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Perilous voyage

Oct 20, 2010

In January 2010, on a sunny day in the Southern Hemisphere summer, with a fair westerly wind we left Puerto Williams, Chile, on board our 54-foot voyaging boat Northanger. We sailed eastward out of Beagle Channel into the Scotia Sea on our way to the sub-antarctic island of South Georgia.

The expedition had been in progress for more than three years. Hayley Shephard, expedition guide, teacher and expert kayaker, was responsible for all of us being here. It was her dream to make the first solo circumnavigation by kayak of this famously remote South Georgia and in doing so, raise awareness of the plight of the albatross. These magnificent seabirds, our constant and regal companions in the Southern Ocean, are now deemed to be endangered due to habitat loss and careless fishing techniques.

My husband Greg, myself, Magnus and Beth Anne, were Hayley’s support team and Northanger her support vessel. We were all joined together to help Hayley achieve her dream. Greg, Magnus and I were the sailing crew and Beth Anne provided back-up kayaking support. Our combined skills and experience made for an exceptionally strong team, and if weather conditions permitted, we all felt that success could be within our grasp.

With the weather forecast showing the winds from west through northwest, we set our course to leave Staten Island to the north, taking us on a more direct route rather than going through the Strait of Le Maire. This course would take us south of the shallow Burdwood Bank, an area notorious for dangerous seas in heavy weather. The breeze coming off the continent of South America promised to keep the swell down and the hope was the bank would absorb some of the build up of waves if the weather system deepened.

With the last vestige of land disappearing in the twilight, the complexities and stresses of planning and preparing the voyage were also fading. We had eight to 10 days of passage ahead of us, the satellite photos and wind GRIB files were forecasting moderate winds, nothing scary. It was time to relax. Time to get caught up on rest, to get into the rhythm of the sea.

Dealing with sea sickness
Greg, Magnus and I, the sailors, rotated on three-hour watches. Hayley and Beth Anne, so affected by the motion of the sea that they were unable to even sit, bravely took turns accompanying the watchkeeper and monitoring the radar for signs of ships and ice. Though they had crossed to Antarctica and South Georgia numerous times, it was always on large cruise ships. Hayley was on edge. Beth Anne was so debilitated by seasickness she really didn’t care about anything. They were quickly learning the difference between making passage in a large ship versus a small sailing vessel. The movement of the boat, the noise of the wind in the rigging and the breaking waves crashing against the stern were all unfamiliar to them. “Should we be nervous?” Hayley asked me. “No,” I said. “If you see me nervous, then you can start worrying, otherwise relax.”

Northanger, our 54-foot Damien II ketch, is at home in the Southern Ocean. For more than 20 years, she has taken us safely to the high latitudes of the Northern and Southern hemispheres and has proved her capabilities with numerous successful voyages to the Antarctic Peninsula, Greenland and Ellesmere Island. So in the early hours of February 4th, when the winds started increasing, we were not concerned. Northanger was steady on course, wind astern, making 8 knots under storm jib.

“Gravy Train” wrote Greg in the log at 0710. It was to be his last log entry on the trip.

The accident
“Keeeeerrrrrrri!” I woke instantly from the depths of a meclizine-induced sleep. Bolting upright, I flung the duvet off and pushed myself into a sitting position, mind and thoughts pinprick clear. Something was terribly wrong! I climbed out of my bunk and rushed out of our cabin and into the main living area in the stern of the boat. The scene unfolded as if in a play, each person poised in their on-stage position. There was Greg, bending over, Magnus beside him. “It’s not good,” said Magnus, his eyes wide, pleading with me to do something.

I was standing in the galley in thin long johns, a T-shirt and no socks. A dark overcast day seen through the portlights illuminated the scene with an ill-boding gray light. I felt the motion of the boat sailing briskly, wind astern, almost overpowered. I looked again towards Greg. His back was to me, hunched over. “Oh Ker,” he moaned. “Oh how stupid, how stupid.”

Magnus was still holding the bilge floorboard that covers the access to the prop shaft. Oh no, I thought, as I realized the source of the chaos. I approached Greg. He was grasping his right hand with his left. I looked over his shoulder and saw his right hand, the top of his index finger gone, a ragged piece of bone left in its place.

Like a switch, clicking over in my mind, I stopped being Keri, wife, partner, friend and became the first-aid responder I had been trained as. In my mind I quickly assessed the situation. No spurting blood, bone showing above the knuckle, top knuckle gone, rope burns on his hand, no breaks, no other apparent damage. Okay, I thought, this could have been worse. We can deal with this.

