16th March 2018 ELEPHANT ISLAND and starting our way to South Georgia
Fair winds from last night didn’t last long, and soon turn out to be variable and weaker, blowing from several directions at between 3 to 18kn. To keep going on schedule and take advantage of future winds to come, at 4:00h during the change of watch, it was necessary to start one of our engines. With that we brace square, drop Staysails and clued up the Courses. As the day breaks, we enjoy a calm situation and just a bit of rolling on the long low swell can be felt. On that conditions, it is hard to think that we are actually at the entrance of the feared Drake Passage, that made us suffer so many hours of seasickness just a few days ago.
Even with cloudy skies, soon Gibbs, O’Brien and Aspland islands became visible at our Starboard side. Looking inhospitable, heavy glaciated and steep, their high cliffs and peaks where first sighted and roughly charted in 1820 by Bransfield, and in 1821 by a Russian expedition under Bellingshausen, who gave the small archipelago the name “Three Brothers Islands”. Those two explorers where also the ones who first found the neighbour Elephant Island.
The archipelago is home for countless seabirds, that take advantage of their isolation and the rich waters surrounding them. This features also commonly attract different species of whales, and today, like we did on previous occasions sailing those waters, numerous Fin whales where spotted on several opportunities.
Some of the island’s inhabitants soon realize our presence on their home and send a welcome party of Chinstrap penguins, Southern fulmars and Cape petrels. Amongst them, smaller Storm petrels also pay us a visit, always arousing our interest with their fragile look but to be found scattered all over from the rocky coasts to the rough oceanic waters. The highly productive area also draws here numerous Black browed albatrosses from their regular nesting sites in South Georgia and Subantarctic areas.
Jagged and unforgiving, the glaciers and coasts of Elephant Island can be seen at the distance already in the morning. With its 24nm in length and 12nm wide, is the largest of this archipelago, being considered the Northeast corner of the South Shetland Islands group. Its name probably derives from the sighting of Elephant Seals, but it could also originate from the island's elephant head-like appearance. Originally discovered in 1820 by Bransfield, and attracting afterwards many sealers, Elephant is most famous for other reasons. It played a most important role on the British Transantarctic Expedition lead by Ernest Shackleton, who camped here for over 4 months, and was the starting point for their crossing to South Georgia after having lost their ship “Endurance” crashed by the Weddell Sea pack ice and undergo one of the most unconceivable Antarctic survival stories.
Still with lack of fair winds, the second engine is turned on to speed up our approach. The plan is to try our visit to the famous Point Wild during the late afternoon, and straight away keep going on our way to South Georgia as soon as possible. We are back in the belt of strong winds driven by one Low Pressure system after another travelling West to East along the Drake Passage, and that is exactly what is forecasted for the following days. Depressions in the Southern Hemisphere are driven clockwise and are passing by just North of us. Care must be taken when routing an itinerary and setting a course to catch the most amount of fare winds that these atmospheric conditions can offer, avoiding fall into headwinds on their Southern side, as we pretend to sail eastbound towards South Georgia.
For this reason more canvas is set, while both engines give us some more speed whilst the ship steer around the NW cape of the island. Like many other geographical features here, this headland also bears a name related with the ill-fated Endurance expedition. Is called Cape Yelcho after the Chilean steam tug of the same name, which rescued members of Shackleton's party from the nearby Point Wild in August 1916.
Voyage crew trains the knowledge acquired during the sail-training lessons and set Royals and Top Gallants under the attentive look and supervision of the permanent crew. At the same time, the Europa gets into the channel between Elephant and the Seal Islets, a sort of a shortcut around the N coast of Elephant Island, already used by sealers in the 1820s.
