Global Challenge skipper Duggie Gillespie on one of the fiercest points of the Southern Ocean
How different it can be from last time I was down here. Kerguelen Island. The chart makes very interesting reading. It consists of glaciers and what I assume will be unclimbed high peaks. It must be one of the worst possible places to live. The weather will be harsh, with rain and snow most days of the year. Winds blow continuously from the west, as the islands lie in the path of the Furious Fifties. Bird life and marine mammals are apparently in abundance, undisturbed by the mass invasion of humankind.
12 years ago I and 13 other souls were passing these islands in the British Steel Challenge race, the first of the Challenge races, with a 10-yacht fleet. Back then we were in the most horrendous seas I have ever been in or wish to be in, in my life. I recall nighttime steering in the complete dark with only the four instrument lights showing up the vital information that should keep one on course. The boat was jumping off short steep waves only to find huge holes the other side, meaning the boat was freefalling every 15 seconds into a hollow 20-40ft below.
It was the only time in the race we had to suspend cooking below. Everything had been tried in an attempt to produce hot food. The pots had been tied down on to the gimballed stove. No success. The lids were tied down. No success. Finally, when the entire contents of one of the above pots were thrown from the stove into the aft cabin bunks 15 feet away and through a doorway, enough was enough.
The Kerguelen Islands have a shelf outlying from the Islands that forces the 100-year old waves to cast their wares on to any floating object. Depths go from 2,500 metres to as shallow as 13m deep – geologically amazing out here.
Today how different conditions are! Firstly, there is Waypoint Bravo, a relatively new mark to round, carefully designed to keep all us racing yachts off the hazardous shelf that so vividly sticks in my memory. Secondly, at the moment we are sailing on a broad reach under spinnaker in sunshine and smooth seas, not the tough Southern Ocean weather you hear about. There was a point yesterday when it seemed that we might have needed to cross that point of 13m depth, something I’d told the crew under no circumstances would we be doing. Experience is a reassuring comfort; there’s got to be some advantage to getting older!
We have just been through three continuous weeks of tough conditions. The respite is very welcomed by all on board, quietly and majestically sailing around those 13 metres. Oh so different!
Duggie Gillespie, skipper, Spirit of Sark