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.
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. You can contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.