Friday, January 16, 2009

Xplore underway to Antarctica: 16 Jan 2009

Writing about the preparation and the work that goes behind an Antarctic expedition can take time, but needless to say that it doesn't happen overnight. XPLORE has been based in the port of Ushuaia, Argentina for the last nine days. readying the boat for the passage from South America to cross the Drakes Passage. Our main concern in the big picture of things is what the weather is doing and what are the ice conditions, in the Drake and on the continent of Antarctica. This season stated with large amounts of ice being present in the south with vessels having difficulties with how far they could go south, The cruise ship Ushuaia ran aground and holed her hull early in December, leading to a full evacuation of their passengers, with the Chilean navy coming to their rescue to tow the damaged ship back to safe waters of South America. And sailing yachts that ventured south in December had tough ice conditions: some trips returned early as it was hard to get into the safe anchorages that are normally used for small craft. All in all weather systems have been tough early on with high winds, snow and icing during the start of summer. Luckily, news of changing weather, and the commencement of more stable summer weather started to come through with some vessels sending reports of long sunny days and higher temperatures in late December and early January. For us, our team of people all came together to Ushuaia, mid-January with our departure planned from there on the 15th. For days I had been closely looking at the weather prognostics for a good sailing window that we could leave on ... there was one on the 11th ... another on the 13th (lucky hey !! ) ... but for the 15th there was and still is no joy. With everyone onboard, safety briefings completed, and customs cleared with Argentina; we slipped our lines from the dock and headed east along the Beagle Channel to the military port of Puerto Williams (PW) in Chile. We headed to Puerto Williams for two reasons: the forecast for a savage low pressure system due to hit Tierra Del Fuego during the night; and the other, that late to join the team is a couple from New Zealand and the UK -- and one of them (James) has been there in PW, as Sonia had come to Ushuaia to pick up final personal clothing and gear supplies for the expedition. Sailing the Beagle when its good is a joy, and the trip to PW was magic sailing. But fresh breezes from the north, which prelude the changing weather conditions, hung heavily in my mind as I watched the barometer drop all day. At 730am the Bar was 991, by midnight it was 962 -- 29 millibars in one day. We entered PW and cleared customs and immigration into Chile, probably one of the fastest turnarounds with paper work because we needed to get a new Zarpie (permission to weigh anchor) from the Navy department so that we could continue navigating in their waters. With the forcast looming, we cleared PW as I feared they would close the port for potentially two days -- possibly more if the intensity of the low was blocked into a stationary pattern. Chillean forcasts only reinforced what our weather systems onboard had been telling us, N to NE winds 45 to 50 knots shifting during the night to S to SW 60 to 70, with gusts predicted into the 80's. The last thing I needed as skipper was another 23 nautical miles of travel at night to round onto the eastern side of Isla Navarino ... and when you smell the aromas of the Thai green chicken curry bubbling away on the stove, the saloon all warm and a half-finished Heineken beer on the side bench, who would want to move? But move and travel we did, to the tiny fishing settlement of Puerto Toro (PT), the most southern settlement in South America. We motored and ate excellent food as the Beagle Channel continued to lull us into the false image of peace and tranquility. Lines went onto the dock in PT at 2355 and the port Navy personal kept the generator on for 10 minutes longer to give us light on the dock. The night remained calm, no wind, nothing. We sat on deck and enjoyed a laugh and a bottle of wine, sleep came over me and I slipped off to the warmth of my duvet. 650am woke me with the boat rocking at the dock, side to side with not so smooth a motion ... nature called and I rose to check on conditions: wind gusts were tossing us at the docks and the shift to the South / SW had come through. No one is moving today -- not XPLORE nor the other two yachts who had snuck onto the dock for protection during the night and early morning. Everyone has the same idea, 'Dont go to sea!' We sit, relax and wait Stephen

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