Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Requiem: For a Dream Lived

Way back in Puerto Montt, Chile, around a year ago, we met up with the Canadian/Australian crew of the yacht Illawong, old hands at the sailing scene in the global south, and friends of good mates of ours.

When the subject came to South Georgia, Illawong had one word of advice: go.

Elephant seal, boy, and GoPro on a pole.  He's 5 m from the seal - the telephoto lens collapses distance in this shot

At the time, we thought there was no chance.  Gradually we warmed to the idea, of course.  And now that we've been, I would repeat their advice to anyone who was thinking of sailing to South Georgia.  Go.  Great things await.

Fantastic wildlife interactions aren't just possible, they're literally inescapable.  All of the ice-free beach that is available in South Georgia is what makes the place such fantastic breeding habitat for the pinnipeds and penguins.  Now that whales have been largely removed from the ecosystem, populations of other krill-eaters - notably Antarctic fur seals and king penguins - have exploded. So the beaches are packed to heaving with charismatic megafauna, and those same beach are of course the natural route for wandering humans.

Luckily, outside of the fur seal breeding season the wildlife interactions are Antarctic-chill.  The beasts don't mind us.  And we very much don't mind them.

Sharing the beach

Elias made great use of the combination of a boat hook and our GoPro camera, which had long been gathering dust in a locker.  Lots and lots of shaky footage of animals doing not much of anything was collected that way.

Husvik Harbour.  One of the finest places in South Georgia, and we both had day after day of weather like this, and had it to ourselves, except for some very convivial old South Georgia hands who were staying at the station manager's villa for a few days while doing some weed control work.

Fur seal pups were Eric's favorite.  Walks on the beach were punctuated every two minutes by Eric singing out, "look at that cute fur seal!"

A few pups are born blonde.
Chinstrap penguins.  The Galactics were divided over the question of calling them "chinnies" or "strappies". 
A big bull elephant seal.  He's ashore to molt and to sleep off the bloody melee of the breeding season.
South Georgia's history is built on the bones of whales.
Molting gentoo penguins, far from the sea
The walking was fantastic once we left the beach, too.  There are three bays side by side in this area: Husvik, Stromness and Leith.  Each held a whaling station in the day.  Stromness was the place where Shackleton found succor after the legendary voyage of the James Caird.

We visited Husvik and Stromness.  Each bay has fantastic upland walking, easily accessed.

Husvik.  The dot is Galactic.
Husvik.  The gravel bars of the river lead right up into the hills.  Reminiscent of the best walking in the Alaskan Arctic.

Stromness station.

Elias beholding the view that greeted Shackleton on the final stage of his journey from Elephant Island to Stromness Harbour.  And there's Galactic, patiently waiting for our return.
Eric above Husvik station.

Very good alpine terrain is supremely easy to access in these places, well within the ability of both boys.  Walking with them in these places is one of the great pleasures of family life.

Looking down on Cumberland Bay West
Trying to make pancakes.  The flour exploded.

And when we were visiting these places, all the routines of daily shipboard life were still going on.

The kelp-pocalypse.  Three tons of kelp on the anchor rode, being cut away one swipe at a time.
And finally, there were the issues of operating the yacht in these places.  We had our share of blows and moments, like dragging anchors and massive kelp entrapment.

We might have made some of our luck by being reasonably well prepared.  Our anchor is massive, and it is one of the modern designs that makes the traditional plow designs look like a joke when the chips are down.  Our second anchor is easily-handled aluminum and always ready to go in the water in an instant.  Luckily, anchors number three and four never came into play.

But, as all these pictures show, we also got lucky with the weather.  Things could have been much worse.  That's the game with sailing to places like South Georgia.  You prepare as well as you can for unreasonable conditions, and then see what you get.

Next post - the biggest biggest biggest passage of our lives.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Notes For Landsick Sailors

We've been in South Africa for 18 days now.

