Pearls Around the White Continent Part IV: Home, Sweet Home
In Part IV of this five-part series, Deborah Shapiro and Rolf Bjelke, on board their 40-foot steel ketch, Northern Light, return to places on the Antarctic Peninsula that they first visited in 1984. Their pleasure turns to dismay, however, when they become witnesses to the profound affects brought to the region by climate change.
Cleared out from Argentina, we’ve sailed to the eastern end of the Canal Beagle and anchored in a small cove to await decent departure weather. A day has passed. As the rain and gale-force gusts begin to diminish, Rolf asks me to order GRIBs showing surface pressure and wind prognoses for the next 10 days. His major interest is the forecast for the last two days of the 1,000-nautical-mile passage to South Georgia, when we’ll be sailing through ice-infested waters, because the band of ice constantly drifting past South Georgia has recently been fortified by the breakup of the Larsen Ice Shelf in the Weddell Sea.
The GRIB arrives. The wind prognosis for our E.T.A. in South Georgia is for gale- to storm-force northwesterlies. That wind is humid and creates fog. Poor visibility and heavy wind in an iceberg zone is worth avoiding. “It’s a good thing we have no schedule or feel any pressure to leave,” says Rolf. “We can wait and recheck the GRIBs tomorrow.”
Just as I’ve begun thinking how to spend an extra day at anchor, Rolf says, “Deborah, why don’t you order another 10-day GRIB? This time, please check out Drake Passage.”
I smile big. This is the first inkling of any intention to return to Antarctica—on Rolf’s part, that is. Many times I’ve voiced my desire to return to the Antarctic Peninsula, my favorite place on Earth. And I especially want to go to Hovgaard Island, where we lived from 1991 to 1992. To me, Hovgaard is home. I could barely stand the idea of being so close without visiting, but it was something I had to endure. Neither the South Shetland chain nor the Antarctic Peninsula is part of our subantarctic expedition.
I can hardly believe what’s happening. Rolf isn’t usually an impulsive person. While we await the new GRIB, I half expect him to withdraw the idea. But he doesn’t. The GRIB arrives, and I win the lottery! The prediction is for perfect weather in Drake Passage. There’ll be wind, but not too much. I tell Rolf that I don’t care if we spend just one day at Hovgaard before continuing to South Georgia; those 24 hours would be the best present ever. We weigh anchor and leave. It takes five days to cross Drake Passage. There’s less wind than forecasted. Neither of us gets as much as a splash on our foul-weather gear.
In the Shadow of a Hero
When we sailed to the Antarctic Peninsula in 1984 and again in 1991, there was an admission price to be paid: the possibility of icebergs starting at the Antarctic Convergence, and a guaranteed band of icebergs during the last 100 miles. Both times were scary. The visibility was poor, as it statistically tends to be. Because we had no radar in those days, there was no early warning of big bergs ahead. And because there was no alternative, we stood our watches on deck, no matter the conditions. Wet, freezing, staring out into the mist, we persevered, hoping to sight any berg or growler in time to rush back to the tiller, detach the wind steering, and hand steer around it.
If I’ve learned one thing over the years, it’s that being scared ahead of time isn’t worth it. These days, I’m a lot cooler; I don’t often get scared without reason. For this passage, it’s a good thing I didn’t bother conjuring phantom icebergs ahead of time. There was no reason whatsoever to give myself more gray hair. Not one berg was sighted offshore. Not even during the final approach to the South Shetlands. The first berg we saw was after we’d already sighted Clarence Island and Elephant Island. We found this lack of ice odd.
If coming to Antarctica is a gift to me, reaching Elephant Island is a gift to Rolf. Ernest Shackleton has been his hero since childhood, and he became a role model for Rolf’s style of leadership. Lucky me! Rolf makes my coffee in the morning, because whenever the going was tough, Shackleton would arise first in order to make hot chocolate and distribute it to his men. When Rolf and I met in 1980, he had a plan to do a documentary about “The Boss.” The plan changed, but that hardly dispelled Rolf’s desire to see Elephant Island, the place where Shackleton’s men waited for their leader to rescue them.
Rolf and I can hardly believe our continuing good luck with the weather. In calm, we motor around to the east side of the island, looking for the beach where the 22 men waited for four months. A more desolate place is hard to imagine. Elephant Island rises steeply out of the ocean; 95 percent of it is covered by glaciers. The few stone beaches are narrow and fringed with craggy black rocks. How those men kept their willingness to survive, let alone their sanity, while living in such a harsh place is beyond me. My appreciation of their resilience increases each and every minute that the island is in sight. As Northern Light draws close to Point Wild, where the men camped, the swell picks up. Waves begin breaking on the shoreline, making a dinghy landing impossible. We won’t be able to touch the site.
The swell is the forerunner of wind. On the northeasterly breeze that’s picking up, we set sail for King George Island. It’ll be an overnight passage, but never dark. The magic of the many-hours-long twilight, when the ice and snow is washed in pastel hues of pink and green, rekindles my love for this “white” continent.
King George Island, the biggest in the South Shetland chain, hums with human activity. The stations of many countries are sprinkled over the entire south coast: Polish, Brazilian, American, Argentine, German, Korean, Chinese, Chilean, Russian, and Uruguayan. Within walking distance are rescue huts erected by other countries. Each country’s presence is in part a way to lay a claim in Antarctica, though for the time being, every signatory of the Antarctic Treaty has agreed to suspend all territorial claims.
