What’s it like to sail to the most remote of the South Sandwich Islands?

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Skip Novak makes a memorable expedition sail to Zavodovski, the most remote of the South Sandwich Islands and gives an account of his experience

We dropped anchor in 12m of water, a long stone’s throw from an unfriendly rocky cliff face and immediately the reality of our position set in as Vinson of Antarctica began to roll unpleasantly some 10-15° port and starboard. The surging water was alive with chinstrap and macaroni penguins, some heading out to sea and others heading toward shore, if you can call it that. A wall would be a more apt description.

Dion Poncet had the binoculars out. Pointing to an obscure weakness in an otherwise vertical side of rock he announced: “That’s it”. ‘It’ was where we had to get ashore, a spot discovered by Dion’s father Jerome over 20 years ago and one of only two known landing places on the island, both requiring a Grade 2 scramble up 10m to gain a safe lodgement. I trusted Dion, as he’d made this landing before and is famous for getting people ashore in dodgy areas down south where most people fear to tread.

The Bombard C5 tender was ready on the davits. Over the stern it went and immediately came to life bucking like a bronco and snatching at the painter. No fewer than 70 pieces of equipment were listed on a manifest ready to be deployed out of the forepeak, off the deck and into the C5.

Dr Tom Hart, who’d landed briefly here in 2011, and I jumped into the tender on a roll. Dion drove us in, gauged the one and half metres of heave just at the right moment, and put the bow on a sheer, slippery rock face. I jumped for the ledge, semi-confidently, in a one-piece flotation suit in case things went pear-shaped, and managed to climb up to safe ground. I fixed a rope around a massive volcanic boulder and tied in a succession of large loops to create handholds for Tom to follow.

On recce, we followed a passage through a volcanic labyrinth then up a gentle scree slope leading to an expansive piedmont south-east of the island’s summit – its gaseous plume trailing off flag-like with the fresh south-westerly. We scoped out a spot on raised ground with good drainage near some small chinstrap colonies and decided this was a good place to camp.

There were penguins as far as the eye could see. I felt the privilege of being ashore in this very special place where few people have been and only two parties before us had camped. This was going to be one hell of an adventure!

We radioed skipper Chris Kobusch on the Vinson and gave the go ahead to start ferrying in loads of kit. First to come ashore and be hauled up with a top rope was Tom’s personal survival kit and mine – in case something went wrong and we were stranded with not much except the clothes we stood in.

Next came provisions, water, fuel, two generators, science equipment, tents and camping gear, along with our science team to help with ferrying loads. A long day’s work had to be accomplished in double-quick time – too much swell would mean too much risk as white water crashed both to the left and right of this unique spot. The ever-present surge around this tiny sub-Antarctic island miraculously cancels itself out under this prow of rock, making it all possible.

The author. Photo: Chris Kobusch

Impenetrable island

In January 2020, on the cusp of the Covid pandemic, Pelagic Australis sailed to the remote and wind-blown South Sandwich Island chain in the South Atlantic, far south of my usual stomping ground of South Georgia, supporting a multi-disciplinary science project.

We managed to make landings (often swimming in) on four of the nine principal islands, which was considered a huge success mainly due to a spell of uncharacteristically settled weather. After landing on South Thule, Bellingshausen, Saunders and Candlemass Islands our final objective was to get ashore on the most difficult one – Zavodovski, the northernmost of the chain. Zavodovski is one of the smallest, the most impenetrable, but arguably the most interesting from a scientific perspective as home to 1.5 million chinstrap and 500,000 macaroni penguins, living precariously under an active volcano.

On that occasion the eastern side of the island was awash with seas combing the tops of the cliffs. Landing, or even anchoring, was out of the question. Only two and half miles from north to south, Zavodovski lives in a washing machine of perpetual swell on all sides. We could only wish to one day return with more time to unlock its secrets. And here we were, three years later.

