Saturday, November 28, 2009

Something to chew on

We all like sitting back and chewing the fat, well in English we use the term when you just want to relax and have a think about things.

South Georgia with all its animals certainly have lots of time and also things to think about as well.......who would make a nice mating partner ?, who's getting in my territory ?, where's dinner coming from today ?, aaaaand who are those pesky humans that keep on coming and staring at us all day, and run around on those noisy rubber boats ?

Well Xplore and the team certainly saw a different side of something to chew on. The first experience was after the team had made a shore landing and we all went for a hike, weather being reasonable and we all wanted to stretch the legs, we left our zodiac on a relatively open and empty part of the pebbled shores within the middle harbor of Prince Olav.

On return an hour or so later, with lots of images in our minds and cameras we found two male fur seals sitting either side of the Zodiac there on the beach where we left it, only problem was that one side of the Zodiac was deflated (the same as how I felt when seeing it) with a bit of careful negotiation with the two fur seal boys we gingerly launched the Zodiac and returned to Xplore to find out how bad the "deflation" was.

After an inspection once we had the Zodiac back on deck we found that one of the fur seals had sunk one of their large upper jaw teeth into the back end of the dinghy, Serge and I dismantled the engine and heavy items and brought the rather flat tail end of the zodiac into the warmth of the companion way where we set about repairing the damage, a bit of hot air from a hair dryer, some alcohol to clean the area, repair patches and glue and within an hour is was all back like new.

In all of my time in the south I have never heard of a fur seal attacking a zodiac, Leopard seals do this quite often, but fur seals no ! we continued out travels around the island with a new wave of caution for beach landings.

Time moves on, and the spectacular sights of South Georgia captured everyone, until............, what not again !

One of the very special locations on South Georgia is a place called Gold Harbor, you may not become rich there but you will with experience, its a location that just has the right mix of everything, a hanging glacier perched on a rocky cliff, terminal lagoon to the left and an beach area which has one of the largest colonies of King Penguins, not just thousands but hundreds of thousands. Mixed amounts these beautiful birds is a whole range of other critters, Albatross, Giant petrels, Fur seals and this year we have a rather astonishing number of Elephant seals, males, babies and females all trying to have a happy and peaceful summer's holiday. Reminds me of one of those classic black and white movies of an English beach resorts where there is an air of freedom, some pomp and ceremony, and on the fringes there are the louts with their bad behavior and boozing sun baking and scantily cladded girl friends, there is sure to be some tears before bead time !.

After dropping anchor in the cove it wasn't long before we had the majority of the team that wanted to go a shore and explore, the light was great and the temperature nice, we headed in with a small shore break and I landed them all in the normal spot in the northern end where its calmer. I had circled a couple of times to see how the waves were running, and also noted a lot of Bull Elephant seal males on the beach and cruising the waters, all seeing who was going to get the best outt of those cute girlies that were baking on the beach.

After three or four hours I get a call on the VHF that the shore party was ready to be picked up, happy laughs of some of the wonders that they had seen it was time to return to Xplore for drinks and nibbles. On with my dry suite I headed into the beach to pick up the team. In the same spot the swell had eased a bit, but the activity late in the day was getting a bit more serious as the Elephant seal boys were obviously getting desperate as to who was going to be their girl for the night.

A fast surf in on a wave and turn around, the team all jumped into the Zodiac at lightning speed so that we could get back out of the surf fast without all getting soaked, we all were looking toward to Xplore when within 10 seconds of leaving the beach the whole zodiac physically was shoved to the left, it felt like I had just driven the boat straight into a huge rock, a bit like when you drive dodgem cars at the side shows and no one gives a dam about the damage !! ca boom.

