An 8,300-mile trip deep into the Southern Ocean proved to be 60 days of pure adventure for Andy Jamieson
“When I say ‘Jump!’ y’all say ‘How high?’. If y’all don’t want to say ‘How high?’ you can pack your bags,” demanded the owner of the superyacht I was aboard.
The captain and I looked at each other and, without exchanging a word, answered in unison that we would be packing our bags. Just like that, my plans of spending the winter drenched in sun and rum in the Caribbean were over. It’s not easy working for billionaires.
But word spreads fast and just a few days later another voyage came my way. My friend Clemens Oestreich, a long-haired, chain-smoking, philosophic German hippie phoned and wanted to know if I could join his expedition to Antarctica on his 120ft, handmade ferrocement ketch, Infinity. The next day I was on a flight to Auckland.
Five years previously, whilst failing to concentrate on revising for my university finals, I’d stumbled across a listing on findacrew.net
Infinity was looking for crew for an exploratory diving and surfing expedition in Micronesia, so I spent the next few months visiting barely chartered atolls, meeting tribal communities, sailing in some of the least spoiled waters on the planet and diving on World War II wrecks.
The good memories flooded back on that long flight to Auckland. Then I started to get nervous. Infinity is pretty rough around the edges. I had spent the previous few years sailing on superyachts with unlimited budgets.
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Infinity was moored in Auckland’s Viaduct Harbour and it was soon obvious there’d be a lot of work to do. Not only was Infinity not designed for ice, but she’d barely been out of the tropics in her almost 40 years. Clemens assured me she was in good shape but admitted there were a few projects remaining.
Looking around I quickly realised something was amiss. The engine room was minus a fairly critical component: the engine. I was confused by this – Clemens had told me they had a new engine. It transpired there was a new engine, of course, it just wasn’t installed. Sometimes details are important.
We worked around the clock. A rudimentary heating system and insulation was installed. A lorry load of pasta arrived, enough to last three months for our motley crew of 16.
Next was the fuel truck and lastly, we installed our new to us, but not exactly new, engine. With everything in as satisfactory a state as it was going to get, and crew visas expiring in a matter of hours, it was time to leave. Carb-loaded, under a bright starry sky, we slipped our lines late one January evening.
Any vessel venturing into the deep south must be self-sufficient. One of the biggest dangers on any ocean crossing is crew health. Ideally, we’d have taken a doctor but our budget didn’t stretch that far so we settled for Pascale, a volunteer French vet.
He wasn’t worried. Not only did he have experience in all manner of operations, births and even euthanasia, but he’d worked on a variety of creatures from hamsters to monkeys. Humans are just another animal, he explained. I took solace in not being pregnant and hoped his euthanasia skills wouldn’t be tested.
As the days went by we got increasingly further south. The days got longer, the temperature dropped and the frequency of gales increased. We still went for the odd swim but no one could stay in for long. We experienced snowstorms and made a snowman.
Southern Ocean challenges
By the time we were in the ‘Screaming Sixties’ they were living up to their name. We experienced our first severe gale in which we hove-to, reducing the stress on both yacht and crew. One of the challenges of the Southern Ocean is sailing in light winds after storms have passed but with large, often confused, seas remaining.
During one of these lulls, we were struggling to sail and just discussing taking down the sails to motor when the mainsail violently backfilled and exploded. Within seconds we had the main down. The stitching had failed from luff to leech between two panels. We were now roughly 2,000 miles from safety with no main.
Thankfully, Infinity is ketch rigged, and the route was mainly downwind in high winds meaning a reduced sailplan wasn’t catastrophic. Fixing the main became an all-consuming project with two people often working around the clock.
One person would be inside the sail and another on the outside pushing the needle back and forth. The repair involved completing three rows of double stitching. All in, we estimated it took about 100 tedious hours to complete.
A few days later, whilst asleep, I heard cries of “Iceberg off port bow!” Within seconds, the whole crew had assembled in a collective state of awe. No-one in the crew had sailed in icy waters before so our first iceberg was quite a novelty. We sailed close to it and looped around it, everyone had their photo taken with it. Titanic sprung to mind.
From more than 60 days in the Southern Ocean’s grasp, I can count on one hand the amount of times the sun shone. But we were blessed with wall-to-wall sunshine on the day of our arrival in Antarctica, 32 days after we slipped our lines in Auckland.
Sailing into Cape Adare, 71° S, snow-capped mountains towered overhead, icebergs could be seen in all directions and we even had an escort of about 30 orca. This was what we had come for.
Before we could drop anchor, we first had to meander our way through a minefield of ice. Trying to focus isn’t easy when penguins are drifting by on ‘bergy bits.
Remembering advice from a high latitude guide, we aimed for the inside of a large grounded iceberg (in shallow water, other ‘bergs will hopefully get grounded instead of hitting you).
The anchor, however, still wasn’t ready to be dropped, it was firmly frozen in place and it took some gentle persuasion with a sledgehammer and hot water before we finally got the hook down.
After dealing with the inconvenience of frozen fuel lines on the outboard, our landing party was underway. Landing was easier said than done. Strewn along the beach were countless car-sized blocks of ice. The ice was moving with each wave, threatening to enclose any gap and crush our glassfibre tender.
Having successfully run the gauntlet of the moving ice, we landed in penguin territory. Being on land after more than a month at sea was remarkable, but to be surrounded by thousands of penguins took things to the next level.