Threading our way through an ‘iceberg cemetery’ at the south end of the island. Photo: Skip Novak

The South Sandwich Islands chain is all about plate tectonics. The 180-mile-long arc of 11 volcanic cones, some active, demarks the eastern margin of the Sandwich Plate balancing on the edge of the 7,400m-deep abyss of the South Sandwich Trench. The trench is a subduction zone – the South American Plate to the east is diving under the Sandwich Plate and creeping west at an average of 70mm per year. This dynamic interface releases magma from the earth’s crust which rises and gives birth to volcanic islands and associated sea mounts. Zavodovski Island, the most active, is 300 miles south-east of the southern tip of South Georgia. We were truly below the Polar Front.

The South Sandwich islands are not in the Antarctic Treaty territory, and the UK, which owns this stretch of hostile real estate, is strict as can be in its governance. To visit is a ‘hoops and ladders’ exercise of bureaucracy limiting visitors to scientific expeditions and sometimes media teams. The land masses are a SPA Specially Protected Area (SPA) and the waters include Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and specific No Take Zones (NTZs) – for licensed fishing in the wider maritime zone. This is critical to monitor and protect krill stocks for the foraging seals and penguins that make these islands their home.

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The permit process is more than rigorous, for both biosecurity and safety reasons. You have to demonstrate you’ll not be introducing alien species to these otherwise pristine islands, and ensure you can conduct the expedition safely and be self-sufficient. And no matter how complete you make your forms, expect lots of follow-up questions right up to departure.

Before we left Port Stanley, we inspected everyone’s clothing and equipment – down to vacuuming out jacket pockets, painstakingly picking seeds out of Velcro with needles and using biocide to disinfect boots, ski poles, tripods and anything else that can touch the ground. We had to be hard on each other, and it is amazing what you can find if you look hard enough. Before setting sail, Vinson was visited by Sammy, the official four-legged rat catcher in Stanley; she jumped back ashore still hungry.

Extreme landings are all part of the deal here. Photo: Skip Novak

Bow on a rising moon

It is 1,000 miles from Port Stanley to Zavodovski and the weather looked optimum for the outward leg. A moderate westerly by north set in soon after leaving Cape Pembroke astern and, with a course for the south end of South Georgia, the wind direction never wavered for the next three and half days.

There’s no secret why more charter boats are not doing what we do on Vinson. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea. After a glorious 800-mile downwind sail from the Falkland Islands, running wing and wing (see right), we ran down the course keeping the bow on a rising but waning moon in the evenings and the sun breaking the horizon in the mornings. We made shelter in four days flat, the team carefree and meditative as they were temporarily released from their land-based responsibilities, on deck in the sunshine among soaring albatross and flitting petrels.

Looking ahead though, there was trouble on the starboard horizon. A big low was due to march across our path for Zavodovski on day five, so it was a no-brainer to nip into Larsen Harbour at the southern tip of South Georgia – an all-weather storm anchorage inside a deep fjord. And lo and behold, Golden Fleece and Jerome Poncet were doing the same on the way from the island to the Peninsula.

he expedition’s camp above the penguins and below the summit of the volcano. Photo: Skip Novak

We spent two nights anchored in proximity. It was a rare treat to have Dion, Jerome’s eldest son, on board Vinson and Jerome, widely known as the ‘father of Southern Ocean sailing’, together in the same anchorage by chance. Jerome was the first to explore the South Sandwich by small boat, on Damien II back in the 1990s and later on the Golden Fleece. We were in good company.

It is a cliché, but it’s hard not to lend a thought to Captain Cook and the crew of the HMS Resolution in 1775. While searching for Antarctica, Cook fetched up on a group of islands which he named Southern Thule. Sailing north he went up the chain to Candlemas, assuming that in the thick weather he was looking at promontories of a land mass.

Not until 1819 when Captain Thaddeus von Bellingshausen discovered the northern three islands was Cook’s theory of a land mass discredited. It was 1908 when Captain Larsen, who developed the whaling industry on South Georgia, finally landed on Zavodovski. But all attempts at whaling and sealing failed due to the lack of any natural harbour, and the islands remained pristine.

