Saturday, February 28, 2009

Xplore: 28 February 2009

There be Dragons and Trolls in them hills !! Entering the gap in the ice strewn rock cliffs that give entry to Seno Occasion in Tierra Del Fuego is like being on the film set for Jurassic park: you can feel the tension building as your heartbeat skips a little faster and faster, as you make the final bends to this truly secluded anchorage. Each time I bring a yacht into this location my whole being is alive with emotion and feeling. I often wonder how I can capture the simultaneous feelings and sensations of my heart, mind and soul, so as to give readers a deep and full impression of what we see here in the south. But, like trying to take a photo of a large wave, the result is always disappointing compared to the real event; it's never the same until you live and experience it yourself. Xplore made a fast turnaround there in Ushuaia, after we finished the one month expedition to Antarctica. Everyone was pleased to be back in South America even though the arrival meant that new friends and shared experiences had to depart; while the new tasks, challenges and voyages bring questions that have to be answered. For me, I needed to get away again, and quickly. The small boating community in the South is a tight knit group of daring and kindred spirits -- which after years of experiencing can also become claustrophobic. My true friends there are very special, and I hope will always remain so, but the hustle and bustle of the Argentinian port and its quirky unexplainable Argentinian ways can get very tiring. So instead of remaining in Ushuaia and working on Xplore's regular maintenance list (to keep the wheels in motion) we decided to head to the Beagle Channel and the western capes of Tierra Del Fuego to win back some of the long lost energy that years of Southern sailing takes out of you. 'To bask in the rare moments of clear and crisp sunshine, and rock away in a snug anchorage after a good meal and glass of wine (or two). This is recovery time for myself and the crew, and I damn well need it. From here we will head west, and then north, to the Straites of Magellan and the Chilean port of Punta Arenas ("Sandy Point" in English). Our last expedition of the season will leave from there, working for a Chilean company in search of new wildlife locations on the northern side of Tierra Del Fuego's Darwin Mountain range. An interesting, and challenging location -- as virtually no vessels venture to this side unless they are there for military purposes or science. This is a chance for Xplore and the team to tread on untrodden ground, and we are looking forward to it. However today the weather is cold and windy: even if we wanted to move on it would have been impossible or dangerous. Gale force winds from the south have brought cold, cold conditions and dangerous ocean waves that break on the coast, blocking the passageways we need to take to creep around the corner into the Pacific, where we'll then re-enter the waterways of safety in the Cockburn Channel (don't laugh, it was named after an English explorer! But maybe someone in his family's past had an embarrassing personal problem). So we sit, read, plan our work lists, stay warm and remain patient; the only thing that changes weather in the South is time. More news to come ~ Stephen

Friday, February 13, 2009

Xplore arrives Ushuaia: 12 February 2009

ED. NOTE: Xplore arrived safely in port at about midnight 12 February 2009. After re-provisioning Xplore will depart Ushuaia, Argentina for Punta Arenas, Chile where guests will embark on a 10-day voyage through Tierra del Fuego.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Xplore Cape Horn Report: 12 Feb 2009

