Helming a tall ship in 30 knots of wind is beyond extraordinary. My fingers and toes are freezing in the 0 degrees conditions, the wind nips at exposed skin and the grey sea shows us its teeth. My cheeks and gums ache from grinning.
I pay close attention to the compass, and the sense of the wheel. Its big spoked handles are solid under my gloves, and at first I am clumsy, the tether on my harness threatening to catch the wheel as I turn it. Gently, gently, finding out what it takes to swing her bows, making little movements, testing out how she feels..
‘Good girl,’ I mutter, ‘come up, lady, just a little further, there. That’s right, sweet girl, that’s good, now let’s go back a little.’ I chat away within moments of getting my hands on the helm. Suddenly my companion (there are always two people at the wheel) starts giggling, realising I’m not talking to her. I blush, but only a little. ‘It’s new relationship,’ I say, ‘we need to get to know each other.’
The captain calls a course change and shortly the mate comes along and gives the wheel a mighty heave. There’s a lot more room to turn it than I’m used to, let alone the power needed to redirect the mighty hull itself and the sails aloft.
Its not that much sail really. Two square sails on the foremast, and one on the main, Two jibs and two staysails. Probably less than one-quarter of her running sail wardrobe. Quite enough, in the rising wind and with novices on the helm.
The boat is so well trimmed that she will hold her course for minutes, the wheel held on one finger, even in the gusts and in this choppy sea. Gradually, the wind backs and it gets harder to keep our course. The mate reluctantly turns on the engine and we are stood down.
Many of us stay on deck for a while longer, till sent below for dinner. At last, as the light begins the long fade of an Antarctic twilight, we come back in time to hear the anchor drop.
We are anchored just south of the Sewing Machine Needles, a line of stack rocks on the south east corner of Deception Island. Rather than risk the tricky and variable anchoring conditions inside the island’s caldera, we will spend the night here. There’s a lot more lee room if we should drag in a katabatic blast off the hills. And, apart from that it is peaceful here, tucked in the lee of the island.
It’s been a wonderful day, starting with an 0600 anchor watch iin the beautiful bay at Half Moon Island, seeing the fog lighten in the gentle dawn to be replaced by swirling snow. We walked ashore before leaving for another attemted land and that stonking sail. It’s hard to believe that it is less than 48 hours since we came through the straits between Greenwich and Livingstone Islands at the southern end of Drake’s Passage.