January, 2014

Simon and Bob joined David and myself at Punta del Este, bringing the crew-strength up to four for the Antarctic leg. I asked David to be responsible for satellite communications and computer data handling; Simon to be the Sailing Master; and Bob to be ship’s doctor and photographer. We put on board last minute provisions; most of what we would need had already been loaded the week before I left for New York. We experienced mostly calm weather as we headed south across the wide estuary of the River Plate. For two days, we motored in fog, then a light wind materialized and we sailed for a half a day before the wind picked-up and veered to the SE. We reefed the jib and a few hours later unreefed as the wind varied. Within a day the wind, had picked up to 30 knots and the crew got a chance to reef the mainsail for the first time plus the jib was furled. The wind continued to increase to gale-force, with gusts to 45 knots. Talk about changeable weather! A heavy wave struck Fiona‘s bow with a violent crash–it displaced the rigid dinghy on the foredeck and broke the mounting chocks. The guys went forward in driving spray to secure more lashings. After about a day, the wind rapidly dropped and soon we were chugging along to the Falkland Islands under power. Then, a westerly wind developed in the range 10 to 20 knots, which kept us moving until we made a landfall on the north coast of East Falkland Island. We tied-up at the massive floating dock installed after Argentinian War of 1982, called FIPASS. The leg from Punta del Este had taken 10 days and we logged about 1,300 nautical miles.

Port Stanley is fairly bleak, but the people are very friendly. There is a Seaman’s Centre near FIPASS, which has all the necessary facilities and a snack bar. It is a three-mile round trip into the town center; a walk I made every day, often in rain and brisk wind. The path leads by the sea shore, and it’s frequently inhabited by magnificent birds. In town, there are three cozy pubs and several restaurants. Cruise ships visit in “season,” which was just beginning. One day I stopped-by to see some old friends I had made on previous visits, Lily and Roddy Napier. Now they live in Stanley; I knew them when they ran a farm on Westpoint Island. Our time was mostly spent in preparation for the trip in Antarctica; we replaced the CQR anchor with a 65-pound fisherman type and we bolted aluminum plates called “Deadlights” over the main cabin’s windows. David crafted a wooden cover for the aft cabin hatch from surplus pallets that were scattered on the dock. I finally got the Espar diesel heater to function. Simon and Bob repaired the broken chocks for the rigid dinghy. David used the Wi-Fi at the Center to scan Internet data on Antarctic ice: it did not look good– there was pack ice as far north as 64 degrees south. Records from earlier Antarctic voyagers have reported ice-free conditions as far as 70 degrees south. This did not bode well for our attempt to circumnavigate Antarctica westabout. There was some social activity, we invited Roger and Flo off Australis over for Happy Hour drinks. One evening Simon (not our Simon) and Maria invited the crews of the boats at FIPASS over for a potluck supper on board Simon’s father’s boat Buena, a few locals stopped by, and the cabin was packed. We loaded fresh fruit and veggies, bought some frozen and double-baked bread and some British delicacies such as mushy peas, Marmite and Bassetts Liquorice All-sorts. We were ready!

