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Adventure in South Georgia

Laura Parish and her charter guests find giant petrels, albatrosses, and macaroni penguins ashore.

November 22, 2011
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Grey-Headed Albatross

StewartDodd

So, with just two of us on board Pelagic Australis for this charter and a full boat, we’ve had our work cut out. Even with such a congenial group of middle aged, predominantly British men, and one woman, who are always ready with a hand to peel potatoes, wash up after a meal, help with the anchoring, hoisting the sail and whatever else, it’s been exhausting. Although we did a full season on this boat last year, and two seasons before that on the smaller Pelagic, it has struck me on this particular trip how varied, interesting and relentless this job is. I thought I would share with you a typical day for the two of us – and they don’t differ so much from this, which is why this is the first opportunity I have had to put pen to paper, or more properly, fingers to keyboard, for a few weeks.

Sometime around 6am: We hear the telltale sound of the heads being pumped, and realize that the day is about to start. It has no doubt been a restless night as we are in South Georgia, at anchor, the wind will be gusting into the 30s as it is almost every night and Pelagic Australis will be yawing from side to side desperate to escape from her leash.

One of us gets up. The early birds have made themselves tea so that is one thing done, but the kettle has been left off the stove and is no longer full of simmering water. Fill up and start making coffee – this group can drink several cups each by 8, and it is a tough job to keep on top of demand.

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Put out the breakfast things; take the yogurt from the yogurt maker and into the bilge to chill. Decide on fruit salad, bacon and eggs, or just a plain simple cereal and toast breakfast – and prepare!

By 8am: Breakfast is finished and two of these guys are washing up. The wind has changed and the anchor needs resetting, so we go outside and spend half an hour trying it to get to hold. It is bitterly cold.

Back inside and the guests want to know what is on for today – a climb up this hill behind us and a lovely long walk the other side to see if we can find a colony of Macaroni penguins – they are supposed to be arriving and nesting this week so we are hopeful that some will be in.

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Unlash the dinghy, use the halyard to get the outboard out of the forepeak, fill up the petrol tank, clip all the emergency barrels, launch the dinghy from the foredeck over the guard rails and into the sea. Twenty minutes, and we are ready.

Back to the pilot house, the guys are almost dressed and waiting for a lift ashore. I find out from Miles where the Macaronis are likely to be, and take the first group – thinking they were all listening to directions too. Back to the boat: Two of the guests have decided there is enough snow to try and ski – they have boots, crampons, ice axes, avalanche probes and transponders all ready in their backpacks, and skis in their ski bags, of course. The second load goes ashore and we pull the dinghy up the beach a bit and make sure it is well tied on. The fur seals growl at us but it is not their breeding season yet so they let us go without a charge. We head up the very steep scree hill and begin our quest to find the Macaroni penguins. It’s a tough walk, cold, windy and poor visibility. When we get to the top and aren’t too sure where to go, two of the group decide to head back to the boat; they can’t face a wild goose chase today. Miles will be disappointed – this is his chance to be alone and get on with some of the chores without anyone on board. He doesn’t hear the radio call because he is hoovering. [It takes about two hours to properly hoover through the boat. It still astonishes me how much dust, hair and fluff and mud and everything else seems to gather on the floors and walls, and particularly on the steps, and it all has to be removed on a daily basis just to have a chance of keeping on top of it.] Eventually he hears and agrees that the guys can drive the dinghy back to the boat without me and those two set off back down the hill.

I look over the other way. The two skiers have disappeared up the mountain to the left, and the other five are scattered all across the back of the hillside looking for a safe way down. We are much too far to the right and end up descending mostly on our bums, down the tussock covered cliffs. At the bottom we have a wonderful walk. The wind is still howling, but the sky clears a little, and it isn’t raining. We see dozens of nesting Giant Petrels, with their huge webbed feet and enormous wing span, and a Light Mantled Sooty Skyrise: four nests, vertically above one another each have an Albatross sitting on their eggs.

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After a few hours walking, we get to a place where there have undoubtedly been penguins in the past. There is a carpet of penguin feathers, and everywhere are little mounds of grass and stones. This is where there will be several thousand Macaroni Penguins breeding in the next few months. At the moment, they are all empty and we are a little disappointed. I look up however, and see that there are six, no seven standing in a group at the top of the cliff, just a few metres from us! They must have just arrived from their winter at sea and will spend the next five months on land, laying the eggs, sitting on them, watching them hatch, and then raising their young.

We have a mission accomplished! It is a great feeling to actually spot these guys, and see them close up – I haven’t really seen them before as I didn’t get ashore here last year, and it is so funny to see their funky orange coloured eyebrows and to wonder whatever they are for!

We head back triumphant, and this time spot the easy way up – a gentle ridge that takes up high up to the top to overlook Pelagic Australis in her cozy anchorage. A quick call to Miles to check all is ok on board, and we’ll need collecting in about 15 minutes, please. Just as I finish on the radio, we notice that the skiers are just 50m below us and skiing back to the beach. It is 1pm – maybe we are all led by our stomachs and decide it is time for lunch.

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Miles has been busy. He has hoovered through, cleaned both the heads, wiped the surfaces in the pilot house, and made a huge pot of minestrone soup for lunch – I knew there was a reason I married him! All the same, lunch isn’t quite ready, and I quickly make the salad and put out some salamis and cheese so the guys can be revived.

After lunch, we need to head off northwest to Cumberland Bay, where we can fill up with water. The forecast was for light winds (not our experience that morning but hey!), and we set off hoping it would be a quick motor round. Thirty knot headwinds and quite a swell was not what we had expected, and we quickly had to restow everything below and make fast everything on deck – it was a three hour slog, pounding into a big sea but eventually we were tied up alongside at Grytviken. What a change. Here there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and we had 0.3 knots of wind!!

Christopher has organised dinner – what a star. And Miles went out with the butchering knife to chop two shoulders off the remaining whole mutton we have hanging from the backstay.

Quick preparation of canapés, drinks, warm up the red wine, provide white wine, etc, and everyone is relaxed and happy. I go forward and start filling the water tanks – the pressure is low, and we need about 1000 litres. We know it’ll take a while, but we have all night, so that’s ok!

After the delicious dinner of roast lamb and roasted vegetables, there is a call for poker – oh dear, this could end up in a late night, and we have an early start in the morning. Nonetheless, it is my turn to stay up and entertain, so poker it is! Actually it was really fun and not such a late night, but even once they were all in bed, there is stuff to do – wash up all the glasses, make sure everything is clean and tidy for the morning, fill the kettle and put on the stove, prepare the coffee pot, ensure all lights are off, and finally fall in to bed exhausted.

We are a good team, Miles and I, and tomorrow we’ll take the opposite roles: some time out on my own for me, a good walk ashore for Miles, and then the long upwind slog back towards Stanley. Let’s hope the wind and weather are kind to us – 750 miles upwind in the Southern Ocean is something I have done before, but am not keen on repeating too often!

Hope all is well at home.

Lots of love,
Laura and Miles
xxxx

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