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Through the Williwaws to Grytviken

Pelagic Australis battles ferocious seas to reach safe harbor.

November 23, 2011
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Pelagic

StewartDodd

We are safely in South Georgia, a good, fast and easy crossing, and a really nice group. The two mountaineers have been dropped off to start their expedition and we are left with just four guests.

The guys arrived last Saturday. We had had a busy week doing some routine maintenance, cleaning and provisioning, and didn’t really pay much attention to the fact that the wind instrument hadn’t been registering all week. When we came to leave, it became apparent that we hadn’t just accidently pressed some button to turn it off, but that the wind vane at the top of the mast wasn’t actually sending the message down to the computer. We hoisted Dave (now back on board with two working eyes) to the top to replace it with the spare and for a few minutes it worked perfectly. Phew, we can set off safely knowing where the wind is coming from and how much of it there is. Unfortunately it didn’t last long at all. In fact Dave had time only to get back to the deck and light a cigarette before it stopped reading again. ‘Oh well’ said the very experienced Jim Stephens (one of two Americans – brothers – on board) ‘we’ll have to do it the old fashioned way’, and he was right. We get very used to computers telling us what is what, and forget that we can tell the wind speed from the sea state, the feel, the way the boat moves and the noise, and it’s not hard to work out the direction. So no drama, off we went. Miles and I actually commented on the way across that it was quite nice not having the information broadcast to us, and the sail plan dictated by a small electronic screen, and instead the sailing and sail plan was about instinct and experience.

Now, I know you must be getting bored of hearing about how windy it is down here, but our arrival this week really did set some new records. The forecast showed a small front coming across the island through the morning with 20 or 25 knots of wind, and a little bit more to the south and to the north. By 5am we had force 6-7 from behind us and really great sailing conditions. As we approached Willis and Bird Islands (on the western tip of South Georgia) it increased to a force 8 and the decision was made not to go down the very narrow channel between Bird Island and the mainland but to keep offshore where the sea state was more regular and predictable and we had more sea room. Three reefs and the staysail and doing 11 knots – awesome! Through the morning the wind increased again, we rolled in a bit of the staysail and Miles looked at me – fourth reef? OK, probably too windy to expect these guys to go forward to put the reef in, so Miles and I went up to the mast and fought with ropes and sail and eventually had it under control. Jim was holding court in the cockpit – ‘How much wind do you reckon Miles?”I dunno, 50, 55knots?’Jim looked smug and said that’s just what he’d told the others. And still it increased.

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We buzzed along north of the island, heading for the Bay of Isles to Rosita Harbour – an ‘all weather anchorage’ in Skips’ words. The wind eased for a while and gave us a chance to put the sail away and lash it down and also to prepare the anchor on the foredeck. Then we came around the corner and saw the telltale signs of Williwaws racing across the bay. Big white clouds swirling and whipping the sea into a frenzy. For two hours we did battle with the weather, making incredibly slow progress into the wind, and being pushed over and round by gust after gust. When we finally reached the anchorage, the conditions hadn’t changed – if anything the williwaws were more frequent and more ferocious. We went to our usual spot for anchoring here, dropped the hook and held our breaths. The wind was so strong we literally had to kneel on the foredeck to keep our balance. Seventy or 80 knots gusts coming through with ridiculous regularity. Three of us had hats whipped from our heads – a donation to the ocean, the fur seals or is it neptune? One of the guests noticed that I wasn’t wearing any gloves and brought me a pair. It took too many minutes to work my fingers into the right holes, there just wasn’t any feeling in them. The anchor didn’t hold and we had to bring it back up to look for a better place. Another hour went by, and another failed attempt before the anchor bit and our position was a safe distance from rocks. When we eventually came back inside, our faces felt as if they had been dragged across a frosted up freezer, burning and red and stiff and really quite painful. The best bit about it all was when Richard – a complete non-sailor looked up once the anchor was safe, and said ‘wow, what a beautiful place, lovely sunshine, great wildlife on the beach, fantastic view – awesome!’, and then when we came back inside Jules was equally enthralled – ‘you couldn’t ask for a better/more dramatic landfall’. What a group!

Now we are at Grytviken, tied to a dock and able to sleep full nights. There is a cruise ship here that have invited us for dinner, so no need to cook tonight, they drive us around so we don’t even need to launch the dinghy. A real night off for me – what a treat! Unfortunately Miles has been told that he has to stand up to speak to the guests and answer some questions about yachting down here so he’s not feeling quite so pleased with the situation, no doubt he’ll do brilliantly and drink a well earned glass of wine when he’s done (or maybe before!)

Tomorrow we are planning a hike up one of the peaks here to get a sense of the scale of the place, Miles and I just have to quickly learn some basic climbing skills and techniques…!

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Hope all is well at home, and Christmas isn’t taking over yet.

Lots of love
Laura and Miles

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