Into Antarctica

Vertigo is a luxury yacht with the fortitude to charter in remote destinations.

Ben Lyons stepped from the tender onto the beach, squarely in the footsteps of the legendary explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton. Being so close to the Antarctic Circle, you'd think the chill in the air would have dominated Lyons' senses, but instead it was the sounds that overwhelmed him: ­layer upon layer of trumpet blasts. Their source? King penguins. Some 200,000 of them blended together like grains of sand, actually becoming the landscape as far as Lyons could see on South Georgia Island.

“There are plenty of places where you can see wildlife in the world,” says Lyons, whose company, EYOS Expeditions, specializes in remote yacht expeditions, “but none of them are like this.”

Extended Family Juvenile king ­penguins look bushy next to their adult counterparts — all 200,000 or so of them who live on South Georgia near Antarctica.

The penguins on this day were part of a bigger scene. Elephant seals had begun to battle. Lyons turned to watch the behemoths — which can grow to more than 20 feet and 8,800 pounds — throwing around their considerable weight. Each wants a harem of 40 to 50 females during breeding season, and he doesn’t care how many puny, 200-pound humans are watching when he establishes his turf.

Lyons stood motionless, mesmerized not only by the heavyweight posturing, but also by the roars, which reverberated across the beach like nothing man-made ever could.

“South Georgia is wildlife on steroids,” says Lyons, whose job takes him to many remote cruising destinations, including the Galápagos Islands about 600 miles west of Ecuador. “I love Galápagos, but this is Galápagos off the charts.”

Lyons is reliving his most exciting days on South Georgia and Antarctica, about 2,500 miles to its south, because he is preparing to help a new group of charter guests share the same experiences. From this November through February 2016, his team will be working with the 220-foot [Alloy][] Vertigo, a Philippe Briand design that was built in 2011 and has spent the past four years cruising the South Pacific, Asia, the Mediterranean and the Caribbean. Now, after 100,000 miles of exploring, Vertigo's two captains and thrill-seeking crew are preparing for what they consider the charter trips of a lifetime, to the world's most exotic cold-weather region.

Really, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Note the flush deck from bow to stern aboard Vertigo. The owner wanted no hardware where guests might stub toes. Even the windlass is concealed.

"I don't think Vertigo will do Antarctica again," says Capt. Barry de Kock, who rotates duties at the helm with Capt. Shane Quinlan. "If anyone wants to charter a big sailing boat down there, this will be it."

Vertigo is one of the world's most luxurious and technologically advanced sailing yachts for charter, but even she needs some tweaking before heading to the Antarctic Circle. As of this writing, Lyons and his team were overseeing cold-water vessel prep (including heaters on some fuel lines). They have to ensure proper tenders are aboard. ("Those million-­dollar tenders that look good in Monaco usually ­aren't the best in a place like Antarctica," Lyons says.) Then there's the staffing of expedition leaders for the excursions by foot, kayak and tender.

No, Vertigo will not be the first sailing yacht to venture into these waters, but those who are close to her say she will be arguably the most modern and well equipped, even without an ice-breaking hull.

“Sailing yachts are, by their nature, built to take extreme loads, often more so than motoryachts,” says Tom DeBuse, director of charter management at Y.CO. “There are far-smaller sailing yachts plying these waters every summer season.”

Easy Entry Vertigo has three boarding platforms (port, starboard and aft) so guests can enter and exit the water from any angle and be protected from wind.

Vertigo's owner, like most yacht owners who visit Antarctica, plans to use some of the four-month seasonal time frame for his own expeditions. But he's leaving a few weeks open for select charter clients.

“We’re talking two months, at best, to play with,” de Kock says. “If a charter takes three weeks, we get two of those, and that’s it. We’re done. There aren’t a lot of slots available.”

Two to three weeks per charter are necessary, de Kock and Lyons say, to reach the most remote locations, and because the cruising terrain requires adjustments to the wind and waves as well as to the ever-shifting ice floes, which can force delays.

