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.
Over time, two spots in the central coast become favorites: Cobblers Cove and Ocean Harbour. Both are rimmed by wildlife extravaganzas. In fact, the mix of wildlife is so generous and extreme that it looks like a computer-generated montage. Both anchorages afford nearly 360-degree protection, and neither is affected by glacial ice. The holding is good in both, but neither is excellent, so in gale-force wind, we usually seek shelter in Ocean Harbour, the bigger of the two.
There’s good anchoring depth everywhere in the innermost part of Ocean Harbour, which measures a quarter of a mile wide by half a mile long; we can get shelter for any wind direction and yet always have room to drag. The head of the bay disappears up two valleys, so we expect wind channels in heavy wind. And because the northern side of the anchorage rises nearly vertical for 1,500 feet, we also expect exaggerated gusts along the steep rock face when wind whips out of the valleys.
Gale-force southwesterlies at sea morph up to storm-force gusts in Ocean Harbour. Still, during the first gale, our tandem-anchor system works. We’ve added 15 feet of chain and a 44-pound Delta anchor ahead of our normal 53-pound Bugel. We stay put. The next time, we rely on just the Bugel. It drags, and we experience the major South Georgia anchorage nightmare: bull kelp, a heavy, brown-leafed kelp, with stems the size of my wrist, that grows in undulating patches called forests. When a boat drags, the anchor or anchor chain almost certainly becomes entangled in kelp. When you weigh anchor, clumps of kelp come up wrapped around the chain. Some people use sharpened hoes to chop the kelp off at deck level. We’re prepared with a normal handsaw to cut it away; it’s a sweaty, dirty job as the 10-foot-wide clump, mixed with clay, has to be cut, hacked, and chopped away. But worse, the cutting slows the anchor-tripping maneuver, which can be disastrous in gale- or storm-force wind if there’s not much distance astern to the shore. In Ocean Harbour, fortunately, there is, and we reanchor using the tandem system to stay put.
Besides kelp, there are two additional anchoring hazards. The first is manmade. Whaling stations of different sizes have been built over the years in every bay on South Georgia that provides shelter. With the exception of Grytviken, where the buildings have been dismantled but the machinery left as a museum display, the defunct whaling stations exist today as nothing more than scandalous industrial trash dumps. Due to the on-site dangers, going within 200 meters of any of them is now prohibited, but that distance is still much too close for visiting sailboats because the floor of any bay can be littered with industrial trash. Sailors, without ever knowing what snagged their vessels, have had to cut their chains and leave anchors behind. One charter vessel got its anchor tangled in heavy steel cables; the windlass was strong enough to haul everything up, and they freed the anchor. Another charter skipper dove to free his anchor, which was jammed under an anchor from a big ship.
The other anchoring hazard is ice. The coastal anchorages we visit on the northern coast are generally free of ice, because the ice floats past them, but one must beware when anchoring in coves inside the fjords. Glaciers at the head of the fjords calve all the time, and the ice then moves out with wind and tide. We were fortunate not to be disturbed by ice at Jason Harbour, and I made the classic mistake of recommending our anchoring spot to friends. When they went in and anchored, it was indeed free of ice. But they were awakened in the middle of the night by an odd sound, like rushing water in a fast-running creek. They looked outside. The noise was made by a moving iceberg about to collide with their boat. And it had company. They had to leave, fast. It took the better part of an hour to pick their way out through the maze of ice.
A Royal Welcome
During the first month of our visit, Rolf and I never see more than 30 king penguins at a time. We desperately want to see the colony of 200,000 king penguin pairs in St. Andrew’s Bay. But this bay is in the eastern section, the windiest of South Georgia’s three weather zones. It’s also an open roadstead. To make the visit’s degree of difficulty even higher, one can only get ashore on the rare day when there’s very little swell. We hang around at neighboring anchorages, waiting for the right conditions. Finally they arrive. Or so we think. Our first visit ashore in St. Andrew’s lasts only 20 minutes. We never even make it to the edge of the colony. Though it’s calm, a swell suddenly picks up, and the anchorage becomes untenable. We get out in the nick of time. But patience pays off. On New Year’s Day, our second visit lasts a few hours.
