Sea Journeys

A True Rounding of Cape Horn

Europa approaches Cape Horn on a rare calm sea [Image from an earlier Cape Horn voyage]

Europa approaches Cape Horn on a rare calm sea [Image from an earlier Cape Horn voyage]

Everyone on board Bark Europa participates in the watch system and by doing so learns how to sail a square-rigger around the Horn. But in order to become an official Cape Horn sailor there is something extra one must do.

Back in the days when sailing ships sailed the old trade routes, Cape Horn was an infamous part of every sailor’s life. Many sailors reached rock-bottom in the harsh weather conditions that prevailed either side of the Drake Passage. Nonetheless sailing around Cape Horn was considered quite an achievement.

Bark Europa sails into the sunset

Bark Europa sails into the sunset, and perhaps another Cape Horn Rounding…

In 1933 a group of French sea captains that had all sailed Cape Horn established the Amicale des Capitaines au Long Cours Cap Horniers (AICH). Their aims remain the same today:

“To promote and strengthen the ties of comradeship which bind together in a unique body of men and women who embody the distinction of having sailed round Cape Horn in a commercial sailing vessel, and to keep alive in various ways memories of the stout ships that regularly sailed on voyages of exceptional difficulty and peril, and of the endurance, courage and skill of the sailors who manned them.”

The Dutch section of AICH welcomes new Cape Horn sailors and honours them with a token certificate of achievement. To be eligible for this certificate one must show perseverance and actively participate in the ship’s watch system for an extended period of time on a sailing ship rounding Cape Horn by sail from 50° South in the Pacific Ocean to 50° South in the Atlantic Ocean (or vice versa). The length of the voyage should be at least 3000 miles under sail alone.

Between October and December 2013 we achieved this minimum. Indeed we achieved a lot more, having sailed all the way from Australia to the Falkland Islands under sail alone. As such we became eligible to join this elusive and exclusive club of Cape Horn sailors.

A sailor that rounds the Horn is entitled to wear a gold loop earring. Tradition has it that this should be worn in the ear that faced the Horn as it was rounded. As such in the typical eastbound passage, like I’ve just completed, the earring should be worn in the left ear. As it happens I’ve already got two earrings in the left ear. Prescient of me one might say!

There are immense privileges to sailors who have rounded the horn. They include being allowed to dine with one foot on the table. If one has rounded the Cape of Good Hope as well then such a sailor would be permitted to put both feet on the table.

In terms of tattoos, one may obtain a tattoo of a fully rigged ship once a true rounding of Cape Horn has been achieved.

And finally, in order to be able to “spit into the wind” one would need to have made three true Cape Horn roundings (NB: I tried with just one rounding under my seaman’s belt; it failed dismally!).

One of the true Cape Horners was Captain James Cook, master of the Endeavour 1766-71 who sailed around the Horn in both directions. Not only could he spit into the wind, rumour has it that he could piss into the wind too!

Returning now to the certificate of achievement; there is one logistical issue to reckon with – one has to collect one’s certificate in the Dutch city of Hoorn in person.

My Cape Horn Certificate awaits my collection. And I can feel another adventure brewing.

The chart of our daily plotted positions of the three Dutch Tall Ships, October-December 2013

The chart of our daily plotted positions of the three Dutch Tall Ships, October-December 2013

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Beating into the Warming Wind

The last of the cool late summer southern sea evenings, Southwest Atlantic, between Falklands and the River Plate

The final leg of my 16,000 kilometre ocean voyage from Sydney, Australia to La Colonia, Uruguay started on 20th December 2013 in Stanley, Falkland Islands / Puerto Argentino, Las Malvinas. Behind me now was the completion of a ‘True Rounding of Cape Horn‘ (i.e. a minimum of 3000 nautical miles under sail from 50° South in the Pacific Ocean to 50° South in the Atlantic Ocean – see previous blog http://wp.me/p2EUa2-7Y) and the final leg had the singular distinction of a northerly trajectory in difference to months of easterly progress.

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Northerly progress brings faster sunsets, Southwest Atlantic, between Falkland Islands and the River Plate

Starting off cold, windy and overcast we left that slice of British sovereignty and stubbornness, the Falkland Islands and its hundreds and thousands of windswept and sand-blasted penguins, seals, sea lions and breeding seabirds. We headed into increasing head winds; stiff northerlies. And we were forced to set the Iron Sail – the engine. We powered north into a big mist half way between the Falklands and the River Plate, our surrounding temperate airs being collided by the hot humid mass from the summer-soaked continent of South America to the north. We then started the slow process of peeling off the layers. The layers and layers that I’d come to consider part of my very self: woollen thermal underwears, long cotton mid-layers, extra mid-layers of cotton, followed by woollen jumpers and then the outer layers of wind-proof and water-proof fabrics.

