The last word

Back in London. Not much change around here.

(”Hello. Been away, have you?”)

The blog was managed for me while I was away because I couldn’t access the internet directly – I emailed all the posts and pictures to Theo, who posted them on the site and kept me up to date with some of the responses. But I have only just been able to log on for myself. Thank you all for following us, and for all your comments, emails, enthusiasm and encouragement. It means, and meant, a lot to know that you were there. I’ll respond to everyone individually in due course. And thanks also to Theo, without whom there would not have been a word or a penguin picture to look at.

It was a serious adventure.  My admiration for my polar heroes has increased tenfold, because (admittedly in a cosseted, weatherproofed manner) we followed in their footsteps.  Our trip meant more even than that though, in a way I hadn’t fully expected, because it was so good to be part of this team. While it was happening, the traverse was a great thing to be doing. And as Ian Calder predicted back in the summer, it will no doubt turn out to be an even better thing to have done….

But the best thing of all was to have done it in the company of friends. Here they are:

Skip Novak, owner of Pelagic Australis, and friends

Miles Wise, skipper, just married to Laura

Laura Wise, mate

Stephen Venables, mountain leader

Gavin Brazg

Dick Dickinson

Jonathan Jones

John Wolfe

Christopher Spray

Martin Thomas

Tom Carrell

Janey King aka Rosie Thomas

Thank you, good companions.

‘Bye, everybody. It was the best fun.

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Not quite the last post

We had our big celebration last night. There were the terrible odes and the toasts and the running gags common to all such gatherings – and some mordant surgical jokes characteristic of this one – so I won’t attempt an account. The men have all gone off this morning, rather mutedly, for a Land Rover tour of the Falkland battlegrounds, and I am back in the Seamen’s Mission.  There’s some time, at last, to reflect on the cadences of the adventure. But at the moment I can’t think of any way to write about it that won’t sound glib or bathetic. I am attaching a few South Georgia pictures instead, although they don’t do it justice either.

In 24 hours time, we’ll be heading for the airport. There will be one more message, definitely the last post, which I shall send from London where photo uploading is easy, quick and even cheap…

(The pictures are mine except for the good one, which is Skip’s.)

At anchor in Cobbler's Cove.

Windy conditions at Trident Ridge camp

The boat arrives to rescue us, Fortuna Bay

Newborn elephant seal pup and mother

The remains of Stromness whaling station, where Shackleton, Worsley and Crean finally reached help

The grave site in Grytviken cemetery

Some of the 500,000 pairs of breeding king penguins, St Andrew's Bay


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The Seamen’s Mission

We reached Stanley at about 7 am this morning. Tom won the sweepstake. I was asleep and missed the big arrival, but our 12 – 3 am last watch more than compensated. We were slipping over a calm sea that shimmered like black oilcloth, still making 7.5 knots even in the light wind.  The moon set directly ahead of the bow, the size and colour of a segment of blood orange, and we sat in silence unbroken except for the rustle of water and the intimate murmur of Pelagic Australis’ bones. She’s a fine boat, and it was a moment I won’t forget.

The view from the Seamen's Mission, Stanley, Falklands

We’re back safe and sound, but we’re a slightly battered crew after the long 5-day beat upwind from South Georgia – even taking into account the wonderful sailing of the last 36 hours. Some of us were ill again, others (me) are just plain tired. So I’m sending a picture of us in our glory days out on the Crean Glacier, and some others – portraits of everyone, so faces can go with names for the record – will follow once I can upload them.

We’re moored at a floating dock at the far end of a rusty pontoon bridge, and I’m sitting at a café table in the Seamen’s Mission on the land side. I’ve had a shower – in the staff bathroom (rose-pink tiles, floral motifs) because Seamen are men and there are no women’s facilities. There are shelves of paperbacks, canteen tables, pingpong and bar football and a cheerful cafeteria with free coffee. Radio Falklands is playing cheesy pop, and dock workers in helmets and hi-vis jackets are on their break.

Team photo, Crean Glacier

Tomorrow, an exploration of Stanley, and on Sunday we’re on the weekly flight up to Santiago. Tonight – the official Stanley celebration pub-crawl.

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Our old friend

The strong north-westerly came last night and here we are – under sail for the past eighteen hours, making steady nine knots and heeled over on our ear on a starboard tack that should take us right down to Stanley. We’ve got three reefs in the main, a quarter of the yankee and a full staysail out and we’re flying towards home. 134 miles to go.

