Mithril Visits South Georgia
South Georgia lies at 55 degrees south and 1,100 miles east of Cape Horn, at the heart of the Furious Fifties. In this ten day passage Mithril experienced the very worst weather of her career - severe gales, icebergs, monster waves, snow squalls and the constant, nagging, temptation to turn north towards kinder weather. But we persevered and on the 16th of March 2002 Mithril became the first Irish boat ever to reach the sub-Antarctic island.
South Georgia gives an awesome landfall. A stark black and white coastline towered against a vivid blue sky. Black as it is mostly rock, devoid of tree or shrub, and white from sheer snowy peaks and dozens of glaciers inching their way to the sea. At last we turned into King Edward Cove and our fist sight of Grytviken, the whaling station, now abandoned. A forlorn collection of rusty buildings huddled in a small flat corner of a vast amphitheatre of a bay where our voices echoed off the hills and scree covered slopes. After the shriek of the gales the silence rang in our ears.
When the whalers last departed Grytviken they left everything in place for the next season; a season which never arrived. It's fascinating, but eventually depressing, to wander among the decrepit buildings with their miles of steam pipes which once fed the factory. There are rusty tools on broken shelves, birds nest in the mouldy cinema seats and at the back of the restored church library books await their next readers.
Our berth was alongside the flensing plane where the carcasses were butchered and processed in vast pressure cookers. Once a riot of blood and stench it's now an adventure playground for thousands of fur seal pups.
We found them sheltering inside pieces of pipe and under machinery in the gloomy workshops from where they would growl menacingly at us. Out on the snow they chased us like irate terriers, snapping at our ankles. Shackleton's grave is marked by a block of rough hewn granite and from there we looked down on a group of male elephant seals with their distinctive large fleshy noses. They were moulting and despite weighing several tons each they sprawled over one another in a foul-smelling, gurgling, growling heap - a wallow that actually steamed in the near zero temperatures.
King penguins trumpeted at us - their bills stretched to the sky. I sat on a length of snow covered pipe while Peter videoed them and within seconds two inquisitive old gentlemen, almost a metre tall, shuffled over to prod insistently at my legs. It was astounding. Up close their plumage is stunningly beautiful; gray to blue black with vivid orange splashes at the neck and a pristine white front.
For years man hunted and slaughtered the wildlife of Grytviken - almost to extinction. Today their factory is in ruins whereas animal numbers continue to increase and once again, it seems, that nature has the upper hand in South Georgia.
St Patrick's Day Around The World.
More often than not St. Patrick's Day goes unremarked on Mithril. If there are Americans about they wish us a bright and cheery "happy holiday" and usually get a blank look in reply. Calendars don't form an important part of our equipment.
But I do remember one tropical St. Patrick's day we had in the Caribbean. We anchored off Grand Cayman; offshore banking centre and holiday island for the super rich. There's an affluent atmosphere to the place but the best bits are free - sunbathing on the pristine white sands, enjoying the tropical scenery and snorkelling on the reef; swimming with turtles and admiring the magnificent coral. Poor yachties can still gather mangoes and coconuts by the roadside. A price war among the island's supermarkets, at the time, also helped the budget.
Hurley's supremarket settled on the gimmick of special St Patrick's day offers. Most of the shop was hung with green crepe streamers and leprecauns huddled over pots of gold at the end of rainbows. In the produce department paper shamrocks hung from the ceiling - only problem with this was they had four leaves. The special prices were on Guinness, potatoes, butter, cabbage and freshly corned beef. I think we shattered many illusions when we declared that corn beef and cabbage was not a typical dish and that the only corned beef most Irish people knew was out of a tin bearing the name of a Uruguayan town.
Last year we had another island St Patrick's day this time on the Southern Ocean island of South Georgia.
We were invited to a morning coffee party by the chief administrative officer and his wife. Home for them was Shackleton villa a modern timber framed house; snug and cosy and redolent of suburbia. Clannad played softly from hidden speakers, cabinets held ornamental china and family photos in silver frames. There was even a tv in the corner. But no suburban house ever had a view like theirs.
At first glance the huge window by the tv looked like a framed black and white poster. Then you realised that the icebergs were moving - drifting quietly out to sea. They had calved from the massive glacier across Cumberland bay. The glacier filled the valley like a rumpled blue-white blanket. The tall pointy mountains surrounding it had been dusted white by overnight snow and the eerie gray light over the current scene suggested more snow soon.
Back in Shackleton villa the party hummed along and, even though it was only eleven o'clock in the morning, we were handed chocolate cake and wobbly coffee - made with Jamesons in honour of the day. We chatted with some of the British Antarctic Survey personell who were overwintering on the island. It was all very jolly and - well - normal until you happened to glance at that window and the swirling, feathery flakes of snow now sticking to the glass.