One foot on the table There is an old maritime saying that once you have rounded Cape Horn you are entitled to enjoy your after dinner drink with one foot up on the table - you can be sure that tonight all of us will be doing exactly that !! This, of course, means that we passed the rock, in the middle of the night as the sun still slept behind the horizon, with what I must say were mixed emotions. Although not fully visible, apart from the low light of the moon, I could imagine the moody rock laying silent witness to the sad fate of so many mariners and their ships across the centuries before us. In addition, also signaling to me that we all had had a safe passage across the infamous Drake Passage and I could go back to sleep knowing we were making our way towards the relatively safe passages and islands to its north and eventually our home port Puerto Williams in Chile. It was also with some deep thought that I knew we had left behind us four days ago the large sleeping white beauty, the Antarctic, brooding over its -- and indeed all of our fate -- due to the ignorance and mismanagement of mankind for way too long now. The return across the Drake Passage seemed longer than the trip going but even as a kid in the back seat of my parents' car, the trip home from one of our adventures always seemed the longest. Even as a total novice to this sailing lark I could tell that there was plenty to do and more than enough to keep the crew busy and happy. From the webbing on the head of the main sail giving way 24 hours into the passage, there was plenty to be done. From installing a new trysail, fitting a larger Yankee, to rigging the Spinnaker pole (you know, the ones that you see in the pictures of the boats in the Around the World races allowing the sails to balloon at the front !? :o>) and lastly, positioning the boat to take advantage of the very last puff of wind. As always, Stephen took all of this in his stride - although I must say his mini adventure to the top of the main mast -- in what I would describe as nothing more than a roped up swing saddle -- was the closest I have seen him to wishing he had trained to be an accountant for his chosen career. You know, as we all continue to push the boundaries of travel and in my case keep pushing the envelope with regards to witnessing and experiencing more and more off the so-called 'beaten track', I am personally guilty of ignoring or underestimating the personal dangers associated with this type of travel and the risk I may be exposing myself or my partner too. In a place where, for example, exposure to being in the open sea could measure your life expectancy in minutes, Antarctica is not a place to be underestimating these dangers. I think it goes without saying that when entering into such an expedition as this that you use a skipper who has both the experience of the Antarctic region itself (measured in years) and the maturity of years at sea in pretty much all conditions which nature can throw at you. For Sonia and myself, I can honestly say that we felt our lives were in more than capable hands at all times and my hat goes off to Stephen and his crew for their hard work and pure professionalism at all times. Cheers, James and Sonia

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Xplore in the Drake Passage: 11 Feb 2009

This morning a few thoughts from port watch which has hitherto been silent in the blogosphere ... One thing that is nigh impossible to convey to those not lucky enough to experience it firsthand, is the sheer beauty and exhilaration of being on a large fast boat with a balanced sailplan on a downhill romp (wind in the aft quarters) in the open ocean with a following sea. I have tried and failed many times, on this boat and others, to capture on film (or chip) the gracefully choreographed poetry of motion as the boat weaves its course ... the rig aloft creaking and groaning (or is it 'oohing and ahhing'?) as it powers up into the wind on the crests of large ocean rollers ... and then -- as if knowing too much of a good thing ruins the novelty -- it expels all this energy sliding down the waves in a gliding flourish, de-powering as it goes, ready to be held high on the next wave and sip from the cup of nature's force. Well my 'poetry' is of course drivel, but I was just caught up in the emotion of sunrise in near-perfect sailing conditions with something cultured like Chopin, which is playing gently in the background (someone else left it on, of course) at the nav table (although naturally I am spending much time outside enjoying the elements rather than the relative serenity - and warmth - that the virtual world has to offer). As the low pressure system we have been monitoring has moved over us it has gifted us with steady south westerlies ranging from 20 to 35 knots during the course of the last 16 hours or so. The sea-state has calmed considerably during the course of the night (not counting the 10 or so metre ground swell that is) and the boat has been powering along at between 8 and 12 knots consistently, with similar measure being made over ground. This, the best sailing of this trip so far, was delivered at the just the right moment, after more than a few watches of frustration at 'mixed' conditions shared amongst us all as we have waited what seemed like an eternity for weather predictions, and therefore our strategy to address it to play out. As Steve shared in one of his last communications, our frustration at the mixed conditions was somewhat amplified by one small spanner in the works: the mainsail headboard imbroglio (i.e. it busted). After a day of letting what will be be, I think this caper had the strange effect of energizing us, causing us to stand up and try and to do better with the resources immediately at hand: those being a big powerful green boat and some other flappy white things (well some of them are the sailmaker's yellow) to play with. And here we are: the flurry of activity yesterday paid off, and this morning at dog-watch changeover we are 120 nautical miles from our waypoint near Cape Horn, slipping steadily in the right direction, rather than 300 miles from that waypoint, crawling the surface of the Southern Ocean, following weather around as was yesterday morning. How times change, and they will again, and so we enjoy these moments while they last. This attempt at a blog is incriminating evidence. Better break free of the nav desk cocoon and spend some time outside or risk a bollocking from Steve. It is too nice out not to really ... One final fortunate note: some colour has returned to the faces (and appetites to bellies) of a few unfortunate Xplorers who have been rather subdued of late. A good thing ... [ED NOTE: At last report Xplore was 85nm from Cape Horn, with plans to sail directly to Puerto Williams and onto Ushuaia by Friday.]