I took Greg’s right hand in my own, shielding it from his view with my body. “Greg, come lie down, it’s going to be okay,” I said quietly to him.

“No it’s not, it’s not going to be okay,” he said in a stressed, almost panicked voice that did not sound like the Greg I knew. I reassessed the situation, thinking, better be careful here. I wrapped my arms around Greg and led him gently to the bench alongside the table while trying to reassure him, talking softly, encouraging him to lie down.

“Magnus, pass me a clean towel.” I wrapped this around Greg’s finger so he could not see his loss.

Taking command
“Stop the boat, just turn the inside wheel into the wind and put the boat in irons.” “Hayley, please get Beth Anne.” “Magnus, can you get the first-aid kit boxes out and bring them here.” While taking command of the situation, I was already planning the next steps, thinking of all the options.

Our position was south of the Burdwood bank. About 200 miles astern, upwind, was Ushuaia. Impossible. Due north, 250 miles distant, was Stanley, in the Falkland Islands. There waited the closest and most accessible medical care.

Beth Anne had been roused to take over dressing the wound and monitoring Greg as she had a higher level of medical training than any of us. “How are you doing?” I asked Greg as I then made eye contact with Beth Anne. She nodded okay. Judging this to mean his condition was not life threatening, I then could rule out putting out a mayday call. I knew though, even if the situation was to become more serious, there was no way a helicopter team could make a rescue in this weather. I could not be responsible for asking anyone to risk their life. And besides, we were outside the 200-mile flight range of rescue helicopters. We were on our own.

While Beth Anne and Hayley tended to Greg, Magnus and I lifted up the floorboard, dreading the task ahead. While Magnus held the shaft and slowly rotated it, I unwrapped first the string — the cause of all this strife, then the tendon, then the top of Greg’s finger from the shaft. For a moment, my objectiveness disappeared. I held the top of my husband’s lovely long finger in my hand. A profound sadness threatened to overwhelm me and I shook my head, forcing detachment to return. The effort of packing the finger properly and storing it in a cool place was more for calming Greg, than with any hope it would get reattached. One could only hope. I needed advice.

Before I began to make calls on the satellite phone, I had a quick look at our situation. A new GRIB file showed that the low pressure system to the northwest of us had intensified and instead of going north, had dropped south, wedged between the South American continent and the Falkland Islands. Winds were forecast to 50 knots.

After several calls, I finally got the number for the hospital in Stanley. The doctor on duty advised how to dress the wound and to start a course of antibiotics. Just knowing we had contact with someone eased the feeling of isolation.

Increasing winds
Meanwhile, the wind had increased. Magnus, undaunted by the maelstrom outside, went and bagged up the storm jib — Northanger was now lying ahull. There was no way I was going to try to sail across the Burdwood Bank, the most direct route to Stanley, given the last wind prediction. Checking the chart and measuring the distance to the eastern edge of the bank, I chose to lie ahull until the wind abated. After many frustrating hours drifting with the winds, we finally ran off to the east, following the southern edge of the bank, Northanger made 5 knots under bare poles.

Arriving at the eastern edge of the bank, the winds calmed enough for us to turn north and, staying in deeper water, make a course for Stanley. We arrived midday on the 6th of February where Greg was whisked to the hospital in the Customs vehicle. He was safe. We were all safe.

Now it was time to decide. What next? One moment’s inattention had drastically changed the dynamics of the expedition. Hayley’s hopes and dreams hung in the balance.

Bound for South Georgia
We left Stanley on the 17th of February. Greg was not on board. He was in Punta Arenas, trying to find a flight home to be with his ailing father. After days of deliberation, introspection, group meetings and a list of conditions agreed on by all, I decided to continue on to South Georgia. One of the conditions was that we find another crewmember, one who had experience sailing. Brian found us, through an ad on the radio. He seemed to suit well and we signed him on.

As it was getting late in the season, darkness slowed our progress. Massive tabular icebergs, eroding in the ocean swell, filled the seaway along our route with smaller icebergs, and dangerous growlers. One colossal tabular berg was more than 12 miles long. Shivers ran down my spine at the thought of one of these becoming an uncharted lee-shore in a storm. We hove to at night, picking our way through the ice only in daylight hours.

After a cold, ice-fraught passage, the welcome by the occupants of the scientific base in Cumberland Bay overwhelmed us with warmth. They had just experienced one of the worst summers on record. Fierce weather, though to be expected here, had not relented for months. Hayley later discovered that her kayak, which was shipped down the previous season, was damaged and needed repair. Leaving Magnus, Beth Anne and Brian in charge of repairing the fiberglass boat, she determinedly pushed on, leaving in the spare kayak on the 28th of February.