The excursions are big draws. At Deception Island, which is a flooded volcano caldera, guests can float on the Antarctic Sea, surrounded by glacial ice with warm currents coming from the hot rocks below.

“You enter through this narrow channel,” Lyons says. “Earlier explorers would have sailed right past it. All of the sudden you go through and there are whaling ruins and a thin trickle of volcanically warmed water. The first 6 inches or so of water are warmer. You can’t really swim, but you can wallow.”

In the Weddell Sea, entire days can be spent exploring by tender or kayak in "Iceberg Alley." Charter guests can grab thousand-year-old chunks of ice that Vertigo's crew will later mix in an Old Fashioned glass with a favorite liquor.

“That’s where you might find some of the spectacular tabular icebergs, which have broken off from an ice shelf and could be a half-mile or a mile long,” Lyons says. “There’s a tremendous procession of these huge, fantastic shapes. They’re just immense, up to 400 feet deep, some of them.”

At Detaille Island — just past the Antarctic Circle — is the chance to visit a deserted British base that has been untouched since the 1950s, and that today sits like a fly in amber, preserved far beyond the reach of civilization.

Art, Redefined The bulkheads aboard Vertigo are noticeably free of artwork. The owner and designer felt the yacht was art in and of herself.

“The base is just left there as if somebody went out for lunch,” Lyons says. “They quickly had to abandon the base, so there are a lot of old artifacts there. I remember old telegrams and weather reports still lying about, cans of food that are left over.”

In Marguerite Bay, guests will have 24 hours of sunlight to explore the southernmost elephant seal colony known to man. While on the beach in South Georgia, there might be 2,000 elephant seals, here there might be only 20 to 50.

“Very few commercial ships that worked in Antarctica got that far south,” Lyons says of Marguerite Bay. “You feel like you’re completely removed from everything. Even in Antarctica, only the most adventurous folks get down that far.”

It’s about three days of cruising from there up to South Georgia, where those hundreds of thousands of penguins dominate the scene. The route ­crosses the same waters that made Shackleton and his crew legendary as early marine explorers. Vertigo, of course, offers quite a few more creature comforts than those seafarers enjoyed in 1915.

Start with the fully enclosable aft deck, tailor-­made for dining with near-water-level views of the scenery all around. Then move indoors for lounging on Christian Liaigre-selected furnishings. And there’s the small classroom forward of the salon with its own television and white board. The owner uses the classroom space for cruising with his children and their teacher, but charter guests can take lessons on local wildlife and geology (while nibbling on gourmet canapés, of course) before making landfall at South Georgia.

Secret Passage Steam showers aboard yachts are nothing new, but the owner of Vertigo went one step better: He installed a private passageway from the tender garage to the master cabin head, for easy access when the tender returns and he wants a hot shower.

The lessons aboard the yacht will make encounters in South Georgia all the more meaningful. There, days ashore can include those up-close interactions with the king penguins and elephant seals. Then there’s a stop at Grytviken, near Shackleton’s final resting place, and an abandoned whaling station with a museum.

It’s unusual to be aboard a charter yacht with the nearest hint of a crowd thousands of miles away. This itinerary is the definition of remote. All of South Georgia is home to only 40 or 50 people, most of them at the British Antarctic Survey research ­station. Vertigo and her 10 to 12 guests, plus her crew, can nearly double the number of human beings at the outpost during certain times of the year.

The sheer uniqueness of being there, Lyons says, is what makes yacht charters so memorable.

“No other destination will leave our guests as fundamentally changed and affected as a trip into Antarctica or South Georgia,” he says. “That may sound over the top, but it’s true.”

This comes from a man who’s stood there, with penguins playing at his feet and elephant seals fighting within a few yards. The place is more than ice formations on the bottom side of the world.

“Antarctica leaves people looking at things in a different light,” he says. “It’s just that powerful.”