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Xplore in the Drake Passage: 10 Feb 2009

How much can a Koala bear? This morning whilst I was hanging in my harness at the mast head 26 meters above sea level and being thrown around like a rag doll, I wondered how many more years I can take this crap. My hands were already frozen as the ascent had been a slow and tiring climb, Audrey and Serge were on deck managing the halyard which was my lifeline but their faces I couldn't see; my total focus was getting to the masthead and recovering the main halyard so we could rig and hoist the trysail, which is a replacement (very small) main sail. Yesterday had been a long and frustrating day, where the only words I could say to my crew Audrey -- who has been sharing the same watch -- was that I was fractious. I had just received news early in the morning from my father (who was meant to have joined us on this trip) that my stepmother was about to pass of cancer within the next few weeks. For 25 years she has been with my father, and I have spent time with them a few times in Darwin: a lovely lady who had come into my father's life at the right time for both of them. So yesterday, even though I knew we had to make sail changes and recover the halyard, I didn't have the emotional or physical energy to face it. The sea state had still been very lumpy, but maybe that was just me convincing myself that it was better to just sit out and wait for smoother seas and a little bit of personal energy. So back to the masthead: I know some crazy people who would pay for the experience at a masthead at sea, like in a carnival showgrounds ride: you pay 5 bucks and get the hell thrown out of you. The G-forces are quite extreme as the masthead whips from side to side and then back and forwards in such an unpredictable way, you just have to hang on for dear life like a Koala Bear !! With legs wrapped around the mast you can only slowly go from each spreader to spreader, a brief spell at each point to grab your breath; as any longer and you would lose your nerve and merely make the freezing process stretch out painfully longer. My biggest concern was that my hands weren't going to be able to be used to re-attach the halyard to a short strop connected to my harness so that I could drag in back down the mast on my descent. Another deep breath and I was ready to move down, the insides of my calf muscles were humming, the lactic acid from being clenched around the mast as my prime means of holding on while I attached the retrieval line. Audrey and Serge on deck weren't sure what I screamed to them, with blank faces they didn't know if needed to go higher, or was I in trouble ... for me I just wanted to get the hell off this sideshow ride! Down I needed and fast, but not too fast as each part of the descent I needed to un-attach the retrieval strop and pass it around the spreaders, then re-attach it and move on down. As I reached the deck, my body and face just slumped, I think a cardboard box full of cotton wool would have been perfect, my body ached and was so cold but we all had got the halyard down. Now it was time to warm up and plan for the next stage of manoeuvres. With an hour we were ready to go. We cleared the forepeak and prepared the trysail, new lines run and other modified to do the job, we changed over that pesky main halyard onto the head and up she went !! Woooo hooooo, a different flappy white thing -- haven't seen that one before. Next we prepared to change the No2 Yankee headsail for the larger No1, new sail flaked on deck, halyard ready to drop, we all crouched ready to receive the smaller sail onto the deck. Down she came and we all went at it like Rottweilers in a butcher shop. I had seen a cloud line on the horizon which could bring some not-needed extra wind which would only make the process much harder, but within 20 minutes we had switched headsails and were back on course. Now the waiting game could continue. We have all been so bored in waiting and watching the movement of this large low pressure system that now we were ready with our new armoury and a plan, we wanted it now, but no such luck as the winds within the centre of lows are weak, indecisive, and fickle (hence why I have the time to write this). The plan -- if it goes to plan -- is that we should get good fresh-to-strong winds from the SW as the low passes over us. This should give us good speeds in the desired direction of Cape Horn and then our entry into the Beagle Channel, but for now only time will tell when the winds will come. More news to come ~ Stephen