Christmas Eve came and went while on watch on a steady calm ocean, still cool enough to keep most of one’s layers on while up on deck. And the colours in the evening sky were a perfect accompaniment to dream of the peace we all wish for at this time of the year. On Christmas Day we all gathered for a Christmas Dinner of the Crew and taking advantage of a moment on the high seas to let down our collective hair we all got a bit tipsy. Captain Gijs took control of the helm with his father Jan, allowing the rest of us a moment to cease our duties.

In the post-Christmas days that followed, warmer and warmer it became. Small whiffs of humid warmth, subtle in their appearances, would excite the skin on our hands and faces, cut short by the still lingering frigidness of our old friend the southern salty sea winds. A tern appeared and chased our mast, at last settling on our bowsprit and I was reminded of the messenger tern that fare-welled us when we left New Zealand at the end of October (see http://wp.me/p2EUa2-5B). I took it again as a good sign for Cape Horner like me.

A tern pauses on Tecla’s bowsprit to greet us as we approach the mouth of the River Plate, Argentine continental shelf, Southwest Atlantic Ocean

Then three days south of the River Plate the heat finally broke through the thermo-tone and suddenly we were all in shorts and dousing buckets of warm salty muddy ocean waters over our heads. The ocean colour had changed. Having passed over the Argentine Abyssal Plain (at an average 5000 metres depth) we’d sailed over that steep incline rising up onto the Argentine continental shelf (100-150 metres deep). Gone were the clear crisp deep blues of the Southern Seas. The turbid brown of the River Plate was upon us. And the sea and ambient air temperatures climbed and climbed. I burnt my feet under the sun on the deck. We considered sleeping on the deck at night, such was the heat below. And we started seeing the first land insects. And for the first time in months giant container ships sullied our horizon vistas and airplane contrails coursed the cumulonimbus clouds above us. This was somewhat of a shock to my gentle sea-pulsing person.

A cricket suddenly appears and the land is yet to come into sight, River Plate mouth between Uruguay and Argentina

A day before we entered the River Plate we were informed via radio that the Buenos Aires Port Authority wanted to charge us US$10,000 to enter. In mid-December the Captain had completed the necessary paper work with the Argentine authorities prior to arriving at the Falkland Islands / Las Malvinas. Problems arise for vessels leaving the Falklands wishing to enter Argentine continental ports. Without prior permission from the Argentine Government a vessel coming from the Falklands is considered to have entered Argentina illegally and without the prior approvals and consents. We had these, but another way to play international geo-politics is to simply charge exorbitant fees.

My Tecla sailing colleagues witness one of the last oceanic sunsets on this my final leg
Mouth of the River Plate, between Uruguay and Argentina

The Captain was not keen on paying these fees and so we changed tack and headed across the now shallower River Plate waters (10-15 metres deep) to Uruguay and the World Cultural Heritage-listed port of La Colonia del Sacramento (originally a 17th Century strategic Portuguese fort in the colonial days of the Continent). It was piercing hot (+40 degrees) and sweat-forcingly humid when we arrived. Neighbouring Buenos Aires was having power failures due to high summer loads on its failing electricity grid; chaos for them during this end-of-the-year festive season. Uruguay, relaxed and comfortable in itself, was coping much better. We anchored just offshore. It was Sunday and Uruguayans were variously swimming, fishing, zooming on jet skis or sitting under hundreds of umbrellas drinking beer. While Captain Gijs headed ashore alone to the small yacht club mariner in the zodiac with all our passports, we set about celebrating our arrival. An hour later Gijs climbed aboard with stamped-passports in hand. We were now officially in Uruguay. Jan, Tecla’s owner, clapped his hands and bowed down low and reverently to the big old ‘iron sail’ – still ticking and popping and hissing below in the bottom of the ship. This was one of the longest sustained uses of the motor in Tecla’s circumnavigation of the planet’s oceans. It had powered us most of the way from the Falklands and he was thankful for its flawless duty in transporting us from our southerly place of solace.

It was hard to believe my sea journey was at an end. The land now beckoned. And thinking of what the first ship-load of Australian utopian colonists did when they arrived on Uruguay’s exotic shores 120 years before I immediately fixated upon striking ashore and tasting some ice-cold beer.

But first priority was a dive into the fast flowing current of the River Plate. And then some aloe vera applied to toasted flesh.

After 10 days at sea from Stanley, Falkland Islands, the Tecla crew arrive sunburnt and satisfied at historic La Colonia, Uruguay [From top left to right: Captain Gijs, his father Jan (Tecla owner), Second Mate Sam (Jet’s partner), First Mate Jet (sister to Captain Gijs).

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From my Guest Blogger by Mr Rod Zatyko: Ship of Intrigue

It’s my pleasure to publish this humorous piece by my Guest Blogger Mr Rod Zatyko, with whom I had the enormous pleasure of sharing a cabin for more than 6000 nautical miles from New Zealand round Cape Horn to the Falkland Island/Malvinas.

