The Scotia Sea: talking about kit

Leaving the Peninsula

From Elephant Island we set out north east across the Scotia Sea. That is the area of the South Atlantic bounded by an arc of islands that make a half-moon from Argentina through the Falklands and South Georgia, down to the South Sandwich Islands and then curve back west to the South Orkneys and South Shetlands. (I can’t help wishing for some place names which are not so wholly redolent of the global north, but there we are. There were no indigenous namers here.)

This stretch of about 700 nautical miles from Point Wild to our destination at Elsehul took Shackleton 17 days. The crew estimated five, though we set off with great style with a good wind, full sail and calm seas.

It was still cold so this is a good opportunity to review what kit I might have done differently with more forethought and offer some tips on what worked well for me.

Kit: Gloves

For me, this was the big one and it inhibited my climbing. I took with me two pairs of liners, one pair of fingerless wool gauntlets and one pair of blue wooly gloves, plus two pairs of thick over gloves with grips on the palms. I also had an elderly pair of classic sailing gloves with the finger and thumb cut short.

What I really needed were the two things I hadn’t got. My grip is not great since I broke a finger some years ago, especially on my right hand, and I found holding the cold metal shrouds bare-handed a bit unnerving. I needed gloves which would leave me dexterity but be slimline enough to climb in while protecting my hands and grip. Basically a good pair of fingerless sailing gloves with really good palms would have been a great investment, especially ones with a bit of windproofing to them. My old ones didn’t have much gripping power left and the velcro strapping them at the wrist was shot. And my wool fingerless ones, which did sterling work, were a bit inclined to slip, especially on the steel bars at the cross-trees.

The other type of gloves I envied were ones with big gauntlets that pulled over all the bulk of oilies the wrist. It was noticeable that people who spent a lot of time walking at high latitudes had these, and they were much more comfortable on watch. I would take my geat to the shop and test them out if going back to such conditions.

My compromise was liners, then the wool gauntlets, over which I strapped my watch. Then the thick gloves. When it was really cold I wore two liners. That all worked great on watch or on the hem. It was useless, though, for handling any ropes so they all got stripped off when sail handling came along, and the big gloves (allegedly intended for this purpose) got soaking wet, really cold and more trouble than they were worth.

The blue wooly gloves? The cabin ate them on day one and I only found them when we were packing up in Cape Town, despite numerous searches. Life on boats.


Kit: Footwear

I’ve made no secret of how much I enjoyed my Bog boots. (This is a picture of them, with macpac and walking trousers, after a muddy Welsh walk last January.) They were warm and comfortable, cosy on watch, waterproof in rivers and good for walking. They had two drawbacks, however. One was the sheer bulk of them. This made them quite clumsy in the shrouds and I found it much easier to climb once I pulled on shoes and had smaller feet.

Once I got home and strapped on my proper walking boots I also realised how much I had missed decent ankle support. Suddenly I wasn’t testing the stones underfoot at every step, and so I was able to walk across uneven ground, especially downhill, much quicker. I had been definitely one of the slowest on Europa and now see this was partly due to feeling unsure inside the boots.

Of course shoes and boots are really heavy so they are a big packing issue and everything is a compromise. If I was doing such a trip again, I would definitely include good walking boots, well water-proofed, and gaiters (both of which I actually possess). I would also look for a pair of lightweight, waterproof over-the-ankle boots that would be good for climbing. My walking shoes were great but being only shoes not much protection when the deck was very wet.

Finally, I missed my fleece-lined crocs. They would have been great below decks, not slippy and warm. Or some such equivalent. My nobbly socks were good but they wouldn’t take me out on a wet deck to inspect conditions.

Kit: Technology

Like several others I had only brought an iPad. Wonderful bits of kit though they are, that strategy had two big drawbacks. Firstly I could not retrieve stuff from it with wires: all transfer of pictures and text to a non-Apple computer relies on an intranet and Europa’s carefully managed on-board LAN doesn’t allow for such things. Pictures could therefore be transferred to another Apple device by Airdrop (if your iPad is new enough for that which mine is not) or with a cable to an Apple laptop which took a USB. So all my blogs from the ship were drafted long hand then typed on the shared laptop to be included in an email. If I had had my own laptop, my posts would have been longer. 

Secondly of course the storage space was limited so I was very reliant on keeping my SD cards safe. I succeeded in that but undoubtedly I (and others) found that a bit anxious-making at times. It was possible to use an SD card in the shared laptop but it made several of us nervous to do that.

So if I was doing it again I would bring a laptop capable of reading a USB and an external hard drive big enough for storing movies as well as stills, probably 2TB.  As my elderly laptop is dying that would have meant buying a new one before the trip, which was of course a big financial decision. I put it off but next time I would make sure I had one with me.

Kit that worked: camera, trousers, thermals

I did buy a new camera especially for the trip, a Panasonic LUMIX FZ1000. It’s a bridge camera, meaning it has a 1” sensor like a grown-up DSLR but in fact it is a fixed lens though with a great digital zoom. Everybody else either had a point and click camera and/or the full monty. I was very pleased with how mine performed, including how well it held up in the cold. The only time it showed signs of freezing up, I was actually lying flat out on ice when the lens eventually decided it had had enough. I had to put it inside my coat for a few minutes to persuade it to close enough to go in the bag. (And thanks to Lindsey for this picture of me.)

