Posts Tagged With: South Pacific

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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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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Approaching the Chathams

11:45 hours, Wednesday 6th November 2013

It’s approaching the end of Day Six out of Auckland. And we’re about to arrive at the Chatham Islands (NZ); an unplanned visit and the ship is abuzz with talk of what the natives might be like. That’s if we ever make it. We deviated course yesterday some 450 NM south-east of Auckland and set the starboard stuns’ls (‘studding sails’ being the extra sails set out the side of the ship) to take advantage of the light wind. But today we’ve hit lighter winds and right now we’ve almost stopped again (not as still as it was on Sunday – see my blog below). A blocking low out here in the South Pacific. Because of this it’s wet wet wet in New Zealand right now. We can just now see some of the tiny northern islands that are part of the Chatham Island group. If we get there we might find safe harbour and jump in the zodiacs and go ashore.

Life on board is very different to Tecla. Whereas Tecla was an informal family affair, where we had much more contact and involvement in sailing, meal preparations and washing, here on Europa it’s much more formalised, and the cooks stick to their job. And I’m eating well for it. We help out with adjusting sails and furling and unfurling of sails aloft. And we steer the ship from the help at the stern, day and night. And we man the lookout on the bow as well.

Whereas across the Tasman we had dolphins and whales visit along with the ubiquitous albatross, since Auckland I’ve seen just three seals (sea lions?), one of East Cape, another last night sailing south toward the Chathams and another tonight as we approached the main western bay of Chatham Island. There was also the lone tern as mentioned in my blog entry on the Europa website.

The ever-present ocean wanderers, the albatross

I’m getting used to the daily changes to routine with the rolling flux to our daily watch changeovers. Today I had a Dungeon tour with Chris the ship’s Engineer and am amazed by the degree to which every space in the keel compartments of the ship are used to the max. Getting into each compartment and moving inside them was a feat in itself, with headspace and turn-space at an absolute premium. A few more bruises for wear after this jaunt.

23:45 hours, Wednesday 6th November 2013

We’ve just weighed anchor at the main port on the desolate Chatham Island and from the charts I’ve seen in the wheel house it’s about 40 odd kilometres long with the maximum altitude of the few remnant volcanic peaks at about 300 metres above sea level. I’m a little sweaty as I had all my layers on in the chilly twilight air as I went aloft to help furl the royal, top gallant, upper top, lower top and course sails on the main mast. Laying over the yardarms and straining to bunch the sails up and tie them up with the gasket coils (rope) gets the upper body sweating. Back on deck and soon to weigh anchor people are cracking open beers. They’re all drinking Tui – a New Zealand Indian Pale Ale – of which I saw from today’s tour below in the bowels of the ship there is plenty of in stock. The crew insists on us leaving all our beer cans uncrushed as they prefer to professionally crush them themselves so as to ensure that all this waste is reduced to the most minimum of dimensions. All the waste has to be stored and there is limited space on board.

We’ve decided to go ashore and explore this remote island tomorrow. The ship’s zodiacs (inflatable rafts with outboard motors) have been assembled on the sloop deck and will be lowered into the water tomorrow morning ready for our landing runs. After this it will surely be the last land we’ll see before arriving in Stanley, Las Malvinas (Falkland Islands).

It was two nights ago that we crossed south of forty degrees of latitude. We’re now into the Roaring Forties but there ain’t much roaring yet. This massive high is hanging still. And it is about to join up with another massive high west of the South American continent. As such we’ll be forced to head more directly south of the Chatham Islands in order to get real westerlies. We’ve still got around 4,900 NM to sail to Stanley.