It’s wonderful sailing: petrol-blue seas smashing into white caps all around, a clear blue sky, and petrels and albatrosses soaring in our wake. Last night on our 9-midnight watch we had to take the third reef in the main as the wind strengthened – Laura and Gavin and I were out on the pitching foredeck in our foulies and life-jackets, clipped into the safety rope and grinding the winch as waves broke over our heads. Icy water whooshing down my back. The authentic southern ocean experience.  Quite a thrill, actually.

(Are we nearly there yet? Can I call myself a sailor now?)

There is a downside to all the drama. Yet another form of ship’s motion has established itself – an off-angled sort of corkscrewing that means that we are crawling around the boat like old men, clinging to the handrails, and our friend the yellow bucket has reappeared. For two reasons – the usual, but also as part of the equipment with heavy-duty rubber gauntlets and a screwdriver for clearing a blockage in the starboard head. In these rough seas, looking at the peaky faces of his crew, skipper Miles nobly undertook the job himself. Hero of the day.

All going well, we’ll be moored at the dock in Stanley harbour pretty soon. Our watch’s grim midnight – 3 am slot tonight will be our last.

Tomorrow: pictures! Gossip from the bars and high-spots! No talk of anyone’s digestive system, either end. It’s a promise…..

Please do not send any more emails to pelagicaust+janey as this inbox is now closed.

I will be picking up emails from from today.

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Still taking a beating

Twenty-four hours, and almost nothing new to report. We’re 301 miles from Stanley, and the skipper’s estimate is that it will take us another 40 hours to cover the distance. There’s a sweepstake running on the actual time of arrival on Thursday morning at the dock, with two lines ashore. My money’s on 9.12 am boat time.

We’re still beating, but the headwinds aren’t as strong right now and the terrible, boneshaking slamming has stopped except for the odd rogue wave. On this starboard tack we’re heading somewhere north of Falkland, which on the plotter looks considerably more encouraging than the port tack which had us pointed straight at Buenos Aires. Strong north-westerlies are forecast for tonight, which will drive us south again to hit our objective. Subtle business, this sailing.

Otherwise it’s just on watch, off watch to sleep if possible, eat and read if not too queasy. My Kindle has broken, so I’m cut off from my supply of interesting and insightful new novels. I have listened to all my podcasts at least twice, and my appetite for a third run-through of In our Time on the Etruscans is quite limited. I shall have to resort to the boat’s library, which is well-stocked with briny sailing and mountaineering books and a slightly worrying sprinkling of Henry Miller, but has fewer interesting and insightful ones to choose from.

We are so cut off from the world, in our spell of wind and waves. We’ve had no real news of outside events for a month now;  nothing about the Greek euro default, politics and politicians, Life&Style, Hallowe’en, Libya, nothing. (‘When did the war end?’)

Apart from the obvious cravings – for a rocket salad, a stationary bed with sheets, clean clothes and hair – what I am longing for most of all is a fresh newspaper.

Santiago will be the first chance. In Stanley, there is the local Penguin News, £1.50 weekly, and I saw that the supermarket had a two-month old copy of Hello!

Fingers crossed for the blessed north-westerlies to blow us to shore…

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We had an elegant and thrilling sail from Stanley to South Georgia, so inevitably we’re encountering the reverse on the way home. The wind’s coming from the west, 35+ knots of it, and we’re beating into it under engine power. The rolling motion of the outward journey has given way to a brutal sawing, in which the bow lifts, shivers and then smashes down again with a bang like hitting concrete. But we’ve covered 359 nm in 40 hours, and by this evening we’ll be halfway to Falkland and the pubs of Stanley. The sun is glimmering after days of murk, and it’s always interesting to sit and watch our retinue of cape petrels and Antarctic prions. An hour ago there was a sooty albatross.

Other than birdwatching and cooking there’s not much to do except stand watch, read and sleep.

Stugeron and strange hours have made everyone drowsy. On either side of me Gavin and Tom are asleep on the saloon cushions. Dick’s head is nodding over his book. Up the steps in the pilot house, the current watch are sitting in silence. Laura is leaning over the chart table. Everyone else is in his bunk. As I’ve been in mine for most of the day I know it’s not a bad place to be, half-braced against the dip and crash, listening to the rattle and creak of the boat, slap of water and rush of wind as the engine powers us steadily into the weather.

If the James Caird party hadn’t succeeded in bringing help, the men stranded on Elephant Island were under orders from the Boss to take one of the two remaining boats and try to reach Argentina. Heading straight into wind and weather like this, it’s hard to believe they would have got anywhere. It makes the South Georgia achievement seem even more magnificent, because it was the only real chance they had.