 

Ship of Intrigue

By Rod Zatyko

At the time of writing [December 2013], the Bark Europa has raced and manoeuvred hundreds of miles away from our fellow sailing comrades, the Tecla and the Oosterschelde. Is this simply a result of the natural competitive instincts of sailors, or is there something more serious, more sensitive involved? Let us explore.

We have aboard Europa a very interesting cast of characters. Among the permanent crew, there is an ex-submarine officer of the Dutch Royal Navy. As a communications specialist, he was privy to highly technical, highly classified information and equipment. I am not at liberty to name him, but let me say he is big and hairy.

Also on board is a highly trained ex-intelligence operative of the United States Army. I have actually seen him drink a martini, shaken, not stirred. As we all know about this breed, once in, never out. Why is he here? What is his mission?

A suave, sophisticated multi-lingual Dutch diplomat is a member of the voyage crew as well. These talented Foreign Service personnel were often recruited into national secret service organisations. When asked, he denies it. But of course, he would. What kind of dangers has this man seen over his decades of service? What would he not do for his country?

Ex-French Navy officer taking important celestial measurements

Ex-French Navy officer taking important celestial measurements

An elderly yet fit ex-officer of the French Navy constantly prowls the ship – observing, filing information, quiet in his ways, often with sextant in hand. His two lovely French compatriots may or may not be a medieval archaeology scholar and a budding merchant sea[wo]man respectively. It would make a wonderful Dan Brown-like cover story, wouldn’t it?

If this isn’t enough to ponder, then consider the quiet American nuclear engineer who is potentially a player in this same operation. Naturally reticent (secretive?), he is involved in the design and production of experimental nuclear reactors. He has been forthcoming about his profession; to a point.

During the evenings, a strange Geiger-counter-like device is seen near the wheelhouse, always being swung by officers on watch, taking atmospheric readings of some sort. Careful observations are recorded regarding ocean life, water temperatures, and atmospheric conditions. Radiation levels, as well perhaps?

Furtive radio contact occurs during the wee hours of the morning. As information is passed, or received, from headquarters, the rudder indicator fluctuates wildly, so those of us on the helm knew when contacts are being made.

Do the Dutch have designs on the formation of a South Pacific or Atlantic base? Is the light house at Cape Horn safe in Chilean hands? In this the spearhead of a combined allied force meant to counteract North Korean aggression with southern hemisphere?

There are many questions, yet there are few answers.

Bark Europa on the South Pacific Seas, bound for a Cape Horn Rounding. But there are more serious moves afoot here. Things are not what they seem.

Bark Europa on the South Pacific Seas, bound for a Cape Horn Rounding. But there are more serious moves afoot here. Things are not what they seem.

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Dolphin Diplomacy

29th November 2013

Part II

An American Welcoming Committee

The New World has a strong tradition of sending its welcoming committees. Today was no exception.

Between 0930 and 1000 hours we crossed onto the South American continental shelf, just west north west of the remote Chilean island group of Diego Ramirez, with the ocean floor silently rising up beneath up from the Mornington Abysmal Plain at 3000 to 4000 metres depth to around 150-200 metres depth on the shelf. As we passed to the north of the island group the most northerly of the islands became visible on the ship’s radar. I glanced at the dim black and green screen with its cyclical ‘refresh’ sweeps; they lay only 24 nautical miles to our south.

“We’d see them if the fog lifted”, said Captain Klaas surveying his charts in the wheelhouse and preparing to move into the deckhouse to deliver his seminal pre-Horn lecture to an eager voyage crew, who were there waiting, packed into this ‘saloon on the high seas’, with its foggy windows tracked with the occasional streak of salt water blasted through aging seals from the tumult outside.

Talk all about the ship, above and below deck, was of ‘Rounding the Horn’. The sense of expectation was palpable, yet there was no sign of this great looming landmass, beneath which we were passing.

Dolphin Diplomacy_Peales Dolphin ID_lowres17

As if to herald our imminent arrival to the Americas and that wind-swept and ocean-smashed region of rocky promontories, known as the Horn, a pair of what we ascertained to be Peale’s dolphins (aka Cape Horn dolphins as they are truly a Cape Horn restricted species) briefly visited our barque just before 1400 hours. Unlike their cousins the Hourglass dolphins and the Southern Right Whale dolphins, which we’d cavorted with (at least in our dreams) weeks before further west in the Southern Ocean, the Cape Horn fellows didn’t go much for the breaching and twisting in our bow wave. Beneath the clear blue waters their speeding grey, black and white bodies glistened; a few passes along the port beam and around the bow, barely raising a deft dark dorsal fin, and they were gone before most of us could return the favour with a friendly fire of shutter action. But at 1530 hours they returned to continue the welcome, and I managed to freeze a fleeting image on camera. We were six hours from crossing into the Atlantic Ocean and this esteemed Cape Horn envoy from the mist-enshrouded Americas had successfully completed its dolphomatic mission for the UN: Europa was duly welcomed. Visiting pass granted. Please proceed.

