Cruise to Antarctica- Newsletter #3

Long Island, New York- May, 1999

This last newsletter of the trip covers our mad dash up the Atlantic from Cape Town to Long Island and the brief stops we made on the way. I wanted to be home in time for the annual Vintage Bentley rally held in late May. We made the roughly 6000 mile journey from South Africa to Bermuda in eight weeks, including stopovers. The South Atlantic gave us fair but mild winds up to the doldrums. We never reefed the main during the two-month cruise. A couple of hundred miles south of Barbados the Trade Winds became light and erratic and we powered more than I liked until we got to Bermuda. We spent eight days there, during which my daughter Brenda joined us. When she left, we had a stormy passage to Newport, Rhode Island.

When we pulled into Cape Town Mike’s parents, Jean and Roy Demont, were waiting at the Royal Cape Yacht Club to greet us. Thanks to the ham radio net we had joined on the way from Tristan da Cunha they knew exactly when we would arrive. They gave us a quick tour of the Cape of Good Hope region south of Cape Town and the new waterfront development in the city itself, then Mike left with them to spend nearly two weeks at the farm. The remaining crew member, Bruce, looked up some of his old pals from the time he was a student and after a couple of days became so nostalgic for his homeland in Zimbabwe he decided to stay and so once again I was looking for crew. Fortunately, finding replacement proved easy, Bill Steenberg had just spend a year working as a volunteer on a housing project in Zimbabwe and decided it would be neat to sail home to the U.S. We linked up at the yacht club and he signed on. There was a fair amount of maintenance needed to repair the ravages of our Antarctic cruise. Each day Bill and I worked on those in the mornings and behaved like typical tourists in the afternoon. A complication was the heavy wind at the yacht club dock, it howled every day. When a large oil drilling platform that was under going repairs broke loose at a dock about a mile away the local paper reported the wind at 65 kts, the highest we experienced during the voyage. The wind rapidly shredded flags, burgees and halyards, anything that was free to flap. To make matters worse the covers blew off some railway cars upwind and distributed the contents, copper ore, over all the boats at the club. The oil rig sank several small ship as it ricocheted down Cape Town Harbor. Cape Town far exceeded my expectations, it is a clean, modern city with pleasant streets, parks and museums. I never felt threatened and met nothing but courtesy from the locals of all colors. A bonus, thanks to the ludicrously under-valued rand, are the low prices to anyone with dollars. For example, Bill and I ate out on the last night in Cape Town at a nice restaurant for a total bill of $8, including beer. Bill had rented a car during his stay for $17 a day, which we used to restock the galley in several heavily loaded trips from the local supermarket. When Mike returned we left for St. Helena.

Jamestown, the capital of St. Helena, lies on the west coast in a steep valley. Apart from this rather dramatic setting it reminded me of a small English village of the 1950’s. There is no airfield and contact with the outside world is maintained by infrequent ships. This has led to a leisurely pace of life and feeling of timelessness. The shops have heavy wooden counters that smell of furniture polish. When I bought some onions, they were weighed on a scale with iron weights in one pan. There is a sunken steamer in the harbor (it caught fire and sank in 1911) which provides great snorkeling. We rented a car and toured the sights, of which the most famous is Longwood, Napoleon’s place of exile after he was defeated at Waterloo in 1815. It is quite a modest house for a man who was once an emperor. He lived there with a few aides and servants until he died in 1821. During the tour we saw huge fields of flax left to grow wild. Apparently some years ago the British Post Office decided to switch from string to elastic bands and that killed the market for St. Helena flax. We ate out each night in a beautiful open air restaurant surrounded by tropical shrubs and flowers.

When we left we had the south equatorial current under us which added about 20 miles a day to our progress. The days and evenings were warm, at night the stars shone with great brilliance, each morning we had a crop of flying fish to consign to the deep. Dolphins cavorted alongside and sometimes birds would alight on the whisker pole or radar post and hitch a ride. Mike and Bill honed their skill at celestial navigation, the sun sights got pretty good, within a few miles, but their one star sight that gave a credible fix was twenty miles off – good job the GPS receiver was working. The 1,900 mile leg to Fernando de Noronha took two weeks. Fernando is a small island about 250 miles off the northeast coast of Brazil. It has lush vegetation and startling, steep, pinnacles of volcanic origin. There is a runway, built by the Allies in WWII, and a small tourist economy based on modest hotels and restaurants.   The locals all drive dune buggy versions of the VW beetle, which is still produced in Brazil. We took a tour in one and discovered most of the roads are awful, just dirt tracks with lots of muddy puddles. Still, Fernando made a very pleasant interlude, especially the change from boat cooking. Unfortunately there was a dark side to the island’s past. When Brazil was a Portuguese colony, Fernando was a prison. The ruins of the grim fort we explored witnessed a couple of centuries of cruelty to the unfortunate inmates.