Sunday, February 8, 2009

** Xplore loses main halyard in Drake Passage **

Shit Happens Well what was a smooth departure from Antarctica, with a good breeze and forecast, soon became a very careful game of chess for skipper Stephen and his team. At 2325 first mate Audrey went on deck to trim the main sheet as the winds had picked up, we had already reduced the Yankee and were sailing with four reefs in when the unexpected happened; after only a few turns on the main sheet Audrey saw the world collapse around her, the entire main sail went 'bang' and started flapping like a rag, then dropped to the deck and boom. Stephen at the nav table heard the squeals from Audrey and quickly popped up on deck to see that the main halyard had parted at the headboard of the main sail. With flaps and flakes of sail piled onto the boom in total disarray, Audrey and Stephen proceeded to lash the sail to the boom in not-so-easy conditions. Blowing in the 30's, luckily the sea state hadn't built into the washing machine that it could have; we were still on the continental shelf of Antarctica making any strong winds the recipe for large seas. We hung on and tidied the mess on deck, the halyard was at the top of the mast waving around like a school kid up a tree, 'come and get me down.' it was calling, but for the night the top of the mast was where it was going to stay. We slowly thawed out below as any wind and water in the south makes for cold, cold conditions; even though Audrey and Stephen are more than acclimatised to these temperatures, more than 10 minutes on deck means your hands and faces are freezing. We sat and talked about what had happened, and Stephen started to look at the ramifications to the careful course planning he had devised for the crossing. The key factors that effect Xplore now are as follows: Xplore has 1.75 tanks of fuel left onboard (approximately 500 liters). With minimum engine revolutions we will still use approximately six liters per hour. The sea state is still too rough for anyone to venture up the mast to recover the main halyard, let alone carry out a temporary repair. Seas and temperatures don't allow at present to change the No2 Yankee to the slightly larger No1. We currently have winds above 21 knots that means that under sail we can make 6.5 knots of boat speed which is quite reasonable, we have planned on making a minimum of 140 nautical miles per day to be able to position ourselves in the SW corner of the next monster blow that is already starting to show its first stages of building to the west. Whilst pondering options and plans on their first day-time watch today, Stephen and Audrey were watching the winds speeds slowly drop, and as the winds dropped the boat speed diminished. We sat and saw it tumble 5.9 - 5.4 - 5.1 ... oohhh God ... 4.9 ... Stephen was staring at the wind gauge and began talking to it, 'Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh come on up you go Hewey! Please just a littler bit more, don't leave us this way, we love you and your strength!!!' Audrey by this stage knows that Stephen can be a little bit crazy but this was taking it to a new high: 'He's gone bonkers!' The next thing that Stephen said to the wind to encourage it was that he would sacrifice a 'Chocolate Hob Nob' to the seas as an offering !!! Audrey was mortified. Hob Nobs are the most prized cookies onboard, purchased from the Falklands -- we are already on the last packet, for Stephen to offer them away was treason. But always good to his promises, minutes later Stephen entered from the galley with one Hob Nob in hand and proceeded to exit the companion way and throw it to the winds and the sea. Audrey nearly wept: as a confirmed chocoholic this was terrible. We sat and watched the wind speed to see if Stephen's stupidity would work. 18.2 - 18.7 - 18.9 and then 19.1................ Yehhhhh, Audrey was gobsmacked, it had worked ! Our boat speed continued but if Hob Nobs were needed to continue motivating Hewey then we were going to need a truckload. We continued along, with average speeds enough for us not to have to use the motor and maintain a reasonable course. This crossing may be a slow one, more news to come ~ Stephen

