Sailing to the most remote islands in the world amid ice and snow

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Charter skippers Mark van de Weg and Caroline Theoret embarked on a voyage for themselves – to the most remote islands of the Southern Atlantic, Indian Ocean and Pacific

It’s five years since our first voyage to Antarctica and we need a break from chartering to the Antarctic Peninsula. We love Southern Patagonia and the Antarctic but it’s time to refresh. Too many charterers like us started as sailors with the dream of making a living under sail but no longer hoist the sails: instead we have enormous diesel tanks and bigger superstructures to help us run our guests from one location to the next.

This time it’s just Caroline and me on the crew list aboard Jonathan. We make a last run for fresh vegetables then check out with the Chilean Armada in Puerto Williams. We share a smile when the officer asks if it’s really just the two of us. Well, yes – and the Windpilot of course. We take our time sailing to Caleta Martial, a well-protected anchorage close to Cape Horn. We’re heading back to the Peninsula, but this time it is on our own terms. Life takes time, as a Norwegian trapper once told me after spending another year in his small hut on Spitsbergen.

The Drake Passage is on its best behaviour and three-and-a-half days later, at Melchior Island, Caroline rows out the first shore line. The anchorage is so small there’s no space to swing, so it’s two shore lines and the anchor with 80m of chain before we can embrace on the foredeck. The glacier wall is close ahead of us, there are seals on the pebble beach behind. All is perfect silence and it’s as if the world is no bigger than our little hideaway.

The Antarctic Peninsula seems to be in slow motion. We cross the Gerlache Strait in very light winds, our Southern Ocean-weight sails hanging listlessly. It is whale watching time: the giants are bubble-net fishing close by. There is no rush. On the Antarctic Peninsula in midsummer the sun only just sets, and dusk and dawn become one. Getting in before dark is weeks away.

Mark van de Weg at Jonathan’s helm, slaloming between ice floes around the South Orkney Islands. Photo: Mark van de Weg & Caroline Theoret

South Orkney ice

With the light wind, we sail over the bar into the Portal Point anchorage. A perfect slow day. But in the morning, we get a reminder we are not alone. We see 12 tourists dressed in uniform gear cruise across the bay. Then it is one Zodiac after another. They look at us as if we are wildlife. We take our coffee inside and watch through our Moitessier plexi-dome to check when they have gone.

A few weeks later we enter Potter’s Cove on King George Island. It’s not at all what it looks like on our charts. The old glacier has receded so much we can pass its front for many miles, and slowly find our way further and further in. Later at the Argentinean scientific station, they show us the retreat of the glacier front. But it’s not just the front that has vanished; the glacier thickness is now much less than it was when they first measured it.

We set off for the South Orkney Islands, 375 miles from Potter’s Cove. We might encounter some icebergs but they will show up on radar; it’s the smaller bits that will not. With heavy stratus above us, there is little light left during the night. But there is no time to slow down because the next low is already on our tail.

One of us is on ice watch, ready to change course in seconds. We need to stay away from the tabular icebergs that calve and produce the icy bits we are so worried about. Jonathan’s overhanging bow and single protected rudder are the best for ice conditions but even so the risk of hitting a piece of ice at seven knots keeps us awake.

By the time we turn into Borge Cove we are exhausted.

Jonathan and the Bark Europa anchored at Tristan da Cunha. Photo: Mark van de Weg & Caroline Theoret

There are 50 shades of grey, ferocious winds and snow. The South Orkneys are brutal in their beauty. Some of the anchorages turn out to be too intimidating to relax. Eventually we find relief in a very small bay where we can row around in the tender and can’t be blown out to sea.

The penguins are chattering and the seals are sunbathing despite the impenetrable stratus. We pick up some glacier ice to sparkle up our whisky later when we warm up next to our trusty oil heater.

Rolling with the lows

Back at sea, we press on. We pass South Georgia. We do not have permission to land this time so we pass by to the south-east of the islands. There are other worries: the GRIB files show a vigorous low right on our track.

A weather routing algorithm would probably not suggest it, but we decide to slow down and let the low track in front of us. We have time and Tristan da Cunha has been a dream for so long it can wait another day.

At Tristan, we find the anchorage is an open roadstead and the bottom just rocks, but we are in luck. There has been no wind and no swell for days. We go ashore and walk the island in perfect sunshine and climb the crater of the volcano that erupted in 1961.