Vinson’s secure cockpit with waist-height winch positions. Photo: Skip Novak

Running for shelter

Back at Larsen it was blowing 40 knots on the outside with a 6-7m swell running, and we had to shelter for three days. The wind whipped through the rigging with Vinson snatching at the anchor cable in gusts of 50 knots. It had been raining on and off since we arrived and frankly it was miserable. We were stormbound in the Southern Ocean.

We finally ran down the 36 hours to Zavodovski and arrived on 22 January in benign conditions. My job was to make the call as to whether to make a landing on the day. Too cautious and time would be lost, too gung-ho and you would risk a fiasco, or worse. Although it looked dodgy at first sight, with Dion’s confidence in Zodiac driving we made the move and established ourselves.

With conditions generally dry during the day and spitting with rain during the night, the tents occasionally peppered with fine volcanic ash in high winds, the analysis was that we’d picked a good campsite, just north of Fume Point. I’d prepared 45 tent pegs from 25mm steel angle in Stanley and, with the help of a 5lb maul, they could be driven into the hard clay soil. If the ground had been soft ash with no holding power (an unknown factor) it would have been a game changer. Climbing ropes were also deployed as guy ropes to various pegs which we could change with the angle of the wind. With our heavy kit boxes and bags on the tent valences along with 150kg of boulders carried up from near the cliff edge (ouch!) we had a safe-as-can-be base camp on an otherwise totally exposed landscape.

Hard to imagine a more dramatic campsite. Photo: Skip Novak

We had four tents deployed and two complete spares, knowing that if the shit hit the fan there’d be no escape back to the boat, which was anchored 300m off the cliff face. If it was windy enough to bust the tents it would be too windy to launch the Bombard C5. In extremis, we could survive, but it would be miserable.

Yes, this is a rugged and windy place, but during our 10 days camping on this outlier in the Southern Ocean, we were lucky with the weather. The campsite held and Vinson stayed on station, with the crew Chris, Justino, Dion and Tor able to trade places ashore by the day to get a break from the vessel constantly rolling its guts out.

Zavo (as we now call it) is a stunning landscape like no other. The coastline features are more than descriptive: Acrid Point; Stench Point; Reek Point; Pungent Point and Noxious Bluff. This volcano is classed as active and it is ‘degassing’ continually, its plume with SO2 and other more dangerous gases usually streaming out to sea is to be avoided, so gas masks were always carried, helmets and goggles de rigueur.

Predicting an eruption, however, is quite impossible so while an evacuation plan was mooted and discussed, in reality it would very much be an ad hoc, panic situation, of which we were all aware and happy to take the risk. It had last erupted violently in 2016.

Captain Chris, with Dion and Tor in Vinson’s galley. Photo: Skip Novak

Always with an eye to the weather, we enjoyed glorious trekking all over the island, much of it on moonscape terrain negotiating deeply eroded gorges above the cliffs which were dominated by the chinstrap and macaroni penguin colonies. Our scientific mission revolved around two disciplines. Oxford University’s Dr Tom Hart flew drones censusing the penguin colonies. We also tagged 45 penguins with ‘geolocators’ that sense wet and dry, and night and day recording the whereabouts of these penguins at sea during winter.

Our volcanologist, Dr Nicole Richter from RWTH Aachen University in Germany, drone mapped nearly the entire island using some sophisticated tracking software. The high point, in all respects, was the three of us having the privilege of spending a late morning on the summit (on the only day which was sunny and windless) flying, flying, flying until the stock of batteries ran out.

These two expert drone pilots gathered an incredible amount of data in difficult conditions and will collaborate going forward on their analyses. Once again, our expedition yacht model is proving more efficient and cost effective in deploying small teams focused on their science, rather than those same scientists sharing time aboard large research vessels.

On 31 January we evacuated the island and sailed for the ‘mainland’ of South Georgia, with plans for next year already being discussed. After all, those geolocators surely had to be recovered from those penguins we tagged… Going back to one of the remotest islands on earth? Certainly, why wouldn’t you?


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