The forecast for the day we left was 30 knots from the west, which was okay, as this would give us a beam reach; our destination was King George Island in the South Shetland group, which lay almost due south of the Falklands. We left with the storm mainsail bent on–this is smaller than the working mainsail and has two reefs, the second being very deep, leaving almost a trysail when set. In Port William Sound, before we encountered the offshore wind, we tied in the first reef. Thirty-knot winds may seem like a lot, but in my experience of the region, such winds are not uncommon and it is almost impossible to make a transit of the Drake Passage and Scotia Sea without meeting winds like that at some stage. Offshore, the wind was blowing hard, with gusts to 50 knots, we furled the jib and sailed with the reefed main and staysail. My sailmaker, Mark, had me told the staysail was “bulletproof.” We tied the second and last remaining reef in the mainsail–it was well-timed; I had watched with amazement and some trepidation as the anemometer climbed over 60 knots–the needle was vibrating madly on the end-peg. That night, we ploughed south with shortened rig in rising seas. As the gloomy scene lightened with sunrise, the wind dropped into the 30 knot range–I figured the early turbulence might have been due to East Falkland Island lying to windward, and as we headed into more open water, the wind would settle down. The boat was taking a battering from huge waves but we shook-out the second reef with Fiona‘s foredeck gang wearing harnesses as they worked at the mast. The sea conditions were very rough. I had just retired to my bunk in the aft cabin for a post lunch nap when Simon shouted that the forward bilge pump wasn’t working and the head was flooding. I worked my way forward, grabbing the uprights in the heaving cabin; there was a lot more water than just a stuck pump would account for. As we watched the water level rose rapidly; we were clearly sinking by the bow. By the time we had assembled a couple of pumps, the water was over the cabin sole–we got a “bucket brigade” going and I went into the water in the forward head to find the leak. A copious stream of water was running down the inside of the hull on the port side, from somewhere behind a locker. The only thing up there, out of sight, was the gooseneck for the head. I shut the main thru-hull valve for the toilet and stream greatly slowed down. When we got the water level down to a manageable level, I peered behind the panel in front of the gooseneck–the hose from the thru-hull valve was detached from the plastic “U”–almost certainly caused by excessive pressure as the huge waves slammed into the bow. Water had been pouring into the boat through an inch and a half hose opening to the sea. I figure we were minutes away from sinking, or, at least, shipping enough water to cause a capsize. The problem in reassembling the gooseneck was that the white sanitary hose used in marine toilets hardens like steel when it is cold. To get the thing back together, David and I had to put the ends of the hose in boiling water to soften the plastic so it would slide over the barbs on the thru-hull valve and the “U” fitting. Working in the pitching bow with sea water and the contents of the discharge hose sloshing about was tough, and for the first time in more than 30 years, I was seasick.

Later, we found the forward bilge pump was completely clogged by debris, which always happens when the water rises to new levels. The interior of the boat was saturated; besides the water splashing about from what was left in the bilge, the pounding seas found every crack in the caulking and forced water in. On the starboard side of the main cabin, the pressure of the waves thudding on the sides forced the rubber gasket out from between the movable port and its frame–water gushed onto Simon’s bunk every time a wave hit. All the other bunks were soaked, as well. As evening fell on the second, day we retied the second reef in the mainsail in a wind that gusted to 45 knots. The wind slowly veered to the southwest and Fiona began to sail east of the rhumb line as she slogged to the south. After a few hours, we gybed onto port tack and headed west; this produced an entire new set of leaks as the waves slammed against the port side; the navigation table was flooded and my laptop computer went the way of all flesh. Also, the inverter in the engine room failed, along with many other victims of the flood. Two five-gallon Jerry jugs filled with diesel disappeared from the aft deck. In due course, I decided we had sailed far enough to the west and asked Simon, who was on watch at the time, to gybe onto starboard tack. When Simon grabbed the wheel, which had been locked to the wind vane, he found it spun freely–the steering chain was broken! It is testimony to Fiona‘s sailing ability that, for some time, she had been holding a good course in tremendous seas and strong winds without any rudder control. A quick look under the pedestal revealed the failure: the master link fastening the chain, which passes over the wheel sprocket to the wire rope leading to the quadrant, had snapped under the tension needed to swing the rudder in the heavy seas we were enduring. Fitting a new master link took only a few moments and I noted in passing that there was only one other master link left in the spares kit. The problem was that the wire rope leading to the quadrant had come off the sheaves, and the grooves in the quadrant, which was swinging violently as the rudder oscillated in the heavy seas. Getting the wire back was not going to be easy–the quadrant, which is a heavy bronze casting, fitted neatly in the quadrant box, with little room to spare. With Bob helping, I lashed the quadrant to the end-stop with rope and slipped my fingers between the quadrant and the sides of the box to get the wire back in the grooves. If the quadrant slipped its moorings to the stop I was going to be short a few digits. Bob guided the rope into sheaves under the aft cabin sole at the same time. Eventually we got everything in place and tightened up. As we went on deck to try the wheel, Simon gasped and pointed ahead–looming out of the gloom and spray were the rocky cliffs of lonely Beauchene Island only a couple of miles ahead; the most southerly outpost of the Falkland archipelago. We had got the steering fixed just in time to gybe over and head southeast again. The wind was 40 to 50 knots with occasional gusts that touched 60 knots.