A Day Trip To Cape Horn.
Cape Horn - the sailor's Everest. I used to think that Cape Horn was the most southerly point of the continent and I had visions of Mithril struggling in mountainous seas and screaming winds to round a barren, windswept finger of rock. But it's not like that. Cape Horn is actually on an island and Cabo Froward 200 miles to the north is the southern tip of the continent. A scattering of islands link the two and the Beagle Channel is the main thoroughfare. You don't need to round the Horn at all. What a disappointment.
Another surprise was that the Beagle is busy with yachts. For the previous 600 miles in the Chilean waterways we'd met about 5 other boats. Now we actually had to share anchorages. In one an American boat offered us the use of their satellite phone. It's a mystery to me why anyone would sail to the most wild and isolated cruising ground imaginable and bring the phone.
There's also a charter fleet in the Beagle doing trips around Cape Horn. Most of the boats are French, complete with children and dog. Cape Horn's easy said one skipper who's been round about 50 times now. 40 miles and back by lunchtime he said with a typically nonchalent Gallic shrug.
Bureaucracy in the Beagle is a nightmare as Chile and Argentina squabble over ownership of the channel. Before going anywhere you need a permiso de zarpar, literally permission to weigh anchor. Peter was in the Port Office extracting this when there was an incursion into Chilean waters by the Argentinian navy. Sirens blared and sailors manned the guns. But the Port Captain calmly reached under the counter, produced his tin hat, put it on and continued pen pushing.
We waited a considerable time for a suitable day in which to go round the Horn. When the weatherfax forecast a brief high pressure ridge we set off in the pre-dawn calm. It was exciting to be so close to the famous cape. As a child I'd been entranced by the tale of someone who'd sailed round it in their carpet slippers so I put mine on and Peter took a photo with the rugged headland in the background. Then, by vhf, the lighthouse keepers invited us ashore to buy a souvenir certificate for $10. They don't sell t-shrits - yet.
Just then, however, the gearbox failed completely and with the wind now gusting up to 40 knots we had no choice but to run off eastwards. The celebratory champagne was put away unopened and I put my wellies back on. Peter effected a skilled repair by adding the ends of some baked bean tins to the clutch plates, enough to enable us to motor up into Port Stanley, in the Falklands, a week later.
So that was my experience of Cape Horn - carpet slippers and baked bean tins. I really wish we'd been able to get that certificate of verification.
A Tale Of Two Storms
In a small boat sailing the world's oceans you must be fatalistic about weather - you certainly can't change it. With weatherfax you can be forewarned and sometimes you can even sail away from trouble. But eventually you will have to endure bad weather.
I remember tracking a depression in the Southern Ocean; which quickly developed into a giant, smudgy thumb print of whirling close packed isobars - heading straight for us. The waiting makes me anxious and a tight knot of tension builds in my gut as we prepare and check the yacht. I even begin to wish we'd never seen the faxes. Then the gale arrives and you're too busy to worry anymore.
During this particular storm darkness was my favourite time; then I couldn't see just how big the waves were. Even better was to be below, off-watch and snuggled down under the duvet with a hot water bottle, leaving Peter to worry about reefing, steering, broaching, sail handling and everything else.
It's actually a relief when the wind gets too strong to sail in. Then we furl and tightly lash the main and mizzen; leaving only a small hanky of headsail for stability. We lock the helm and retire below - washboards and hatch tight shut. Mithril bobs like a cork and the furious, hissing seas break all around but rarely come aboard.
Quiet and cosy below; we sit by the fire watching the radar and taking turns to venture outside for a quick inspection. With the wind howling in the rigging, waves roaring alongside and snow squalls stinging your face it is very comforting to smell your own turf smoke thousands of miles from any land.
As frightening as a storm at sea can be; there are worse things. I spent the most anxious night of my life impotently sitting out a storm in the harbour of Cape Town, South Africa. The "cape doctor" wind blows with tremendous force through the city and over Table Mountain; sending the famous table cloth cloud cascading down the face like a swirling gray waterfall.
Mithril had been hauled up a slipway for scraping and antifouling and we had already spent two uncomfortable nights sleeping on the steep slope. Through the third evening the wind increased and the boat vibrated and bounced on the rickety trolley. 50 feet long, 75 feet from ground to mast tip and beam on to a gale; we were very vulnerable out of the water. Repeatedly we checked and added to the wedges and lashings which all seemed impossibly frail.
In bed we lay awake - helpless - feet jammed against the bulkhead, fists clenched, as we tensed with each gust; fearing that this would be the one to wrench us from the trolley and scatter us across the yard. The wind gusted to 65 knots that night and we were completely powerless to save Mithril had the trolley beneath us given way.