Grey-looking but secure anchorage at South Orkney. Photo: Mark van de Weg & Caroline Theoret

After leaving Tristan we continue to South Africa. On a day in late March we catch sight of Table Mountain looming over Cape Town. This is where the sailing stops, and it will be all work for months. Jonathan needs it after years in South America, and here there is no excuse; the weather allows painting and the shops have all the special items we could not get in Ushuaia.

We stay ashore in Saldanha Bay and bicycle to Jonathan every morning. We take this time to get ready for the Indian Ocean and say to ourselves: this is no different than any other voyage. Or is it? Maybe the Indian Ocean’s reputation is what is making us wake up at night and write down another item on the work list?

Caroline studies the notorious Agulhas and ocean currents online: the eddies show very well on the images so now we have to combine them with the GRIB files for the start of our voyage. South-south-east for 420 miles before heading east seems the way to go. We’re heading for Prince Edward Island, there is a good anchorage in the lee of it and we need to tune the new rigging – which could be done at sea but is easier at anchor. We have a clean hull with recent antifouling and, with the swell in the bay, there is no temptation to go ashore.

Keeping watch: King penguins from the colony at Iles des Cochons, one of the Crozet Islands in the southern Indian Ocean. Photo: Mark van de Weg & Caroline Theoret

Search for knowledge

We press onwards, and make a course for the Kerguelen Islands. The islands are virtually closed for visiting yachts but Caroline has managed to get permission. Our background of chartering in high latitudes and being familiar with all the environmental concerns for these delicate ecosystems convinced the Terres Australes et Antarctiques Françaises (TAAF) ornithologists that we could be of help.

After a gybe, we pole out the yankee to port and I suddenly notice a piece of plastic on deck. A part of the PVC pipe that sits around the aft lowers has broken off. Lifting the pipe makes the hairs on my back stand up. Part of the rigging screw has broken off. The other half is at an awkward angle but still keeping tension on the rig. We have just replaced it in Cape Town because the old one had done so many miles. After we put the old rigging screw back on we call up the Crozet station and ask for permission to do a full rigging check in Baie du Navire. Tilman visited here and it happens to be on our ultimate dream list.

The Indian Ocean lives up to its reputation but GRIB files help us avoid the worst of another low that is pushing us along at great speed. Our approach to Morbihan Bay is around the south of Kerguelen. Under just a scrap of poled out yankee we roll the decks awash as we pass Cape Bourbon. The forces on the pole are so high that the opposing aft lower shroud loses tension at times.

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Ornithologists Vincent and Hichem join us for two weeks to explore the waters of Morbihan Bay, mainly to check the shag population, though any birdlife and sea life is of interest to our biologists. For us it’s the way to see a place that would otherwise be closed to a cruising yacht. On top of that we can pick their brains, as these two easygoing Frenchmen are walking encyclopedias.

After the first successful survey we go quite a way up the east side of the Kerguelen Islands. Finding our way in unexplored waters can only be done under the right conditions, in waters sheltered from any waves and swells, on a rising tide, with not too much wind – or at least not too much by Kerguelen standards. We feel our way with help from our forward looking Echopilot.

Back at the station we get the first news that a virus is causing havoc in Europe. It’s quickly forgotten about when the station leader asks if we want to cruise a bit more before we head off for Hobart. We are stunned by the offer and tell him we would love to go further north. We deduce that he must have obtained this permission when we were hailed on VHF by a Navy ship. Even here you are not alone.

Squally Port Davey in south-west Tasmania. Photo: Mark van de Weg & Caroline Theoret

A silent prayer

Another deep low is going to hit Kerguelen. We anchor in a clear spot among the thick kelp and wait to see if the anchor will settle in. The williwaws are frightening, the boat swings wildly. We regret not taking the yankee off the furler while we had the chance. I go forward on hands and knees and watch our storm snubber stretch and stretch. Go to sea and you learn how to pray.

We ride out the storm and are ready to leave for Tasmania, 3,518 miles away. With 15 knots of wind from the west we set off, Jonathan passing big flocks of birds feeding on the krill. Staying on Kerguelen latitude gives us favourable winds. We are expecting a Southern Indian Ocean hit at some stage, but we find ourselves smiling every time a new GRIB comes in. Weeks later we find ourselves south of Tasmania: it is time to head north. We clear in at Hobart and spend a few months in the coastal town of Kettering.

