On penguins and wreckage

After rounding Cape Horn, we made straight for the Falkland Islands. Remember, to be an official “full” rounding of Cape Horn in the eyes of the association tracking such things, we needed to reach 50 degrees south on both sides of South America. This meant going past the Falklands for a few hundred miles and turning back around. Also remember that we left Auckland 10 days late. We ended up reaching the Falklands only 1 day later than scheduled, having made up 9 days en route. The association considered the circumstances and gave everyone on the voyage full membership as a Cape Horner.

A word about getting to and from the Falklands: there are exactly 3 scheduled flights a week, and 2 of them are “air bridges” flown by the UK Royal Air Force to/from Britain. The other is a commercial flight to Chile. Since we were running late in Auckland, I changed my flight out (the commercial one) to the next available flight, one week later. This meant I had a week to kill on the island.

The Falklands also has almost no internet access: it’s surrounded by deep trenches preventing the laying of undersea cables. There is satellite internet available, but in order to use it you have to buy access cards at the rate of 10 GBP ($16) for 100 minutes. And even then you can only get online at a few specific hotspots around Port Stanley. There is no cell service provider. This meant I had a week to kill and nothing to kill it with.

What does one do in the Falklands? Go visit some penguins, of course.

I’m the one in the front left

At Volunteer Point, there is a colony of 3 species of penguins: King, Gentoo and Magellanic.  They each have their own “roosts”, areas where they congregate and spawn, but they’re right next to each other.  We get to be very very close to them, so long as we stay outside the rock rings set up around the roosts and don’t block the penguins’ access to the sea.

Some of these guys got to 3 feet tall

Certainly the prettiest ones were the King penguins, who are also the largest.  They hold their eggs on their feet, under their bellies.

If I was this flexible I’d never leave the house

The Magellanic were molting while we were there.

We just missed an epic pillowfight

The Gentoo keep their eggs in little holes in the ground.

We had to be careful not to accidentally step in these, or collapse them underfoot

The penguins mostly stayed inside their marked area, but we could still get close to some outlying ones.

Hanging out with the rejects

The more dramatic action was on the beach.  The penguins get their food in the sea, so one by one or in small groups they set out to make the trek to the water.

These guys walk funny on grass

Seriously, they do walk funny.

The grass gives way to sand eventually.

Their webbed feet are really well-suited to walking on sand though

On the beach, it was extremely windy — something like 40-50 mph.  Along the ground, there was a foot-high torrent of blowing sand.

Once at the water, they would play in the waves and apparently get some sustenance out of it.

Sometimes penguins would lay down in the sand, usually looking into the wind

After eating their fill in the water, they had to make their way back to the roost, upwind, getting sandblasted in the face.

I felt bad for the solo ones, they looked lonely.  The groups looked happier.


Sometimes a penguin would get tired and just stand there, collecting sand.

Penguins and sand, still seems weird to me

On the way back, our driver pulled over in the valley outside Port Stanley to show us some relics of the war over the Falklands in 1982.  The Argentinians invaded the British-held Falklands, occupied it, and fortified their positions in preparation for the inevitable counter-attack.  This included staging military helicopters in the valley outside Port Stanley to protect them from attack by sea.

Didn’t work out so well

The British counter-attack blew up these two helicopters on the ground or just taking off as they pushed overland towards Stanley.  We were told that one was a Chinook, the other a Puma.

Ah, see, here’s your problem, the turbine’s come out

Health and Safety doesn’t really enter into it.  The island is so remote and sparsely populated you can walk right up to these bits of military history, and crawl all over them.

Come for the penguins, stay for the wreckage

Southern Ocean, around Cape Horn, by tall ship

Lucky doesn’t even begin to describe it.  I got an e-mail around 4am in Seattle (I think) telling me about a bosun’s mate vacancy on the tall ship Tenacious for the 6 week voyage across the Southern Ocean, around the infamous Cape Horn.  I’d like to say I played it cool, equivocated a bit, made the JST work for it.  That I sat on it for a day or two to think it over, not seem over-eager or desperate.

