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. Click here for previous installments.
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.
No sleep for us. We’re going to get clobbered again. The wind builds, probably to 70 knots. We know it’s over 60 because we can see the gusts chisel the surface off the water, creating walls of spray as high as our mizzen mast. There’s been a wind shift. The low clouds fly in the new direction. But the local land contour reroutes the wind. The net result is no change for us; the ice wall still shelters. The blow lasts an hour and a half. The anchor holds.