One thing no photo can convey, however, is the stench. Technically, Antarctica is a desert, penguins aren’t too fussed with toilet habits and, with no rain, the place stinks.
Returning to Infinity we grimaced our way through yet another dinner from a can while downloading the latest GRIB file. A deep low was tracking our way so after just two memorable shore excursions we headed deeper into the Ross Sea in an attempt to get below the worst of the storm and take refuge in a bay.
But to our horror, we discovered that the bay we were aiming for had already iced over for the year. With no other choice, we’d have to ride out the storm at sea.
Infinity was hastily made storm ready as best we could, in anticipation of strong and prolonged winds in heavily iced waters. For once, the forecast was accurate: the wind increased until it was blowing 70 knots and gusting off the anemometer.
Sea spray was freezing mid-air and pummelling anyone unfortunate enough to be in its path. No matter your clothing, the wind-chill froze you to the bone. Accordingly, we rotated through short watches of around 30 minutes.
The plan was simple, go straight downwind, keep perpendicular to the waves and don’t hit any ice. We dove deeper south, to 72° 18’S – we think further south than any other sailing vessel that year (2014).
Sail trim was easy as we were running bare poles whilst surfing breaking waves big enough to roll us. Setting a drogue wasn’t possible as it would have limited our capabilities to avoid any stealthy ice.
Messing up was not an option, getting rolled or striking ice meant certain death for all aboard. Even with immersion suits, survival would be limited to hours, if not minutes, in these waters.
The violent motion, extreme cold and rotating through short stints on the helm meant sleep evaded me for over three days, and I wasn’t the exception.
We all dug deep into our reserves but, fuelled by adrenaline and fear, we survived. When the wind finally dropped, we were able to take stock of the situation. We could now walk unhindered, be outside without being lashed to the helm, cook, sleep and function like regular human beings.
It was still blowing about 40 knots – but that was calm compared to what we’d just endured and relatively normal for the Southern Ocean. Up to her first spreaders, Infinity was plastered with a thick coating of ice. Smashing the ice off was both necessary from a stability and functional perspective, and also highly therapeutic for the crew.
Days later, I felt comparatively refreshed but Clemens kept telling me I looked exhausted and needed more rest. Unbeknown to me, he ordered no-one to wake me for my next watch and covered it himself. I slept for 17 hours.
Following dinner, I thanked Clemens for his concern, did my watch and went for another uninterrupted 12 hours of deep sleep.
Having survived hurricane force winds, torn most of our sails, and already been at sea for over a month, we were now tackling a 4,500 mile Southern Ocean passage to Patagonia. The final leg dragged. The main event was behind us, the cold was relentless, the sun barely shone and each day was a repeat of the previous.
Lightening the mood
Like the sky, the mood was often grey, so keeping spirits buoyant became important. Movie nights, games, any extra effort on the food front, fancy dress parties and a sea shanty writing competition all helped break the monotony.
Storm sailing became the norm, more sails were torn, more sail repairs were carried out. Ice was spotted every day until we were two days away from Chile.
All this time, we were also busy trying to resolve many mechanical problems. Somehow, during the depths of the storm, we had syphoned seawater into our diesel. Despite our best attempts at polishing the fuel, stripping down the entire system and rebuilding everything from injectors to pumps, we never quite got on top of it.
If the engine could just hold out for the final hurdle of the rock-strewn Chilean fjords, without seizing too badly, then we would be OK. At least engine maintenance got me out of sail repair duty.
After what felt like an eternity, Chile was finally spotted. Davey Jones blessed us with another rare sunny day whilst we navigated the fjords of Patagonia. Birds soared overhead, we could smell land and trees, we could see glacier-covered mountains, and even passed a lighthouse whose cheery keeper hailed us on the radio.
We’d gone from sensory deprivation to sensory overload and were high on life. The bars of Puerto Natales did very good business that night.
With hindsight, it seems almost unfathomable that we did the trip: an 8,300-mile Southern Ocean passage. I hadn’t given the prospect of a foray to Antarctica serious thought but simply jumped at the opportunity. I don’t regret the trip but definitely underestimated the gravity of such a voyage and wouldn’t repeat it.
Among our team was Nico Edwards, from California. Nico is the worst sufferer of seasickness I have ever encountered. Despite his perpetual mal de mer, his camera batteries constantly failing and the fact that he had never made a movie before, he managed to make a multi award-winning movie of our voyage. Sea Gypsies; The Far Side of The World is available on DVD, iTunes and Vimeo, see seagypsiesmovie.com for more information.
The Infinity story
At 120ft, Infinity is believed to be the world’s largest ferrocement yacht. Conceived with expeditions in mind and launched in 1977 she was never quite finished and ended up being used as collateral in a failed business deal. Clemens Oestreich acquired her in the 1990s and has called her home ever since, bringing up five children aboard.
Equipped with a large solar array, she can function off-grid for extended periods. But she’s not luxurious. All winches are manual and none of the sails furl. Air conditioning means opening hatches and the art collection is whatever Clemens’s children (who live aboard when Infinity is not sailing to high latitudes) have created.
About the author
Andy Jamieson describes himself as a lifelong adventurer whose other passions include skiing, diving and climbing. He is a professional captain and currently running a luxury yacht in the Caribbean.
First published in the February 2018 edition of Yachting World.