Almost as soon as we left Fernando de Noronha we ran into the doldrums, a region several hundred miles wide of calms, fickle winds and intense squalls. We slowly worked our way through and once we were far enough north we picked up the northeast trade winds. Now we started to move, past Sao Luis of so many memories from the 1995-97 cruise, past the Amazon delta – the sea was muddy even a hundred miles to seaward – and past the coast of French Guiana. Here we enjoyed a spectacular sight, just after sunset a large rocket, launched by the European Space Agency, blasted into the sky on our bow. When it was overhead, it separated with a huge smoke ring and the booster fell into the sea on our starboard, trailing sparks. When we crossed the equator, Bill was inducted as a son of Neptune, which we sealed with a toast of Umzumbe Dew, a potent liqueur made from sugar cane which Mike brought back from Natal. By coincidence, we held the ceremony on the ”Blue Moon” in March. A few nights later we had a brilliant stellar display after moonset – the Pole Star and the Big Dipper on the starboard, Orion overhead and the Southern Cross on the port quarter. A few hundred miles from Barbados we experienced a light counter current instead of the steady push we had before from the equatorial current. This, combined with a drop in the Trades, slowed us down but we made it to Barbados in two weeks from Fernando de Noronha. My main reason for choosing Barbados as our Caribbean landfall was to find the grave of my great-grandmother Susannah who was buried there in 1882. She was the wife of the Regimental Sergeant Major of a British regiment stationed in Barbados, the main British military base in the Carribean by then. She died in childbirth and I found the grave of Susannah and her baby in the neatly kept military cemetery. After that we went on a tour of the island in a taxi driven by one Dwight. We wound up at the Mount Gay Rum Distillery.   Dwight said it was his birthday, what with the sample rum and the toasts to Dwight’s birthday we all got pretty merry. We planned to sail to a beach for the afternoon and considering Dwight’s condition we thought he would be safer off the road so we invited him along. Unfortunately poor Dwight got as sick as a dog in the brief two-mile sail from our anchorage to the beach. When we were leaving Barbados I went to the customs officer for outward clearance. As he was completing the forms, the official asked where we had come from. I mentioned Cape Town, but said before that we had been in Tristan da Cunha, South Georgia and Antarctica. He didn’t know where they were but there was a large world map on the wall of the office, so, ever helpful, I sprang up to point out these places. Unfortunately the map’s border came a little south of Cape Horn, so I pointed vaguely below the edge of the map and said, “down there!” He was profoundly impressed – his jaw almost literally fell and he repeated, “You sailed off the edge of the map!.”   I felt like the ancient mariners who feared they would sail off the edge of the world.   Our next stop was St. Martin; partly to restock our vital Mount Gay rum supply and also to see our old friends Kay and Victoria Pope. After a day we sailed for Bermuda. The highlight was a flying visit to the boat by my daughter Brenda, fortunately the weather cooperated as we cruised the beautiful western shore. As soon as Brenda left, we sailed for Newport RI despite gloomy weather predictions. They were right, we had northeasterly winds the whole way, usually 20 to 30 kts which certainly kicked up a rumpus in the vicinity of the Gulf Stream. Although it was a wet sail, we set a record for FIONA: 3 3/4 days from the Mills buoy off St. George to Brenton Reef buoy off Newport. In contrast to the first part of the cruise, we had two reefs in the main nearly all the way.   After clearing customs Mike and Bill toured historic Newport and I attended a meeting of the Cruising Club of America which, coincidentally, was held in Newport at the same time. We spent a night at Wickford visiting old friends from the Bentley Driver’s Club and then sailed home in thick, thick fog via Block Island. We sailed up the Patchogue River at high tide on the evening of 9th May (a day later than the cruise timetable) and tied up at F.M.Weeks Yachtyard. We had logged 21,784 nm since leaving last July.

Castro, Chileo Island. Houses on stilts at the waterfront

Fiona lies at anchor in Pto Bueno off the Sarmiento Canal

Eric holds a king crab donated by the port captain at Pto Eden. Mike looks on in disbelief.

Fiona sails within a couple of hundred feet of the huge Pio XI glacier.


Patagonia-Mike and Bruce climb the rocks above Coleta Brecknock

The hardy trees are permanently bent to minimize the wind. Bruce is retrieving the stern line.

Ancient rock lines the shore north of Magellan Straight

The unique three yacht raft at Brecknock Coleta

View of the sunken “Micalvi” the yacht club at Pto Williams on the Beagle Channel.

Eric samples the beer in the bar aboard “Micalvi”. The burgee of the Bellport Bay YC is on the bulkhead presented by Eric

In the museum devoted to the Yaghan Indians, Pto Williams

The calm conditions as we sailed past Cape Horn. The day before it was blowing 45 kts.

The forbidding shore of Antarctica

Fiona lies at anchor at Port Lockroy, near 65 degrees South

Caught by a falling tide at Deception Is, South Shetland Group.

A plane abandoned by the British Antarctic Survey at Deception Is

An iceberg encountered on the way to South Georgia Is

The beautiful north coast of South Georgia

A fur seal barks defiance on the shore at Grytviken, South Georgia

King Penguins gather on the beach near Grytviken, some are moulting. Note the kelp in the sea.

The grave of the famous explorer Ernest Shackleton at Grytviken, South Georgia