Sunday 16th October 2011

“Hi, I’m Laura, the first mate on Pelagic Australis, and I have been asked to write a few words to keep you updated, as Janey/Rosie and the team attempt to follow Ernest Shackleton’s footsteps across South Georgia.  The weather forecast that we get on board is wind only, and implied a lovely calm few days for them to get ashore and make some good progress.  We dropped them off this morning however, in much more wind than we expected but all hoped that the forecast would be correct and it would calm down throughout the day.

Shackleton's Route, 1916, will be followed by the expedition

On board, we waited in the anchorage to be sure that they had everything they needed, and watched them set off across the snow.  After a couple of hours, all we could see was a tiny snake of skiers making good progress up the snowy slope to the east.  Once we had the all clear on the radio, we set off for the north side of the island, and had to wait till tonight’s 8pm phone call to see how they got on.  It was a freezing cold day, with icicles forming on the rigging and the sails and we could only imagine how cold it must have been on the mountain but hoped that everyone had sufficient clothing and equipment to keep them warm.  At 8 o’clock, the phone call came through on the Iridium phone. They have made it safely to the Trident Ridge, their first camp for the expedition, and so far, everything was going fine.  The only comment we managed to get out of Stephen Venables, the team leader, was ‘it was bloody windy!’ – so much for the forecast!”

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King Haakon Bay

We’re here, and we’re ready to go!

The latest storm abated overnight, and we woke this morning to clearing skies and gentle winds. The latest forecast – a series of screens showing blue or red musical-note thingies with varying numbers of tails – indicates three days coming up with 15-20 knot winds (which counts as a gentle breeze around here). So, the expedition is on….

Trusty Pelagic Australis from the beach

We had a gentle 3-hour sail into King Haakon Bay, passing as we entered it Cape Cove where the James Caird made its first landing. It’s no more than a slot between the cliffs and a scoop of shingle beach. It must have looked like a welcome refuge but the wave surge drives straight up into it. As soon as they had recuperated, Shackleton ordered a move on round the bay to Peggotty Bluff where they established a camp.

Our afternoon has been full of welcome activity after yesterday’s waiting and watching. We have ferried the pulks (sledges) and a series of blue barrels full of all our gear across to the beach, we have loaded the pulks, we have been allocated our tents and camping partners (we’ll rope up in the same teams). Everything is now lying in three neat mounds at the snow margin. It should be safe enough there overnight. Unless one of the colossal elephant seals lollops over and attempts to mate with one of the prettier pulks. It has happened before….

Barrels coming ashore

This will be my last post before the end of the traverse. But there will be news every day – via Iridium phone from camp to boat, and then email from boat to London, from where the blog will be posted. Technology, eh?

Keep reading!

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Hoosh and williewaws

Spray driven off the waves in Elsehul Bay

We are still at Elsehul Bay. I took a photograph of the radar screen showing the boat’s movements around the anchor chain overnight – it came out as a dense black oval scribble with wild spidery limbs shooting out, like some trillipede caught on the skirting board. There’s a storm on, and even here in the shelter the boat is bucking and yawing so as to send plates flying and fruit jumping out of the bowl. Our screen shows the wind strength as almost off the scale – gusting at 50+ knots.

Movements of the boat overnight

The forecast indicates that the gale will drop by midnight, but until then we’re confined on board. Waves are smashing against the rocks a couple of hundred yards away, and it would be too difficult to land the dinghy even if a shore excursion were particularly enticing. The colony of elephant seals on the little beach opposite us have given up blaring and snorting and hunkered down in silence. On board we are sorting out kit and packing wet bags and sledge loads ready to go round to King Haakon Bay tomorrow. I’ve put the skins on my skis, rolled a dry pair of socks and some fallback Snickers bars into sealed bags, and crossed my fingers.

The winds down here are phenomenal. Williewaws is what they tend to be called in the polar literature, but what they really are is katabatics, rolling faster and faster downhill and gathering force as they go.

