveyard watches. Actually, for me, the 03.00 to 06.00 watch is my favorite. The boat is asleep and I have the air, wind and sea to myself. The sun in the Deep South starts to rise at 04.00 and it is glorious. I am on the matrix deck with my favorite music playing. Suzie shows up with a hot cappuccino around 06.00. It couldn’t get much better.
For the moment at least, all is right with the world. The Drake is not showing the nastier side of its disposition and I am enjoying life at sea. None the less, I am beginning to feel tired. The long slog from home to southern Chile, departure preparations and the passage are catching up with me.
….and Standing Waves
The Nelson Passage is a wakeup call with 35 knots of wind opposing current with large standing waves generated by the deep Southern Ocean entering the shallow water of the passage. Iron Lady struggles against the wind and current and our normal cruise speed is reduced from 10 plus knots to 5 or 6. Our first warning of what was to come was the spray that hit the windows on the Matrix deck. The overhead hi modulus lifelines strung as a precaution around the Matrix deck were now a necessity when moving about.
We made Yankee Harbor around 03.30. The adrenalin of being in Antarctica would not be denied. The dinks were in the water as a beautiful purple, pink and red sunrise highlighted thousands of Gentoo penguins on a ridge overlooking the harbor.
Penguins, Seals and Humpback Whales
Aboard Grey Wolf, we toasted with Shackleton reproduction Scotch. A fitting tribute to him, his epic journey and our arrival. Antarctica had yet, however, failed to reveal her darker side.
We all went ashore after a briefing on wild life encounters and do’s and don’ts. It was magical walking among thousands of penguins and seals who were totally unafraid of our presence. Outside the harbor, humpback whales played in the Bransfield Straight. We took the dinks to the head of the bay where a massive glacier was calving bergs into the bay. Fortunately, the winds were blowing all the bits back toward the glacier.
Finally, the adrenalin wore off and we all crashed. Unsuspecting, we presumed that we were in safe harbor as the night passed without incident. The precautionary ice watches we stood seemed unnecessary. Unbeknownst to us, that would change the following night.
The next day was filled with more exploration of Yankee and a trip to Half Moon Bay aboard Grey Wolf. Some stayed behind to man Iron Lady and rest. I should have done the same. The first warning sign came upon our return. Grey Wolf was blocked from entering Yankee by ice for several hours. Lane was able to retrieve Deb and me in our RIB by dodging the ice. Our kids have nicknamed our big dink Beer Can – fortunately her aluminum hull is much thicker – 4mm aluminum and every mil is needed here.
Lots and Lots of Ice
Personal Log – “Off to bed early but the sound of the engines coming to life woke me up around 01.00. Looking out the port light, the view was unfamiliar. Instead of the penguin colony, I now see the sand spit that guarded the harbor – and lots of ice – big and potentially damaging ice. Lots of activity aboard Grey Wolf as well as I came on deck.”
The wind has shifted 180 degrees, was blowing gale force, and all the ice that had been pinned up against the glacier was now bearing down on us with the both boats on a lee shore. The alarm was raised and all hands were on deck manning the ice poles.
Thoughts of disaster. We could live without a stabilizer fin, I have done that before, but if a berg damaged a rudder or prop? That would be bad – really bad. What would we do then?
The ice attack lasted until 03.00, when it had passed by us it floated to the sand spit to our stern and remained pinned there. Plans called for an 08.00 departure to Deception, but that wasn’t to be either. The wind had shifted and all the ice that was on the spit now came back towards us. The engines were started at 06.00 as ice chased us out of the harbor.
The full impact of Antarctica was now becoming clear to me.
Stark and Unimaginable Beauty
This was a place of staggering, stark and unimaginable beauty and scale. It was also a place that would only reward you with its beauty if you were prepared to deal with its ultimate reality. It is a brutally hostile place that is unforgiving of any carelessness or neglect.
And so it was for us. We loved and were awed by Antartica’s beauty and scale, but we completely respected her unforgiving nature and acted accordingly. Others we have talked to who have visited the place, have said much the same. You must prepare for all eventualities but, there are occasions when that is not enough. Mistakes here can have very serious consequences.
Our skills at dealing with ice-filled anchorages improved with experience and time. We used our small 5G radar to set up guard zones and track the larger bergs. We learned to use the engines and bow thruster to dodge and push away ice whilst at anchor. Our daughter, Kim, became the resident expert with the ice poles. Our dinghies became tugs to lasso and drag or push remarkably large bergs away. We also found that our floating poly lines could be strung across bays between us and the glaciers (they all had glaciers except Deception which made up for it with high winds and poor holding in volcanic ash) to keep the ice at bay. If the winds and tide were right, the ice would accumulate on the line and then drift off on the change of tide leaving us unscathed. When it was safe to do so, we would raft together and share ice watches so that both crews could get more rest.
So Many Highlights
There were experiences that were exhilarating and absolutely spiritual. Our passage down the Lemaire, having been only the third and fourth vessels to do it this year, was such an event. The drone footage we have from that passage and the whales along the way still brings tears to my eyes. Kudos to Grey Wolf and Simon.
