Pearls Around the White Continent Part V: A Natural Extravaganza
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. Click here for previous installments.
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.
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.