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.
A weak southeasterly wind is blowing. With an onshore breeze, the scent of eucalyptus is supplanted by salt air. As we head for the south coast in a broad waterway, the air becomes colder, as cold as the water temperature-about 60 F. I start to shiver. On come long johns and fleece-standard apparel from now on. By the end of the passage, the temperature will drop to just above freezing.
Macquarie Island lies in the eye of the wind, 850 nautical miles away, at 54 degrees 30 minutes south and 159 degrees east. With Tasmania astern, we put Northern Light on port tack, with slack in the sheets. We make a tactical maneuver not to sail upwind and point as close as we can to the mark. Instead, we head south-southwest to skirt around the west side of the high pressure, counting on a more favorable wind angle toward Macquarie when the wind of the approaching low eventually arrives and pipes up. By afternoon, there are 12 to 15 knots of easterly wind, and when it turns to east-northeast, we ease the sheets but continue heading south. By noon the next day, we're on course for Macquarie, with northerly wind blowing 25 to 30 knots aft of abeam. Over the first 24 hours, we log 186 nautical miles, but with the current, we cover 198 nautical miles-not bad for a 40-footer.
During the evening of the third day, the northwest wind increases to 40 knots. A southwest shift will be next. That's the common pattern in the Southern Ocean, and we expect it to repeat many times over the next few years. At midnight, halfway through Rolf's watch, the cold front passes, and during the change, the southwesterly wind gusts to 58 knots. The sea builds accordingly, reaching 18 to 21 feet. Tucked into the sea berth in the main cabin, I'm awakened by Rolf's footsteps on the deck overhead. He's walking forward, and I listen to figure out what he's up to. I hear the main preventer's snap shackle being unclipped from the toerail. He's jibing.
After adjusting the slant of the sea berth, I fall back to sleep, unaware until Rolf calls to me, waking me for my watch. I dress, splash cold salt water on my face to wake up quickly, then move to my perch on the ladder under the acrylic cupola. Rolf is already in the sea berth. "The wind is 45 to 50 sustained," he says, and I can hear how tired he is. "We're still sailing downwind, but on starboard tack. There are three reefs in the main. The poled-out genoa is reefed to an equal size. The staysail is amidships, stabilizing, and the mizzen's totally furled. I suggest you use a safety harness on deck."
I don't know how many times in the last 20 years I've been surprised by the sea state when looking outside for the first time during a watch. One simply doesn't feel the sea building when lying horizontally in this boat's angled sea berth. My night vision hasn't adjusted fully, but I can see that there are many more white crests than when I went off watch four hours ago. I listen. The most massive of the breaking seas can be heard while still a couple of waves away. That noise gives me warning and time to brace myself. Despite the big waves-including one that poops us-Northern Light hardly yaws. The wing keel Rolf designed really keeps her on track. And the sail area is perfect. Glancing on the log, I see she's got speed on, making nearly 8 knots. Whitewater froths and sparkles with bioluminescence to both sides, as if Northern Light is sprouting the wings required to enter the realm of the albatross.
In the Southern Ocean, where depressions typically move at 30 to 40 knots, the heaviest part of a blow usually passes us in six hours. By the end of my watch, the shriekers begin losing their edge. As the wind starts to decrease, it's time to start unfurling some reefs to keep Northern Light going fast. She needs speed now. It gives her the momentum to stay on track while the waves are highest. Now that I'm out in the fresh air, physically active, and doing what I know needs to be done, the pressure in my chest eases a few turns too. This blow was tough. Not just because it was the first, but also because it was awaited.