Monday, February 29, 2016

A Good Year for February 29

This is a good year to have an extra day in February.

Back in the Tasman Sea, that body of water between Tassie and En Zed, February is generally considered the month most likely to produce fine, stable summer weather.

February is coming through for us in South Georgia, as well. If the current forecast holds, we are in the middle of an 8-day (!) run of high pressure, occasional sunshine, restrained swell and light winds. Back in my climbing days in Alaska (which I seem to reference every other time I post about sailing down here, I wonder why) I used to half-jokingly wish that I could extend April, the magic month when temperatures were up but the snow in the mountains was still good. Down here, I'm glad that we get one extra day of precious February this year.

Yesterday we busted all the way down to Larsen Harbour, at the far southern end of South Georgia.

Elias has been badgering us to come down here ever since we first started talking in earnest about visiting South Georgia, six months or so ago. This, you see, is the farthest north outpost of the Weddell Seal, normally a high-Antarctic, ice-associated animal that is the most southerly breeding seal in the world.

For some reason Weddells also hang out here. So Elias has been telling me for all these months that we "had" to come to Larsen, while I've been telling him that this was unlikely, that I'd be happy just to get to South Georgia, etc., etc.

Well, Elias' pestering appears to have borne fruit. I don't know if he was persistent enough to convince the weather to be so good. But I wouldn't rule it out.


Even though the weather has been good, pulling around the south end of South Georgia and into the mouth of Drygalski Fjord was an intimidating bit of sailing. We had an unexpected fresh wind against the tide. The water shone luminous green. The exceptionally stark and rugged mountains above us were backlit in a way that gave them a maleficent presence. Large icebergs were about. The boys were open to the delight of the place (Elias) but oblivious to the intimidation that I felt (both of them). It just seemed so remote and other-wordly a place, a place where daring to sail your own boat was an act of Icarus hubris. Sailing too far from the sun.

Larsen Harbour from this weather-tossed angle was an improbable slit in the mountain wall of Drygalski Fjord, clearly too narrow and too steep-sided to enter. But as we closed the distance it opened, and revealed itself as a perfect little protected nook where we could spend the night as on a millpond, albeit with a narrow crevassed glacier filling the mountain couloir directly above us. Last winter's snow drifts and this summer's fresh dusting of snow both extended down to the water.

And there, on a stony scrap of land between sea and mountain, right next to Galactic, was the sleeping Weddell seal of Elias' dreams.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Fun Hogs in the Garden of Eden

We landed and pulled the dinghy up out of the waves and suddenly there we were - sharing the sun-drenched beach with a hundred thousand or so king penguins.

At first we just stayed around the dinghy while the penguins walked up and surrounded us. The boys made a game of walking away slowly, one after the other, and gathering a parade of penguins following after them. It was a real Garden of Eden moment. These spectacular, nearly meter tall birds, completely unafraid of us. Meanwhile the glaciated mountains above the valley continued to shed their clouds and did their best to give the scene a backdrop of elemental splendor.

That was St. Andrews Bay, the largest king penguin colony in South Georgia. It's an open black sand beach, with landings that are very weather dependent, and we lucked into hitting it at the right hour on the right day. We anchored in a more protected spot, Ocean Harbour, not long before dusk. There's a wrecked 19th century century ship on the beach, the Bayard, still sporting the stumps of three masts, and huge swales of upland terrain, begging to be walked on. Even more to the point for our puerile-in-a-good-way crew, a local informant of unimpeachable authority tells us there is a train to be seen here.

But we're not going ashore. We're halfway through a miraculous spell of high pressure and very settled conditions, and we figure that this is the time for getting places. At the risk of cooping our five-year-old up on board longer than is really fair, we're off towards the south end of the island, towards the place where our junior naturalist has been telling us for months that we have a chance of seeing a Weddell seal.