We drifted slowly all day today south to the Chathams. We weren’t quite becalmed, but the albatross were occasionally sitting around floating on the water around us – a sure sign (see below my recent blog). I’ve been learning sea faring navigation techniques from a sextant and celestial navigation expert on board, a strange Australian fellow who insists going by his nickname of Fruit Bat. The last few days at the hour of the sun’s Meridian Passage (around midday approximately at present) I’ve been taking the sun’s altitude by ‘swinging the sextant’ and winding the vernier calliper on the sextant to get to that point at which the sun rises no more and it’s level with the horizon. Then it’s another while below in the ship’s beautifully appointed library, replete with glossy wood panelling, that I struggle with the ‘bible’ – the esteemed and universally used navigational Almanac – following a process of looking up tables, solving formulae and finally through basic arithmetic arriving at my latitude south of the equator. First time I was three nautical miles out. Next day I was two and half miles out. I’m in an unannounced competition with an old French navy gentleman, Jean-Pierre, who’s silently going about it each day. A few days ago he was six nautical miles out. I beat him – a fluke. But yesterday he was just 180 metres out. Wow! My error was a respectable 1.6 nautical miles further north of the actual latitude. According to Fruit Bat this is very acceptable. Next step is to take further celestial object readings with the sextant to be able to arrive at deducing my longitude.

Sleeping tonight will be strange without the slosh and trickle sounds of the water past the hull beside my head below in the bunk, as we’re anchored in gentle seas off Waitangi, the main settlement of a few hundred people here on the main island of the largely uninhabited Chatham Islands. Right now, we’ve pairs of people doing anchor watch. Most of the rest have gone to bed. A few mingle in the cool frigid air on the mid-ship deck outside where I’m typing this inside the deckhouse.

Tomorrow, Roman (a Swiss national and deep sea construction diver) and I aren’t taking the tours that the island locals have radioed through to us that are on offer; we’ll explore the land ourselves. We’ll take our wet suits and masks and see if we can find the penguins and seals; though the thirteen degree Celsius waters might make this foray a little curtailed. The settlement shops are all shut tomorrow as there have been two deaths and all the locals will be attending the funerals we’ve been told.

Through binoculars this afternoon on approach to the islands I could see very little major vegetation; the odd clump of woodland and shrubland clinged to a few ridgelines. Rills and gullies rain from steep tabletop areas leaving breakaways falling to coastlines where breakers crashed. In the distance conical peaks were visible and there was one central massif that resembled an ancient volcanic caldera plug. I’ll learn more tomorrow.

Meanwhile life on board the grand old Bark Europa continues to unfold. By day two or three I’d met everyone on board and had memorised all names of the 38 voyager crew and the 17 crew members. My head already has several sore lumps on it from collisions with steel bulkhead door frames and low ceilings. But I’m getting better at avoiding this. And I’m also improving at getting in and out of my snug top bunk, as well as in negotiating the heads (toilets) and showers in the cramped ‘wet cell’ area. Signs say that all good sailors sit down to peer. I’m trying to abide.

The Europa over-complies with all international agreements regarding ejecting waste at sea. It only throws organic waste overboard at certain rates and only at night, so that the albatross and other deep sea birds don’t get to feed on it.

Characters to write about onboard abound. There’s Speedy [ol’ Sea Dog] Piet, the ol’ Dutch sailor with world sea stories from the sixties and beyond, including his story of learning the harmonica under the covers at night as a young boy because his mother banned him from playing it and therefore inadvertently learning to play the instrument upside down back to front as it was dark when he played it.

At times I am exasperated by the monotony of life and the pace of change onboard. We move through the motions. We strike up conversations with the persons nearest us if the mood so inspires. Sometimes I avoid these and try to find quiet spots on deck, but invariably a quiet spot will become a hive of activity when a sail trimming is required or a jibe is ordered and all hands are suddenly in your space again. Sometimes we sit in silence with our watch buddy. At other times we immerse ourselves in deep conversation at the risk of ignoring our watch duties. And then the Captain or First Mate climbs begrudgingly out of the wheelhouse to shout orders back to us at the helm above the sound of the chilly night wind that we need to steer fifteen points starboard in order to bring her back on track; it’s a kind of admonishment as we at the helm, having been given a course to steer, need to maintain it by reading the wind in the sails. And so we turn again to the big old compass – made in Copenhagen in 1974 – and the faint red glow that illuminates her dial, and try to feel the ship and her needs.

