An Antarctic adventure sees Joe Phelan trapped inside a volcanic caldera with 50-knot winds howling. Tom Cunliffe introduces this extract from Sailing to Antartica

Joe Phelan is one of Ireland’s great sailors. With his wife and equal partner Trish he has been quietly standing out from the crowd for over 50 years, with dinghy trophies, Fastnet silverware and many a wild cruise under their belts. He has held flag office at commodore level in several high-ranking yacht clubs and managed all this alongside a distinguished career in medical science.

In 2004/05 Joe signed on as right-hand man to owner-skipper Peter Killen of Malahide, bound for Antarctica in Pure Magic, a 54ft Amel Super Maramu ketch. The book of this voyage with fellow rovers from the Dublin/Malahide region forms a big part of what is, in a sense, an autobiography of Joe Phelan. It is called Sailing To Antarctica because to Joe, now 81, this voyage has been the highlight of his time on the water.

Descriptions in the Antarctica part of the book take the form of emails sent at sea, interspersed with text written later. This gives it a unique, immediate feeling which, coupled with a quintessentially Irish humour, makes for a great read. We join the shipmates in heavy going seas approaching Deception Island in search of respite from the gale. Unusual adventures await…

Extract from Sailing to Antartica

Thursday 23 December 2004 at 0900, Deception Island Those of you who have read the blog should by now know we had a little difficulty yesterday. Indeed, over 50 knots of difficulty.
As we came through the gut, that is the narrow entrance to the caldera, the echo sounder failed. Great! After that we rounded up into Whalers Bay and went to within 2m of the beach, the water shelves quite rapidly. Dropped the hook and we drifted back pulling all the chain and the hook through the water at speed as the boat was pushed by winds which were the wrong side of 50.

The inside of this volcano is about 5 miles long by 3.5 wide. We were sharing this with a cruise ship and both of us began to doodle around as one does when one can’t anchor; except that the visibility was down to about 100m, it was snowing hard and for most of the circuit of the volcano the walls rose sheer above the water. We circled each other gingerly using radar to warn us of each other and the walls of this place. There was no way we could get to the open sea through the gut as the wind was blowing almost straight in.

Our engine was running at about 2500 revs to maintain steerage and so we continued ‘til about 1130 when Pete decided enough was enough and called up a small Argentine Naval resupply vessel which was anchored in 75m (they said) and which had earlier made contact with us thinking we were another cruise vessel. He, very kindly, agreed to throw us a rope from which to hang and so we will remain ‘til 1500 this afternoon.

The stress levels dropped noticeably as soon as we were secure. We have maintained an anchor watch since. The wind is now moderating and we are getting organised to find the hurricane hole in which we propose to spend Christmas. Not a clever call to enter here into the caldera but, like all calls, it looked good at the time. All’s well, Joe.

Deception Island is in the South Shetland archipelago separated from the Antarctic Peninsula by Bransfield Strait. It is so-called because of its appearance as a normal island but, having transited the narrow entrance, one finds that it is a flooded caldera (the large depression inside a volcano) encircled by a high ring of the volcano walls. The caldera forms a large and safe natural harbour. Scientific stations were seriously damaged in 1967 and 1969 by volcanic activity. The island once had a whaling station, at Whalers Bay, it is now a cruise ship destination and scientific outpost, with a Spanish research base established on an old BAS (British Antarctic Survey) site.

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The decision to enter Deception at the height of a south-east gale was made as the prospect of lying hove-to for 36 hours in waters that were visibly stuffed with icebergs was unappealing. We entered the caldera at about 0600, running dead downwind under engine through the aptly named entrance, Neptune’s Bellows. Sean, facing aft, was calling out the wave pattern to Peter. The crew were all on deck, in full gear. I was at my navigation desk, in comfort. The entrance looked good except for the shallow underwater ridge extending half-way across from the port side. The starboard side of the entrance is a vertical cliff of black tuff. So, not good! And not pleasant either in 45 knots.

And then the depth sounder failed – probably due to excessive aeration of the water due to the turbulence of the waves. Through the gap we went, and Peter rounds up into Whalers Bay, our intended anchoring spot. But the wind was now 55 knots blowing straight through Neptune’s Window. Later, on our return to the yacht hangout at AFASyN marina, a young and elegant Italian co-skipper of a steel adventure yacht said to me as I was telling her the story, “Didn’t you know – it’s due to warm air rising in addition to the cold katabatic winds falling from the high walls? It’s still a dormant volcano!” I didn’t know, but I do now.

Pure Magic anchored inside Telefon Bay

Howling winds

The wind was full of volcanic grit trying to take the eyes out of your head. Peter dieseled up to the steeply rising beach and we let go of the anchor. We were blown backwards at speed so tried again – we gave up after the fifth attempt and dropped back out into the caldera proper only to be enveloped in dense fog. The wind dropped to 50 knots as we moved away from the wind acceleration zone of Neptune’s Window and under the walls of the volcano. Then the VHF radio crackled into life. We were startled as the VHF only works if the transmitting aerials are within a few miles of each other, which meant we were not the only vessel in the caldera. We thought we were all alone.