We've found our feet to a certain degree.  Figured out the currency, and internet access, and how to load our boat to the gills with fresh fruit, and started making very tentative inroads into the routine problems of boat maintenance.

We even had a fantastic five-day visit from my mom and sister, who happened to be in Ethiopia and jetted down to Cape Town to see us.  Other end of the continent to a local, but it seemed like the same neighborhood to us tourists.  We took the opportunity to trek out to our first African nature reserve.

Everything, in a word, is going fine.

Nonetheless, Alisa and I had a moment today when we looked up at each other and said, at the same time, that we felt like just going to sea again.

Land.  It's not really all that.

And the sea becomes a hard hard habit to break.

So, this is in the spirit of looking back to the great seafaring that we've had over recent months, and some of the simpler land delights that we bought ourselves along the way. 

These shots come from Cooper Bay, on the south end of South Georgia. 

We were there during our spell of outrageously good weather.

One of the delights of that particular place was cruising the beach in our inflatable, Smooches, and watching the wildlife from close up.


Cooper Bay
Selfie with strangers
Cooper Bay was the one place where we had a close encounter with cruise ship goings-on.  The Zod in the picture above actually tapped into our anchored dinghy in an effort to make sure that the punters got a good view.  Or to make sure we knew who was cool and who was new.  Or something like that.

Alisa got ropeable.  She is, after all, now officially Australian, and therefore allowed to occasionally spit the dummy.

Luckily (below) the Galactics don't stay down for long.

We also got ashore at Cooper Bay, being very careful to follow the rules concerning various closed/open areas.  One hundred meters this way - ok.  One hundred meters that way - you must not do this!  The rules are for the greater good!

As our good friend back in the Falklands says, South Georgia is that perfect experiment, a government without any population to be responsible to.

Macaronis on land...
...and macaroni at sea.
After a delightful few days on the south end, it became time to bid a fond farewell to Cooper Bay and make tracks back to the northwest.

There were still some great spots to check out upwind of Grytviken, the "port of entry", and we were keen to use the tail end of our 11-day run of miracle weather to get to them.

No dust on us, mate.

North to the future!
I'm modeling the freezer suit that Lars the Swedish singlehander passed on to me in Puerto Montt.
What a refuge on a chilly day.  Any fool can have a wheelhouse.
Here and below - the views on the way

Still calm calm calm
There is so much climbing to do in South Georgia.  I can't imagine that ten percent of these routes have been done yet.  Given the dual demands of having the energy of your twenties to get up them, and the budget of your forties to get you and your friends there on your own yacht, I imagine it will be this way for a long time to come.

A day of traveling from Cooper Bay got us back to the perfect shelter of Ocean Harbour.

Ocean Harbour, with a wreck from a very different era
I feel better - thinking about it all is more than enough to ease the landsickness.

The delights of Husvik await...

Monday, April 18, 2016

Some Places You Go

 Are you tiring of the South Georgia memories?

Gold Harbour
For all the months when we were slowly getting used to the idea of going to South Georgia, those months when possibility was turning into plan, Elias was bugging us to go to the very south end of the island, where we might, among other delights, have a chance of seeing Weddell seals.

I always assumed there was little chance of us making it there.  I wasn't too sure about the anchorages on the south end.  And the stories that you hear about the weather really are atrocious.

But then we got that ten-day period of settled high pressure right in the middle of our visit.  And suddenly everything was easy.

So, on the day that we pulled into Gold Harbour (above) and I wasn't all that excited for the beach landing, even though it looked doable, I had a great backup plan to offer to the fam.

Why not head all the way down to Drygalski Fjord, at the uttermost southern end of South Georgia, instead?

Cold traveling
Which we did.

Drygalski Fjord
Alisa and I have been to a lot of very wonderful high-latitude places.  But there is very little in our combined experience that could match Drygalksi in terms of a very evocative, I-can't-believe-we're-here beauty, combined with a feeling of extreme remoteness.

It helped very much that there weren't any other vessels around during our visit.