Meal times and ‘coffee breaks’ become well-anticipated moments in time. Going to bed is an ever-moving thing. And the evening sun set seems to be a universal gathering point in time as it’s usually just when we’re all coming together for dinner regardless of the various watch duties that we have at the time. But with only just six days since Auckland under our keel and in our wake I’m anticipating a lot more psychological struggles on the horizon.

Elephant seal, Waitangi Bay, Chatham Island

Elephant seal, Waitangi Bay, Chatham Island

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Albatross Know Better

Somewhere in the Southeast Pacific

Sunday 3rd November 2013

An albatross in the south-east Pacific Ocean is an inquisitive thing. That is when the high-pressure cell that Bark Europa’s Captain Klaas was trying to avoid bears down upon the ocean’s surface and becalms one and all. There we were; about 350 nautical miles south-east of Auckland; a third of the way toward the eastern-most territory of New Zealand, the Chatham Islands; the ocean heaving and flat with a curving vitreous surface. And the floating albatrosses were the telling sight. If they don’t soar it means there really is no wind.

It was already mid-morning. I climb from the ship’s bowels after sleeping off a breakfast that followed a chilly yet rewarding early morning watch 0400 – 0800 hours and I was greeted by a stunning mid-morning ocean landscape: luffing sails flapped and snapped in the bright sun and lines and blocks swayed and rattled as the ship loped and teetered on the lolling listless ocean; no swell, just a beautiful chaos of energy transfer. And surrounding us on all sides were floating albatross studding the surface of this smooth glistening water. I saw my first cluster of albatross off the starboard beam. “What is that?”, I thought?

Between Sydney and the North Island of New Zealand across the Tasman Sea albatross only ever soared the wind swept swells around us. I’d only managed an accidental photo of one thus far. And I spent a great deal of time marvelling at their wingspan and the way they engineered the air cushions beneath their bulk; zooming flat tack toward a looming, mounting swell they’d rise just as the swell’s liquid mass moved underneath their thick-plumed undercarriage. And with this added lift they’d suddenly rise and pivot on a wing tip, millimetres from the ocean’s constantly-changing surface but never touching it.

It was Day Three out of Auckland and a kind of doldrums lingered. We were after all in the Horse Latitudes where this thing was predisposed to happen. And without the wind the heat was building. And I got the feeling that the albatross were staring at us. Waiting for us to keel over.

Off the port beam there were more. A grey-black wing and back variety (Buller’s albatross) with colourful orange striations along its long hooked beak and a larger white bodied one with pink colours on the beak (the Wandering albatross). A stern there floated more. And beneath the bowsprit underneath Europa’s figurehead of the bosomed Europa riding her transformed lover the Bull out to sea, there were more albatross; sitting and staring. It was a strange and eerie sight to see them, moreover for the becalming.

I ventured a question to the First Mate and the response was pleasing: “A swim? Indeed, indeed!” he said, “But we must await the Captain’s [daily ship] briefing.”

Just after 1400 hours with news of our progress and our forecasted continued stationary state we learnt that the Oosterschelde, previously 70 NM behind us, had decided to turn on their engines and motor toward where winds were favourable and were now further south of us; Captian Klaas however, emphasised that we still retained the most easterly position. I could smell the race that he was concocting. Tecla having left two days after us was making good speeds of between seven and nine knots.

With the Ship Briefing over, the door in the mid-ship gunwales was opened and the stairs thrown over the side. I raced to be the first in the water, taking up a position near the bowsprit on the fo’c’sle (i.e. forecastle – the foremost deck at the bow). Masked and wearing my speedos I climbed over the railings and with a moment’s hesitation I dived headlong into the glassy surface, with the comforting knowledge that I wouldn’t touch bottom some 3500 metres below me.

As I surfaced to the simultaneous clicking of shutter buttons from those aboard, I had the wonderful experience of being greeted face-to-beak with a curious albatross. It paddled right over to me and came to within a foot of my face. As it approached and I heard the odd word of warning shouted from the ship I quickly donned my goggles, mindful of the need to protect my eyes if it pecked. I backed away. It held its ground. I approached again; it backed away and paddled off to observe our ship from a different position.