Apart from packing, what we’ve mostly done is cook and eat. (Still fuelling up, we insist). The polar heroes wrote a lot about stopping to fire up the trusty Primus and brew a consoling hoosh. Basically this was a food ration devised by Shackleton and Sir William Beveridge, who was the British Army’s food expert. It looked like a block of peat, and was made  of beef protein, lard, oatmeal, sugar and salt. This was cooked to a thick soupy brew and taken as hot as possible. Otherwise the men lived on seal meat, albatross chicks, limpets and other such found delicacies, and endless cigarettes.

How different is our life here aboard Australis. Last night for dinner we had fresh asparagus, followed by roast rib of beef with dauphinoise potatoes and broccoli, and finished up with apple pie and custard. And much red wine.

I did not hear any toast to the Queen, or indeed to wives and sweethearts, but I may have been in the head at the time.

Tomorrow morning, round to the south side of the island and a prayer for the famous weather window to materialise.

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We’re here.

11 am and we’re at anchor in sheltered Elsehul Bay on the north west side of the island. 752 miles from Port Stanley in 88 er – varied hours.

Gavin saw it first, near the beginning of our midnight to 3 am watch.

‘That’s ice.’


‘No, it’s a wave’.

‘It’s been breaking for a very long time, then’.

It was a sinister grey chunk, a bergy bit the size of a small car. Within minutes there were more of them, sliding by on both sides, rising and falling with the swell.

Skip had us out on deck to lower the jib and take a reef in the main. He hand steered us through the thickening brash as bigger and bigger icebergs showed up, glowing red patches on the radar screen. A huge berg now bobbed on the screen a mile ahead but however hard we stared into the blackness and shivered in the hard wind, we could see nothing. Then there was a grey gleam of dawn on the horizon. But too early for dawn… the glimmer of light took shape as a vast tabular berg.

‘That bloody thing is the size of the Isle of Wight’, Dick muttered. It slid past on our starboard bow, on and on, perhaps a quarter of a mile of it.

At 3 am I fell into bed. After not sleeping at all for the first three nights, I now can’t stop sleeping. The next watch had a busy time. I heard the constant rustle of brash against the hull, and then a sudden loud clang, unmistakeably the ring of ice hitting aluminium,  that had Tom and me jerking upright in our bunks. But there was no call to the boats. Hearing the Titanic movie score in my head I turned over and fell asleep again.

When I came up for 9 am watch, there was a darker grey patch against grey mist. Willis Island, named after Midshipman Willis on Cook’s voyage. Captain Cook made the first landing on South Georgia in January 1775, naming it after King George III. His report, published two years later, gave the first reports of the density of wildlife on the islands. This brought an invasion of seal hunters – by 1900 the fur seals were hunted almost to extinction, and in their wake came Norwegian whale hunters. Grytviken is Norwegian for pot cove, and the first whalers named it after the sealers’ trypots found at the site. The James Caird passed the same way. When the six men saw the blue-eyed shags that are wheeling around us now, they knew they were close to land because these birds never fly far out to sea. We passed Bird Island and the bleak-looking British Antarctic Survey station on the shore there, and a few minutes later we were at anchor in the bay.

Cockpit radar - we've arrived!

We have had lunch and our bio-safety lecture, and now the dinghy is being readied for our first shore excursion.

More follows…..

Check our position on Pelagic’s chart tracker:

or Google: South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands.

Send an email (no pictures, please):

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It’s only our third day out of Stanley but life has settled into a fixed cycle of on or off watch, within which over-riding imperative the lesser cycles of cooking, eating and attempting to sleep take on an absent-minded, makeshift quality. Our watch had the six-hour real night off last night and I lay in my bunk listening to the thud of feet on the deck a foot above my head as some small-hours sail manoeuvre took place. At six am we were up again, watching snow fall into pewter-grey seas.

Goose-winging with mainsail and yankee

The watch itself consists of perching in the pilot house, kitted out in oilskins and sea boots, ready to answer Skip’s call out on deck to tail sheets or grind winches. Nobody shouts, but even so it’s clear how important it is to get things right out there – in these seas and winds, so far from any other shipping, we have only ourselves to look to. But Australis is not exactly short of the right stuff, both in terms of build and crew. I have never felt a second’s anxiety since we left the dock at Stanley.