Southern royal albatross. Photo: Mark van de Weg & Caroline Theoret

Now restricted by Covid regulations, we make the best of our limited cruising grounds. But months later Caroline manages to get permission for Jonathan to enter New Zealand on the promise of a major refit.

It’s mid-winter when we cross the Tasman Sea. Strong to very strong south-westerlies push us so fast towards the Cape Maria van Diemen and Opua that we get an email asking us to slow down or risk having to go into 14-day quarantine on our arrival. In the lee of the land we furl the headsails and arrive in Opua 12 days after departure. The remaining quarantine days can be spent at the dock.

We enjoy the Bay of Islands, then sail to Whangarei for a (not-so-major) refit. Suddenly we are part of the stranded cruising community, enjoying Sunday barbecues and happy hours most days. It’s another world for us: did we become recluses in the Southern Ocean?

Hit by the rough weather of a deep low getting into Bahia Cook at the south-west of Tierra del Fuego. Photo: Mark van de Weg & Caroline Theoret

Pacific extremes

South of New Zealand there are sub-Antarctic islands with a history of marooned sailors and pioneer settlements. Seeing with your own eyes the graves and ships remains, you can only imagine how it must have been. All the marooned sailors knew was that at some stage their square rigger would not arrive in England full of grain. Families back home would have no way of knowing what had happened.

Campbell Island becomes our favourite. We walk to an abandoned station to the west coast, passing close to albatrosses sitting on a nest. They haven’t seen any humans for years. But their interest in us passes quickly, and they go back to sleep with not a care in the world.

Returning to New Zealand’s South Island, we consider where we should go to next. Our plan was to visit our families in the Netherlands and Canada before resuming chartering, but unfathomable bureaucratic Covid rules make it impossible. So let’s sail to Tahiti.

Far away from everything in the Austral Islands, the southernmost of the French Polynesia group, with just a trading schooner once a month. Photo: Mark van de Weg & Caroline Theoret

Our first stop is Raivavae, where we find nothing but kindness. Where else do you check in with authorities and leave their office with bananas and pineapple? We leave Jonathan at anchor for months in Port Phateon to fly home. Leaving is a bit of a worry, many boats have deteriorated while their owners could not return to them. We leave the boat in the care of Markus Grandus and fly to a different world.

When we return, Jonathan looks just as we left him but Tahiti is simply too hot for us. We decide to sail back to Patagonia. On an early Saturday morning just before our departure, we join a ceremony for the fishermen going out to sea. The vicar prays we will have a good and safe crossing. A woman takes off her lei of flowers, puts them on Caroline’s head and wishes her a safe voyage.

The last leg of our long cruise skirts Antarctica. We wonder what’s in store for us? This is where Victor Dumas and later Bernard Moitessier developed their heavy weather techniques. The Smeetons wrote Once is Enough after their ordeal trying to round Cape Horn. But we have weather forecasts, which have proven to be very reliable on open ocean crossings and we have learned what to avoid, if possible, in these latitudes.

New Zealand’s Fjordland is the perfect place to get the kayak out to explore. Photo: Mark van de Weg & Caroline Theoret

The GRIBs often show brutal frontal systems with extreme changes in wind direction. Not just a 90° shift at a front but at times even close to 180°. With big seas still coming from one direction the new ones quickly build. Moitessier watched the swells very closely and let them decide what was Joshua’s best angle to the seas.

We head south-south-east for the first 550 miles, pick up the westerlies and the days pass smoothly. We feel relaxed and are enjoying the crossing. Living with the sea, the waves, the wind and the clouds makes you want to sail on forever.
After 19 days at sea and another five to Bahia Cook, the forecast is not good for the time we are due close to the continental shelf. Better get in before that. We shake out two reefs and look at our options. We make our way through poorly charted waters and get in Caleta Coloane before the blow. With the anchor out and two shorelines out we sit easily and wonder why we ever left Patagonia.

Jonathan’s full name should be Jonathan Livingstone Seagull, after the book by Richard Bach. Jonathan Livingstone Seagull was always finding new ways to fly and go his own way, and so are we. We are just trying to live up to his motto as sailors, exploring new oceans and learning how to sail them.

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