Peale's dolphins

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A Longing for Longitude 67 West

Part I

The Americas Enshrouded

Thirty nights and thirty days have we travelled under canvas-filled sails since Auckland. And again the mist closes in as I stand lookout ‘pon the fo’c’sle deck looking out t’ward sea. Antarctic fulmars now join the petrels, prions and albatross in their low gliding dance between crest and trough; appearing and disappearing between a see-sawing weave of chaotic crest lines, each subsequent swell face progressively greyer on out though the diminishing lines of perspective.

We are 120 nautical miles west of the longitude that runs through Cape Horn: 67° 15.5’ W. And we’ve slowed right down. The gale that carried us in its rough embrace over the last few days has moved on. We perambulate upon a sloppy sea. And in such a fashion, with sails increasingly set, we hope to ‘Round the Horn’ today and in so doing cross from the Realm of the Pacific to that of the Atlantic before nightfall. The Captain has assured us that the Europa’s Great Horn will sound; and that we should all gather on deck to toast in unison to our good fortunes, rain hail or shine. But we’ve to pass the small island group of Diego Ramirez first. And I cast my eyes eastward into the mist from the fo’c’sle deck once again.

The ship's GIS shows Europa approaching Cape Horn

My long-standing familiarity and love of The Americas is challenged. I cannot see her but I sense her enormity looming and imagine the great north-south continent of the western hemisphere lying just a few hundred kilometres to my north. Yet it is as if this permeating fog alone prevents me from seeing her; and that if it lifted I should see first hand the remnants of her glorious Andes, taller and sky-bound in their tropical and sub-tropical latitudes, now left drowning in the circuitous fjords and glacial fingers of the Patagonian south.

We are now on Bolivian Standard Time, one hour behind Chilean Summer Time and Falkland Island Time. We are already five hours ahead of Alaskan Time. The continental mass of the Americas has been pulling ever closer over these last few weeks, with a steady loss of an hour every two to three days. We are now more than half way across the traversable terrestrial time zones of the Americas.

Ship time is 0745 hours and I’ve been on watch since 0400. The sun rose at least two hours ago. At a little over 56° S the Southern Summer light pervades this fog-bound world, while the sea temperatures continue to drop. At a little over three degrees Celsius we’re still a ways off the Antarctic Convergence Zone, where the cooling Southwest Pacific Ocean waters sink alongside the denser more saline waters emanating from the southern sea ice packs.

Should indeed these pallid grey curtains lift and I indeed see the remains of the dissected Andes diminishing inexorably in size toward that one famous rocky islet at the extreme edge of the Land of Fire, might it too be possible to distinguish the amassing of her waters as they fight for space within the Drake Passage? From out here amidst the gathering steel grey waters of the circumpolar current it’s hard to manufacture an answer.

Longing for Longitude_Logbook_PaulHicks_lowres19

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Five Degrees of Separation

Our World in Numbers: Five Six Fifty Six

5: the temperature of the sea in degrees Celsius

6: the temperature of air in degrees Celsius

56: the degrees south of the equator

800: the [approximate] distance remaining in nautical miles to Cape Horn

Sunday 24th November

Our instruments on board Bark Europa show some vital statistics: Five degrees Celsius the water temperature, six degrees the air temperature. A person overboard counts their life in minutes now. Something the Captain is only too aware of.

My wet face, buffeted by the steady so’ westerlies astern, winces with the sweet sting of the wind chill, as I gaze off the stern railings down toward Europa’s billowing wake. My watch companions on the helm lightly wrestle with the spokes on the wheel and beneath the ‘bread box’ behind the wheel the manually-driven pump valves make the occasional knocking sound in the hydraulic lines as they spin the wheel back from fighting position. It’s close to midnight and even if the waxing moon were risen, the low pillows of cloud and mist would not light our way. We haven’t had a sun sighting in over a week, much to the consternation of Fruitbat’s constellation navigation students.

My eye catches a low glowing body of green-yellow luminescence trailing off within the wake. Then appears another. I squint and strain my corneal muscles and I make out its shape as a sphere, floating just under the water’s surface. What could they be? I’m told later by a fellow voyage crew mate that they might be communities of dinoflagellates, rising of a night from the dark Southern Ocean depths to undertake unknown, strictly-nocturnal, business in the shallower night waters.

Five Degrees of Separation_Dinoflagellates on radar_lowres20

It appears that their collision with Europa’s gliding hull causes them to react with phosphorescence. More appear. Different sizes. Eerie orbs of the night; all with the same other-worldly hue. I follow them in the wake and an approaching wave front lifts up my distant deep-sea friends a little, enough for me to see them from further astern the ship. And through the wave’s cresting profile I see their three-dimensional forms hover and ripple. They then falter and fade as the water column curtain grows thicker and their little nightlight glows are extinguished. Where do they come from? What depths do they return to? What business do they have?

