Newsletter #3 -Hobart to Cape Horn, Stanley

This letter will cover the long leg from Hobart to Stanley around Cape Horn and our adventures at South Georgia Island. But before that I want to jot down a few memories of Hobart, which proved to be a great stop-over. The city itself has a population of about 45,000, it was founded as a prison colony in the early nineteenth century. There are many very fine examples of Victorian architecture still remaining. Several downtown blocks are now a pedestrian precinct with malls and outdoor restaurants. As we were there during the Christmas holiday season we experienced many festive activities such as a food tasting fair on one of the harbor piers. Don’t forget summer started a week after we arrived. As I mentioned in my last letter, Bob’s partner Sue and David’s sister Lindsey joined us in Hobart. The five of us took a tour of the Tahune Forest, a surviving bit of original rain forest on the west coast of Tasmania. On the way there the countryside reminded me of England. The lower level of the forest is full of huge, impressive ferns. The upper level canopy can be viewed by means of an ‘Air Walk’, which in one spot is cantilevered out sixty feet over the trees. The sight of these massive, tall Huan pine trees with the wild river beyond is unforgettable. The tour ended with an ascent of the four-thousand foot Mount Wellington which overlooks Hobart and Storm Bay.
I enjoyed pottering round the city, when I went for a beard trim I found the barber was quite an accomplished amateur artist. I bought a painting of a cricket match right off the wall of his shop. I found several used book stores to browse and I visited the many museums and art galleries. The old prison church, built by convict labor, was fascinating. The bricks were hand-made by the prisoners, on many their thumb-prints were still visible, left as the bricks were pressed from the mold. The tiny, dark cells for solitary confinement were built directly under the pews, presumably so the unfortunate inmate could hear the service in a muffled kind of way. It was an interesting aspect of the Victorian psyche as by 1840 even the Governor said the cells were not fit for animals, let alone humans. The church was converted to a court-house and used until the 1970’s, which is why it survived. The original Victorian prison with cells, workshops and treadmill was knocked down as late as the 1960’s, sadly enough. It was huge, the twenty-foot high wall covered two city blocks, it held 1,500 prisoners.
David and Lindsey rented a car for island sightseeing over Christmas. While they were away Sue, Bob and myself took another organized tour of Field Mountain and a game farm. On the mountain we saw wallabies in the wild and at the game farm we inspected Tasmanian Devils, wombats, Koala bears and kangaroos, the latter two of which are not native to Tasmania. The other animals were mostly orphans of road-killed parents and would be released when older. The ‘Devil’ is so named because they are nocturnal and their howls at night convinced the original settlers, who could find no source, that the countryside was haunted by devils. They are scavengers and are not a danger to humans unless you stick your hand in their hole.

Back in Hobart I had curry almost every night at one of the numerous Indian restaurants. I often ate lunch in a pub accompanied by a glass of good but inexpensive Australian Chardonnay. I saw a couple of movies and most days I spent an hour checking e-mail at a friendly internet café. It all seemed very civilized after a few weeks in the Roaring Forties. On Christmas Day we moved the boat to the Royal Yacht Club of Tasmania, about a mile out of town, as our slip at the downtown pier was needed by early arrivals in the annual Sydney to Hobart Race. I usually picked a different route for the walk into town from the club each day through the suburbs of the city. Generally speaking; the houses were small, often with corrugated tin roofs, the ramble was great fun. One day Sue, Bob and I went on a massive shopping spree at the local supermarket and packed enough food in the boat to get us to Brazil, which will be our next chance to restock. An old cruising friend, Pauline Chapman, noticed while checking out the Fiona website that I had fetched up in Hobart and contacted a friend of hers that lived nearby. He arranged to pick up David and myself for lunch at his farm on New Year’s Eve. He breeds Alpacas, a very superior-looking animal. We had a very interesting stay and a pleasant meal with him and his wife before he dropped us back at the boat in time for the evening’s festivities. I also had a date that afternoon with the Australian Quarantine Service, who had sealed all our canned meat when we arrived. They checked the seals and gave us permission to leave the next day. When it dawned Sue started her long trek to New York at 4 am and we cleared for Stanley in the Falkland Islands just before 10 am. The controller manning the harbor radio seemed mildly surprised at our destination.