"Fun hogs!" mumbled Alisa this morning when the alarm woke us at dawn.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Ends of the Earth: The Rumors are True

South Georgia, it does have an Ends of the Earth feel to it.

Never mind that there is something of a tourist theme park at Grytviken. Never mind the way that western cultures have decided that what Antarctic environments really need is untrammeled bureaucracy, allowed to run wild and be free. There is nonetheless an inescapable air of Ultima Thule around South Georgia. The feeling that there is this place, and little more beyond it.

The scenery as you sail along the coast screams it out. Majestic peaks are executed in old-fashioned Kodachrome hues, courtesy of the Southern Hemisphere light and all the moisture that the wind has lifted off of the ocean, giving everything a slightly gauzy air that is the perfect reality antidote for a world gone mad on CGI. Meanwhile the water has been turquoise as often as not, the sky polarized blue, with vast icebergs or little bits of glacier debris floating here and there to add atmosphere.

The whole effect would be of soul-cleansing release, just the feeling that I used to get in the cathedrals of the Alaska Range, if it weren't for the metaphorical shoulder that the captain of a family ark might always be looking over, operating in a place like this. I'm having fun, but I feel like I'm too new here to relax completely.

And then! When you pull into an anchorage, the peaks are suddenly right overhead. And the beach is thronged with fur seal pups, cavorting in the water or snoozing in the sun. Giant elephant seals dream away their molt, stirring not a muscle as you walk by. Penguins line the beach, or perhaps you and the family hike over to a proper colony and stand a few meters away from the pecking, howling, shitting masses of them, doing their thing.

Images of the Garden of Eden start to come to mind.

All of which is to say that the rumors about this place, South Georgia, appear to be true. It's very very good here. And the anchorages, in terms of utilitarian protection from the elements, rather than images of the Garden of Eden, are pretty good too.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Charming But Challenging

Eric's favorite part of the day yesterday: seeing the right whale so close up.

Elias' favorite part of the day: seeing the right whale.

Alisa's favorite part: seeing the right whale.

My favorite part: when the anchor dug in right away after we'd picked a route through the kelp beds to reach the little anchorage right next to shore, in a blow, with both steering cables off their blocks, after we'd spent three(?) hours motoring the two and a half miles upwind, into a gale, to reach said anchorage, and it further turned out that after threading our way through said kelp beds and making the hard turn away from the shore with said steering cables off said blocks and dropped said anchor at the end of the low-steering swoop taking us away from shore, we managed in spite of our unaccustomed speed for anchoring to get the anchor down in a perfectly fine spot between the curve of shore and the various kelp beds dotting and delineating the clear water of the anchorage.

Good place to have that oversized Rocna anchor, I can tell you, and no shame in that.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Fabled Land

South Georgia is a hundred-mile long scrap of mountain chain dropped into the South Atlantic Ocean at 54° South latitude. We've been thinking about the place for years.

It's hard to stop thinking about a place that gets such unqualified raves from everyone we've met who's sailed there. At least half the people we know who have been to South Georgia have told us that it is their favorite place in the entire world. Mind, these are folks who have seen more of the world than most. And, in addition to being fantastic, South Georgia is potentially so difficult to access, both getting there and away. That's a powerful combination for the serial dream chaser who seems to be calling the shots on board Galactic.

So two days ago we got to rock up and see what all the fuss is about.

We had a fairly ideal passage to get here. (Saying that can't jinx us for the much bigger passage that lies ahead, surely?) Light downwind sailing, moderate swell, no ice.

And the dream conditions continued on our arrival day. We had hove to forty miles off South Georgia at midnight the night before we arrived, and when I roused myself again at four and looked out the companionway, the mountains of the island were perfectly positioned in front of a purple sunrise.

The day grew sunny, and calm enough that the boys spent hours on the bow, watching wildlife, as we closed the gap to shore. (And some kind of wildlife it was. Elias claimed a right whale. And if nothing else there were certainly plenty of albatross and penguins around the joint.)