It was a small cruise ship, the Ushuaia. He could see us on his radar – which was just as well as we could not see him on ours. He was doodling around as, due to the heavy weather, he could neither leave nor anchor. He agreed to avoid us. A half hour later it’s the VHF again. Another vessel. This place was getting crowded. Turned out to be an Argentinian Navy vessel, the Castillo, anchored in 70m off the Spanish base.

He interrogated us, looking for chapter and verse on the vessel and crew. Anyway Peter, who is the politest person that I know, answered all his questions in his usual polite way despite the high stress levels of the situation. It was just as well as it turned out we would absolutely need the ship to be on our side. The stress was due to our needing high revs on the engine to maintain steerage due to the strong wind, as we could not anchor until the wind abated but that was at least 30 hours ahead.

View from Pure Magic secured by line to the Argentinian Navy vessel, El Castillo, anchored in a depth of around 75m

We were burning through our diesel supply and knew that it would rapidly reduce our time down south. Also, I guess, the general situation of our hairy entrance, high winds, snow, cold, no depth sounder, and general uncertainty meant tempers were fraying. So, I went to my bunk!

I woke up to hear Peter talking to the electronics specialist in La Rochelle – he was sorting out the depth sounder, being talked through a factory reset. Success! He politely wished the guy the happiest of Christmases, this being 22 December. Then he had an inspired idea. “I’ll ring the Argentines for a line,” Peter announced as he reached for the VHF radio. “Of course,” replied the skipper and gave us his latitude and longitude. When I plotted the Lat/Lon of the Castillo, the waypoint appeared on the downwind side of the caldera.

Down here we could be close to the rocks in 45 knots of wind, so not good. When Mike, who was on-watch, and who had been struggling for the past while to keep the vessel on the windward side of the caldera, saw the waypoint on the deck chartplotter he erupted. He and I had a polite but firm altercation. He could not hide his background though. Public school, National Service in the RAF, and years of flying 747s with Aer Lingus meant he spoke in a loud and authoritative voice.

I had to check the Lat/Lon again. “Si, es corecto,” was the reply from the Castillo. Only now was I able to persuade Mike to leave the windward edge of the volcano. Pure Magic approached the stern of the Castillo, and the Argentine crew passed over a heavy line which we cleated home on to our bow. Safe. It was now midday. It had been an eventful morning.

The Spanish Antarctic Research Station on Deception Island

In the caldera

Thursday 23 December 2004 at 1900 Just letting go our line to the Argentine vessel! We are going to look for our safe anchorage now the wind has dropped and the snow has ceased. All’s well. Joe.

We handed over a bottle of good Jameson whiskey (it belonged to Sean) to the Castillo as a thank you for giving us a line and allowing us to hang off them for 30 hours. In a strange coincidence we were to later find out it was imbibed by Irish sailors!

Two months later we heard that a massive racing catamaran, dismasted soon after rounding Cape Horn, had been taken in tow by the Castillo. The vessel was the maxi-cat Cheyenne and was participating in the Round the World Race. Gordon Maguire of Howth Yacht Club was one of the two watch-leaders, the other was a Kiwi. The skipper was an American named David Scully.

These three were invited on board the Castillo for the passage to their Naval Base in Mar del Plata, near Buenos Aires. The captain of the naval vessel offered our whiskey to the three guys saying that Argentinians didn’t drink much whiskey, preferring wine. So, Gordon, well known to all seven of us, demolished our whiskey, with some help of course.

Under the sheer sides of Telefon Bay, where the author spent a Christmas on Pure Magic

Friday 24 December 2004 at 1020. Telefon Bay, Deception Island We are tied alongside Zazie, a boat from New Caledonia. There’s a couple on board with their two children, aged nine and 10 years, and a friend. We are facing east and they west with our anchors down. They have three lines ashore to big boulders, and we five lines to equally big boulders making a total of eight lines to the shore and two anchors! So, we are not moving from here for the next few days, indeed, not until we get the next good forecast.

I have just been up taking photos and it’s wonderfully still and peaceful, contrasting white snow and black volcanic soil and cliffs. Some seals around the corner, some skuas harassing some gulls at the point, a big drop in the tide which means we cannot get out other than at high water. All’s well, we let go the navy vessel yesterday about 1630 and came down here which is a little side crater off the main crater.

Perhaps we should have waited as the wind was still strong and blowing straight into the anchorage and made the manoeuvring to get the two boats sorted and nailed fraught with all sorts of stress and anxiety together with much shouting! I went ashore for a stroll and, when we came back, we took off the outboard and hauled the dinghy on board. Apparently, leopard seals do not like grey Zodiacs and will proceed to tear them to shreds thinking they are a prey item! The French came aboard for a chat and then we ate eventually and drank too much but we hadn’t had a drink since last Friday and after the past interesting – to say the least – few days we felt justified.

Nailed to the inside of the volcanic crater that is Deception Island, dormant but not extinct! Joe.

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