Having been becalmed the ocean had had a chance to build some thermal energy in the top of the water column. Indeed there were plumes of water that were distinctly pleasant to float in, but that would abruptly end when the normal water temperature came clutching in its icy pillows. Floating face up was meditative. And after a few days on ship it was rewarding to see it, its rigging and sails from water level a ways out.

Watches had been cancelled and the boat took on a different tone. My afternoon was spent making music with fellow voyage crew, Fruit Bat – his preferred name – who played his concertina accordion and young Ana-Laura – a trainee seaman from France – who sat down with us on the fo’c’sle with her harmonica. With the ship becalmed crew and voyage crew made the most of the conditions to undertake the ever-present maintenance tasks. People hung from the yards above us looking down and seemed to be enjoying the music, while they worked at tarring lines, or winding twine, or scaping paint. Later I would receive compliments from people who’d spent the afternoon at different places on the ship. With such calm conditions the sound travelled far and wide.

As the sun set the pastel tones of magenta and celeste extended to almost all horizons and the water surface took on the most surreal of appearances; it’s glassy surface reflecting the horizon’s hues creating a seemingly unnatural look to the ocean’s entire surface. Indeed, as the surface bobbed ever between crest and trough in an effortless dance of colour mirrors, the water was distinctly magenta and celeste by slow seeping turns.

“How the sea changes!”, I thought as I leaned head in hands across the side rails, the smell of spaghetti bolognese rising from the galley’s port holes. From the chop and slop leaving Auckland and the rolling foaming dunes across the Tasman to the flat alien seascape that now hung before me like a massive velvet curtain. Just then a floating albatross came near and I caught its raised eye: “I may have seen land more recently than you”, I muttered “but I’m sure you know better.”

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A Tern for the Turning

Tuesday 29th October – Friday 1st November 2013

Leaving the Land of the Long White Cloud for Cape Horn…and beyond

With the Auckland Tall Ships Festival over, the three Dutch ships had much to prepare. And the public holiday on Monday didn’t help. With Europa’s new voyage crew on board on Tuesday afternoon, we made ourselves comfortable amidst the flurry of provisioning and pre-departure preparations happening all around. I was a little nostalgic to be jumping ship and leaving the Tecla and her wonderful crew, who were even more hard pressed with some serious repairs and a nail-biting waiting game ahead of them with important spare parts yet to arrive through NZ customs. Luckily they had made local friends who were helping them out no end.

Captain Klaas (Dutch Captain Flag Numero Uno), back at the Europa helm after a few weeks absence, announced our delayed departure for Thursday morning. And after describing how the dangers of the Great Circle trajectory – itself the shortest route between Auckland and Stanley – will prevent us from taking it entirely (e.g. icebergs and treacherous seas), he invited us to be a part of this great undertaking and toast ‘Fair Winds’. At this point we all downed a small sherry glass of good medicine; a suitably Dutch liquor reminiscent (in a good way) of cough mixture.

Taking advantage of our extra day in Auckland Harbour and to ensure the crew had ample space to load the impressive array of dry goods, fresh fruit and vegetables and frozen meat [see photos of Europa with provisions on deck] a combined Dutch Tall Ships voyage crew ‘meet and greet’ session was organised for Wednesday morning by our Europa tour-de-force purser and general motivator, Jay, at the New Zealand Maritime Museum just along the wharf from our moorings. A proposal was tabled to share a ship newsletter amongst the three ships during this exceptionally long voyage head of us, with means of communication to include flag signals as well as message bottles; email and radio were proffered as alternatives.

After an amazing tour of the Maritime Museum, where many of us heard a great deal about Maori and European sea faring culture, the afternoon was left free, with the only request that we steer clear of the ship busy with final preparations. Later in the day training for climbing aloft in the ships rigging was arranged and I volunteered straight up [see photo of me in climbing harness], dying to feel again what I’d tasted in 2011 on board the good ship HMB Endeavour. I climbed all the way to the top of the main mast skysail yard but this time mine was not the experience of tilting horizons and lurching intestines, but rather the panorama of the plush interiors of penthouse suites of the well-heeled inside Auckland’s wharf-side Hilton Hotel. After a few strange stares from the startled hotel guests I descended to the deck.