A few minutes later I was below when I heard violent sail flogging and Bob poked his head through the companionway hatch to say the staysail boom had broken! I rushed on deck to view a scene of devastation on the foredeck; shreds of Dacron lashed by the wind flew from the forestay and a port shroud. Bob and Simon struggled to get the staysail halyard down, the sail had split in half. When we got things a little more under control, it was possible to figure out what had happened: the swivel on the staysail outhaul block had sheared and the adjacent cleat had been wrenched out of the staysail boom. With this mess attached to the staysail claw, the sail had rapidly flogged itself to destruction. Although the boom had fallen to the deck it was not actually broken. I now faced a difficult situation: although I carried spares for the jib and mainsail, I did not have a second staysail. Without the staysail, Fiona‘s ability to sail to windward, particularly with winds over 25 to 30 knots when the jib was furled, was seriously compromised. Most of the other failures already mentioned could be dealt-with and Antarctica was still within reach, yet the loss of the staysail forced a reappraisal of the cruise objectives. I knew there was nowhere nearby that could provide another sail. Probably Santos in Brazil was the best bet, but if we sailed to Santos there would be no time to head south again in the 2013-14 season, so Antarctica was out. I was bitterly disappointed: the cruise had been in preparation for nearly a year, and, of course, David, Simon and Bob had signed-up specifically to visit the Antarctic continent. Standing in the heaving cockpit with the spray flying in the howling wind my heart was heavy; it looked liked this was as close as we were going to get to Antarctica. I told the crew that I thought we had done our best, we had been very unlucky to run into weather like this and we had to consider how to get ourselves home in one piece. I felt our best strategy was to head to Cape Town; all the facilities were there that we required. It was a long way but it was downwind! Accordingly, at 53 degrees south and 59 degrees west, we turned the boat around and headed northeast. Sometimes, turning around when the destination is so close is the hardest decision one can make. The trip to Cape Town would be no picnic– it was about 3,500 nautical miles away, mostly sailed in the Furious Fifties and Roaring Forties. As it turned-out the decision was the smartest thing I could have done–we later discovered the main water tank had shifted in the melee and cracked. Half of our fresh water had leaked-out.

During the next couple of days we rolled downwind, cleaned up the boat and tried to dry out our clothing and bedding. David rescued the hard drive from my flooded computer and pronounced the data could be retrieved. He managed to transfer the program used for Sailmail to his own laptop so we again had limited e-mail capability, a major feat in the soggy, bouncing boat. One of the first e-mail messages I received was that the Antarctic pack ice was the furthest north it had been for 34 years, confirming that even if we had made to the Peninsula my original plan of an Antarctic circumnavigation would not have been feasible. The wind was variable and at times fell to 10 knots, but mostly the log mentions relative winds of 20 knots with swells rolling past the stern. I decided we would visit Tristan da Cunha Island, it was almost on the direct path to Cape Town. I had sailed there once before, twelve years earlier, I felt the crew would enjoy the chance to visit this isolated community. It was a leg of about 2,000 nautical miles. Four days later, after enjoying typical fifties sailing, that is, frequent swells washing into the cockpit, the nemesis I had been dreading occurred; the steering failed again. Fortunately, the wind was in the 15-knot range and we hove-to under the reefed mainsail. On inspection I again found that wire rope was dangling from the quadrant and at first I just assume the wire had stretched and dropped out of the grooves. In order to keep the quadrant from shifting we rigged the emergency tiller to the rudder post extension and Simon sat on deck holding the tiller over, although the wind was not strong there was a heavy sea running and he had to work hard to hold the rudder in position. As Bob and I toiled in the aft cabin the boat rolled quite violently. Suddenly there was a bang like a gunshot and the quadrant crashed to the other side, fortunately our fingers were not in the way. Simon was still holding the tiller in the original position; the substantial cast iron universal joint between the rudder post and the extension had fractured, this entirely due to the force of a wave hitting the rudder. As we had done on the previous failure Bob and I tied the quadrant down with rope and finished re-positioning the wire rope. When this was done it was obvious that the problem was not the wire stretching; something was broken. By this time we were all exhausted, the motion of the boat was fatiguing, night had fallen so we let Fiona lie hove-to while we ate a simple supper and caught some sleep. I lay in my bunk with dark thoughts; without the emergency tiller there was no way of steering the boat if we could not fix the original system. We were hundreds of miles from the nearest land; South Georgia Island, which was hardly a haven. I had no idea how we would steer if we could not fix the failure. In the morning, at first light, I discovered that the chain had broken inside the steering wheel pedestal, to get at it the compass and engine controls had to be removed. We all gathered in the cockpit and carefully stored each part as I removed them so that they would not get lost in the pitching, rolling boat. We fished-out the chain from the sprocket attached to the wheel and I removed the broken link using a grinder on the universally versatile Dremel tool. I inserted the last master link in the spares kit to join the chain together.