The hours in the pilot house don’t seem long, especially in the quiet night. Last evening the four of us discussed Obama’s reticence on Palestine, and tried to list our personal top three books of all time. There are long periods of silence too. We sit in near-darkness, to preserve our night vision, particularly important this icy latitude. Down in the narrow corridor, the empty oilskins of the off watches sway on their pegs like a phantom crew, and the sleepers lie huddled behind their lee cloths.

The huge sails tower against the blackness and the occasional star swings giddily behind them. I think of the James Caird, with Tom Crean singing at the tiller, and inevitably of the Titanic, a gaudy dazzle of lights and faint dance music, steaming towards the iceberg.

It’s midday now. We are some 20 miles off Shag Rock (do stop giggling at the back) and about 160 from South Georgia itself. I‘m told that all being well we shall be there tomorrow morning, which means a passage of less than four days.

We are beginning to think about skis, and sledging rations. In the pilot house Jonathan is stitching his sledge pennant and John is mending kit, sewing away like mariners of old.

Thank you so much to everyone who has emailed me. I love getting your messages, and please don’t think the lack of an individual response means I haven’t received it. It’s just that satellite time is so minimal for social purposes, and SO expensive. 

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At sea

Yesterday’s post was written from a perch in a corner of the pilot house, because to do any sort of close work out of sight of the horizon was way too sick making. In the early evening Dick and Gavin heroically braved the galley and cooked up sausage, beans and mash – most of which was eaten, some of which didn’t even make the reverse journey.

It has been a rough passage so far but now, 11 am on Tuesday, we are pretty much half way to South Georgia. Sailors: the seas are less ferocious, and winds are steady 25 knots from the SW. We’ve got a yankee and a staysail up with a two-reef main and are making about 9 knots. No bergy bits yet seen, but we’re looking out with keen anticipation. I’m hoping you can read our current position from the embedded link below.

At sea

Everyone has his sea legs and Australis is a happy ship.

I’m at the saloon table, with Dick on one side and Jonathan on the other, noses in their books. Chris is in the galley cooking minestrone for lunch; up the companionway steps I can see Tom and John in the pilot house and hear Miles’s voice. It’s his watch. Laura and the others are probably asleep in their bunks.

We are working four-man watches, on a three-hourly 24-hr rotation. I’m on Skip’s, with Gavin and Dick. Last night we were on 3am to 6am, which meant rolling out of our berths in thick darkness, grabbing a headtorch, pulling on oilskins, life vest  and sea boots (I sleep in my clothes. We all do) and presenting ourselves in the pilot house sharp on the hour, no excuses. The three hours pass in a mix of desultory talk or listening to the wind and the noises of the boat. The wind weirdly dropped at one point so we were out on deck in the blast, winching in the foresails before resorting to engine power for a spell.

As a night’s activity this sounds like all sorts of hell combined….but actually it was thrilling. We had a cup-a-soup afterwards and it tasted as good as Krug.

Next watch for us is noon to 3pm, then we get 9-midnight followed by an unbroken 6-hour night! This is the best combination in the watch cycle and I’m already looking forward to rolling up in my top bunk and pulling the lee cloth up tight. I’ve got about 100 books on my Kindle but so far I haven’t read a word. Radio 4 podcasts are best. Last night I fell asleep listening to In Our Time. Can’t remember a word of what it was about, but it sounds so soothing and kitchen-radio homely. As a novice sailor there’s too much to do, and remember, and learn, to be thinking of home during the day – but the nights  are different.

There’s talk of a promising weather window opening for the traverse itself. Very exciting.  (If such a thing as dry land really exists, and is not just a folk memory…)

More tomorrow. I can’t use my MacBook on board – my creative’s badge, my symbol of writerhood – because it lacks the software to connect with Inmarsat.  So I’m not able to access the southbyeight site direct. But I hope you’re reading it, and please send messages if you can. I’ll get them, and it means a lot.

