From Ushuaia, Argentina to the Antarctic on the Anne-Margaretha
Crossing the Beagle Channel
It started to become real when we loaded our gear into the taxi in Ushuaia, and headed to the old port in the harbour to board Anne-Margaretha, our home for the next 25 days. We are Sally and Alan Smith from Sandspit, New Zealand. We have our own small cabin on this beautiful vessel, every inch of which was built by her owner Heinz. Built of steel and built to take the weather, a very reassuring vessel to be doing this amazing journey on.
We unpacked and stowed our gear, made up our bunks, met the other passengers then all of us walked back into town to clear customs. We departed around 6pm and motored in a flat calm sea to the anchorage of Harberton arriving around 1am. Al and I were on anchor watch from 12 till 1am, but we weren’t anchored till the end of our watch. We stayed up another hour to keep Paul company as he was next on duty. Heinz runs this ship very tightly and very safely. He is a very understated man of many talents. We are going to learn a lot on this voyage.
Awake and raring to go at 8am, breakfasted then ashore in the dinghy to explore this little settlement. We discovered that it was in fact a tourist attraction, with a penguin colony of about 5,000 nests just around the headland. We are expecting to see lots of penguins when we hit the Antarctic land mass so we declined the offer of a guided tour and just watched a small group of scientists dissecting a penguin instead.
There is an amazing museum here with a massive collection of sea mammal skeletons and bird skeletons. It has been a research station for many years. The museum was beautifully laid out with paintings around the walls of every species of dolphins, whales and seabirds, many with their reconstructed skeletons set alongside them. We learnt about the differences and similarities between subjects and most interestingly the similarity to a human skeleton. For example, the flipper of a dolphin has arm bones, wrist bones and finger bones just like a human but different in scale. Hope to visit for longer on the way back from Antarctica.
We headed out at midday, motoring in flat calm conditions along the Beagle Channel towards Drake’s Passage. We saw our first whale, a minke and were then visited by two large schools of dolphin which played around in our bow wave, leaping over the waves, throwing themselves out of the water, showing off and just being joyful. Lots of photos were taken
We had what was to be our last hot meal for a few days, then we were organised into three watches of three people plus a watch leader. Each watch was on duty for 4 hours then off duty for 8 hours. Al and I got the 4 till 8 watch which meant sun rise and sunset, though the weather was too overcast for good photos.
Unfortunately, as we headed out we could see in front of us a horizon which said big waves. As the boat started to rock’n’roll, people started going down like flies with seasickness. Many of our passenger group of 11 were incapacitated and forced to stay in bed. We had just enough still available to run skeleton watches so it was a bit like a ghost ship. It was cold out and on the first night quite wet as well. Helming on this ship is vastly different to helming on our own little yacht. Anne-Margaretha is heavy and has a long keel so the reaction time when you turn the wheel is slow but steady.
The wind was from the west initially then turned south west during the night. The waves were big, almost enormous and coming at us from many different angles. In the dark all you could do was keep the ship as near to the required compass course as possible. It was exhilarating sailing and for me a dream coming true. I was at the helm of a large yacht in the southern ocean. I just loved it and was pleased that I could stay on the helm for hours. The watch system rolled on for the next two days. When on watch I saw few people, just my watch leader and either Heinz our Captain, or Sam the First Mate (Helmsman). They were doing 6 hours on 6 hours off around the clock. All we wanted to do when our watch ended was to eat something, mostly bread (home baked) and butter then crawl into bed.
We are now on day 3 of the crossing of the Drake Passage and today everyone emerged from their beds and ate some hot food and there were people. We’ve realised that we don’t need to sleep for 16 hours of the day and that we can do other things on our off watch time, like writing this article for instance or trying to take photos of soaring albatrosses of which we have seen several different species. Today it is the Wandering Albatross’s turn to visit. What a magnificent sight they are, riding the up currents and flying close to the wave tops. How lucky are we to be here!
In the late afternoon, Heinz, Sam and the watch Leaders gathered on the foredeck and reduced sail by lowering the jib (or if you are Dutch, the fok) and raising in its place a much smaller storm jib. There was a weather system ahead of us, moving from west to east, and packing some big winds. The winds so far had been varying from the high twenties to the high forties and occasionally into 50 knots. Winds of this magnitude had been easily handled so far and helming had been a real joy, but now we needed to slow down to let the weather system pass ahead of us. Heinz didn’t want to be in the ice, in the dark with such strong winds. The boat was hove to for much of the night, then there was a small burst of forward progress and another weather front loomed right in our path so it was back to hove to again for an hour or two.
It’s now 10:15am and we’ve been underway again for about an hour, but steering from inside the wheel house. Too blowy and cold to steer from outside at the moment. The wind is hovering around 40knots. We are lucky to have two options. Nearly everyone has emerged from their cabins for porridge and fresh peaches. Some have returned to bed, others will emerge when the 12 to 4 watch is due. We are about 24hrs from our destination in the South Shetland isles. We have seen only two ships since we left the Beagle Channel, they were cruise ships, travelling a lot faster than us. It seems we are all alone down here in this bit of the Southern Ocean. What a thrill!