ABOARD THE ALASKA EAGLE, at sea in the South Atlantic — We departed South Georgia Island on short notice.
Our weather routers, New Hampshire-based Commanders' Weather, gave us an immediate "go" when we asked for a good departure date within the week. So we sailed for Buenos Aires five days early to increase our chances of avoiding extreme weather on our 1,600-mile journey from South Georgia Island.
The Alaska Eagle's eight-leg schedule demands being on time for changing our student crews. A worst-case scenario is departing with a bad forecast because of a deadline. Even with a good forecast, you can't expect a smooth voyage in this part of the world, where the latitudes are known by sailors as the "Furious Fifties" and the "Roaring Forties."
Starting at 53 degrees south, we sailed northward through 18 degrees of latitude in eight days. The rise in temperature was dramatic as we sailed almost due north. We crossed the Antarctic Convergence within 36 hours, leaving the Circumpolar Current in our wake.
A sudden warming told us we were in the South Atlantic. Two days and 400 miles farther north, layers started coming off and our diesel cabin heaters were shut down. The first shorts appeared on deck on day five, worn by Peter at Latitude 43 South.
Our latitude climb became challenging halfway to Buenos Aires. Eventually, we had no choice but to sail between high- and low-pressure systems for 60 hours. The sea rose up quickly and the level of comfort aboard sank.
With everyone in full gear and in safety harnesses, Rich led the crew in reefing the mainsail and changing to our small No. 4 headsail. None of it was easy, especially for Bruce Tice and Anton, who worked at the headstay, taking the brunt of the weather.
Sailing at 8 knots upwind into 30 knots of breeze created a melee of rushing air and water. Alaska Eagle's 85,000 pounds hit 10-foot waves with incredible force, sending volumes of spray into the air. Amazingly, the spray felt warm compared to sailing off South Georgia.
The boat's sudden lurches and rolls made the simplest tasks difficult. Just getting aft to the wheel was challenging, with more than one crewmember ending up in a heap to leeward. Helmsmen Anton and Frank were celebrated for the loudest crashes into waves and the most water shipped. One good wave would send cascades down the decks and flowing into cockpits.
Slamming along with a 25-degree heel reduced life to a cycle of standing watch, eating quickly and staying in our bunks. No one felt great. The berths forward of the mast were untenable. Gravity was suspended on a regular basis.
Only the most stalwart would choose to use the head in the forepeak, now a place of unholy motion. Incredibly, Josh enjoyed reading an e-book in his pitching forward berth, explaining that it was his second choice to sleeping.
The hardest job on the boat got much tougher as Kiwi Bruce continued turning out hot meals for 11 crewmembers in time for watch changes. No mortal could perform such a task in a gale, with utensils, food and crockery conspiring to take flight every 30 seconds.
Thankfully, rough weather doesn't last. Our final two days at sea were a treat of warm sailing and motoring.
Our last rung of the latitude ladder, 36 South, provided Cabo San Lucas-like weather. Laundry appeared on the lifelines, beach chairs graced the deck, and for the first time, all deck hatches were opened.
Tim and Barry caught a sushi dinner on smooth seas as we motored along. It was hard to believe that just a week and 18 degrees of latitude separated us from the island. The memory of our departure reminded us that we had been to a world much farther away.
BRAD AVERY is director of Orange Coast College's School of Sailing & Seamanship on West 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.
This article is the last of several dispatches that Avery has been sending in from the Alaska Eagle, during its voyage in recent weeks to Cape Horn, South Georgia Island and around South America. The Eagle's voyage can be followed on the Alaska Eagle's Facebook page and occsailing.com. The vessel is due back in Newport from its circumnavigation of South America in late June. On July 4, the Eagle will set sail for Hawaii as the official communications vessel in the 2011 Transpacific Yacht Race.