I was certainly startled and looked to the right hand side and saw close to us the hind part of a male elephant seal as he dove below the waters, he surfaced again and had one of those startled looks about him like a punched drunk boxer, what the hell happened there, you could see the expression on his face (he probably said the same about the look on my face as I certainly didn't know what the heck had happened)

Whilst all of this was happening I still managed to keep the revs on the motor, but within a moment I could feel the side of the Zodiac that I was sitting on went totally flat, oooooh Sh.....t, I think we have a problem. I quickly asked all the team in the boat to shift over to the other side and we roared back to Xplore as fast as we could. As soon as we came along side everyone started to climb onboard, but now that the zodiac was stopped I felt the water level changing at an alarming rate, I was sinking, double Sh.....t.

Quick guys, we have to get the Zodiac back on deck other wise we are going to loose it and sink the motor as well. What a team ! for the next crazy five minutes we pulled , pushed and winched the zodiac on deck, full of water, torn apart but the motor was fine, and most importantly was all of us were as well.

It didn't take genius to work out what had happened, we had either been attacked or we hit the Elephant seal whilst he was under water, it was good to look back though and know that we didn't hit him with the propeller as it was the starboard side of our boat which took the brunt of the shock. But his reaction had torn a 1 meter long tear along the side of the Zodiac with ragged vertical rips along the way, Elephant seals have claws on their flippers which they use in fighting and even with human strength I cant tear the material that these Zodiacs are made of.

The next morning at dawn a familiar cruise ship the Hansiatic that I know also arrived at Gold Harbor, I spoke with the expedition leader to tell him about the fisty activity in the normal landing spot and explained what had happened to us the day before. Fletch is a great guy who has years of experience down in the south, he also was surprised to hear the news, but he also asked if we needed any help to repair our Zodiac. I explained that we had looked at it and it was a serious repair, but if within their ships crew they had someone who had lots of experience in inflatable repairs, then a second opinion was appreciated.

20 minutes later one of the ships big industrial Zodiacs pulls along side with the Chief Mate and Bosun of the Hansiatic, and we scratched our heads as to the damage to our now very sad looking Zodiac. Bit it was very plain to see for everyone that this was a shore based repair job. We parted company, the Hansiatic was heading for Antarctica later in the day, luckily their shore landings went fine, and for us we had our second Zodiac to inflate and prepare for duty.

So with another range of different experiences, I will chew on this experience and have a very different regard to Fur and Elephant seals in the future.


Friday, November 13, 2009

Georgia, oh sweet Georgia, the whole day through

Georgia, Georgia, the whole day through, and old sweet song, keeps Georgia on my mind !
Xplore arrived to the western shores of South Georgia after a smooth and rapid voyage from Stanley in the Falkland Islands. The 714 nautical mile crossing was achieved in 4 days to the minute, with clear seas devoid of the often seen ice fields we slipped into Rosita Harbor to a snug and secure anchorage between the shore line bull kelp beds.
Just like the Ray Charles song of Georgia, every time I return there is a feeling of peace and tranquility within the high snow capped mountains that surround you on all sides. With sunshine, South Georgia is a visual wonderland, its hard not to just stare at everything. When the clouds roll in the scene changes again to another mood, and gives you a different perspective of this truly grand island that is the breeding ground to millions of animals.
The sounds which come from the sea and on the beaches, is something which remains in your mind for life, the noises that fur seals make is so distinctive that even in the dead of night you can hear the Phiff Phiff noises that they make to themselves, or the roar that male elephant seals make whether they are making themselves comfortable for the night, or fighting for their territory on the beach can bring fear to even the strongest tempered person.
The team onboard has started to settle into life in the island, no more sailing watches to be done, and meals mixed between amazing experiences on shore, everyone returns to Xplore with memory cards full of images of animals and landscapes that have been carved by thousands of years of wind, snow and ice.
My only disappointment in coming to South Georgia this year is that a very dear friend of mine is not here on board with us to share this amazing experience. Betsy Crowfoot has been such a wonderful support, encouragement and media journalist from the inception of Xplore that she decided after so many years of me writing about the south to try "Life in the freezer" on board Xplore. After working through the final stages of the winter re-fit in Uruguay Betsy sailed with us as far as Punta Arenas, but will always be on our minds as a wonderful and dear friend.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

White Squall what a blow !