An enthusiastic member of the yacht club insisted that we visit Auckland Island, lying about 300 nm south of New Zealand at 51°S. He said it was on the way, it was unique and he even gave us Xerox copies of detailed charts. It is a World Heritage Site and prior permission is needed for a visit, so we decided to sail by without landing. It took us a week to get there, we arrived at the south coast just as dawn was breaking and were greeted by thousands of sea-birds that wheeled and screamed overhead. It appeared to be typical sub-Antarctica tundra, with no trees and no high mountains. Our friend had pressed us to visit a particularly scenic bay on the east side, but it was beset by turbulent winds and choppy seas. I was not keen to get too close to shore but we got within a quarter mile: the chart copy we had was dated 1883; things might have changed since then. We took the mandatory photos and hung a turn right. Ahead lay Cape Horn and Stanley, 5000 nm downwind in the ‘Furious Fifties’.

On the 12th January we crossed the international date line, it was a Sunday, so we had two of them; the first when ship’s time was 12 hours ahead of Greenwich and the second when we were 12 hours behind. The next day the weather deteriorated and eventually we had to hove-to, just holding our position until the storm blew itself out. Unfortunately a heavy wave broke onto the boat and burst the staysail, which was sheeted to windward. This is a very useful sail for windy conditions so we carried it below to repair it with the old Read sewing machine. We suspended watches and all worked full time to stitch two patches on the ‘T’ shaped tear. One person was needed just to stop the machine from sliding about as Fiona rolled furiously in the storm. We had the job done in about five hours and we were able to set the sail again. A few days later we entered a region of very high humidity and the boat was plagued by heavy condensation – water dripped copiously off the bulkheads and hatches. It played havoc with the electronics, most of which we were able to dry out, but the radar hasn’t worked since then. Perhaps the condensation was associated with the presence of icebergs, which also appeared about this time. They were huge, they probably originated at the Ross Ice Shelf that lay a thousand miles to our south. Even though we kept a good look-out it was a little scary at night without radar thrashing to the east hoping one would not get in the way. After a few days we failed to see any more but then came a period of intense squalls with wind shifts and cold rain. At one time when Bob was on watch he counted six, scattered about from horizon to horizon. Even without the transient effect of the squalls we were finding the weather down in the fifties was never constant for long, frequent shifts of wind direction and speed had us on deck several times a day reefing or jibing so that we could hold the course. While we were furling the jib on January 23rd we noticed the Profurl was not working correctly. Inspection revealed that the lower drum mechanism has split into two pieces. The upper piece carried the drum, the lower the bearing, which was visible as the parts separated. I called the company on the Iridium satellite phone for advice, but they were pessimistic; the unit could only be repaired at the service center. We winched David to the masthead so he could relocate the stop and thus limit movement of the foils, this enabled us to use the jib in light winds. A day later the wind increased to gale force and we reached under reefed staysail and reefed main. At the height of the storm I was working in the cockpit when I noticed a pod of pilot whales surfing through the waves next to the boat. They seemed to be enjoying the storm, their shiny black skin glowed. It was still blowing hard when David reported the toilet in the forward head had blocked up. As we pitched and rolled I pulled the plumbing to pieces looking for the stoppage; this is when you find out if you are really cut out to enjoy ocean cruising.