Send an email (no pictures, please):

Check our progress:

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The Bucket List

Au contraire, as the man said in the southern ocean when they asked him if he’d dined. (Lord Peter Wimsey, I think, approximately).

I don’t know much about sailing, but one thing I can say. This is nothing like tootling about in the Solent. Hard men are chucking up into buckets on all sides. The horizontal constantly becomes the vertical and then changes its mind yet again. It’s not so much rolling and pitching as …well, twice that. But we are flying along, 30 knot wind on the quarter, just an ordinary day for this part of the world. 176 miles under the bows so far. We left the shelter of Stanley Harbour at 3pm yesterday and it’s now 12 noon Monday so there are high hopes of a 200-mile day. Which is about a quarter of the way to South Georgia.

Leaving Stanley harbour

The more I think of Shackleton and the others doing this in a tiny open boat, the more astounding it seems.

On 1 August 1914 Endurance was sailing down the Thames when Germany declared war on Russia, bringing Britain to the very edge of war. At Margate, Shackleton offered all the men the opportunity to leave the ship and enlist – several of them did. Shackleton himself was in serious doubt that the expedition could continue. He sent a message to the Admiralty offering the ship’s service to the country, but within an hour a telegram came from the First Lord – one Winston S. Churchill. It contained a single word.


Under a three reef sail, a staysail and a patch of jib, our queasy crew proceeds.

Securing rations in the outdoor freezer

If anyone would like to follow our position, go to the Pelagic Australis website and check the tracker function.

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Test run

This won’t be all for today, I hope, but we’re trying a quick post with words and a picture…. Hope you’re all receiving us so far.

Australis is a big boat. But there are now 12 of us on board, with 10 pairs of skis, 10 sets of ice axes, crampons, harnesses, tents and all the hardware for a 2-week mountaineering excursion, PLUS all the food for a lot of hungry people for a month, their clothes and personal belongings, oilies, seaboots –  so there is a fair amount of stowing to do. The lockers around the saloon containing dry goods and tins are a miracle of organisation. The boat’s tanks contain three tonnes of water, seven tonnes of diesel.

We have also been planning and then bagging up three sets of 5-day sledging rations. Rice, pasta, teabags, muesli, milk powder, trail mix, cheese, salami. I haven’t seen any tinned foie gras or cases of champage, but Stephen may have them hidden somewhere.

A house on Main Street, Stanley, Falkland Islands

Lunch preparation is underway now, and we hope to set sail not long after that.

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At last

Three more short plane hops – Santiago to Punta Arenas, to Rio Gallegos, and finally on to Mount Pleasant airport – and we’re in Falkland at last. Even before we landed we felt the wind: it hit us side-on and the aircraft did a sideways lurch as we touched down.

The Falkland Islands, South Atlantic

It’s forty minutes in a 1960s style school bus, over partly unmade roads with roadside signs bearing skull-and-crossbones and ‘Danger – mines’ warnings, to Stanley. It’s got a sort of Reykjavik vibe. Brightly painted houses, tin roofs, a little church with a squat steeple. Just not quite so many stag parties, I imagine.

Pelagic Australis is moored at a dilapidated quay and skipper Miles with his new wife Laura are waiting aboard to meet us. It’s very good to be here. (For my family readers, Miles is a dead ringer for our brother-in-law Mike Evans. Imagine!)

We’ve had dinner, several briefings on how to pump out the heads and scrape out the waste, we’ve partially unpacked some of our mountains of gear, and now it’s 21.15 local time and there isn’t even a move to go out to Deano’s Bar. Everyone’s tired.

More tomorrow, communications permitting.

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Santiago graffiti

Phew. It’s been a tough trip so far. Breakfast, long lunch, stroll through Barrio Bellavista (which resembles Shoreditch more closely than Shoreditch does), tea, snooze – and shortly a team gathering wearing our special new fleece beanie hats embroidered with ‘Shackleton 2011’, a present from John. There will be pisco sours in the bar, and no doubt after that that there will be dinner. ‘Fuelling up’ we tell each other.

Santiago graffiti

Next post, Falklands.

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