At about the same time at around midnight our good ship Europa passes just 54 nautical miles to the south of the deepest ocean floor in these parts; a speck of a place located to our north at 54.6° South, 95.1° West. On the floor of the Southern Ocean this deep hole lies in the middle of the Mornington Abysmal Plain – a large area extending far off the southeast coast of Chilean Patagonia towards the East Pacific Rise, with depths gently moving between 4000 and 5000 metres below sea level. In the midst of this vast uncharted area the gentle plain suddenly dives towards the centre of the earth and over a space of less than eight nautical miles, plummets from the surrounding plains at 5000 metres to an astounding depth of 6034 metres below the surface. It must be like a steep inverted cone. What detritus accumulates here? What life lurks here waiting in abeyance for manna to descend from the watery heavens above? In the case of the dinoflagellate enclaves however, await they do not. And arise they do, in the cover of night.

I’m left imagining what unknown worlds this planet contains. And as I gaze in awe and serenity at the dinoflagellatic globes below me in Europa’s wake, I contemplate how many degrees of separation there may be between me and these wondrous communities of bioluminescence, rising from these dark worlds to greet the night time surface of the Southern Ocean. Perhaps there are five; the same number of degrees Celsius above zero that these glowing waters beneath me currently possess. Brrrr. I shudder at the thought and turn back to the helm and the business of the ship.

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The Face of God

01:17 ship’s time

Thursday 21 November 2013

Twenty two days out

Southern Ocean

54o 09′ South, 116o 27′ West

“It’s like looking straight out into the face of God!”, yelled Rod above the howl of wind and waves as he looked at what was about to hit the starboard beam. “And he doesn’t appear to have noticed us AT ALL!”

After twenty two days sailing from Auckland, the weather considered normal for these latitudes and for which many had been wishing, was finally upon us.

Face of God_Sleet n Ice_PaulHicks_lowres16

On Wednesday afternoon as we approached the rising low-pressure system emanating from the Southern Ocean, the winds built up from the southwest, just as Captain Klaas had relayed to us from the radio-transmitted weather report. At around 23:00 hours the chain for the sheet to the main lower topsail snapped under the pressure – the winds were gusting up to 40 knots – and sent one half of the sail out loose, flailing and flapping like a mad thing, while the rest of the chain fell to the deck with a crash. Some of us heard the crash followed by the two bells calling the remaining permanent crew to the deck. Keen Rod was one of them. In short time, amidst the building storm, they made good the situation. And by the time the rest of our watch was on deck, the ship was a hive of activity in the gusting winds. Standing spread-legged on the mid-ship deck, I craned above to see the main upper topsail now safely furled, bathed in yellow halogen deck lights and framed by the inky heavens.

“It’s the only chain we hadn’t got around to replacing yet!”, exclaimed Dutch deckhand Niels, shaking his head of crazy hair, wind tossed and wild, as he stared up through the horizontal rain. Before I could pursue any more of my incessant questioning, Captain Klaas yelled an order from above me beside the wheelhouse; luckily I was familiar with the location of the line that he required hauling, and happy to be avoiding the dreaded ‘klaastrophobia’, I merrily heaved to.

With the damaged main lower topsail now gasketed to its yard we were still pushing up to nine knots. Speed demon Ruud (Europa’s First Mate) was pleased.

Later that morning during the long penumbra the able deckies repaired the broken sheet chain and reset the topsail; while the gale blew on around them. Impressive! And as the gale approached a storm, with gusts of more than 45 knots, we were pushing ten knots over ground. At one point we reach just over eleven! Speed Demon smiled; Captain Klaas decreed clip harnesses mandatory on deck.

That afternoon we had already prepared for storm-sailing with the sky, royal and top gallant sails furled, along with the main course. And a team had been formed to close, seal and place canvas covers over all the hatches and air vents on deck. The weather-proof bulkhead doors accessing the main deck were also shut and all access to the poop deck from crew quarters and the deckhouse was to be via the main galley corridor below deck through to the wheelhouse via the stairs near the library at aft.

As the long twilight continued, rogue waves continued to pummel the starboard beam. A few times the waves went straight into the deckhouse and over the sloop deck. The crew promptly placed the storm shutters over the starboard side deckhouse windows. We were feeling our expectations rise. Hold up in the deckhouse, someone reported what they could see through the misted window across the main deck awash to the helm. A couple of superpositioned waves peaked on the starboard quarter and came crashing over all the crew on the poop deck. Deckhand Dirk, about to take the wheel, was unclipped at the time as he manoeuvred himself into position at the helm. Before he could safely clip on somewhere, he was suddenly washed off his feet and carried by the departing waters toward the portside railings. A pointed example of why we wear the clip-on harnesses.