This was the last major failure, although I felt the Sword of Damocles was hanging over us each time I saw the wheel working hard. Running down the Forties, we had the usual minor problems: chafe of the Aries lines, whisker pole topping lift breaking, etc, yet basically the boat held together, and as we worked to the ENE, the weather moderated and it got perceptively warmer. Three weeks after leaving Port Stanley, the misty outline of Tristan da Cunha hove into view–we had sailed about 2,500 nautical miles, including the exciting attempt to get to the Antarctic. Tristan was occupied by the British in 1815 in order to forestall any attempt by the French to rescue Napoleon from St. Helena, 1,000 miles to the north. When Napoleon died in 1821, a small group, under Corporal Glass, received permission to stay there. There is a settlement on the north coast called Edinburgh, a few hundred souls scratch a living via fishing. When we arrived the wind was quite light and we anchored–with some difficulty caused by thick beds of kelp, a few hundred yards off the shore. Being an open roadstead with no lee it was rolly. The person on the marine radio told us we could not land as the place was shut-down for a public holiday. We inflated the dinghy, persuaded the reluctant outboard to start and waited. We kept an anchor watch all night and at first light, tried to get permission to land, but it was too late: the wind had picked-up and surf at the jetty was too high. Simon, David and Bob dinghied over to the jetty while I stood by on Fiona; it was too dangerous to leave the boat alone as the anchor was slowly dragging. The harbor master assessed the conditions at the jetty and waved them away. So they returned to the boat, we put the inflatable away and upped anchor in a rising wind. Simon, on the bow, had to pull masses of kelp off the chain as it came up. We were all disappointed not to have made a landing, but that’s the cruising life. We bore away for Cape Town–1,500 miles to the east.

The weather north of 40 degrees south was pleasant and we enjoyed wonderful sailing with favorable winds. Six days after leaving Tristan, it was Christmas; out came our traditional tree and to no one’s surprise, Santa Claus managed to leave us a few small presents. We opened a bottle of wine someone had given us but, the motion on the boat had not agreed with it–it tasted terrible. Fortunately we still had plenty of rum. Shortly after, we found the bread was going moldy and I baked a loaf, using the old Swedish oven. The crew loved it. I was going to bake a cake but discovered all the eggs had gone funny. Yet Cape Town was not far away and early on the morning of 2 January, 2014, the distinctive outline of Table Mountain and the Twelve Apostles to the south welcomed us to South Africa. We tied-up at the Royal Cape Yacht Club at lunchtime. We had sailed 4,090 nautical miles from Port Stanley in 36 days.

Simon knew a female friend in Cape Town and she ran us over the Immigration Office so we could get our passports stamped, and after a quick visit to customs, we were officially in South Africa. The first order of business was to get the major repairs under way, but it is a tradition in Cape Town to take a couple of weeks’ vacation after Christmas; it was the start of summer, and so organizing repairs to the sails and steering system was slow to start. But there was plenty to do on the boat and for a while, we monopolized the washing machines in the club laundry–not to mention the showers. Eventually the staysail was deemed beyond repair and I ordered a new one. We dissembled the steering system, I was a little horrified to notice the side plates of two links in the steering chain were cracked: potential failures that would have been very difficult to repair, given I had no master links left. A helpful rigger promised to make new steering cables and to find replacement chain. While still at sea, I had e-mailed my son, Colin, who put together a package of spare parts, including a universal joint, which he modified before shipping so the length dimension matched the original. It was made for the inch and quarter diameter shaft of the rudder post extension; I figured I had little hope of finding one in South Africa, which uses the metric system.

