ABOARD THE ALASKA EAGLE, off South Georgia Island — With 30 knots of wind behind us, Alaska Eagle was flying along at 11 knots. Suddenly we found ourselves in fog with 200 feet of visibility.
"Up for ice!" Peter called from the mast.
As we quickly turned toward the wind, a golf cart-sized chunk of glacier slid by to starboard. In clear weather, the ice is easy to spot by our four lookouts, but the fog now demands more attention; hitting a ton or two of a bit of iceberg can do serious damage.
We sailed out of Grytviken a few hours ago, after spending a day hiking and exploring since arriving at South Georgia from Cape Horn on Sunday. Our 1,150-mile passage to the island was smooth by Southern Ocean standards. We averaged 200 miles a day, reaching winds of 10 to 30 knots. We even experienced two days of clear weather before the Antarctic convergence announced its presence with a massive fog bank.
On our fifth day at sea, we were fortunate to have a great landfall at South Georgia's northwest end in clear skies and a moderate breeze. Soon we were sailing in the lee of the north coast toward Grytviken. Everyone remained on deck as we went along in flat water, sailing at 10 knots for 30 miles.
The view to starboard was incredible, and kept getting better as the island's snow-covered peaks grew higher and higher. There are dozens of peaks above 4,000 feet in the Allardyce and Salvesen ranges, climbing all the way up to Mt. Paget at 9,565 feet. Massive tidewater glaciers appeared around craggy headlands, pushed by ancient rivers of ice.
Our welcoming committee consisted of seals, porpoise, whales, petrels and albatrosses. We had arrived at one of the most remote and spectacular islands in the world, where Cook and Shackleton had anchored at the "Gateway to Antarctica."
Darkness fell as we entered King Edward Cove, site of the abandoned Grytviken whaling station, and now home to the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) at South Georgia, and the South Georgia Historic Trust. As we came along the rebuilt wharf at the station, one of three small cruising boats made room for us. It turned out to be Wanderer III, which was sailed around the world a few times in the 1950s and '60s by Eric and Susan Hiscock. The Hiscocks introduced small boat ocean voyaging to the world through their famous books.
For the past 20 years, this sturdy 30-foot wooden sloop has been sailed worldwide by Thies Matzen and Kicki Ericson. Thies and Kicki have spent the past two years exploring South Georgia, and were married on the island in the 100-year-old Grytviken church 12 years ago. We were fortunate to have them aboard to go over our charts and help us plan our next 10 days, which they lamented was about 700 days short of what is needed to really see the place.
Our day off in Grytviken started with Bruce noticing a woman jogging past the boat in an OCC Pyewacket shirt. She came by the boat to say hello while we were being cleared by the officials.
She was Ashley Perrin, who crewed on Pyewacket a few years ago when the OCC sailing team raced the boat after its donation by Roy Disney. In October, Ashley arrived at the island for an 18-month stint as a boat operator for the BAS. She had previously spent a year at the BAS Rothera base in Antarctica. It was great to see Ashley again and catch up on her adventurous life of racing yachts and climbing mountains. Later, Alaska Eagle's crew gratefully accepted her offer to visit the only bar on the island, in the heart of the BAS research station.
Alaska Eagle's clearing formalities were done by Pat Lurcock, an Englishman who is the official government officer for South Georgia. Pat has worked on the island for 20 years and is one of four people to have hiked and climbed the entire 100-mile length of the island in one effort. South Georgia is a mountain climber's paradise, and the climber's log book at the museum is full of accounts by many expeditions.
Once we were cleared in, the crew took full advantage of the great sunny day. Peter, Anton, Tim and Josh tackled a nearby mountain peak, including a glacial swim. Richard, Brad and Kiwi Bruce explored the whaling station, museum and the whalers' graveyard, where Ernest Shackelton is buried. Barry, Frank and Jeff hit their own trails and we were all aboard for an early dinner before our visit to the only bar in 1,200 miles.
Underway now, the fog has lifted and it's clear skies again. The weather is never constant here. The wind, which had dropped to almost nothing, is back to 30 knots. The sudden breeze is generated by giant Ross Glacier at the end of Royal Bay. We're nearly across the bay, and now we're focused on Drygalski Fjord, 30 miles down the road, on a course of 099, sailing to the max. We should be anchored by dinner, at the southernmost part of the island, surrounded by sheer cliffs in the land of explorers.
BRAD AVERY is director of Orange Coast College's School of Sailing & Seamanship on Pacific Coast Highway in Newport Beach. The school is one of the nation's largest public sailing programs, offering courses from beginning sailing to advanced level offshore voyages. The school is supported through course fees and private donations. During this voyage to South Georgia Island, Avery will be submitting weekly reports to the Daily Pilot. The voyage can also be followed on Alaska Eagle's Facebook page and occsailing.com.