Pearls Around the White Continent Part II: Great Expectations Meet Southern Ocean Realities
In Part II of this five-part series, the sailors on Northern Light, circumnavigating the Southern Ocean, make landfall first at remote Macquarie Island, with its king penguins, molting elephant seals, and a handful of scientists happy for the human company. Click here for Part I.
It's a blustery day in Hobart, Tasmania. As we walk, Rolf and I lean into the gusts that whip around the corners of the old sandstone buildings. The wind is cool. Of course, I reflect, it's southerly, the leading edge of a high. Simply noting the status of the weather leads my thoughts to our upcoming Southern Ocean voyage. To be honest, I think about little else. This time, however, I don't ponder the usual lists of jobs and things yet to accomplish. As my eyes fill with wind-borne dust, the discomfort I feel makes me long to get out there. To the Southern Ocean. To the purity. To the wildness.
We're on our way uptown, to the Tasmanian office of the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, where we'll check the status of this year's weather pattern. Last summer, the depressions in the Southern Ocean kept to unusually low latitudes. A result was easterly wind at Macquarie Island, the first destination of our voyage.
Easterly wind at Macquarie is unusual; generally speaking, the area is dominated by a southwesterly-to-northwesterly airstream. As the island's only landing spots are in open bays on its eastern side, easterly wind makes visiting impossible. Last summer, neither cruise ships nor supply ships could get people ashore.
The bureau's office is filled with rows of computer screens and busy people. The meteorologist responsible for the Southern Ocean's high-seas forecast has four screens-one for each of the weather-prediction models available to him.
Each model has its own bias, he explains. "For example, one tends to underestimate the wind strength of a southwesterly shift," he says. "Working with the four models over the years and being able to compare each to what really happens has led us to improved local knowledge and more accurate forecasting." He smiles. He has good news: Last summer's pattern hasn't reoccurred this year. The westerlies prevail around Macquarie again. "You should still watch out for easterly wind," he cautions. "An Australian supply ship dragged anchor and wrecked on the island a few years back when a sudden easterly shift went through."
The three of us look at the screens. If Rolf and I leave tomorrow, as planned, we'll have light wind and just be able to make it to an anchorage on the southern coast, 60 nautical miles from Hobart. The following morning when we put out to sea, the wind will be moderate, though not from a favorable direction. There's nothing to actually worry about until three days later, when an intense low will pass by. The center of the depression will be well south of us, between 60 and 65 degrees south latitude. But its fronts will brush us.
"I'd keep my eye on that one," the forecaster says. Rolf asks if there will be gale-force wind. "At least," he answers. "Most likely strong gale-force wind, at 45 knots, or even low storm-force wind, at 50 knots."
Walking back to the boat, Rolf treats me to a departure ice cream, and we look out from the cafe over Hobart's glittering waterfront. "It'll be a good start," he says. "Decent conditions for the first three days is all we can ever ask for in this part of the world. After that, we take what we get." He doesn't mean to sound glib. We both consider wind above 50 knots serious business.
Into the Roaring 40s
We've said our good-byes to Tasmanian friends. Provisions, including three extra months of emergency supplies, are aboard. As the lines to the dock are cast off, Rolf eases back into his element and projects confidence. I feel calm, the absence of my usual nerves due to the fact that we've been sailing in plenty of heavy weather around Tassie in the past year. Our sailhandling routines are well greased. The Roaring 40s feel like home. And we've been adhering to an intense physical-training program. We're healthy, strong, and have energy in reserve. The boat is fully serviced. Yes, we're in the best shape we can be, and that knowledge is indeed comforting.