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Heavy weather

Very short post. We are having some heavy Southern Ocean weather.

Last night on our 9pm to midnight stint we knew there was ice about because the retiring watch had warned us.  The visibility was poor, only a few hundred yards in places, and the radar doesn’t always show up growlers that could still be big enough to do serious damage. The windows of the snug pilot house were fogged up and we hung anxiously over the radar screen, all the other lights in the boat extinguished to preserve our night vision.

‘This is horrible’, Laura muttered.

There was only one thing to do. We took it in turns to mount a 15-minute ice watch, alone outside in the icy wind and pitch blackness, scanning the waves for the glimmer of ice. Fifteen was the longest any of us could manage before diving back into the warmth again. I hunched my shoulders inside my oilskins and tried to think of the poor old penguins, who stand outside there for weeks at a time until their moult is completed. I could see a distinct glow on the starboard bow. Big berg, I thought. But a few minutes later it turned into a light and then a blaze of light. There’s a neat marine app thingy that allows you to hover the radar cursor and up come all the other ship’s details – this was the Ocean Nova, a cruise ship bound for Shackleton’s grave and Grytviken shopping.

‘What you want from me?’ demanded their Russian officer of the watch when they eventually answered Laura’s VHF call on channel 16. All the cruise ship crews seem to be Russian. Used to the weather, I suppose. Laura asked politely if he had seen any ice and he answered nothing since Stanley. We relaxed a little and went to bed at midnight.

Up again at 6, not much rested. We are chefs of the day, unfortunately. Winds are up to 30+ knots and the boat is bouncing about like a demented rubber ball. We made roast squash soup for lunch, Gavin is baking ginger cake and we have unwisely promised cassoulet for supper. The bread board laden with crumbs, loaf, chunks of cheese and serrated knife has just flown through the air, covering the saloon with debris. I have been eating, cooking, sleeping, working and ice watching in the same clothes for 30 hours and there is no immediate prospect of changing, let alone washing. Even the simplest task is fraught with risk and there is always the prospect of joining galley hardware and flying through the air yourself. I told Gavin I felt like bursting into tears, although I knew he would do no such thing, being a bloke.

‘I’m crying inside’, he said.

Things can only get better.

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At sea again

We left our Rosita anchorage at noon, and passed along the northern coast of South Georgia in a layered fog. The world is entirely grey – air, water, sky a full 8 eighths, as the log says. Between two horizontal bands of fog we glimpsed our last slice of land, like a vision of black rocks and sharp white peaks, until we drew parallel with Willis Island and that in turn fell behind us. Now we are out at sea once more. The wind is only a light 6-7 knots so we are pushing along under engine power with three reefs in the mainsail. The sea is oily, swelling uncomfortably to the point that there was not too much interest in a hearty lunch, but so far the bucket has not reappeared. There is ample time. According to the forecast, the wind will pick up briskly this evening, from the south-west for the next 24 hours. The passage is predicted to take five days.

We have quickly fallen back into the imperative pattern of watches. Without Skip to lead his, Miles and Laura are alternating four hours on and four off, while we rotate three-hour three-man watches under them. Today Dick, Gavin and I have 9pm-midnight, so we will get a six-hour night – yay.

While we are still close to shore, the seas are full of life. Homing penguins flip in convoys out of the water, and seals pop up their black heads. We also saw a pair of whales spouting off the starboard quarter. Blue eyed shags, heralds of land for the James Caird, gamely scud round the forestay.

A life on the ocean wave. Good old Pelagic Australis.

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The one about birds

I have a couple of knowledgeable bird-y friends  (Hello Seb! Jane M!*) who will attest that I do not know a crow from a chaffinch. But I think even they would be pleased with today’s tick.

We left Grytviken and KEP for the last time early this morning. Through the streaming mist we could see Zodiacs full of tourists from the second cruise ship of the season, already zipping across to pay their respects at the Boss’s grave. (Conjugate: I am a traveller, you are a tourist, he is a tripper).