Watching Hayley paddle away over the swell and slowly becoming a tiny speck on the vastness of a backdrop made of sea, ice and mountains, made me feel the precariousness of it all. She was on her own, reliant only on her skills and decision-making. Alone. Solo. But was she? We were still connected by obligation, myself as skipper of the boat and the rest as her support team. She was connected to us. One wrong decision, one wrong move on her part would have us coming to her aid. As much as we all would have liked to relax, we couldn’t. We were there for Hayley.

That first day, she made it as far as Leith Harbour, setting up camp on a small patch of beach. The weather deteriorated and she found herself stuck there for three days, pinned down by the winds and swell. On the 3rd of March, she managed to kayak one and a half miles before she was forced to retreat to another small beach. And then, another break in the weather and another short hop. Northanger, meanwhile, was still in Cumberland Bay, now tied to the dock at the Grytviken whaling museum while the kayak was being repaired.

Weather gets worse
Instead of improving, the weather got worse. We had days of hurricane-force winds blowing out of Cumberland East Bay, water whipped up into a wall of white spume. Driving snow and then later fog. I downloaded forecasts twice daily, hoping to find a “bloop,” a moment of respite that might offer Hayley some hours of calm.

The e-mails from Hayley questioned the veracity of the wind speeds. Her frustration at being pinned down was coming out in her messages. She had put so much time, energy and money into this trip that the pressure to succeed seemed to affect her, frustrate her. It was beginning to affect us too.

It takes a very special person to be able to embark on such a voyage. To kayak around South Georgia is no easy feat. To do it alone, the risks go up ten fold. We’ve only been once before to the southwest coast of South Georgia, the windward side of the island that is most often inaccessible due to the prevailing westerly winds and swell. In 2005, we supported the team making the first circumnavigation around the island. We were lucky, they were lucky. The weather that year gave us seven calm, cold days and they paddled hard while we followed, carefully navigating through uncharted waters, stopping each night in precarious anchorages we accessed from following hand drawings.

Hayley had already proved her determination and drive with a solo circumnavigation of Vancouver Island and one of the Queen Charlotte Islands. She had skill and she had spunk. And when we agreed to support her, we had no doubt that given the right conditions she could succeed at her goal.

But these were not the conditions for a solo kayaker. They were difficult even for us, in a 53-foot sailing boat with crew. I was becoming concerned. Risks were being taken that I felt were unnecessary. We were a team and each individual’s action, even though separate, affects the others. The friction was building, the weather continued to feed the tension.

Leaving in a whiteout
We left Grytviken in a whiteout, albeit calm, slowly making our way toward Prince Olav Harbour, the small bay where Hayley was waiting for us to come and charge the batteries for her computer and satellite phone. Her communications to us had been sporadic due to the batteries not charging properly. Looking thinner, weather worn, she admitted to us that her cookstove had not worked for five days, but she was still adamant that she would continue on, without a stove if she had to, to the southwest coast.

We could only stay an hour as another low was to the west, winds predicted to come strong from the southwest by evening and the nearest protected anchorage was four to five hours to the north. We reluctantly left her behind on that tiny beach in company with the seals and penguins.

I was beginning to doubt my decision to continue the trip. The sailing was the easy part. It was the psychology of it all. I lacked the experience with this sort of determination and drive. I was becoming angry at what I felt — the lack of understanding of the situation we were in, for the lack of respect for the danger all of us would be put in if rash decisions were made. I was missing Greg. His guidance. Someone to talk to. I was becoming frazzled, dreading each time I had to send another text message with yet another unfavorable forecast.

Also nagging at me was my worry for Greg. A few days earlier, he was readmitted to the hospital in Punta Arenas for emergency surgery. A delay in his flight to New Zealand due to the earthquake in Chile kept him longer in South America than planned. Perhaps the poor hygiene, stressful conditions, whatever, had caused a serious infection in his finger. I questioned if I had made the right decision by coming here instead of being by his side, supporting him.

Our voyage was a Southern Ocean roller coaster of disappointments and of joys. An exceptionally stormy summer plagued the island, pinning Hayley in her tent on exposed, isolated beaches for days on end. When it wasn’t windy, fog or heavy snow reduced visibility, making navigation through the ice-laden waters more difficult. We, too, were often harbor bound, waiting for a weather window which would allow us to follow Hayley, moving from one safe anchorage to another between systems. The original goal of Hayley’s to kayak around the island did not happen. All of us were challenged in ways we never would have imagined. Emotions ran high. Fear of failure fed these emotions. But the journey, the wonderful, generous friends we have made along the way and the lessons we have all learned, could perhaps be considered the success of the expedition. And, most important, we all have survived and I believe the better for it.