Xplore departs Antarctica: 7 Feb 2009

A skipper's prerogative to change his mind We all were patiently waiting for the verdict on when we had a good weather window to depart the Pitt Islands and Antarctica. During the 5th it looked suitable for the next day, however fate and weather had their own cards to play, and on the morning of the 6th the GRIB files ( weather data file that show wind direction and strength, Gridded Reference in Binnary) told a different story. Not only did they show that a departure on the 6th would mean that we would have a strong blow mid-crossing, but it showed a monster low hitting the Tierra Del Fuego coast and Cape Horn with wind strengths over 60 knots. We had to have another plan. The next best option first looked like early on the morning of the 9th, so with looks of joy, we settled back down to enjoying Antarctica and the Pitt islands: team tobogganing races down the snowy slopes; zodiac cruising in an area which has a wealth of animal wildlife; and the chart survey team with Skipper Stephen continuing their rounds of the myriads of islands, trying to plot and chart this rocky mess of islands. By mid-morning of the 7th, we saw a change in forecasts and were able to make plans for a revised departure late in the day. Most of the boat preparations had already been done so some last minute extra 'sea-going food' was prepared. James and Stephen finished off the charting needed, with final depth soundings of the enclosed anchorage that Xplore had sat in for three days, as the entrance to this cove is probable the tightest that Skipper Stephen has taken Xplore or any other yacht through, and the soundings were to prove invaluable -- with forecasts of slightly stronger winds in the afternoon, we needed to position Xplore with precision, as water colour with wind on it doesn't show the hidden depths. With a plan, the entire team -- the shore line crew, zodiac crew and depth spotters -- pulled off a flawless exit. Xplore slipped through the narrow gap (15 meters wide) which has an 80 meter glacial overhang looming to tumble on one side and about fpur meters within the water for sideways tolerance ... you could hear the collective sigh of relief and the un-clenching of butt cheeks as the depth sounder started to rise and we emerged into deeper waters. The next hour was spent doing the final preparations for the Drake Passage. Zodiac deflated and stowed, shore lines away, anchor removed and everything 'ship shape' on deck and below. With winds in the low 20's from the NE we hoisted our main sail with three reefs and slipped away from this magical place. Soon the ocean swells and the heeling of the yacht took their toll and the happy faces of life on a flat horizontal plane started to change. The faces slipped away to their cabins as they knew the best position for getting your sea legs is in bed. Xplore and her core crew settled down to life again on the ocean waves. More news to come as we head north. ~ Stephen PHOTOS RICHARD LARONDE

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Xplore in Antarctica: 6 Feb. 2009

Ed Note: Xplore was scheduled to leave Antarctica at 0500 6 Feb., however the weather was forecast to be on the nose for most of the passage, and up to 60k off Cape Horn, so Stephen has postponed departure up to three days. More to come.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Xplore in Antarctica: 5 Feb. 2009