Later on Wednesday evening the crew of the Picton Castle (of the Cook Islands), moored on the same wharf, threw an impromptu party on board with rum punch and popcorn and many from the Dutch Tall Ships came aboard dressed in Halloween-esque garb, with a few pirates as well…to be sure, to be sure me laddie.

Thursday morning, three bells rang and we lined up on deck for the safety talk and deck-hand Niels donned an immersion suit. Suddenly he was transformed into a tele-tubbie (his own description). The immersion suit is an important piece of safety equipment, especially for its ability to stop you sliding out of your bunk by shoving it under your mattress when the pitch of the ship is against you.

We were ordered to remain on ship for the NZ Customs roll call; a slow and painful exercise wherein the officials sighted all our ‘smiling’ faces. Meanwhile the recently tested life-raft barrels were delivered by truck wharf-side and people assisted with craning them in on the ship’s own block and tackle. With the last of provisions being stowed and the large deep-freezer chest securely ratcheted down on the sloop deck, all were deemed accounted for, and with three Auckland-shattering horn blasts (lucky we weren’t in Christchurch as it may have brought down the last of the damaged infrastructure!) we departed the wharf and made our way out into Auckland Harbour followed by Oosterschelde. Tecla was not ready and would now have to catch up.

Stiff north easterlies saw us motoring fast to make it out of Auckland. A whale was sighted. People craned but no one saw it. And the swell was choppy. Seasickness took its toll on many of us as the sun began to set on a stormy afternoon. The lookout position was moved back to beside the wheelhouse as rogue waves and wind were making the deck of the forecastle an unpleasant place to be. But some dolphins riding our bow wave brought some eager viewers back. Increasingly people transformed themselves into heftily clad objects lurching about the deck, as foul weather gear was donned and side nets and criss-crossed hand ropes were strung. After dinner the wind and rain persisted with favourable winds pushing us east. By midnight the heavens cleared and the Milky Way glowed and the Europa masts ticked like a giant grandfather clock pendulum between Orion’s Belt and the Southern Cross. One of my fellow dog watchers from the Northern Hemisphere was happy to have now seen it with his own eyes for the first time. A wondrous thing.

Good winds saw us power through the evening on our easterly trajectory toward New Zealand’s most easterly point, East Cape. By midday Friday we’d clocked 174 NM since Auckland– the Captain was pleased, we were more than 50 NM ahead of Oosterschelde.

People made good of the fair weather and many an industrious zone was set up around the ship. People were taring shroud lines and stays, painting bottle screws recently loosed to replace mast stays in Auckland and preparing new Flemish Horses using the serving mallet to meticulously wind tarred hemp twine around metal cables already covered in grease and sheathed in cotton canvas taping [see photo of Claudia and Roman working on the new Flemish Horse].

Moderate winds persisted favourable throughout Friday until evening as the early South Pacific summer sun set over the mountainous East Cape region, and sunbeams shot through the ridge-hugging clouds to make metallic the ocean surface. It was soon to be possibly the last land we’d sight until the Falklands. And almost as if to bid us farewell a lone sea lion surfaced by the stern of the ship. And then too did a lone tern appear [see photo of tern on wheel house], somewhat bewildered and frail, and float and glide suddenly from the airspace over water beside the aft of the ship to that within the rigging of the ship. It hovered about as the ship swayed side to side underneath it until it landed ever so gently atop the wheel house. And there it sat a moment, a little forlorn, perhaps bidding us farewell, perhaps telling us something we needed to know; a tern for the turning back? If it was then we respectfully declined its advice and left it in our wake. Our course was set. The winds died and the East Cape lighthouse faded to the west. And with Venus shimmering on the flattening seas we turned south-east in darkness toward the Chatham Islands.

A tern sits momentarily on the ship

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