The noise level of so many birds is deafening. Nonetheless, time loses meaning as we wander in awe around the edge of the rookery. King penguins are big. An adult weighs in at 35 pounds and stands three feet tall. That means that when we sit down, we’re at eye level with the birds. And they’re beautiful. Besides their teardrop-shaped orange neck patches, some also have iridescent green feathers on their heads. Like the emperor penguin, kings incubate their egg on their feet. Having no nest, there’s no territory to protect. So there’s not as much bickering between neighbors as in other penguin rookeries.
Visitors aren’t allowed to approach a king penguin. But the birds obey no such taboo. They approach us when we’re sitting down to check us out. Some peck at our boots and clothes. As usual, the youngsters are the more playful. One chick, in the brown-fluffball stage, adopts us and follows us wherever we go. It’s so special to have contact with a wild creature that expresses its personality and interacts as it wishes. Rolf and I agree that these encounters alone are payback enough for the concerns and difficulties involved in our high-latitude adventure cruising.
Our visit at the rookery takes place while the glacial backdrop glitters in the sunshine and lenticular clouds hover above the highest peaks. But the 1,007-millibar high is cracking. We move farther east, to anchor in Gold Harbour, considered the most spectacular spot at South Georgia. The barometric pressure drops continuously for two days, until the low’s center passes. At 968 millibars, the system is a signature Southern Ocean blaster.
No Rest for the Weary
Gold Harbour is another open roadstead, but the gale-force southwest wind is blowing offshore. Fortunately, we’re not anchored in the wind channel. We watch as gusts sweep out of a valley and pass to port, a couple of hundred feet away. The wind intensifies, and at the height of the storm, a particularly strong gust lays Northern Light over so far that water rushes over the toerail and up on deck. And because the gust lasts, the water level continues to rise until it partially covers the galley portholes. It feels like forever before the boat rights itself. Rolf shakes his head. “This is the first time that’s happened in the 30 years I’ve been sailing Northern Light,” he says.
It’s difficult to describe sounds, but no matter the tone of the shrieks, a pattern forms, and one becomes used to it. Suddenly, even that pattern changes as the shrieks change to an all-out roar, and a sustained hurricane-force gust blasts Northern Light. I watch the landscape moving while the boat is forced back. Finally she stops; the anchor chain must be ramrod straight. Then, for a split second, the noise ceases. And the feeling of pressure also disappears from the cabin. Then, suddenly, the wind is back—at the same strength but from the opposite direction. As the boat starts to swing, we look at each other in amazement. “Whoa,” I say. Rolf responds, “Yeah. Heavy refill.” That’s what we call this phenomenon, when an area of low pressure left in the wake of a gust fills with wind. It can come from any direction.
The question is, will we lose holding? We have tandem anchors out. They probably twisted around each other in the 180-degree wind shift. And there’s a tripping line on the lead anchor. We wish now that there wasn’t. It, too, may be tangled, preventing us from getting under way quickly enough. All night, we flit around the bay on storm-force winds and heavier gusts. But we never drag. Both of us stay up and on full alert. When it’s over, we’re bleary-eyed, but on a rising barometer we leave to seek shelter once again in Ocean Harbour. Halfway there, the pressure starts to fall again. By nighttime, it’s down to 960 millibars. Another storm is raging. It’s impossible to rest. Both of us are up through another night.
The Time Comes
By the morning, the weather machine’s energy is as low as ours. The forecast is for a three- to five-day spell of moderate wind. That’s just what we need to negotiate the 800 iceberg-filled miles at the beginning of the passage away from South Georgia. We weigh anchor and leave.
On January 7, the night is five hours long. During the five days that it’ll take us to get out of the ice-infested Circumpolar Current, we’ll heave to when it’s dark. There are 8,700 nautical miles of Southern Ocean separating us from Hobart and the completion of our circumnavigation. If we can stop at France’s Kerguelen Islands, we’ll get a few days of respite; otherwise, we have 60 to 65 days of nonstop sailing ahead. But at this moment, the length of the passage isn’t the issue. All we care about is taking advantage of this spell of good weather. And as long as it holds, we can rest, four hours on, four hours off.
Deborah Shapiro and Rolf Bjelke have been cruising together on Northern Light since 1982. To read previous articles in this series, log on to CW’s website (www.cruisingworld.com/1102pearls).