Last report before we leave the Antarctic Peninsula [Ed note: dispatch in both French & English, below] Ce mercredi 4 fevrier le soleil nous offre un spectacle magnifique de la peninsule et ses glaciers (Hotine, Bussey, Trooz, Belgica...) mais l'air est vif et glace. La nuit nous a laisse 10 cm de neige sur le pont, et a blanchi encore et encore ces terres vierges. Le voilier quitte son nid douillet de Stella Creek de Argentine Islands pour se diriger sous moteur, trinquette et yankee, Sud Ouest vers les Pitt Islands, un groupe d'iles a l'extremite nord de l'ile Renaud (Biscoe Islands), nomme ainsi en l'honneur de William Pitt, British Statesman, en 1832. Nous nous dirigeons encore vers le Sud, vers ce cercle polaire antarctique, 66 degres 33 minutes, vers le jour eternel de l'ete austral. Mais nous savons que Pitt Islands seront notre ultime etape de cette expedition extraordinaire. Le voilier se faufile entre les rochers et les ilots de cet archipel. Steven ne connait pas encore le coin et les cartes sont vraiment imprecises. Steven trouve finalement rapidemment et facilement un mouillage bien au calme entre les petites iles, au 65 degres 26 minutes Sud et 65 degres 22 minutes Ouest. Steven projette l'idee de bien cartographier cette partie de l'archipel, entre l'ile Jingle et l'ile Weller. Nommes en 1959 en l'honneur respectivement de Alfred Jingle et de Samuel Weller, representes dans Pickwick Papers de Charles Dickens. Jeudi 5 fevrier au matin sous un beau soleil mais toujours aussi frais, en zodiac, Steven cartographie les environs immediats du mouillage, au crayon, main leve, cela ressemble a du L. de Vinci alors que Serge tente un crayonnage style P. Picasso abstrait, tout est histoire de style et d'experience... Nous decouvrons par la meme occasion une faune nombreuse de Fur Seals, Weddel Seals, Blue-Eyed Cormorants, Adelie Penguins, Antarctic Skuas, Antarctic Tern, Big Gulls... L'endroit est tranquille sans presence de voiliers ni de ferry-boats. James et Sonia terminent un bonhomme de neige et Simon et Julia nous trouvent une troisieme barbatte enorme. Cecilia chante et danse dans le zodiac pilote de maitre par Audrey a la decouverte des Fur Seals. Richard se transforme en boulanger et Steph en patissiere maison. Tout le monde profite de cette derniere journee antarctique. Demain, nous partons vers le Nord, vers la traversee du Drake, direction le cap Horn et Puerto Williams. Le barometre indique 1001 hPa, avec 41% d'humidite et 15,5 degres a l'interieur du voilier alors que la temperature exterieure oscille entre -2 et +8 degres Celsus. This Wednesday 4th February the sun offers us a magnificent view of the peninsula and her glaciers (Hotine, Bussey, Trooz, Belgica...) but the air is crisp and fresh. The night leaves us 10cm of snow on deck, and whitens even more those virgin lands that surround us. Xplore leaves her protected nest in Stella Creek in the Argentine Islands to motorsail to the South West towards Pitt Islands, in the northen tip of the archipelago of Renaud Island (Biscoe Islands). The Pitt islands were named by the explorer William Pitt who in 1832 discovered them and then when the British re-surveyed them again in the 1900's they adopted the tales of Charles Dickens to name the islands, hence why so many are named after charecters from his books. The voyage to these islands took us closer to the south towards the polar circle where the endless days, with constant light occurs at 66 degrees 33 minutes during the summer solstice of late December. Everyone though onboard knows that this last stop that we are making is the closing door to an incredible voyage of discovery that has taken us along the length of the normally navigable Antarctic Peninsula. As we enter the archipelago of the Pitt islands, the air is tense as skipper Stephen hasn't explored the island group and the navigation charts are basic to say the least; every corner, every island, is the difference whether the yacht floats or hits rocks as the coast line is littered with unpredictable outcrops of submerged obstacles. But Stephen finds quite quickly a nice, calm and protected anchorage to fit his 'fat English girl' in between all the little islands, at 65 degrees 26 minutes South and 65 degrees 22 minutes West. Stephen then suggested to chart the area of the archipelago, between Jingle and Weller islands, Dickens' characters in Pickwick Papers in 1959. Early in the morning on Thursday 5th February, with a nice but crisp sunshine, a team of four people led by Captain Stephen leave the boat with the zodiac and start drawing the surroundings of the anchorage with a pen and a sheet of paper. Stephen's drawing looks like a piece of art from Leonardo de Vinci, whereas Serge's looks more like abstract art, maybe from Picasso ... Style and experience often talk... Zooming around in the zodiac they also realize that the fauna is more abundant down here than in the northern part of the peninsula ... Fur seals, Weddel Seals, Blue-Eyed Cormorants, Adelie penguins, Antarctic Skuas, Antarctic Terns, Big Gulls... The place is quiet, without any other yacht or cruise ship. James and Sonia are just finishing a snowman, Simon and Julia find a third big fender. Cecilia sings in the dinghy - maybe to attract the fur seals, Richard turn himself into the official baker onboard and Steph bakes lovely sweet cakes. Everybody enjoys this last day in Antarctica. Tomorrow we will be heading North again, towards Cape Horn and Puerto Williams. The barometer shows 1001 hPa, with 41% of humidity and 15.5 degrees inside the boat whereas the outside temperature varies between -2 and +8 degrees Celsus. ~ Serge [Stephen reports the weather looks fair for the departure; they will decide after 'a good sleep' - Ed.]

