Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Sailing to Antarctica

Thump, thump, thump... 

creak, snap


The boat kicks and rolls, tossed about on the wave like a chew toy by a Doberman.  A nervous giggle bubbles up from one of my companions throats as a new wave breaks over the wheelhouse, white foam retreating from the porthole window as the boat lurches to meet the next wave. A glance out the starboard porthole revels only the deep aqua blue of the ocean below as we cut forward at almost a 50 degree angle. Suddenly we are weightless but for a moment then we crash into the bottom of the next wave rising to meet us. 

Then the engine cuts and we are at the mercy of the wind once more. I can hear the waves sloshing on the other side of what feels to be a paper thin hull. Our speed slows and the waves fall into a steady, rhythmic thump, thump against the hull. Poseidon knock, knock, knocking as if to ask if any among us might want to join him in the icy depths below. 

But the Sarah Vorwerk is a stout vessel. All 54 feet built for rough seas. Where we landlubbers crawl and claw our way from our berths, her skipper strolls the deck with all the confidence of a man born of the sea. Henk has made this trip many times before, at least three runs per season for the last 18 years. His devilish grin puts us all to ease as he waves a hand... "Yah, yah there's nothing to worry about."

Our quest was to visit the Antarctic Peninsula at the very earliest in the season possible. In that we have succeeded. We receive word that the Lemaire Strait is still completely iced in, only the largest of icebreakers have the hope of passing and so we head instead for the South Shetland Islands. We drop anchor in the sheltered cove of Deception Island and our first mate and one companion who have been suffering terribly from seasickness spring miraculously back to life. Henk remarks that this is the first time he has seen Deception covered in snow.

Abandon Building in Whalers Bay
A Weddell Seal sleeps blissfully unaware of the history of Whalers Bay
A memorial to a carpenter
Our first landing is at Whalers Bay and we stumble about as we try to get our land legs back beneath us. This place is a reminder of our violent past. Originally a safe haven and base for sealers, Deception became a home for factory whaling ships in the early 1900's. Large boilers used to boil whale carcasses for additional oils are still present on the island as are several derelict buildings. When whale oil prices dropped during the Great Depression the station proved to be unprofitable and was abandon (1931) but not before claiming the lives of the 45 whalers buried on the island. The cemetery itself was buried deeply after an eruption of the volcano in 1969 and only two memorials remain in sight.  The pristine snow makes us feel that we four are the only people to have visited this place in hundreds of years but patches of black sand, snow-free from volcanic warmth, show a plethora of boot prints, betraying the hundreds of visitors this site receives every season.

A skua takes flight after a long bath in a pond of melt water


Jonathan Larking said...

Awesome! Looks like the closest thing to a trip to another planet... complete with alien life forms loitering blissfully on the shore...

John W. Wall said...

Great stuff, Rebecca. Encore!

Dave said...

Brilliant! Great to read on a grey day in England. Looking forward to more.