The brief time we spent there in Charcot Harbor south of Lemaire revealed the perils as the ice closed in on us during our return. I think poor Iron Lady suffered most of her antifouling ice damage there.
There were so many other highlights.
On a flat calm day we saw four humpbacks playing on the surface so we launched our dinks and slowly motored over to them on a parallel course. They seemed to be as curious about us as we were in awe of them. For about 30 minutes, they swam under and around so close that we almost could have touched them. One juvenile raised its head out of the water within a few meters of us and seemed intent upon studying us. I have never had an encounter like that before.
We were welcomed at various stations including the Chilean Armada station at Waterboat where we spent the day. We visited the southern-most post office in the world at Port Lockroy which was an ionospheric radio research station. It has been completely restored as a historic site. We visited Deception with its ruins from the whaling trade where the flooded caldera ran red from the blood of 500,000 slaughtered fur seals and thousands of whales. We shared unusual anchorages like Enterprise where cruisers tie up to an old sunken hulk.
There is just so much that goes with a voyage like this. Deb and I have been boating for over 50 years with around 40,000 nautical miles beneath our joint keels in the last 10 years; and nothing we have done before comes close.
Demanding, Magical…and Intense
We are now back. Places with legendary names now seem somehow more familiar. The Antarctic Peninsula, The Drake, the Horn, the Straights of Magellan and the Beagle Channel are all magical and demanding, but most of all, Antarctica.
Puerto Williams is said to be the southern-most city in the world at 54 degrees 55 minutes south. Our journey took us to the bottom of Lemaire Passage at 65 degrees 07 minutes south where our passage further south was blocked by 8/10 ice. That is some 625 nautical miles south of Puerto Williams.
It was wonderful to have a sister boat for this voyage. Grey Wolf was our constant companion and it felt very lonely as we watched their lights disappear on the Drake as they made for the Falklands and we made for Puerto Williams after our time together. Our cruise was made significantly easier, better and safer cruising in company with another extremely capable vessel. Both of us had very experienced crews.
There was also the friendly banter. Thanks Peter (AKA Captain Iceberg) for all the guarantees of ice-free anchorages – your guarantee of the same virtually assured that we would get crushed. And what is this business of calling me Captain Impatient just because I got tired of you stopping to see every penguin in Antarctica – or – naming Iron Lady Drag Queen just because we dragged a few times due to prodigious balls of kelp on our anchor?
Antarctica was intense in about every way I can think of. I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. To those who would go – it will be like nothing you have ever done before or will do after. But if you go – prepare like you never have prepared before. Find another capable vessel and crew to join you. Antarctica will reward you with its wonders, but you must be willing to pay the price it demands in return.
Permits and Officialdom
Iron Lady is British Registry, so the permission required was governed by the British government. Most of the work was really performed by the owner of Grey Wolf, but the total application numbered some 138 pages and covered everything from vessel details, insurance, crew, emergency operations, planned itinerary and much more.
After our trip, I was required to report on each shore landing by crew, including the date, location, number of people, time ashore and any impacts. Boots had to be sterilized in a special solution before and after returning to the boat. The Chilean Armada, as the most likely party to initiate rescue operations if they were required, also controlled our operations with daily reporting by email while in Chilean waters and a departure clearance when departing for Antarctica. All understandable as these are some of the most treacherous waters in the world.
The adrenalin of the adventure is now wearing off. Steve Dashew, the designer of Iron Lady and the FPB series says it far better than I can.
“Really excited for you now that you have the exquisite landscape experience to combine with wildlife, big ice and adrenaline. But guard against addiction. That is a heady brew you are drinking in and once free of the risk factor, when the rush of the adrenaline fades, you are going to crave more. Good thing you’ve got an Iron Lady.
Indeed Master Dashew. Indeed.
However, I would also add Grey Wolf as a companion.
Pete and Deb Rossin
SV Iron Lady
About the Authors
Peter and Deb Rossin have been boating for over 50 years. Their first Iron Lady, an FPB64 Dashew, was built at Circa Marine in New Zealand and covered nearly 25,000 nautical miles through the South Pacific Islands, a full circumnavigation of New Zealand, French Polynesia, Christmas Island, Palmyra, Hawaii and then to British Columbia. She was sold when Pete and Deb signed on for a new FPB 78-3, once again built by Circa Marine in New Zealand.
Since launch, the new Iron Lady has, like her little sister, crossed the Pacific to French Polynesia and then onward to Costa Rica. From Costa Rica she headed south to the Galapagos and then onwards to Puerto Montt in Chile. The journey to Antarctica began in early 2019, traveling down the Chilean fjords to Puerto Williams. There they were joined by Iron Lady’s sister, FPB78-2 Grey Wolf, for their journey across the Drake to the Antarctic.
Onward cruising has brought Iron Lady up through the Panama Canal to Beaufort in the US. In early 2020 Pete and Deb traveled to the Bahamas but Covid forced their return to the US. Unfortunately for Pete, medical issues now mean his boating days are over. Iron Lady is now for sale and according to Pete, deserves to be where she is happiest – at sea taking her owners to far horizons.
To read more of Pete and Deb’s travels on Iron Lady, go to mvironlady.com
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of Noonsite.com or World Cruising Club.