Each morning we worked on the boat and in the afternoon we sampled the delights of Cape Town, which is a modern, clean city. We usually ate at the yacht club, which in my opinion is one of the finest in the world. We were there in time for the start of the biannual Cape to Rio race, after the frenzied parties the participants headed out into terrible weather and one skipper was killed when the mast collapsed. Many boats returned, beaten and bedraggled. One day we took the train which rattles and squeals its slow way from Cape Town to Simon’s Town on False Bay. It is a naval base, Dutch in centuries past, British through WW2 and now South African. We toured an obsolete submarine and looked at the penguin colony which makes a home on the shore. Poor Bob was scammed when he used an ATM machine: slick operators stole his PIN number and within minutes, cleaned-out his account using an ATM in a village several miles away. In Cape Town, David and I were sobered by the District Six Museum, a Bohemian area in the ’20s and ’30s where many biracial couples and Jewish immigrants lived. It was ethnically cleansed, bulldozed and now the museum is the only reminder of that long-bygone way of life. Slowly the crew dispersed: Simon flew to Canada, followed a few days later when Bob and David flew to their homes in the US and Hungary.

I want to finish this letter with some thoughts on our experiences south of the Falklands. It was my fourth attempt to sail to Antarctica (I do not include my two trips to South Georgia, which is sub-Antarctica), only two have been successful. I guess this gives some idea of the statistics for a small boat to traverse the Scotia Sea. The weather after we left the Falklands was atrocious, and bore little resemblance to the forecast. It wasn’t the worst weather I have ever been in, but close. I felt particularly chagrinned that I had exposed the crew to this rough treatment by Mother Nature when nothing in their previous sailing had prepared them for it. But they bore up wonderfully and David, Bob and Simon were great crew, I was very apologetic that we had not made it to the Antarctic Peninsula, which is what they signed up to see. As for myself, it is almost impossible to express the disappointment I felt when I made the prudent decision to turn away from Antarctica. Dealing with the details of the trip had been a constant companion during planning for most of the past year. When we swung Fiona‘s heading to the north-east on that stormy night I knew I was not going to make it, and I wasn’t getting any younger either. But looking on the bright side I know now what some of the flaws in my plans were, perhaps they can be fixed!

Fair Winds, Eric


Eric, David, Bob and Simon at Punta del Este before leaving for the Falkland Islands.

The curious ‘Finger’ sculpture on the beach at Punta del Este.

Magellanic Oysters Catchers on the seashore at Port Stanley.

The cozy snack bar the Seaman’s Centre near FIPASS.

In preparation for the Antarctic leg the 65-lb. anchor is lashed to the bow platform.

Deadlights fitted to the main cabin windows before heading for Antarctica.

Wooden Cover to protect the aft hatch in the event of being pooped.

The bronze quadrant mounted on the rudder post. Note the small clearance to the sides of the box.

The universal joint after failure, the hose clamp is securing the broken bottom half.

The settlement of Edinburgh on Tristan da Cunha.

Simon clears away kelp as the anchor is raised at Tristan.

Christmas on board Fiona.

Our first home-baked loaf, it is made in a circular pan called a ‘Swedish Oven’.

Tonsorial activity as Fiona approaches Cape Town.

An oil rig under tow leaving Cape Town; Table Mountain in the background.

A bare-faced Captain Forsyth.

The staysail is examined after docking at Cape Town. A sailmaker told us to scrap it.

The fractured universal joint after removal from the rudder post.

Inside the old submarine at Simon’s Town.

On top of Table Mountain.

Eric poses with the new staysail, made in just a week from being ordered.


Please contact Eric Forsyth via email at

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