Face of God_Water over deck+crew_Sandy

In the wee hours, as Wednesday slipped into Thursday, Rod and I found ourselves on lookout post together, standing clipped to safety ropes either side of the wheelhouse. Rod was on the windward side with the waves coming from the starboard quarter, pushing through like big black slow-moving freight trains. He was still yelping with disbelief as the crashing wave tops suddenly appeared in the corner of his eye; in the dark seascape the hulking wave forms melded into one huge ebony water colour and the foaming white tops would suddenly appear like flashing ghosts of the great white whale. Rod’s yelps alerted me. We glanced at each other, braced for the lurch to port and then again for the opposing lurch to starboard. We’d then glance at our colleagues at the helm, their faces tinted with the faint red glow of the compass light, rapidly spinning the wheel to compensate for the throw of the wave as the ship tore down its advancing slope. As the foaming water scurried from side to side on the mid-ship deck like oil on a hot skillet being tossed spitting and fuming from side to side, Rod and I turned back to each other, mouths agape waiting for our laughs to punch through the whine of lines, and when they never did we raised our thumbs up and turned back to our posts, eyes wide and glistening with excitement.

Face of God_big wave+foam_Dick_lowres22

Face of God_waves over portside from wheelhouse_PaulHicks_lowres24

Later on a switch-around, I was on the poop deck with John from Canada. I turned and saw a huge wave crash over him. The wave continued on over onto the roof of the wheelhouse itself. Gasps were audible. As John recovered from his icy dousing, I watched as the water ran off the wheelhouse’s polished wooden roof through corner gutters and down over the foggy widows; inside Ruud was standing alert, hand on the joystick in case conditions got too rough forcing him to yell out “Hands off helm! I have the joystick” or something to that effect and infinitely more related to the seafaring lexicon.

No sooner had that passed than a larger wave hit the starboard beam at mid-ships and with the combination of its force and the gradient of the rising wave face, it sent the ship into a deep lurching heel that would have approached close to 30 degrees from the vertical. Standing transfixed on the poop deck, my gloved hands clasped the railings at the top of the stairs rising from the main deck as I was thrown to portside, and my face stared down to the boiling cauldron below me; and I heard Rod’s voice of raw passion shouting in my head: “It’s the face of God! It’s the face of God!”

Face of God_wave over portside_PaulHicks_lowres21

The safety net that stands a good two metres above the main deck gunwales was awash with the ocean and I struggled to find a distinction between what was inside or outside of the ship. The coiled lines on the pin racks were awash like wholemeal spaghetti in a boiling saucepan of frothy salt-laden water; bunts, sheets and clew lines all became one. And the whole portside of the deck was quite simply a pool of swirling white water. Then slowly, with the gentle inertia of a lady of the sea, Bark Europa righted herself amidst the multitude of criss-crossing waves. Then, with her counter-heeling to the starboard, this pool-sized volume of water rushed like a guillotine across the dark deck boards to pour out the starboard scuppers, only to rush back in again.

It was at this time back in the deckhouse that the real fun and games were happening. My watch mates Rod and Sandy were feeling the comforting side of gravity, wedged as they happily were into the downside bench seats. Above them topside was Michelle from Paris, with the mere friction of the vinyl cushions keeping her in position, the energy potential just a broadside bash away from being realised. When Europa hit that 30-degree tilt, Michelle was forthrightly launched airborne across the deckhouse, pushing Sandy into Rod and Rod into the dark-stained wooden walls: a French-Canadian sandwich with Dutch trimmings and Southern Ocean lashings. Ouch!

The gale-storm passed during the following day (Friday) and progressively more sails were set. But as the winds dropped the seas maintained a strong southerly swell. And we continued to experience her icy dousing from time to time. I was on helm when deckhand Mark suddenly yelled, “Watch out!” I turned to glance at a rising pyramid of waves just off the starboard stern and I turned around in time for the wall of seawater to crash across my legs, back and head. Wow, what a rush. Captain Klaas emerged from the wheelhouse, long grey hairs flowing, to check on everybody: no man overboard we assured him.

Since then I’ve been reminding Rod that there are more manly ways to bruise his ribs on a sailing ship on the high Southern Seas. However, I don’t think he’s heard me yet. He’s still trying to remove the burnt image of the face of God from his salt-encrusted retinas. As for me, I’m wondering if it was indeed God or just Old Man Sea sending me more cold stories from lonely sea mounts below. We are, after all, sailing near the coldest ocean on Planet Earth.

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The Ocean Wanderer

At around 20:00 hours last night (15:00 hours AEDT on Monday 18th Nov), our ‘Day 18’ of sailing since Auckland, we reached the approximate half-way point to Stanley. That is, if the trajected route onwards is what we indeed follow, which usually isn’t the case, as the winds change and new courses are set affecting the total miles required to travel; which of course could be more or could be less. Nonetheless, for good ship Europa, it was the first time that the Captain calculated the Half-Way point, and an announcement was made throughout the ship and a loud Huzzah came from the ship’s belly.

‘Alles wel’, as the Dutch say. Only one major injury – a knife cut to Kiwi Mike’s left hand who was doing some rope maintenance work, and which the ship’s doctor Leen helped along with five a quick five stitches.