“Despite the treaty, the jockeying continues,” an Argentine tour guide once explained to us. “The Chileans brought families to their stations, to prove settlement. We Argentines brought newlyweds, giving them their own honeymoon quarters and keeping them there until birth provided us with the first true Argentine-Antarctic citizen. And the English?” He paused and shrugged his shoulders to show his incomprehension of the non-Latino mentality. “The English chose to open a post office. . . .”
The Wind Tunnel
Continuing west along Nelson Island, we glide past glaciers and snow fields with meringue-like cornices only to enter another world at the Aitcho Islands. Each island in the Aitcho group is small and low. They’re basically free of snow in the summer, their slopes moss covered. It hardly looks like Antarctica.
On the largest island in the group, at a site visited by cruise ships, we have an encounter with penguin chicks accustomed to people. The chicks are old enough to be left on their own, but for safety they stay bunched together in what’s called a crèche. As I sit in a 25-yard no-man’s land between two gentoo rookeries, an entire crèche approaches. The dozen downy chicks take turns pecking at my boots, my pant legs, my sleeves, and my camera, and finally one crawls into my lap! During our year at Hovgaard, no close encounter like this ever happened at the gentoo rookery there.
On the first of February, the mild weather pattern we’ve enjoyed for a month is disintegrating. We’re always on alert for a major weather shift like this, whether it’s a low-pressure area nudging against a high or vice versa. In either situation, where the systems’ isobars meet, both circulate air in the same direction. These neighboring isobars form what’s called a “squash zone,” an area in which the winds tend to be greater than the spacing of the isobars would indicate.
We figure that under the influence of the approaching series of lows, the South Shetlands will regain their normal status as a very windy place. The first low in the series is a monster, covering 20 degrees of latitude, a diameter of 1,200 nautical miles! I fear we’ll split at the seams as the barometric pressure drops continuously for a week, from 1,006 millibars to 968.
We keep an eye on the GRIBs and get the Chilean surface analysis and prognosis via weatherfax and wind predictions via the voice broadcasts. When an Argentine military vessel anchors near us, I hail the crew over the VHF and ask for their forecast. All the information indicates that by the time the depression reaches our position, the pressure should be rising, with the gale-force wind diminishing. The only confusing bit is that the Argentines forecast southerly wind, opposite to what we expect. Are they wrong? We think so, but should we ignore their forecast? We decide not to, so we leave the west side of Half Moon Island, where we have good holding but no shelter in southerly wind, and move five miles upwind, back to Yankee Harbor, on Greenwich Island, one of the safest anchorages in the South Shetlands. The bay, nearly enclosed, has an outer flank formed by a curved gravel bar, and we’ve found good holding there in clay. Snug as a bug.
With the Argentine forecast in mind, we anchor in the southwest corner, where we’ve anchored before. Anchor down and engine in reverse, we increase the revs. Northern Light stretches the slack out of the chain, then just sits there. We’re happy. We have good holding, and in southerly wind, we’ll have perfect protection. If it does blow from the north, a pretty big chop will build in the one-mile fetch. In the predicted wind speed, it’ll be uncomfortable but not unsafe.
The season is now six weeks past the summer solstice, and nighttime has returned. During the wee hours, a northeasterly wind pipes up. The noise of small wavelets wakes me, and I get up to stand watch. All I can see through the Plexiglas cupola is the wind indicator at the top of the mast, lit by the anchor light. Robbed of landmarks, I check the GPS “at-anchor” screen, on which the boat’s movements are drawn. The kidney bean-shaped pattern indicates that the anchor has holding. The arc represents the boat swinging with wind shifts, and the width of the bean is the result of back and forth movement due to changes in wind intensity.
The wind builds to full gale force, higher than forecasted. Rolf can’t sleep and joins me on watch. So far, all’s well. Even though we set the anchor for the opposite wind direction, we have holding. The wind continues to increase. It’s blowing about 60 knots when a real shrieker envelops us. It gives me goose bumps. The boat starts drawing a straight line on the GPS screen. We’re dragging. Toward the gravel bar.
Rolf starts the engine, and as it warms up, we quickly don foul-weather gear. After dragging 20 or 25 yards, the anchor holds. But the rail is often underwater, and the wind isn’t decreasing. Even though we still have swinging room, having our tail toward a lee shore doesn’t feel good. I go out ahead of Rolf, leave the cockpit, and crawl forward, my foul-weather jacket flogging like a blown-out sail.
At the controls in the cockpit, Rolf starts powering Northern Light forward, doing all he can to hold the bow into the wind, while on the foredeck I push the button to bring up the anchor. Trying to talk or scream to each other is meaningless. Using hand signals, I let him know when to pause and when to power forward. Rain and sleet fly horizontally in 70 to 80 knots of wind, waterblasting my face until it gets too numb from wind chill to feel anything.
Anchor up, we motor slowly against the waves toward a GPS anchor waypoint in the northeast corner of the harbor, close to the 50-yard-high glacier wall. In its shelter, there’s hardly any wind. But from our previous time here, we know that this wall is very active, calving bergy bits by the ton. Unfortunately, the leaning ice pillar that had us worried last time is still standing. When that pillar falls, it’ll create a swell that could force us up onto the rocky shoreline on our starboard side. Talk about being between a rock and a hard place.
By 0800, the wind has diminished to gale force. We get a new surface analysis showing that the wind we experienced overnight wasn’t created by the monster low but by an unpredicted one that formed just northwest of us. The tight little spinner has a front that forms three-quarters of a circle around its center. The eastern part of it passed us during the night; now its western part is coming.