Wayfaring Journey Bares Stark Beauty of Antarctica

by Todd Jarrell
for National Geographic News
May 24, 2001

Below forty degrees there is no law
Below fifty degrees there is no God.

—Old sailors' saying

The idea is simple, and the opportunity rare: to sail Europa, a turn-of-the-century square-rigged ship, across the Southern Ocean's Drake Passage to Antarctica, and return via the notoriously treacherous Cape Horn.

There are 14 professional sailors and two dozen voyage crew, who have paid to serve as sail trainees on the expedition. Our mutual goal is to witness the beauty of the Great White continent and to sail a square-rigger around Cape Horn in the way of early wind-driven ships.

We sail from Argentina's Tierra del Fuego. Once clear of Beagle Channel, the island's rugged silhouette melts into our wake. Before us is the Drake Passage, renowned for its storms and wild seas. Here, the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans clash, the Andes funnel violent winds, and Antarctica offers its kaleidoscope of snow, icebergs, and storms. Waves build high and power across the Southern Ocean unchecked by any land mass. We face the Drake in the manner of early sailors, climbing high to set and furl the enormous sails. Many ships and sailors who attempted passage through the Horn lie beneath us in the deep.

The Drake Passage soon shows its dark side, as the winds howl and waves slam the ship. Sleep is nearly impossible as we are tossed in our bunks. The mealtime crowds thin as the seasick roster grows.

Heavy weather takes its toll: a quarter-inch steel chain parts, loosening a storm sail to the gale, and the wind snaps the foot-thick mizzen gaff in two. Blown-apart sails are cut away and sent down regularly for repair.

Even in the worst weather, the ship routines continue: baking bread, swabbing decks, cleaning the heads. In the galley, dishes crash regularly and hot soup sloshes in pots. The ship's cooks can be identified by the oven burns on their arms.

We cross the Antarctic Convergence Zone, sailing deeper into the cold. Six hundred miles across the Drake brings us up to the South Shetland chain off the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula.

Our first impression is of complete desolation, but the place proves to be full of life. Penguins crowd the shore and rocks (we smell them before we see them—penguin poop is a powerful calling card). Rafts of molt feathers float in the sea. Seals laze on icebergs and seabirds flash white bellies above the sea like whitecaps escaped from the waves. In the distance, pods of blowing whales chuff past like steam engines.

Farther south, Deception Island's bleak landscape is dotted with the abandoned shacks of Whalers Bay. At Pendulum Cove, we swim in the geothermally warmed waters that stream from the black sand. A volcanic caldera, the entire island looks as though it was cauterized with a blowtorch, then glazed in ice.

Another night's sail brings us to Trinity Islands icebergs, carved by the sea and winds—scored, ruffled, dimpled, cracked; as coarse as a rock pile, as smooth as wet glass.

Europa threads the icebergs, channels, and passages of land seemingly new in its raw and undiluted harshness. At this untamed continent, the feeling is one of merely existing. The utter desolation is otherworldly, as we proceed farther southwest along the peninsula's coast.

Four days' sail brings us to the deep-crusted snowbanks of Peterman Island, swathed in the muted green, yellow, and red of snow algae. Nearby Wiencke Island's ice cap allows the crew an adventurous slide from its top to the survival hut at its base.

Continued on Next Page >>


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