Today we saw the sun for the first time in over a week, but by afternoon the low greyness of the 50s latitudes returned. Quite a contrast to the first few weeks of my voyage. Moving into the latitudes of the 50s has brought colder weather and overcast conditions since the relatively warmer airs of the north interact with the colder airs of the Antarctic Convergence zone. As such fogs have beset us for a few days, with horizons being closed right in around us on the foaming seas.

After riding on the southern edge of a huge cross-Pacific High – unseasonal for this time of year – a depression is predicted to jut up from the south by Wednesday this week, with 40 knot winds predicted. We had nothing more than 25 knots since Auckland, though I did experience a big squall with 35 knots across the Tasman on Tecla. So we’re preparing for rougher seas, closer to the true character of the Southern Ocean.

Sleeping at constantly odd hours is still a trick to contend with. I recovered lost sleep today after failing to get a nap in during a long day yesterday from sun up till 0400 the next morning.

Contortionist manouevres getting in and out of my top bunk

At midnight last night my White Watch helped the signing-off and by then red-eyed Red Watchers, wear ship to the southeast from our ENE course, which required a lot of able seamen and women scattered at all points on the ship ready to heave or release ropes, and furl sails, re-orient yard arms and unfurl sails again. Some sails, like square sails are simply clewed up. Others, like stay sails, might require physical handling to bunch them up and shove them through ship’s rigging to be accessed from the other side. Lot’s of shouting, calling of orders, while the Captain signals and berates from the bridge (read my cabinmate Rod’s piece on the Europa website Blog ‘Klaastrophobia’). All the while the ship barrels along, with giant rolls and lurches and water from the dark frigid Southern Ocean gushing through the gunwales across the wooden-planked deck and across our gum-booted feet. Fun, yes. But when the body is sleep deprived, it’s a challenge to be in the right place and remember all that training on the location of all the lines on the pin rails.

We’ve had some fun competitions designed to force us to ‘learn the ropes’ (now I know where that saying comes from!), like where the Upper Tops’l (topsail) clew lines are, or where the T’gallant (Top Gallant Sail) sheets are, or where the tacklines for the Forecourse might be, and what distinguishes the fastening points for the the halyards for Royals or Sky Sails from sheet, clew or bunt lines. Madness? Yes! But ingenious indeed! And it’s been a sailor’s world for so long. And it works.

To feel our constant easterly movement captured by the ‘windjamming’ effects of this towering forest of canvas alone in the ocean is a wonderful feeling. And to know that the Wandering Albatross is our constant companion in this most wondrous of endeavours, to harness the free winds in our large wings, as we both make our ways east toward the islands off Tierra del Fuego. Me, for reasons as multivariate and as complex as the human condition since time in memorial. The albatross, for the biological imperative of breeding and assuring itself of plentiful post-breeding food sources from the bountiful, cold, nutrient rich, up-welling waters of the Humboldt Current. No wonder the Bark Europa owners nick-named her the ‘Ocean Wanderer’.

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Of Sea Mounts and Sea Pandas

sea panda

The winds turned south by west a few days ago and the presence of our looming friend Antarctica and her constant consort the Circumpolar Current became instantly apparent. I come from my lookout post on the foredeck and nursing frozen hands take refuge in the wheelhouse; the winds are biting and I’m starting to wonder if my layering will suffice as we continue closer towards the frozen continent. With a hot mug of black tea in my clammy hands – more as a means of digital warming than for rehydration purposes – I’m watching Captain Klaas survey the latest chart in the dimly lit red glow of the instrument dash. The horizon is dark but I can make out the ever-tilting line as a duplex band of grey on grey.

Laid out atop the instrument console the large-scale marine navigation chart looks a bit different to those of previous weeks. It is a remarkable thing; there is no land on it! None whatsoever in all of its 850 by 1450 nautical miles, covering the area known as the Southwest Pacific Basin to the Pacific–Antarctic Rise. Captain Klaas has plotted our trajectory; it’s on the southwest corner of this chart. Sixty nautical miles ahead on our east-south-easterly course there is a small yet conspicuous seamount rising as a blue shaded circle amidst the sea of white chart. It rises up steeply in just a few nautical miles from the 3000 metre depths beneath us to just 168 metres below the surface. I wonder if we’ll see or feel any evidence of this submarine peak as we pass over it. Captain Klaas, a former submarine communications officer, says at that depth we’ll see no evidence no matter how big the swell. Comforting indeed.

The day progresses and the winds drop from previous days. The bi-tonal dolphin visits that we’ve enjoyed over the last few days leave us expecting more of the same. Today, neither the wonderful Hourglass dolphins (which scientists report as rare in these south-circumpolar longitudes that we’re currently traversing, namely between 150 and 80 degrees west of Greenwich) nor the sleek dorsal-fin-lacking Southern Right Whale dolphins are spotted frolicking in our bow wave. Yesterday, like little mini orcas, they hurtled and jumped through the four to six metre swell; their smooth curvaceous black and white forms athletic and sexy through the dark deep waters. I’m not sure which species is my favourite. Who was the marketing genius that called them ‘dolphins’, and for that matter ‘killer whales’, instead of ‘sea-pandas’?