January 26th was David’s birthday. I baked a cake to have with our Happy Hour rum. As it lay on the counter awaiting the addition of a few candles a large wave dolloped on the main hatch and sea-water spurted under the slides, splashing part of the cake. We took this as a hint that Father Neptune wanted some so we cut a soggy slice and tossed it over the side as a peace offering. Curiously enough, after that we had an unusual spell of very calm weather. For six days we never even reefed the mainsail. Can it be that there is something in the old sailor’s superstitions? Our daily mileage dropped, we were frustrated, especially as we were below 54°S, where the wind is supposed to blow all the time. Eventually, near 100°W the wind came back and our daily rate picked up dramatically, Cape Horn was now a little more than a thousand miles away. One day the pressure fell by 17 millibars in twelve hours and when it bottomed out we got a gale. About midnight a steering line on Victor chafed through and we all spent a couple of hours on deck repairing it. When we finally got back in the cabin out of the noise and spray we had a stiff tot of rum. Two nights later we again had gale force winds and we spent two hours on deck reefing and shifting sails. More rum! We arrived in the vicinity of Cape Horn as dawn was breaking on a rainy, misty day. The wind was piping up to 30 knots from the north. Just as I cracked the old joke to David and Bob, ‘There’s Cape Stiff, if you’re lucky you wont see it again’, things began to go wrong. We were working forward to clear a fouled halyard when I noticed Victor’s vane seemed rather wobbly. Walking over to the stern for a look I saw that the support strut had broken again. This is the same failure that forced us into Hobart, this time it was the starboard strut. I had replaced both struts the previous winter because they were worn, clearly the manufacturer has a QC problem. Unfortunately we would have to hand steer until we got to Stanley, 400 nm away. Shortly after Victor’s demise the starboard jib sheet parted with a bang. We passed about three miles south of the Horn at ten-thirty and gave the Chilean navy people a call on the radio. After recording details of the boat and voyage they wished us luck. The Cape was only intermittently visible in the driving rain and fog; I think they were being more than just polite. Later that day the wind picked up to about 50 knots, we furled the mainsail and as we adjusted the boom the topping lift broke, permitting the boom to fall with a crash. David was lucky to escape being brained, as it was the force bent a stanchion. Despite all our problems there was one good thing: we picked up a three knot current that whisked Fiona past the Horn and Staten Island and ejected us into the Atlantic Ocean like a cork out of a champagne bottle. We made it to Stanley three days later, arriving in the late afternoon of Valentine’s Day, 46 days after leaving Hobart. We had added 5,634 nm to the log, I estimate we also received a boost from the current of about 552 nm, making a total distance sailed of 6,186 nm at an average of 134 nm/day.

You may recall from my first newsletter that one objective of the cruise was to duplicate a typical clipper ship voyage around the world. Putting into Stanley needing repairs after rounding the Horn was very typical. In fact, there are a number of hulks of old square-riggers still littering the harbor that made it to Stanley but were too battered ever to leave. That was not to be our fate, we soon got our repairs in hand, but other similarities are worth a comment. I cannot properly compare our experiences as sailors with those of the old salts that manned the clippers. Theirs was a brutal existence; man-hauling heavy ropes and gear on a ship that weighed several thousand tons. Frequently lives were lost on a rounding of the Horn, often by falling from the rigging as they worked as much as a hundred feet above the pitching deck.

But every watch we had to don foul weather gear and seaboots, once you are soaked by a wave, or your boots are full of seawater you are just as wet and cold as they were. Below the boat was damp from leaks and condensation, I got a great appreciation of a remark often seen in the memoirs of old seamen, namely that they went to sleep ‘all-standing’, that is, in their wet clothes. The continuous exposure to salt water meant that the minor cuts on your hands never healed. You accepted the bruises and bangs gained as the boat rolled unexpectedly as normal. Although we were not working a hundred feet in the air it was often pitch dark and slippery as we worked on deck to reef or furl sail at the onset of a gale. And there was no let-up, we had to stand watch after watch, day after day, week after week. There were frequent gear failures that had to be dealt with immediately with all of us on deck, regardless of who was on watch. When you got the chance you slept and ate, and got through one day at a time. We had one advantage the seamen of old did not enjoy; we knew where we were. They depended on scuttlebutt, usually passed on by the cook. We plotted our position every day and watched it creep slowly across the chart of the featureless South Pacific Ocean. One question- how on earth did they manage without flashlights in the old days? We all worked at night with our small Maglights, often clenched between our teeth.