Sometimes a ship in harbour isn't safe at all.
Making The Money Go Round
When telling people about our voyages on Mithril there is one question that we are ALWAYS asked - "what do you live on?" It is sometimes posed as "I'd love to do that but I can't afford it." If I'd a pound for every time I've heard that I'd never have to bin hoke again.
Our families, when asked the same question jokingly reply "fresh air and fish" which isn't actually so far from the truth. When we decided to sell up and sail we consciously left our old consumerist lifestyle behind. We now never go to bars or restaurants, in 11 years I haven't been to the cinema or a show. All my clothes are second hand and I haven't bought a magazine in over a decade. But don't feel sorry for us, the best bits of most places are free anyway.
We've seen whales at less than a boat length away. I've been so close to dolphins that their breath has misted up my glasses. From my own living room I've watched a volcano erupting. I've had my toes nibbled by small coral reef fish. We've even had monkeys throw coconuts at us - a dubious pleasure. I've eaten bananas and mangoes straight from the tree and lobster and tuna straight from the sea. I've climbed Table mountain, visited Ayers Rock and seen the sites of ancient Greece.
To fund this lifestyle we have some savings which have been supplemented by what are best described as schemes. After building a 50 foot steel boat from scratch we can do any sort of yacht work. We've invented, produced and sold electronic gadgets, repaired sails and made flags. In Australia we prospected for gold. In Gran Canaria we built a large set of stairs for boarding a trip boat. We constructed this on the foredeck which caused quite a stir in he anchorage.
On the lower end of the schemes scale we've collected empty bottles and cans. In wealthy countries we bin hoke; especially near marinas. It's astonishing the number of discarded boat bits we've been able to fix and sell on. Even here in Ireland we recently found a small boat fridge in the skip - which worked and came complete with plug.
Where-ever possible we pick wild food and hunt fish. We rarely eat expensive processed food. We bake bread and bottle meat. In fact the poorer and less developed a country is the better it is for our lifestyle. We buy in bulk when things are cheap and eat off it in leaner times. Ireland is expensive but on Mithril we're living well with Fijian spices, Tongan mangoes, New Zealand cheese, Chilean wine and Argentinean olives.I don't suggest sailing off into the sunset with no money behind you but don't let "not enough money" stop you going. Money isn't an issue; it's an attitude. A good boat is an issue though; whatever you do don't go without that.
The Difference Made By GPS
Mithril got its first global positioning system - GPS - in 1993 and we reckoned on using it once a day to check our latitude and longitude - a sort of electronic sextant. Before long it was on 24 hours a day and used as an accurate clock, an anchor alarm, a speed log and trip planner - the complete navigator in fact. Soon we had sold our spare sextant and acquired a second GPS. Just recently Peter decided to check the sextant and found he couldn't open the box - the hinges were corroded solid.
This year, after 82 days at sea from South Georgia Peter announced that tonight we would see the Fastnet light for the first time at midnight and 30 degrees on the port bow and so we did - exactly there and then; the Guaranteed Plain Sailing GPS at work.
The downside to this accuracy is that everyone follows the same line, the group planning strategy GPS, and using weather fax quite often leave at the same time. The result is a pile up. Passing the Azores we met 8 yachts in one day 2 of them passing close enough to talk to without shouting.
Because of the reliability of the little electronic wizard you quickly forget that the paper charts you use to programme it are often less than 100% correct especially in more remote parts of the world. Some of the Chilean charts we used were as much as 2 miles out which is pretty worrying in a channel only 1 and a half miles wide. While sailing in the Caribbean we used GPS to avoid isolated underwater and therefore invisible coral reefs, especially on the south coast of Cuba. I was startled when a guest asked how we would have done it before. We wouldn't have gone anywhere near the place before.
An even more frightening example of this is Minerva reef, a coral ring 2 miles in diameter, lying about 200 miles north of New Zealand and visible only at low water springs. Navigating around here in the past was with red eyes and white knuckles. Desmond Bagley even wrote a thriller about looking for the fabled reef. Now with GPS everybody goes there. We met a family who made it their first ever offshore and I hesitate to say it landfall. Punch in the co-ordinates and go for it. These same co-ordinates may come from a paper chart drawn by Captain Bligh of the Bounty fame and are largely unchanged since. His name still appears in the corner.
The Pacific is the least well mapped of the oceans and all sorts of mysterious symbols appear on the charts like discoloured water, underwater volcanic activity reported 1920, blind rollers - whatever they are and maybe there is someone out there who can tell me what the vast swathes of things that look like a child's drawing of clouds are. The GPS was blank about that one.