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Sailing the Southern Ocean on a Tall Ship

Listed under Sailing in Antarctica.

  • Photo of Sailing the Southern Ocean on a Tall Ship
  • Photo of Sailing the Southern Ocean on a Tall Ship
  • Photo of Sailing the Southern Ocean on a Tall Ship
  • Photo of Sailing the Southern Ocean on a Tall Ship
  • Photo of Sailing the Southern Ocean on a Tall Ship
  • Photo of Sailing the Southern Ocean on a Tall Ship
  • Photo of Sailing the Southern Ocean on a Tall Ship
  • Photo of Sailing the Southern Ocean on a Tall Ship
Photo of Sailing the Southern Ocean on a Tall Ship
Photo by Debbie Purser
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A surreal feeling came over me that we were sailing close to the edge of the world. In older times the ship’s crew would be expecting dragons. Out there in the fog were strange dark shapes. The ocean was writhing with real sea creatures and all manner of birds swooping around the ship—albatrosses, prions and petrels. Our world had suddenly shrunk with the deteriorating visibility and all chance of seeing the famous high mountains of South Georgia had gone.

Shackleton navigated 600 miles of Southern Ocean from Elephant Island on the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula to whaling station salvation on South Georgia in an open boat. We wildly bowled along the same route in a 300 ton square rigger totally in awe of their epic journey. We ran the same gauntlet between the icebergs as the James Caird, but with the benefit of radar and GPS. Finding South Georgia was not in question. Hitting an iceberg was all too real. Six to eight knots sounds a sensible speed to be traversing the polar convergence zone compared with Ellen Macarthur’s crazy speeds, but standing 20 minute lookout duty on the spray drenched fo’castle at night, barely able to see beyond the bowsprit and with tons of rigging and spars overhead, was enough to persuade you this was a rather hardcore charter voyage.

Our multi national jokes in the cosy deckhouse with its ice encrusted windows belied a nervousness that only those who have sailed amongst the ice can appreciate. We hoped the prize of spending 10 days exploring the anchorages of South Georgia on Bark Europa would be worth the nightly adrenalin dose of looking for car sized growlers the radar might miss.

The next shock to our senses was the sound of South Georgia: The sub Antarctic island with the greatest concentration of seals, penguins and albatrosses in the world. Still in thick fog so all we saw of the land was the sharp bright outline of the sheer cliffs and glacier carved NW coastline on the radar screen -even after the anchor plunged into the glacial till of Roseata Harbor. We were escorted in by very acrobatic fur seals and little flotillas of fast swimming penguins, but what was that strange wailing from the invisible shore? A cross between a football crowd and the mournful howl of a pack of dogs, or even a whooping red Indian war cry– our imaginations ran wild. We had sailed from the Antarctic Peninsula, so we were acclimatized to the strange sounds of hundreds of penguins, but nothing had prepared us for this eerie cacophony.

Bark Europa is a Dutch sail training ship which has carved herself a niche exploring the Antarctic from Ushuaia each Southern Hemisphere summer for the last four years. For me, a traditional boat charter skipper entertaining guests for the last 10 years on my own boat, it would have to be something pretty special to persuade me to part with cash and unpaid leave to go on a ‘busman’s holiday’ for seven weeks. I was lured by their 53 ocean voyage from Ushuaia back to Cape Town, via Antarctica, South Georgia and Tristan da Cuhna. It surpassed everything I hoped it would be, but South Georgia was definitely the prize. As the mist cleared, the mountains were revealed and I froze my fingers off trying to paint the scenery as it unfolded. Thousands of fur seals were exposed as our haunting chorus from the night before.

“If you were to take a giant carving knife, slice along beneath one of the highest mountain ranges in Switzerland, just where the glaciers tumble into the valley below, then drop your slice of mountain, dripping with sugar icing into the sea, I think you would get a fair idea of the place” Niall Rankin, 1946.

Written by  Debbie Purser.

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