A winter voyage to South Georgia had seemed like a great idea to Skip Novak and his crew aboard Pelagic Australis. But now ice was accumulating on deck and in the rig at an alarming rate
Landfall at Stromness Bay
On day four out of Port Stanley in the Falklands we made landfall on the north-western tip of the island with the breeze on the way down, enjoying a spectacular sunrise over the spine of the island. Motoring down the coast, the job at hand was chipping out and melting back with buckets of hot seawater – which included painstakingly removing three centimetres of ice on the entire deck – a task not as satisfying as easily knocking curtains off the lifelines and sheets!
By nightfall, we dropped anchor in a safe bolt hole in front of the abandoned whaling station at Husvik in Stromness Bay. The atmosphere was, to say the least, sombre near this Norwegian ghost town as we took a walk ashore, step-plugging in deep snow to a raised vantage point as the light fell. The cabin lights on Pelagic Australis (Read more about Pelagic Australis and Pelagic here) soon were illuminated, beckoning us back on board for a celebratory bottle or two of red with the leg of mutton off the backstay. We had arrived on the island.
The following day we wasted no time in making our way further south. The plan was to disembark six of us for up to two weeks at Trollhul Bay on the south-west coast. From there we would ski two days inland to a plateau with a half dozen unclimbed summits to choose from. While we were away, the eight left on board would tour the north coast, making ski and snowshoe day trips, led by our Arctic survival expert Thomas Geipel.
It is uncanny and defies explanation that, while working your way up or down the coast of South Georgia, typically after rounding each headland, the wind changes 180°, so a slog into short chop is inevitable at some point. One thing was clear, though, the farther we moved south, the darker the clouds became over the high ground.
Taking shelter – a relative term
We made it to Moltke Harbour in Royal Bay by early evening and skipper Dave Roberts wisely decided to take shelter, a relative term at Moltke as it is very open with strong winds usually funnelling down Whale Valley, what we call a ‘blower bay’. Good holding in sand and mud is usually the case, but for reasons I won’t go into, we had immense problems getting stuck in.
This was then compounded by a failed windlass motor. So there we were, in the dark, putting Skip Novak’s Storm Sailing Techniques, Part 10 into action with all hands manually pulling in 80m of anchor chain with chain hooks and the coffee grinder in gusts of 60 knots. A jovial bunch we had and they did not lose time reminding me of my own sage advice to readers, even producing a copy of Yachting World to rub it in! A man of lesser character could have had a sense of humour failure . . .
The next day, moving further south still, it was becoming apparent that our original plan for the mountains, concocted from the comfort of Venables’s kitchen in Bath a year ago, was looking suspect. What had been a steady and optimum wind direction for the passage across from the Falklands began to backfire on our climbing plans.
The stationary high to the west was now over the Falklands, squeezing the isobars to the east even more. The strong south-west flow made nipping around the corner to land at Trollhul a non-starter as the bay is open to swell. We looked into Iris Bay on the south-east coast, but it was blowing a full gale down the glacier and getting across a shallow moraine into the inner bay to land was problematic with williwaws hammering us one after the other. Moreover, the glacier, steep with bare ice on the lower sections, looked decidedly uninviting.
The default was to launch from Larsen Harbour, a good anchorage right at the southern tip of the island and an initial glacial approach that both Venables and I were familiar with. After a day’s preparation on board we began ferrying loads ashore, a long dinghy ride to the snout of the glacier. Still blowing a strong gale at sea, the conditions were dramatically magnified in the fjord, with katabatic winds making pulling the pulks up the steepish ground extremely taxing.
Risk of avalanche
After the better part of a day, we had most, but not all of our gear at only 250m. It was another 300m to the Philippi Glacier, which gave access to easier terrain into the interior. The slope was also becoming wind-slabbed with the added risk of avalanche.
The next day relentless strong winds made moving impossible. With a five-day forecast of more of the same, we made the decision to throw in the towel with deference to the shore team on board, as they too had their agenda.
We stopped at Gold Harbour to sample the wildlife – a spectacular, inedible menu of king penguins, gentoo penguins, fur and elephant seals, South Georgia pintails and predatory skuas and giant petrels. A day later from Ocean Harbour the climbing team summited on Black Peak on the Szielasko Glacier, while the shore team skied and snowshoed across the Barff Peninsula to Cumberland East Bay.
On a glorious day out, windless with a deep blue sky and crunchy snow underfoot and ski, we all reconvened in Sandebugten,before docking at Grytviken where we officially checked in. More skiing and climbing followed for the next few days in and around Grytviken.