And, in the best tradition of Antarctic wildlife, seeing Weddell Seals was no effort at all.  We saw ten or so of the beasts, scattered about our anchorage in Larsen Harbour.

They're wonderfully fat animals, adapted for a life of deep deep cold.
The southernmost mammal in the world - barring Homo sapiens

Future explorer and present larrikin, Larsen Harbour
The anchorage info that we had warned that Larsen funnels westerly winds to the degree that it can become untenable.  As in, you could get blown out of the anchorage.

Being on a lucky streak, we found a millpond.

Galactic in Larsen Harbour.  Cloudy but dead dead calm

Chinstraps on an iceberg
Antarctic icebergs were grounded all around the mouth of Drygalski, which didn't do anything to take away from the end of the world ambience.

 Some places you go leave you wishing for absolutely nothing more.

With a French accent: "It was my dream!"
As a bonus, we got yet another perfectly calm night at Cobbler's Cove, a somewhat exposed anchorage also on the south end of the island.  That'll be for next time...

Friday, April 15, 2016

A Hundred Thousand Penguins

We thought about going to South Georgia for years.  And for years we were sure we wouldn't do it.  For a family crew, the trip just felt too much like putting our necks on the block.

But of course we did go, and everything went smoothly.

Perhaps it is true that fortune favors the bold.  I do not know.

But by going to South Georgia, and I suppose by putting in the time and effort and apprenticeship to be adequately prepared, we set ourselves up for some experiences that were like nothing else we've come across in the eight years and ten months since we left Kodiak.

All of these pictures from the beach were taken within about an hour and a half of each other.  The dinghy landing at St. Andrews Bay is extremely weather-dependent, and when we had the perfect day in hand we decided to use it there, even though we had to steam for a big chunk of the day to get there, and had little time left for hanging around.

So our time was short.  But that didn't detract from the experience.  It might have made it more precious.

We went through all the practical details of anchoring Galactic and getting Smooches in the water and   sussing out the landing and then getting ashore and pulling the dinghy up the beach...

...and then we all four of us just stopped.

We sank down on the black sand beach and willed ourselves to take in the moment.  There are at least a hundred thousand king penguins at the St. Andrews Bay colony.  We heard second-hand from a reliable source that there might be a half million.

In the best tradition of Antarctic wildlife, they are completely unafraid of people.

Even though we landed far out on the edges of the colony, we were immediately surrounded by these giant, beautiful, fearless birds that evolution has changed into something so very un-bird-like, calmly checking us out or ignoring us completely.

We had only our family to share the moment with, the sun was shining, and our home was anchored just offshore, waiting for us.

It was a Garden of Eden moment, a taste of the prelapsarian world that we all dream of somehow.

I loved getting close enough to see that king penguins have this little streak of iridescence on the tops of their heads.  They looked just like smudges of pollen on penguins that were trying out being hummingbirds for a while, or some little mark of religious affiliation shared by them all
Not a great photo, but what a moment.  Elias and Eric realized that the penguins would follow them around.  They're taking little baby steps while this group of penguins shuffles after them, keeping a steady meter and a half away.  The boys have this hunch-shouldered posture of delight, barely daring to look back at the penguins behind them, for fear that looking might puncture the balloon of this waking dream.
A hundred thousand penguins.  There are drifts of penguin feathers for miles and miles off shore of the beach.
We eventually roused ourselves from the waking dream of the scene around our dinghy and took a walk on the beach.  The weather went from perfect to better.  And these scenes kept playing out over and over, of odd little moments that seemed almost like communication with these birds that refused to be afraid of us, and gave every indication of curiosity.

All too soon it was time to return to the dinghy.  We had to impose every measure of self will to get ourselves back to Galactic with enough time in hand to reach our anchorage for the night.

One of these pictures will end up printed and framed and hanging on the wall in Kodiak after we return
The Mothership
 We reached the excellent anchorage at Ocean Harbour just as the day was failing.

The next post will feature the other-worldly south end of the island...