Having the famous Point Wild at sight, lookouts report some whaleblows at the distance amongst the foggy seas. A closer look reveals many Fin whales all around. Captain takes the wheel and steers closer to them, just to end up surrounded by about hundred of this gigantic whales participating on a feeding
frenzy. Many of them keep lounge feeding while others take a little break to come closer and inspect us. Countless albatrosses and petrels seem to join the party and keep feeding on the krill or fish that attracted the whales, together with several Fur seals that contribute to the turmoil. A look through binoculars uncover many other blows at the distance. A rarely seen and unusual spectacle that we are lucky enough to witness in the rich waters around one of the remotest Antarctic islands.
As it has been usual along the afternoon, several short snow showers pass continuously while we leave the whale feast behind and head towards Point Wild. Despite the calm looks of the waters surrounding it, Europa starts feeling the long swell and rolls with it while dropping anchor and gets everything ready to drop zodiacs. Soon we will have a closer look at the famous shores that housed Frank Wild and his crew for about four months, waiting for Shackleton to come back with a rescue party. Just when we are about to board the zodiacs a floating fender is spotted and in no time is quickly retrieved from these pristine coasts. At that point is clear that a landfall will not be possible as the swell heavily breaks all over the shoreline, but a short cruise instead is offered for all of us.
Furness Glacier, which calves along the bay between Cape Belsham and Point Wild itself is at the background of this evening operation. Its vertical front has been receding quite a lot if we compare the old pictures taken during Shackleton’s expedition (1914-16) and nowadays.
More snow showers keep playing with us while we cruise, quite characteristic unreliable weather for this island. Nevertheless we all greatly enjoy the ride, that first brought us to the so called Houlder Bluff, that overlooks Point Wild. Shackleton named this sheer cliff after Frank Houlder of the “Houlder Steamship” line, who assisted the expedition. Closeby lays the shallows and swell battered coasts of Point Wild itself, where the sculpture of the Chilean Captain Piloto Pardo is located. His bust honor the Chilean efforts to help the stranded men, but the place itself, even if it could be called after its exceptionally wild and rough conditions, is named for Frank Wild. He is commonly described as Shackleton’s right hand, and leader of the party marooned here for four months until rescued in August 1916.
Looking at this spot is hard to believe that here, Shackleton’s men survived for four months living just under the protection of their upturned boats.
We truly got the feeling of the merciless nature of such untamed place. Nevertheless it sure was a great relieve for the three boats of the expedition when after months struggling for survival on the ice floes of the Weddell sea and enduring a grueling small boat journey, finally touched land. First thing then was the very English tradition of boiling water for a tea and straight away not such a common custom, but needed and craved for, the seal and penguin hunting for meals that tasted fit for the gods, as we can read on Shackleton’s writings. But as someone said, they didn’t finish them all, as nowadays up to 5000 pairs of Chinstrap penguins live and breed here. Fur and Elephant seals are also common visitors to the area.
The desolation and remoteness of the island soon made for another desperate decision: refurbish the best boat they still had, the “James Caird” and embark en route to South Georgia, in what is still considered one of the most challenging open boat crossings ever made. We are about to start the same sailing, along 700nm of the Scotia Sea open waters, but on board the well-suited Bark Europa, counting with 40 voyage crew and 17 permanent crew, while Shackleton undertook this astonishing journey with Captain Worsley and four of their men, in a race for survival, exhausted, deprived of water and food, suitable clothing or a reliable boat. On top of that, their means of navigation were based on taking good sun sights with sextant and the experience to perform the calculations. Skills were there, but not the proper weather to allow a good course-plotting, and just a very few sights could be taken. Minimum mistakes could have brought them straight to the open ocean, easily missing South Georgia Island, only and last resource to look for salvation.
Following our short zodiac cruise, Captain and Mate heave anchor and soon after start setting sail on the fair W-ly winds. First our course will take us North avoiding the forecasted head winds for tomorrow, then falling off on a more Easterly course. In the darkness and dealing with the small squalls that sweep over us, many give a hand on deck hoisting all canvas. A couple of hours later Europa happily sails at about 6 to 7kn with just the upper staysails still furled, steering on a northbound course while being pushed about 10º to starboard by the current.