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Xplore in Antarctica: 4 Feb. 2009

Snow on the water, fire in the sky The last few days here in Antarctica have seen a myriad of changing conditions, weather, people and experiences. Xplore moved from the snug anchorage of Hovgaard / Plenneau island and made our way down to the Argentine islands in the southern end of Penola Straites. A short stop was made at Yalour islands where we were able to land to enjoy the "Daffy Ducks" of penguins - the Adelies - so comical and fun to watch; the team had a great afternoon watching their antics. With smiles on the faces of all, skipper Stephen set another one of his projects on the team ... 'Their Mission' -- if they decided to accept it -- was to take Xplore from the Yalour islands and enter the rocky low island archipelago of the Argentine islands, make passage through the narrow channels and complete the task with the yacht tied up in the inner mooring basin near the Ukranian station, known as Stella Creek. This was all to be done without Skipper Stephen onboard. First mate Audrey was a little stunned at first, once being given the brief, but with helping hands and a variety of knowledge she put the team together with a plan of action. Skipper Stephen headed off to Stella Creek to rig and prepare the shore lines and rock strops for their entry. Like all good team building exercises there is always going to be a bit of tension and friction, but this didn't faze Audrey and the crew. Skipper Stephen and one of the team in the zodiac returned back to the start of the inner channels to keep a close eye on progress from a distance. Seeing their yacht being tied up from off the boat is a bit like a mother watching her baby take their first steps without holding their hands: a little nervous, but with pleasure in the eyes as the team completed a smooth and uneventful passage. The Argentine islands have always been a special place for me to take clients as they have, if conditions are good, a wonderful labyrinth of ice caves within the islands. If snow and ice levels are good, dry and stable it is possible to enter the caves and follow the ice tunnels inside. Richard and Stephen made a first entry early in the morning to ascertain the conditions; being that we had had southerly winds from the previous two days, the caves were frozen and stable. We returned to the yacht and arranged for some extra ice crampons and picks from the Ukrainian station, who are always happy to help and assist. The sunlight during the day was magical and complete, a quiet stillness surrounded the entire Antarctic continent. Stephen took multiple groups through the caves during the day; being able to enter over 200 meters within the cave gave, to some, challenging climbing, for most of the team had never stepped on glacial ice, let alone gone under the ice in caves! Being inside glacial ice caves is a little like scuba diving without tanks: the ice filters the light to a soft blue, deep within the caves. The light can be dark, but as we traversed within, portal lights brought more light, to display cathedral ice columns and stalactites. Everyone was speechless, I have never seen the faces beaming like little sun rays so much. We finished ice climbing by 8pm; with an invitation to visit the Ukrainian station that evening, we decided it was necessary to delay dinner (bad mistake) until our return trip, as the stations work on strict times for visitors. What many don't realise is that the Ukrainians - apart from doing research and monitoring of climatology, ozone levels and ice conditions - they have also perfected the art of vodka making in their spare time !! As the base originally was an English base ( Faraday ) the previous tenants had constructed a perfect replica of an English bar. which just has to be seen to be believed: a pub with pull table, good music and a lot of vodka mixed with the crew and teams of two yachts made for one hell of a party ! Without too much detail, the party continued 'til midnight, when some very shaky legs needed to be guided back to the zodiac and then to Xplore. Boy it was lucky a few of the team were "Ship Shape" as we may have lost a couple in the drink ! Dinner happened late that night, but the effect of the vodka had taken its toll, many a sore head slipped off to bed for a very long sleep. More news to come as Xplore explores onwards. ~ Stephen

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Xplore in Antarctica: 2 Feb. 2009

Check out Richard Laronde's recent blog postings from Xplore HERE.