We sailed in past Antarctic ice bergs grounded in the shallows around the outlying islands west of South Georgia. They looked massive and monolithic at first, and then as we sailed past them they were revealed as massive and delicate - towering fins and spires of ice, huge walls leaning against the air and ballasted by their submarine mass. Once we rounded storied Bird Island (anchorage discouraged, landing prohibited) and entered Elsehul, our chosen anchorage, the shallow water became turquoise and the day hot, or at least too hot for double expedition-weight long johns and full rain gear.

Luxury indeed.

After we had dropped the pick and congratulated ourselves for making it all the way from Stanley, we rallied to launch Smooches, the inflatable dinghy.

The beaches ringing the bay were more or less heaving with wildlife, and we wanted a closer view.

And a closer view we got. These being Antarctic creatures, they have little in the way of fear of people, even the species, such as Antarctic fur seals and southern elephant seals, that were formerly hunted so mercilessly.

South Georgia is the Lucky Country of the Antarctic. It lies south of the polar front, and thus offers pinnipeds and seabirds with the incredibly rich foraging of cold Antarctic waters with their formerly chief competitors, the great whales, largely taken out of the equation. And, the shoreline of South Georgia is largely ice free, and so offers those pinnipeds and seabirds plenty of terrestrial habitat suitable for breeding. (I realize that I am using the Lucky Country reference in its degenerate form.)

Because of the concurrence of these two conditions, the beaches of Elsehul are fairly teeming with wildlife. In particular, the water's edge is currently alive with Antarctic fur seal pups, cute little bug-eyed things that are a major improvement over their homicidal fathers, whom we would have found crowding the same beaches a few months ago. The beaches are also covered with molting elephant seals and king penguins and gentoo penguins and a cast of less numerous supporting characters.

We dropped Smooches' anchor two meters from the beach and watched the show unwind all around us.

It was pure heaven for our family of wildlife enthusiasts. The boys were particularly good at spotting new species. Eric saw the South Georgia pintails, and Elias the snowy sheathbill, the light-mantled sooty albatross, the lone molting chinstrap penguin, an especially notable sighting, and any number of other highlights.

It was a brilliant start to the place.

Then yesterday we sat out various gale force winds as a low pressure system passed over the anchorage. As the weather improves we'll make our way to Grytviken to clear into the territory.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016


Elias is dead keen to cross the Antarctic Convergence.

I think there was some loose parental talk about a chocolate bar being issued to the fo'c'sl hands when the moment comes.

The Antarctic Convergence is that boundary where cold surface Antarctic water slides under warmer subantarctic water. If my rather euphemistic understanding of physical oceanography serves, that sinking Antarctic surface water then goes on to play a role in the global thermohaline circulation, giving us, among other things, the Gulf Stream and palm trees in Ireland.

The world really is a wonderful place.

The Convergence is meant to be dead obvious when you reach it. Sea surface temperature plummets, fog gauzes over everything, and you are awestruck by the vast swarms of pelagic birds and mammals that are suddenly everywhere around you.

It is, moreover, the boundary of the Antarctic world, at least in an oceanographic sense. So sailing across it is a big deal. Thus the promise of a celebratory chocolate bar.

But we're not sure if we've crossed it or not. Water temperature is at 2.9°C, which seems plenty cold. But it has only slowly crept down from 3.4° a couple days ago, rather than dropping precipitously. It's been plenty foggy at times, but there hasn't been any wildlife display to speak of. Still, we're more than halfway to South Georgia, and the chart shows us as having crossed it...

This has been an easy passage so far, and a hard one. Easy in that we have had quite reasonable weather. Hard in the way that passages just seem to be hard, especially at the beginning. I was seasick the first day out, and Eric for the first two days. I've been taking the bulk of the night watches, and that left me dopey and out of sorts on the second day, as I struggled with the new sleep regime. Alisa meanwhile has been putting in the hard yards to take care of the boys.