Stanley itself had changed considerably since I was last there in 1992, a reflection of the affluence brought by selling licenses to fish their waters to foreign companies. Quite a modern-looking suburbia is growing on the east side of the town. One development we really came to appreciate was a new Seamen’s Centre built adjacent to the floating dock where we tied up the boat. It provided toilets, showers, laundry, e-mail, a snack bar and many home comforts for visiting fishermen. I was a little hesitant at first that dilettante yachtsman would be able to use it, but they treated us as real seamen. It functions under the auspices of the UK-based Royal National Mission to Seamen, they describe themselves as Christians with their sleeves rolled up and that seems apt. The social center of Stanley is still the Globe Tavern, David and Bob soon discovered it, and its attractive barmaids. We mostly ate our lunches at the Seamen’s Centre but we tried just about every eatery in the place for our suppers during our one-week stay. These ranged from the up-market ‘Upland Goose’ hotel to a fish and chip shop on wheels. . It was a pleasant 30-minute walk along the shore into town, unless it was raining, which it did most days. I talked to the administrator of South Georgia, who is based in Stanley, he told me that plan are under way to remove most of the old whaling station at Grytviken because of asbestos contamination. I also talked to the Fisheries Department people about the ice conditions for our trip. They predicted plenty, for openers there was a thirty-five mile-long berg aground off the northwest of South Georgia. For this reason, combined with our lack of radar, we decided to skip a visit to the South Orkney Islands, as originally planned, and go directly to South Georgia. We were a little pushed for time anyway. When I talked to the British Antarctic Survey about our trip, which has a summer base at King Edward Point, they suggested taking the mail as few ships call there. The post office put together a twenty-pound bag of accumulated mail in a sack with the imposing label ‘Royal Mail’. We refueled, restocked our fruit and veggies and we left a week after we arrived.

At first the wind was fairly light, then it died altogether, for about a day we ran the engine. With the lack of wind the fog descended on us, it was a little scary as the visibility dropped to a hundred yards or so to peer ahead hoping an iceberg would not emerge out of the gloom. I had looked at our defunct radar when we were tied up in Stanley, the problem seemed to be a defective integrated circuit chip, which is impossible to fix without a direct replacement. When the wind came back the fog dispersed and within a few hours we found ourselves surrounded by icebergs. We sailed through them for over a hundred miles. They came in all shapes and sizes, but many were flat, suggesting they had broken away from an ice-shelf. We maintained a constant cockpit look-out and at night we slowed the boat down by reefing the mainsail. The big bergs were easy to spot, at least in daylight, the real danger was the small pieces, called ‘growlers’, which had broken off the big ones and although they weighed many tons showed little surface above the sea. As we sailed past the ‘bergs seals popped their heads out of the water to get a look at us. Dolphins frequently gamboled across our bow, the vicinity of the ice must be rich in fish. The last night we sailed along the coast of South Georgia, invisible in the inky night. We set a double reefed main to both to slow us down and to allow us arrive off the land at daybreak. As the sky lightened the fantastic, jagged black and white outline of South Georgia appeared before our eyes. As the sun rose the white mountain peaks were bathed in pink.

We tied up temporarily at the government jetty at King Edward Point. The resident Fishery Department Officer, who is also customs, immigration, magistrate and wears many other hats, briefed us on the current conditions and the care we had to take to avoid damaging the environment. The old Norwegian whaling station at Grytviken, across the bay, is now in such dangerous shape that it is off limits. The museum, church and the whalers cemetery are still open. After a shower and a cup of tea at the resident’s apartment, which, by the way, must have one of the most spectacular vistas in the world, we motored across to Grytviken and tied up to the rotting dock. This was the chance to meet my old friends Pauline and Tim Carr again; they run the museum. The next day we walked to the cemetery that holds the grave of Sir Ernest Shackleton. Numerous fur seals barked at us as we passed. Then we hiked a few miles to see the dammed lake above Grytviken, built by the whalers to get hydroelectricity. After that we walked on to the site of a of a helicopter wreck, a victim of the fighting when the Argentineans invaded in 1982. In the evening we staged a movie using a DVD in Bob’s laptop; ‘It’s a Mad,Mad,Mad, Mad World.’ The next day we trudged past hundreds more fur seals to King Edward Point and the Shackleton memorial, erected by his shipmates when he died in Grytviken in 1922. We were just in time to see the Royal Navy patrol boat ‘Leeds Castle’ tie up carrying the Governor of the Falkland Islands on an inspection tour. The next morning he stopped by the boat for a few minutes chat. I think he made the visit because almost any decision about future of the old whaling factories at Grytviken and other sites along the coast will cost big bucks. Another sailboat tied up next to us carrying a group of mountaineers planning to climb the formidable peaks for the next month. We had quite a party on board their boat that evening. We left the next morning and powered over to Stromness. This is where Shackleton wound up at the end of the epic journey over the mountains and glaciers of South Georgia after his whaleboat had made a landfall on the west side of the island in 1916. We did not land as the dangerous condition of the dock and buildings has caused the authorities to put it off limits to visitors. We could see the manager’s house where the three men first made contact with civilization again after two years and we saw the stream they splashed down on their way out of the mountains. After brief look at the remains of the whaling station at Leith we put out to sea, our destination was tropical Brazil.