On the subject of bags, the Turnstyle 5 litre bag was great for my needs, being robust, manageable and just roomy enough. My trusty, venerable Macpac walking rucksack did great service too, including accompanying Ruud (the mate) on the Shackleton hike on South Georgia. I had a ‘folding into itself’ silk rucksack which was brilliant for carting bits-and-bobs about on board. I would advise anyone to take a big enough walking rucksack for carrying coats, water, camera etc, plus something small for holding books, spare gloves, knitting and so on when below decks.

The gopro was a lot of fun and I am pleased with some of the pictures. I am still baffled by the editing software though and I suspect without getting to grips with that it is an expensive toy. (All the same, I give a special shout-out to Cameraland in Cardiff who have been really kind and helpful throughout my steep photographic learning curve!) Several crew took excellent videos with their iphones and I think I would stick with that next time. Certainly the iphone was great for panorama shots.

It was really good to have two warm pairs of waterproof trousers.  My Gill salopettes which let down at the back (for ease in the loo) were fantastic on board being comfortable and warm. The Velcro at the ankles was super-secure, even when wading in streams or through long, wet grass. Salopette style trousers can be a bit of a pain though so sometimes it was great to have my trusty Mountain Warehouse thermal lined walking trousers. Those aren’t designed for kneeling or sitting in the wet so aren’t quite as waterproof but for walking, keeping warm on watch and so on they were great. Also they are roomy enough that I could pile on the layers underneath when it got really cold. Having both pairs also meant that if one pair was still wet and cold I didn’t have to struggle back into them, which was a luxury. I’d do that again. I should add I was also very pleased I took a proper walking stick. Some of the walking on steep scree would have been even more challenging without it.

Speaking of waterproofing, my elderly Jag oilie jacket did a fantastic job. I re-waterproofed it, together with the salopettes and walking trousers, before I left, using the Gill spray and they all held up really well under severe punishment from rain, snow and seawater. Normally I use the wash-in treatment but on waterproof fabric I think the spray works better.

I had lots of thermals, almost all merino. I love the stuff because it doesn’t get smelly and is really warm. The best, especially for leggings, is mixed with silk so it doesn’t get scratchy. One of my cabin mates had a gorgeously warm jumper of a mix of merino and possum fur. Yummy.  My fave sailing top for nearly 20 years has been my Paramo taiga fleece. It is not solidly waterproof but it does a good job in showers and it’s very wind-proof.

Thermal and warm layers were augmented by the great beanie, with its fleece lining, which a friend bought me before I left and which barely left my head till we were at Tristan de Cunha. I was glad also have another warm fleece hat (in a fetching leopard skin print) for the times my main hat was soaked through. Having the spare was really useful.A word on underwear. I can’t speak for the men but the women had broadly adopted one of two strategies. Either bring enough pairs to get you most of the way across the Atlantic, or only a handful and handwash often. I’ve described the rituals of ‘private laundry’ elsewhere: let me only say here I was glad to have bought over 20 pairs of knickers. When I got home I did a grand clear out of my drawers and for the first time in many years none of my underwear has more than the regulation number of holes in it.

Just before leaving one of the outdoorsy chains had a sale on compression sacks. These lightweight 8 litre bags were dead handy. They helped to reduce the bulk of the luggage and attached to the outside of the rucksack. While travelling stuff not in use (too thin, too thick …) went into a compression bag and reduced space requirements in the cabin.

Speaking of waterproofing, my elderly Jag oilie jacket did a fantastic job. I re-waterproofed it, together with the salopettes and walking trousers, before I left, using the Gill spray and they all held up really well under severe punishment from rain, snow and seawater. Normally I use the wash-in treatment but on waterproof fabric I think the spray works better. (Thanks to Rob Dan for taking the picture.)

Reading and entertainment

We enjoyed plenty of talks and films. Jordi did a great series on the scientific study of Antarctic wildlife, from kelp to blue whales and Sarah talked about the great explorers. Aaron ran in an intensive astro-navigation course, alongside tours of the galley and engine-room. All this was on top of the work of sailing the boat and learning the pin-rails. As soon as the weather improved enough to be on deck, we were kept busy.

Of course, what keeps you amused during a long nightwatch or enables you to retreat for some privacy on a busy ship is immensely personal. I was very glad to have a lot of books on my Kindle. There was a funny few days when three of us at once were reading the wonderful The American Wife, by Curtis Settinfield, in Europa’s battered print edition, passing it between watches with carefully marked pages.

A lot of people had brought knitting, crocheting or even tapestry. Everyone had music of course. And there was always plenty to do on maintenance if you have any skill with your hands. Sanding, scraping, serving and whipping. Making grommets and other rope work. Matt, the bosun, despaired of my efforts at fancy knotwork, declaring ‘there’s always one’, and giving up on my crown knots in despair. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I did finally learn to make a good bottle sling.

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