Keri Pashuk is an experienced polar sailor and mountaineer - see www.northanger.org.

South Georgia planning
South Georgia, located about 840 miles southeast of the Falkland Islands, is an isolated Antarctic island in the Scotia Sea. Its rugged mountains are weighted with snow and ice. Glaciers cascade from the heights and towering ice shelves calve off massive icebergs into its bays. South Georgia lies within the Antarctic Convergence and these cold waters and its isolation contribute to the abundance of wildlife for which the island is known.

For a small vessel, it is not a voyage to make without thought and planning. You need to think about where you are going and to prepare for any eventuality. An ice strengthened, steel boat is not necessary, but one should outfit their vessel for sailing in the Southern Ocean. There are storms and there is ice. There are no rescue services, either at sea or in South Georgia. There is no fuel, no supermarket, no hospital. And there are many rules and regulations that you must abide by if you wish to visit.

South Georgia, a United Kingdom Overseas Territory, is governed by the South Georgia Government out of the Falkland Islands. The government strives to protect the wildlife and natural environment through conservation projects and by implementing and adhering to environmental management policies. Anyone wishing to visit the island must apply to the government for a permit at least three months in advance of the planned visit. Visitor information and applications can be downloaded off the South Georgia Government Web site: www.sgisland.org.

Adding to this paperwork, Argentina has recently reasserted their claim to the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands. The government is demanding that any vessel planning to visit or transit their “territorial waters” must have a permit. This includes if you plan to sail directly to Stanley from overseas. The Argentinians are threatening a minimum fine of $7,000 USD or impoundment of the vessel. One cannot sign under duress as one is then not given the permit. For anyone planning on visiting a port in Argentina after a visit to any of these places, not having a permit could create a problem. My recommendation would be to consult with your consulate if overseas or your foreign affairs office for advice on how to proceed.

The International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators has recently posted helpful information for yachts wishing to visit Antarctica. Compiled by a group of experienced high latitude sailors, the page includes suggestions on how to prepare a vessel, guidelines on wildlife viewing, etc, which also apply for visits to South Georgia. For more information, visit: www.iaato.org.

Weather and ice rule these seas. Onboard access to weather forecasting has become more affordable and for safe passages, essential. We use a SkyEye antenna and program to receive satellite images, which we overlay with grib files either downloaded via Iridium phone (we have service with Global Marine Networks), or SailMail (which we have as a backup — www.SkyEye.com, www.gmn-usa.com, www.sailmail.com). For following weather when you have access to the internet, visit www.passageweather.com.

Ice forecasting is more difficult. There are no ice reports as in the Arctic. If the skies are clear, large tabular icebergs can be seen on the SkyEye photos, which can at least alert you to the area you may start to see ice. The radar is the most useful piece of equipment for ice, though like humans, not infallible. The tragic loss of a private sailing vessel this season, which struck ice in heavy weather just off the coast of South Georgia, reinforces the need for a constant ice watch, good forecasting and extra diligence in these waters.

A number of books have been written about the island and below I have noted some of my favorites.

Though seemingly an overwhelming task with all the paperwork, the bureaucracy, the planning, not to mention the ocean you have to cross, sailing to South Georgia is well worth the effort. Where else can a mere mortal hang out on a beach with a million penguins?

Books:
Antarctic Encounter:
Destination South Georgia
— Sally Poncet
Antarctic Oasis
— Tim and Pauline Carr
A Visitors Guide to South Georgia
— Sally Poncet and Kim Crosbie
Island at the Edge of the World: A South Georgia Odyssey
— Stephen Venables
The Complete Guide to Antarctic Wildlife
— H. Shirihai
The Island of South Georgia — R.K. Headland
The Totorore Voyage: An Antarctic Adventure
— Gerry Clark
Unclaimed Coast: The first kayak journey around
Shackleton’s South Georgia
— Graham Charles, Mark Jones and Marcus Waters

Hayley Shephard’s Web site:
www.kayakingtosavealbatross.com

Northanger Web site:
www.northanger.org

With advance notice, we are available for ice piloting, crewing, trip preparation and logistics for vessels intending to sail to South Georgia, Antarctica, Greenland or the Northwest Passage.

Keri Pashuk

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