Once clear of the coast we again encountered the field of icebergs that had plagued us on the way down. There was no moon, as night fell we decided to lie a-hull for the night, that is, take the sails down and drift for the night. The wind was blowing up to gale force. Just after Bob came on watch at 10 pm he was horrified to see a growler close to the bow on the port side. Bob’s growler was about the same size as Fiona but, of course, weighed much more as most of its mass is under water. He gave me a call to start the engine, just as I came on deck we grazed the thing but by then the engine was running and we backed away without damage. I shall not easily forget the sight of its tortured outline in the beam of our flashlights as the storm tossed spray over it and it faded from view into the darkness. When the sky lightened in the morning we counted thirteen large icebergs in sight. We set sail and zigzagged through the field all that day and again lay a-hull the following night. By the next day the iceberg count has thinned although we still spotted a few, it seemed safe enough to sail through the night with a look-out in the cockpit, the starlight gave just enough visibility to see an obstruction ahead. The next day we were clear of the ice, but by then the clouds rolled in and the wind increased to strong gale force on the nose. As we got into the ‘Roaring Forties’ the wind strengthened to 50 knots, but that is an estimate based on the sea surface condition: the wind blew away our anemometer and its masthead mounting bracket. Mother Nature was making us fight to leave the Antarctic and get to the Tropics. We slowly worked our way north to the ‘Horse Latitudes’, a band of variable weather lying above 39º S, allegedly so named because the old clippers had to abandon their cargos of horses and dump them in the sea when they ran out of fresh water. ‘Variable’ is certainly the right word; on the 16th March we enjoyed happy hour in the cockpit for the first time in months, a few hours later, just after midnight on the 17th we had to fight to furl the reefed mainsail in a wind that increased to over 60 knots and was shrieking across a foaming sea. By late in the day we were jogging over a calm sea under a full moon listening to President Bush on shortwave as he announced the attack on Iraq. The weather continued to be fluky with head winds, calms and occasionally a nice reach. But it was much warmer, on the 18th we saw some flying fish. The next day we dropped the mainsail in a calm period to make a minor repair and decided to take a swim while the boat was stationary. The water was wonderful. We slowly fought our way towards Santos, now also bucking the strong current that flows south from the equator. It took us three weeks to make good the 1860 nm distance from South Georgia, we logged 2,448 nm to do it.

Happy sailing until the next time, Eric.


IMG0225 The impressive Victorian edifice of the old gas company in Hobart. It now houses a shop for tourist items.

On the nature trail at Field Mountain, Tasmania.

A Tasmanian Devil at the game farm. When it is older it will be returned to the wild.

At the Alpaca Farm near Hobart. The animals are bred for their fine wool.

Bob and Eric are repairing the staysail on the way to Cape Horn.

David and his Birthday cake. We made sure to give Father Neptune a slice.

Rounding Cape Horn. This was Eric’s third passage past the famous cape.

The plain exterior of the center of Stanley’s social life. The interior is warm and cozy, like the barmaids.

The hulk of the square rigger CAPRICORN lying near the shore at Stanley. Other abandoned ships were converted into jetties.

Loading the Royal Mail for delivery by FIONA to South Georgia Island.

Iceberg encountered on the way to South Georgia. We passed about a hundred on the way in and as many when we left.

The spectacular coast of South Georgia. The sun was just coming up as this picture was taken

The mountain behind Eric is called ‘Sugartop’. It rises to over 6,000 ft.

Sir Ernest Shackleton’s grave in the whaler’s cemetery at Grytviken. He died in 1922 while leading an expedition to Antarctica.

FIONA tied up to the old dock at Grytviken, its decaying state is clearly evident.

L to R. Pat Lurlock. Resident Officer, Eric, Howard Pierce, the Governor of the Falkland Islands, who was on an inspection tour.