Of course that’s a dirty lie.  I claimed the spot before my eyes were fully open, jamming words into my phone like I was on 2% battery and ordering a pizza from the last shop open in town.

I got myself to Auckland, New Zealand in time to meet the ship.  We had a bit of time for maintenance before the voyage crew joined, so I got to do a bunch of new stuff, like working on the anchors.  Oh god, the anchors.

Hello, handsome

They both needed to come out, entirely, along with all 8 shackles of chain, each.  A shackle is a unit of length of anchor chain, universal in the maritime world: 27.432 meters.  That’s a weird number right?  Except it didn’t used to be: a shackle is actually defined as 15 fathoms, which is 90 feet, which is 27.432 meters.  Sailors are nothing if not traditional.  For example, they’re still called “sailors” even when the ship they work on has rotating underwater jets for propulsion.

Anyway, anchor chain is heavy.  That’s the point, one might say.  We hold the ship in place not with the hook on the end, but the weight of the chain we lay out (relative to the depth of the water) that is kept from sliding by the hook.  While we were still alongside the pier in Auckland, we dropped the anchors and all 8 shackles of chain each one by one onto a barge and brought them over to a shipyard to do some surgery.

This barge brought all the boys to the yard

What surgery?  Replacing the last 2 shackles of chain on one anchor, and the last 3 on the other.  We had to cut off the joining (kenter) shackles at the severing joint, and then join new ones to the new sections.  The procedure is complicated but we figured it out, at one point hammering lead into a pin hole to seal it from salt water incursion and keep the pin from escaping.

What job at sea is complete without a coat of paint?  We paint the shackle joints as an indicator of which joint it is.  The kenter shackle is red, and a certain number equal to the joint index of chain links on either side are painted white.  This way as the anchor chain flies by we can keep track of how much is down.

Working in a chain gang in the burning southern sun, just like that gypsy woman said

While the paint was drying on the anchor chains, the bosun and officers were directing the setup of an experimental stay from the stem to the bowsprit to help balance the forces pulling it up.  They designed a metal plate and then used a magnetic drill to cut through the bracket along the stem to mount it.  Lloyds, the insurer, had a look at that with all the other stuff they were inspecting and we were good to go!  Once we fixed everything else that broke, anyway.

Like something out of one of those Vegas heist movies

It wasn’t just stuff near the water that needed fixing.  Wes had to go up to shift the outer jib to a running halyard so we could bring it down to deck and repair/replace it.  This is much easier to do alongside with a giant wind-break of a building next to us.

This was just as complicated as it looks

At this point, the anchor chain barge is back and the anchors have to go back in for Lloyds to examine and certify the next day.  All that chain has to be pulled back in with a powerful hydraulic windlass, and on the JST ships, it gets stowed by hand by the bosun’s mates.  There’s only room for one at a tine in the little hatches into the chain locker, but there’s always a second with a radio for safety and to swap in once the first gets tired.  Stowing 1 shackle yourself is hard work.  3 is exhausting.  The most I’ve had to do was 5 shackles between two of us.  Well, the most I previously had to do… today, we got to do all 16 shackles.

Don’t worry, it spit Adam out after a few bites

Oh, and the next morning?  Lloyds had us drop one anchor fully to prove the work was done and done correctly.  Guess who got to stow 8 shackles again.

Still, this time before the voyage crew joined wasn’t all back-breaking labor!  But really, mostly it was.

Someone’s a comedian (it’s me)

While we were alongside in Auckland, around when the voyage crew arrived, we had a bit of a problem with the alternator on the port diesel generator.   We had to pull it out in components, send it away for repair, then reinstall it whole.  This required taking the “soft patch” out of the main deck to winch it down into the engine room.  In the meantime, the freezer plant quietly died (“I have your fooooood”) and we had to unload all of our frozen and cold stores to go into a freezer container ashore while we got that fixed.  It’s a damn good thing this all went wrong while we were alongside — if it had been 2 weeks later, we’d have been in the middle of the ocean with some very difficult decisions to make.