But now we seem to be hitting our stride. The boys spend the whole day on deck, under the dodger, and they have largely been coexisting in that small space without fighting. I threatened that if there was any fighting on this passage we would bypass both South Georgia and South Africa, and head straight to St. Helena. That seems to have done the trick.

The forecast promises benign weather for the coming days, although we may be (and are currently) reduced to motoring now and then. No sense bobbing around out here, waiting for the next low to come through.

Tonight we ate canned reindeer meat from Beaver Island. And we are, after all, sailing to South Georgia, something we've been wondering about for eight years or so now.

All is well on board.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Long Goodbye

On Saturday, one week ago, I returned to the Falklands from my work trip to Alaska.

Only three days later, we had identified a weather window for the sail to South Georgia. At dawn Thursday we would catch the dawn tide to get out of Carl's marina, and we would be on our way. We started pushing to get all the pre-trip preparations done in time.

On Wednesday we awoke to see a that a new low pressure system had appeared in the forecast. If we left on Thursday it would catch us halfway to South Georgia.

So we went on weather standby. Saturday would be our day. We kept working to get ready.

A day later, the forecast had changed to show the low moving much closer to the Falklands than originally predicted. Leaving Saturday wouldn't do.

We finally took advantage of calm winds and high tide yesterday (Friday) evening to leave the marina, and Stanley. We're cleared out of the Falklands, with permission to stay at anchor through the bad weather Saturday, and to (finally) get going Sunday.

With all of these delays, we actually managed to luck into one of the more relaxed, thorough spells of passage prep that we've ever had. We're well rested and the boat feels ready, though with the inevitable issues to address down the road. We even had time to do things like have a friend over for dinner two nights before we left - something that is usually impossible in the scramble to get out of port.


We are anchored in Hearnden Water, a little estuary around the corner from Stanley. We are untempted at the idea of a walk ashore, as the beaches here were mined by Argentinian forces in 1982. We hear accounts of cows being blown up in the not-too-distant past. But foregoing a walk is no hardship. Both dinghies are lashed securely to the deck and it's a gray, rainy day. We're happy enough to have a day at anchor, working away at final jobs and more or less keeping the boys entertained.

We heard the story yesterday of a boat we know being blown onto a reef last weekend while at anchor in South Georgia. We are heartened to hear that they were able to get themselves off, apparently without severe damage. We inevitably took the lesson of how tough a place to operate South Georgia can be. And that lesson was handily emphasized by a companion lesson on human fallibility put on by me, as I made two or three grossly avoidable errors and bumped Galactic onto a rock as we were motoring into this anchorage last night.

I might have been off the boat for three weeks, and there might have been another two weeks beyond that when we were just getting ready in Stanley and not operating the boat at all. But on the water, you get precious little time to shake off the rust and come back up to your A game.

Thursday, February 11, 2016


So, I'm back in the bosom of family...and boat prep.

Whenever I come back from one of my infrequent work trips, after I've left Alisa looking after the boys solo in some odd corner of the world or another, I'm always relieved to find the same number of crew on board Galactic as when I left.

It's not gaining crew while I'm away that worries me so much as losing some.

So I got to catch up on all the family news - the bread baking and the horses ridden, the recovering oiled gentoo penguin fed fish by hand and the triumphs and tribulations of boat schooling.

Alisa, while she was teaching and cooking and caring and arbitrating and washing and cleaning and mending, all without adult backup, also managed to service all the winches on Galactic while I was gone.  The Norwegian sailor who was next to Galactic in Carl's Marina (room for two visiting boats) saw that and said, "your husband is one lucky fellow!"

Don't I know it.

Having been away from the boat for three weeks, I feel a bit out of the sailing life.  Can you imagine going three whole weeks of sleeping on land every single night?  Kind of beggars the imagination, doesn't it?

