The first wandering albatross banked through pearly fog soon after Whale Song crossed 60 degrees south and the sea plunged to 35 degrees Fahrenheit. Drake Passage breathed long swells, never truly waking up until we had swung around Peninsula Fildes, King George Island, to stop and rest. Not for long. The two chinstrap penguins, precariously perched on a drifting islet of sloping ice, woke up and focused on the chain racket Whale Song made, as we weighed anchor in a hurry. The wind veered rapidly and the gravel beach astern looked too close. The ice began arriving — chunks the size of Volkswagen beetles led the way, aiming into our anchorage in Caleta Ardley. We had to move even though we had arrived only hours earlier after the passage from Cape Horn. No one on board minded: We had made it to Antarctica!
Less than a year earlier my wife Nancy and I had signed on as mate and captain (respectively) to prepare the 94-foot Trinity Halter expedition yacht for the worst the oceans can stir up. Planning a five-year circumnavigation, Grant Wilson bought the powerful steel yacht, rated ice class and A1 by the American Bureau of Shipping, in Florida in January 2006. The voyage we planned would take us to the Falklands, Antarctica, Chile, Peru, the Galápagos, the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, Japan, the Southwest Pacific, Australia, Papua New Guinea, southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, South Africa, West Africa and the Mediterranean. You got it — the long way around! A man of action and an inveterate adventurer, Wilson wasted no time. Within a week of her purchase Whale Song was in the Bahamas using the rough winter weather to find out what upgrades she needed. After a sojourn there, Whale Song moved to Thunderbolt Marine in Savannah, Georgia, to get the needed refit. Last-minute work on the keel coolers was done at Fairhaven Shipyard in Massachusetts. (See “Planning for Peril,” to read about Whale Song’s equipment and systems upgrades.)
On July 27 we hit the sea, turned south and finally breathed fresh ocean air. Two nights later, in the Gulf Stream, Whale Song crashed through seas that were out of proportion for 15 knots of southwesterly wind. Dawn revealed that the ocean had swept a large deck bin from the bow. Only the through-bolts remained. August began with Tropical Storm Chris moving west. We anchored for a few hours by San Salvador Island in the Bahamas to prepare for battle: changed all fuel filters, tightened the storm covers for the opening ports in the hull, closed the air-conditioner intakes exposed to spray, closed vents for the forecastle and double-lashed all movable gear on deck. Two weeks later we sheltered from another tropical system in Les Saintes near Guadeloupe. Fifty-knot gusts tested our anchors while I hand-pumped hydraulic fluid from the crane tank so I could remove absorbent pads left by the absent-minded yard workers.
We left the bad times behind in Laguna Grande del Obispo in Venezuela — schools of dolphins led the way to an anchorage in a bowl of blue water reflecting the fire red hills. In Trinidad, road trips to lush tropical forests provided a break from building spray-proof covers for the intake louvers on the engine room blowers. In boisterous seas salt spray had squeezed in and coated the engines and generators. Using his Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineering past, Wilson bent an aluminum sheet into clever boxes that didn’t require welding.
Unexpectedly favoring us, the currents in the Serpent’s Mouth between Trinidad and Venezuela accelerated Whale Song toward Georgetown, Guyana. While anchored in the Demerara River, we hired watchmen to guard against night thieves. The next day, downtown merchants feverishly boarded shop windows against riots they expected to follow election results that evening. Off we ran to Paramaribo in Suriname — a multiracial oasis of modernity, prosperity and tolerance: Hindu temples stood side by side with mosques and churches. Then French Guiana’s Iles du Salut, where Papillon’s Devil Island featured smiling gendarmes, the Jail Museum, a quaint resort and a splendid French restaurant with views of an islet sprouting palms over a sparkling sea. Fearless agoutis grazed openly while bright-eyed, mustachioed monkeys pranced overhead.