Pearls Around the White Continent Part V: A Natural Wonder
In the final months of their four-year circumnavigation of the Southern Ocean, Northern Light’s crew explores South Georgia, its astonishing wildlife, and the shrieking winds twisted and turned by island topography.
In the Furious 50s, the prevailing westerly winds are an important factor in the making of South Georgia’s climate. The interaction of the moist wind with the high topography creates distinct climate zones on the small landmass. We decide to skip the south coast. In the direct path of the westerly wind’s onslaught, that zone is the most cold, damp, and glaciated. The few anchorages it provides are rather open and prone to fill with ice. Rather than make the cruise a tactical challenge of circumnavigation, we decide to visit the comparatively warmer, drier, and sunnier leeward coast with the intention of getting to know that area well.
Using GRIB files and the weatherfax prognosis from Chile, we’ll usually know when bad weather is approaching. As first-time visitors, what we don’t know is where to find the best shelter. Sure, one can easily recognize possible places on the charts. But seeing the shape and depth of an anchorage is just the start. The local topography has to be considered also, because a high, complex landscape creates many factors that influence the wind. It’s not uncommon for neighboring fjords to experience different wind directions and strengths during a blow. And one spot in an anchorage can be OK while only 50 feet away rages a tempest, because it’s in what we call a “wind channel”—a path that the wind is forced to take because of local topography. We try to identify the location of wind channels in an anchorage before dropping the hook.
In Search of Shelter
During the first few weeks of our stay, we use every spell of good weather to move to a new anchorage. Each is tested and judged. We stay in the central section of the coast while a wall of dense fog obscures the eastern climate zone. Ashore as much as possible, we walk as long and far as we can. We’re unhindered here by the dense bush found on other subantarctic islands, so the hiking is fabulous. Only glaciers and steep mountains stop our progress. It’s difficult to decide if we ooh and aah more over the starkly contrasting black-and-white alpine scenery of the interior; the low-altitude lush, green vegetation; the glittering, blue icebergs in the fjords; or the wildlife. South Georgia must be the most densely populated animal habitat left on Earth. On this island, one can imagine the world of hundreds of years ago, before mankind launched the industrial era and started encroaching on ecosystems and carving up habitats.
When the first gale of our stay is forecast, we’ve not yet found any anchorage that we can trust. So we hightail it back to Grytviken and tie up to the only dock on the island. Secure, we relax while it blows. But a cruise ship anchored outside the bay is in a wind channel. One gust after another churns up the surface of the water around the many-decked vessel. Then a particularly severe gust hits it. Like a wave, a wall of spray rolls across the entire ship. It heels and starts “sailing” toward shore. Minutes later, the captain radios the station to say they’re canceling their visit and leaving to go elsewhere.
When the first storm of our stay is predicted, we choose to return to the dock again. Thankfully, it’s well situated—the worst wind channel is 100 yards away in the middle of the bay. We probably experience an average of 80 knots, together with some absolute shriekers. Northern Light is quite tender. To keep from getting a bent stanchion or damaging shrouds against the dock, we keep a constant check on the tide and adjust lines and fenders accordingly. Other people are also busy during the storm. A group of four cruise ships spend the night circling inside neighboring Cumberland Bay, the largest bit of protected water in South Georgia. One ship reports measuring a gust at 104 knots.