Luckily, I've got the (fanfare) passage to South Georgia (!) to get me back in the swing of things.  Immediately upon returning to the boat, I tried very very hard to forget that I had ever earned a PhD and I went back to being Capt. do-it-yourself rigger so that we could be ready to catch the first window.  Before I left for Alaska I changed six shrouds.  After I got back, I tried to change the forestay and only managed to mangle my thumb.

As I say, I was ashore for 21 straight days.  Feel my pain.

But, the initial re-entry is over and we are on weather standby to leave the Falklands.  The work trip that I just finished, though it was very welcome, also took the heart of the Austral summer.  We're feeling the season moving on us, and would very much like to get going already.

But we know what works for us, and the head-out-in-(nearly)-any-weather attitude that works for some of our peers isn't at all for Galactic.  We scheduled with Customs to clear out tonight and depart early tomorrow, but a new low appeared in the forecast this morning and we scrapped that plan.

Our time will come, soon enough. 

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Gift of Kodiak

South-central Alaska from space - Kodiak is in the foreground
So, for nearly two weeks now I've been in Alaska.

I have two active research projects in Alaskan marine biology, and although almost all of the work is analysis and writing that I can do from Galactic, I occasionally need face time with my Alaskan colleagues.  That's what brought me up here.  I've been catching up with old friends and colleagues and colleagues who are also friends while Alisa gets to stay back in the tiny private marina in Stanley, boatschooling both boys and generally keeping ahead of them without any adult backup.

Sorry, babe.

The gift of Kodiak
The groups that fund my research are keen for the work they support to be presented to the general public.  "Science outreach" they call it, and I'm generally a fan of the process.  Most of my work is funded by public money, and I'm happy to report directly back to the public on what comes out of that work.

On this trip I made some public presentations in Kodiak, the commercial fishing town in the middle of the Gulf of Alaska that we sailed away from eight and a half years ago.  I stayed with old friends, I revisited old haunts, I caught up on the news.  I took a banya, which is a requirement for any bona fide visit to Kodiak.

Kodiak, the island, is a completely remarkable place.  Kodiak, the town (it sometimes puts on airs and calls itself a City), is physically unimpressive.  To be charitable.  More often than not, it comes across as a grimy working town, a supremely utilitarian settlement that hasn't been prettified for visitors in the few hundred years it has existed.  It can be especially ugly during a winter like the one we're having, with a strong Niño creating a grey, oppressive, rainy winter completely devoid of the white magic of a snowy Alaskan landscape.

Even though Kodiak is a working town, it can also be a hard place to make a living in.  There are plenty of people who are just getting by in Kodiak.  People warn me that methamphetamine and heroin use are strongly on the upsurge.  Acquaintances mutter uncomplementary things about the schools.  My male friends in the town have generally aged quite hard in the years that we've been gone.

For all that, Alisa and I are very excited at the idea of eventually sailing back to Kodiak and settling down.  It remains home.  It's the only place in Alaska where we still have a strong community.  And that community is made up of some very remarkable people.  Kodiak, like the rest of Alaska, attracts fantastic people.

All that, I suppose, gets at what I was thinking about when I titled this post.

Kodiak is a magical place that has the extra magic of never making you think that magic will play a role in your life.

Kodiak is a unique place with a supremely everyday reality that tempers my expectations even as I'm excited at the idea of sailing back there some day.  Kodiak is the place where Alisa and I have been lucky enough to run up against a handful of very remarkable people with whom we share the place.  (Check out the work of my favorite living Alaskan artist in the pic above.)

Kodiak, in the end, remains our secret place in Alaska, and the world, the place where Alisa and I still think we will go ashore some day and look to make a less peripatetic life with our boys.

Kodiak is a gift...

Alaska is a gift, too...we still have great friends sprinkled around non-Kodiak parts of the Great Land.  This pic is from the day DRR took me up to Hatcher Pass to find some snow.