This voyage is business as usual for Europa on her fourteenth year in the far south. It’s a big first for me. I’ve never been further south than Cape Bluff in New Zealand, which pokes into sub-Antarctica at latitude 46.6°. I’ve never been to Chile or sailed a tall ship. And despite living on a boat for years, these will be my longest ocean voyages by a long way, especially the crossing to Cape Town.
Where is Antarctica?
The Antarctic, geographically and politically, is the Earth below 60° South. The all-circling Southern Ocean is so rough sailors call it the Screaming Sixties. Compare that to the Furious Fifties and the Roaring Forties, which are allegedly not quite so fearsome. We won’t leave these areas till after South Georgia, four weeks into the voyage.
The natural boundary is the Antarctic Convergence, that irregular line where the warmer Atlantic meets the cold of the far south. The sub-Antarctic is a somewhat hazy area, with different scientific and political definitions but roughly lies between 46° and 60° south. It incorporates all the voyage until we cross that line somewhere at sea before reaching Tristan de Cunha. People live on the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic islands: the Falklands of course, the desolate lands of Tierra del Fuego. Nobody lives on the continent and the research stations of Antarctica. Even the skeleton crew of research stations who spend the dark months of winter there are prohibited from living permanently there, though some have a lot of ice-time under their belt. In summer of 2015, two people reached their 35th consecutive seasons at the South Pole, one of them the American woman Jules Uberuaga
The Passage Plan
Europa, once all of us are on board in early March, sails from Punta Arenas to explore the Chilean fjords for a couple of days in the Straits of Magellan before entering the Beagle Channel and visiting Puerto Williams, the southernmost town in the world.
From there we will spend three days crossing Drake’s Passage to the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula from Cape Horn. (Now there’s a sentence to conjure with.) The plan is then a week cruising around the South Shetland Islands, visiting Deception Island and (ice permitting) going round the Peninsula to the Weddell Sea. The chart shows last year’s track. There was a lot of ice that year, because additional global precipitation causes more snow. Don’t let reports of extra Antarctic sea ice fool you: climate change is real. This will be the true Antarctica just as winter closes in.
Next, we follow Shackleton’s extraordinary voyage to South Georgia. The passage plan suggests six days in our well-found, large ship which I don’t think will be that easy. Shackleton and his men spent 17 days in the miniscule James Caird (just 7m long) to make landfall there and rescue the crew he left behind on Elephant Island. However bad it gets on Europa, it should not be that hard.
South Georgia merits the six days there, as one of the great wildlife places on Earth. Penguins, whales, albatrosses and many more. The chart shows the journey along the island’s north coast.(These two charts were kindly given to me by Adam, one of the skippers.) At first sight you might think it is an archipelago, but the lighter blue patches are glaciers. These days also give us a chance to recuperate before the big sailing legs. It is 10 days to Tristan de Cunha, the most remote inhabited island there is, where we hope to land. It’s not always possible, though, given the swell. From there it is another 10 days to Cape Town, riding the Trade Winds in traditional tall ship style.
You can follow Europa on her site.
Getting there and home
The conventional bit of my journey will be the flights, which I booked through the ever-helpful https://www.gapyear.com. I am lucky enough to be able to go from Bristol and fly via Amsterdam to Santaigo where I will stay with a friend for three nights. From there I will fly down to Punta Arenas at 53.1°S, already into the sub-Antarctic zone.
From Cape Town, after a a couple of days exploring, I will fly home, to pick up the threads of a more mundane existence. One of the recurrent themes of the literature of Antarctica is the desire to return. I will let you know.