We sailed about 20 miles to Prion Island, a bird sanctuary zealously kept rat-free to safeguard birds’ eggs and maintained by the SGSSI government. And here, after plodding through icy rain along a Galapagos-style boardwalk, we came right up against a wandering albatross chick perched on his nest. This 9-month old colossal infant, the size of a large swan, was on the point of fledging.  His throat and chest were downy with grey fluff like old man’s beard but his back and wings were in mature plumage. His long bill probed irritably into the itchy-looking down, coming up with a satisfying clump of the undesirable baby feathers. From time to time he paddled his feet in the nest and stretched his wings, lined with lacy white feathers like a pair of broken ceremonial parasols, into a crooked span of about six feet. He was clearly longing to get into the air. Once he does so he will not return to land for four years, to breed in his turn. Amazing.

The Albatross

The picture’s not going to win me Wildlife Photographer of the Year but it is my own.

In the course of our tour we have seen huge numbers of birds. I haven’t got my I-Spy Book of the Southern Ocean with me, but they include: penguins – gentoo, king and macaroni; blue-eyed and emperor shags; fairy prion; South Georgia pipit and pintail, which only exist here; light-mantled sooty, grey-headed and black-browed albatrosses, as well as the wanderer. Of the petrels, northern and southern giant, Wilson’s storm, snow, white chinned and cape; and then there are skua, sheathbill, kelp gull, Antarctic tern. This is only an ignoramus’s list, but it’s a satisfying one.

I think that all things considered, I’d better get into birdwatching rather than offshore sailing.

We pushed off in the dinghy from Prion Island beach, leaving behind the now-familiar audience of gentoos, skuas, fur seals and warring elephant seal bulls. It was our last landfall for a few days. We’re now moored in calm but cold and soaking weather at a place called Rosita Harbour. We’re stowing our mountaineering sharps in safe containers, securing our gear and preparing for tomorrow, when we shall head westwards again across the ocean to Stanley.

Follow our progress via the tracker function. There will be posts from various points.

* It was Jane to whom I ran, somewhere in northern Pakistan, to describe the wildly exotic bird I had just spotted. ‘Oh yes, she said kindly. ‘It’s always nice to see a hoopoe’.

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Penguin post

We have seen a lot of them. But first, here is Tom Carrell’s report of climbing a real South Georgia peak.

Stephen, Gavin and I set off early after Martin had risen even earlier, concerned that we shouldn’t set off without the full nutritional benefit that only his cooked breakfast could provide. Miles dropped us off in Ocean Bay by Zodiac to the bemused looks of assembled fur seals, penguins and a small herd of reindeer. Not unreasonable, I suppose, as the sight of three men on the beach in full ski kit is an odd one the world over.

The temperature is warming (ie above freezing) and the snow at sea level is steadily melting, so we had a good slog uphill for a couple of hundred metres before reaching good snow cover and beginning the ski approach to our objective – Black Peak. Higher up, massive avalanches had swept the slopes and so we picked a long, sinuous route up a ridge system to be safe. The pace was steady and relentless, slowing down up high as the gradient steepened above exposed hardpacked slopes that had been stripped by the spring avalanches. We swapped ski for crampons and ice axes to reach the spectacular ridge that ran between the two summits. Unusually clear weather gave us fine views all around, from Pelagic Australis moored next to the wreck of the Bayard around to the Szielasko icecap now below us – an area of permanent accumulation of snow and ice on top of this small range of mountains. We were unsure which summit was highest so climbed both, paying attention to avoid a large cornice undercutting one.

Skis on for the descent, we had an exhilarating ride down – big sweeping turns until the lower, softer snow and complex systems of rock ledges required a more cautious approach, picking a route down as far as we could ski.

All that remained was a three kilometre walkout in skiboots to meet the boat now moored in East Cumberland Bay – with that satisfied feeling of tired limbs and new memorable experiences. The elephant seal watching us embark gave us a more nonchalant look, as if he’d seen it all before.

OK….. that sets team B’s stroll over the headland in context….

At anchor in the cove

This afternoon we are still at anchor in Cobbler’s Cove. This morning most of us did an exhilarating walk/scramble up steep slopes of snow and scree from the cove shore to visit the macaroni penguin colony at Rookery point. A small advance guard of about a dozen had arrived, ready to breed after long months at sea. Soon they will be coming ashore in hundreds. The pioneers were standing about between the tussocks, looking suitably debonair with their macaroni feathers blowing in the wind.

I attach a picture, with the promise that it will be the only penguin photograph to appear in this blog. If anyone requires insomnia treatment, come round to mine once I am home and I will show you the other 5,212.

Macaroni penguins at Rookery Point, Cobbler’s Cove

We are about to sail round to KEP to fill Pelagic’s water tanks ready for the passage back to Stanley.

Tomorrow – Prion Island and the albatrosses.

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