White Squall what a blow !
Well after 9 years of sailing down here in the south I would have to say that this little blow took the cake to date, and gave me and everyone on board yet another reminder of the fact that we are only children playing around here in the ocean, and if we are not careful, the all, almighty will slap our wrists when ever he chooses to.
We had just entered the eastern reaches of the Striates of Magellan very early in the morning, we had 120 nautical mile to run through the 2 narrows and then into the widening part of the Striates before arriving into Punta Arenas.
Our voyage from the River Plate, Buenos Aires had been overall very smooth sailing, with one other relatively small blow along the way where we stopped, and hove to for just over 24 hours. Well we knew that we were going to have some unsettled weather and potentially some strong northerly winds during the day, all forecasts were similar and we proceeded on with a positive out look of the evening in port after 10 days at sea.
Through the first narrows we had fresh winds and some snow from a NNE wind, in the middle widening stretch between the 2 narrows, winds eased and the sky cleared with winds turning unstable and back to the north. Part way through the second narrows, Audrey first mate woke me after a nap to tell me that it was freshening and that the trend of a constant drop in millibars was continuing at a regular and constant rate.
On deck we continued to reduce sail area as things had freshened, more turns on the staysail (only head sail up at this point) and 4 deep reefs in the main sail. Sneaking around the final corner of the second narrows we had 35 knots of true wind speed from the NW and 26 nautical miles to go. Within half an hour we were seeing wind speeds reaching 50 knots true, but with the amount of sail area up we couldn't reduce it further and still keep our head up to maintain course, Xplore was trucking along with no major issues.
Bright sunshine was pouring through the cloud structures as we were seeing all forms of white fluffy things, cumulous, cirrus, stratus and cumulonimbus. Down below at the nav area there was tension in the air, we all knew the conditions were tough, but we also knew that we were very close to being in port, we were taking a bit of a thumping and the winds weren't easing, 55, 57, and then Serge who was sitting in the companion way under the protection of the new cuddy / dodger called to me at the chart table that he was seeing something ? So what is it Serge ? a ship, the island not far off our port side, give me more information, well in a typical Serge crazy French way he said that he didn't know, well whilst on the edge of our seats and with electricity in the air, I jumped up to find out what the hell he was talking about.
Words cant explain the sight that I saw, but instantly I knew what it was, and there was no doubt, the whole sky from water level up to about 1000 feet was a wall of white, the sky above was brilliant blue, from full left to right there was nothing but a solid barrier and it was coming towards us fast, the tendons in my stomach went knotted and tight as I evaluated our options, it had to be a white squall ! To the left of us was an island which we were nearly clear of, to the right and closer to the main land of South America, but that was to wind ward, behind was the narrows with its turbulent tidal waters that rip through at 6 to 8 knots with not a lot of room to manoeuvre.
We held course for Punta Arenas, if anything we used engine revs to lift our heading and to try to bring us closer and quicker to the protection of the main land and to ease the force of the wind from the sails. 59 knots, 62, 68 I have never seen our wind gauges ever read this high, and we have always known that it reads lower than what we actually experience and see out there on the water. The sheets of the headsail were thumping and tearing at the deck hardware, the winches were shuddering as the whipping forces of wind, sails and sea were trying to tear each other apart, I know there was a lot of preying going on, but everyone remained very calm and matter of fact as these hurricane force winds tested what we and the boat were made of. In the 14 hours up to the white squall the barometer dropped 41.2 millibars, probably about the same, but opposite amount of blood pressure that rose in my veins during this experience.
I look back at the experience and reflect on how it all went, what lessons did I learn and what could I have done differently or better, yes there are points and some aspects that I may change if I ever go through anything like that again, but I do believe that the team of four on board, the boat being very well prepared made the total difference of safe passage or disaster. I didn't feel at any point that we were going to loose, but I know that in anything but Xplore I would not have been feeling safe or comfortable. During the afternoon we all took some photos and video, see this link to some footage that Serge took when the wind speeds were in the high 50's and low 60's, from my experience at sea I estimate we encountered winds over 75 knots.  Stephen Wilkins Skipper Xplore Expeditions