Southern Right Whale Dolphins - dorsal-finless and torpedo-like

Back on the lonely foredeck lookout post in the frigid airs my mind turns to the tiny prions, flitting and flapping over the swell. So much smaller than the ever-present albatross, I wonder where they find respite in this huge expanse of ocean. The Captain tells us that he calls the little prions the ‘on-off’ birds as the difference in colour between their back and front means that it appears that they’re turning their colour on and off as they reel and bank over the waters. They’re also known as whalebirds for their tendency to indicate the presence or coming of whales. So our eyes are peeled the rest of the afternoon.

Yesterday the water and air temperatures were the same: seven degrees Celsius. Brrrrr! And with these frigid winds and waters I’ve donned the bright orange one-piece Mustang Survival suit. Deckhand Niels must have overheard my complaining the other night when the winds turned south; he dug one of these ancient immersion suits from below and threw it’s massive bulk at me the other morning. Suddenly I’m a happier man. The Australian-standard gear just didn’t cut it. Some of the crew are jealous. Some are mocking. Some call me Elvis, some Yeti-man and others Shackleton. I like the later. It’s Shack for short. But while one may dream of Shackleton’s Antarctic heroisms, the dream that’s occupying my mind tonight is the proximity of the Antarctic Convergence (just 120 nautical miles to the south) and that little sea mount rising up from the dark icy depths to peak at our passing hull; a bit like ships in the night.

NB: Some poetic licence has been applied to some of the space-time continuum in this piece.

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From Saturday to Friday in a Second

This morning I woke up pre-dawn for my 0400 hour watch duty; at the helm steering the Bark Europa at a bearing of 100 degrees in eighteen knot winds and a moderate northerly swell. We’re a day south east of the Chatham Islands and a great and unexpected visit that was. Being at the helm is a great responsibility to have, the First Mate ahead in the wheelhouse keeping you honest and the feel of the lurch and strain of the ship – her hull heaving in the water and the masts and sails taut – in your hands as you turn the spokes on the giant wheel, marine elements all around you. We were out of the massive blocking high and heading south and east to its lower limits toward the international date line – pushed way east by the geopolitical dictates of New Zealand and her outlying territories (viz. Chatham Islands).

And then it happened. At 0719 hours this morning – being Saturday 9th November – we crossed the most vexing of anthropocentric lines upon this planet, the International Date Line; at 174.5 degrees West. And suddenly within a heave and a lurch of a swell under the hull of the ship and passively to the sound of the whine through the lines (ropes), we went from being fourteen hours in front of GMT (a day ahead) to being ten hours behind. In that sea-bound moment, the clouds hurtling low around us, it was suddenly 0719 hours plus a few seconds on Friday 8th November. Groundhog Day you might say in homage to all things Bill Murray. But the playlist didn’t kick over to ‘I Got You Babe’ by Sonny and Cher. And we continued as before, but then again, not quite.

The 9th of November happened to be voyage crewmember Stephen’s birthday. And so today he woke to a galley and mess decorated for a birthday breakfast by the crew, the deep stained timber wall panelling and ceilings bedecked with colourful flags and bunting. “Hip hip hooray!” we all cheered as we periodically clutched the seats, walls and tautly strung ropes to remain upright in the lurching motion of the ship. But moments later we crossed the date line and suddenly his birthday no more it was! Twas now the day before his birthday. But we’ll leave the bunting up as in just under seventeen hours it will be his birthday again. Weird! I adjusted my watch. It was the first time I’d ever legitimately moved its date back without also adjusting the hour. Again, weird!

Later in the morning, young Daniel, one of the voyage crew, the slightly nerdy-looking whiz kid with matted hair combed down on all sides, kicked off the Europa guest lectures. He is not only a sailing enthusiast but also a budding nuclear physicist. We all – minus the watch on duty – crammed into the deckhouse to hear his talk and before too long the humidity was fogging up the windows, obscuring the rollicking overcast day outside.

We began with the basics of atomic theory and I was enjoying improving my populist knowledge on quantum mechanics with the expert in our midst, refining my theory and seeing the proofs unfolding. But our collective contentment was curtailed when, twenty minutes in, young Dan paused mid sub-atomic equation, and looking slightly bemused, apologised that he was feeling quite squeamish and that he may have to postpone the lecture. At which point he promptly stood and clasping the bench tops lurched his way out of the deckhouse to the port side and discreetly ejected Stephen’s birthday breakfast overboard into the foaming South Pacific Ocean.

It may be Groundhog Day after all. A notice was left on the deckhouse chalkboard that Dan’s lecture had been postponed due to illness. Not to worry, it’ll be Saturday 9th November again tomorrow morning and he, like the Birthday Boy and indeed the rest of us, can have a chance to start afresh. Such are the peculiarities of tall ship travel on the high seas on the Far Side of the World.

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