It’s like that game, Operation, where the buzzer is actually a bill for a hundred thousand pounds sterling

Finally, we left!  10 days late.  Now we only had a bit under 5 weeks to get to the Falklands, instead of a full 6.  To meet the strict criteria for the Cape Horn association, we needed to round with at least a voyage of 3,000 nm entirely under sail, north of 50 degrees south on both sides of South America.  That’s a long long time to not use the engines at all, and our margin to drift in doldrums or go around rough weather had completely disappeared.

Fast forwarding a bit, we were out to sea for 5 weeks straight.  In the middle, we passed Point Nemo (twice due to weather).  Point Nemo is the Oceanic Pole of Inaccessibility, the farthest point on earth from any land.  It’s 2,688 km (1,670 mi) from the Pitcairn Islands in the north, the Easter Islands in the northeast, and one of the islands of Antarctica in the south.  We got within 5 nm of it on the second pass.  There should be a sailing tattoo for that.

It’s impossible to prove either way, but given how far our sailing ship went outside normal shipping lanes, and the dearth of marine traffic in the Southern Ocean thanks to the Panama Canal, it’s quite possible and maybe even likely that at some point in that 5 weeks the nearest human beings to us were on the International Space Station.  It’s roughly 220 miles up, and orbits 15 or so times a day at a sharp diagonal to the equator.  We can only “see” about 30nm in any direction with our radars, so we’ll never know, but reasonable people can argue it either way and it makes a cool anecdote.

However, there wasn’t a single day where the ship wasn’t being circled by at least one albatross.  These giant birds rarely flap their wings, coasting in ground effect over the surface of the waves.

Albatrosses are entirely unrelated to vultures, right?  Please say yes.

We saw some wind, though!  We had as much as a force 11 at one point (for comparison, force 12 is a hurricane), though mostly it was much more pleasant.  We did have some damaged sails — we took down 4 or 5 and repaired at least 1 in place.  We didn’t have enough diesel to motor to land if all our sails were damaged, and we didn’t have *that* many spares, so our job was clear.

Just another day in paradise

We spent a lot of time aloft taking down damaged sails and putting up repaired ones or spares.  We go up in any weather and use gantlines, utility lines on both sides of each mast, to lower and haul up sails.  I happened to have a reasonably new GoPro on my head, one with a built-in accelerometer, when Katie and I were sent up to re-lead a gantline back aft, its usual storage place, following a repair to the main topgallant.  I found out you can show the lateral G-forces the camera experienced overlaid on the footage.  I wasn’t surprised at all to see that the rolling, bounding ship subjected us momentarily to upwards of 3 Gs.  I was about 13 stories up, at the tail of the whip, standing with one foot on a rope and the other wrapped around a stay, working with both hands to re-route a line.  It’s hard work, but with the right technique it’s actually pretty fun.

The bosun and his mates were busy fixing and building things all over the ship.  Like a wicket for a small Australia vs UK cricket game on the main deck.

Working in the bow of a moving ship at sea, you use a goddamn vise

Sometimes we were aloft stitching a seizing into a lashing inside the foil of an in-boom furling topsail.  To be honest, I preferred the climbing jobs.

When you’re up there, it’s easy to forget you’re standing on a rope 10 stories over the ocean

But the view is great!  Sometimes you get to watch the voyage crew cleaning the ship, at least when it’s not your turn to run it.

The ship calls this “happy hour”

Why scrub the deck?  Because of all the salt water we get on it.  And spilled coffee and tea.

For the first week or two, you’d hear at least one scream a day from an unwary voyage crew member

Finally, we made it: Cape Horn.  And it was dead calm.  We drifted by, took our photos, and turned northeast for the Falklands.

The southern end of the inhabited world

Cape Horn is feared among sailors because of the ferocity of the vast ocean on either side at that latitude and the strong weather patterns that tend to collide there.  But even hurricanes have an eye, and we were “fortunate” with our timing past the cape.

I’m still trying to decide if we got lucky or unlucky… good weather makes bad sailors, and worse stories

Next time: the Falkland Islands!

Back online!

My blog is back online! If you were subscribed to updates before, you’re hopefully getting this in an e-mail. If not, feel free to add yourself at the bottom of this page. And if you’ve changed your mind, there’s an unsubscribe link in the e-mail.

If you followed my blog at all before, you may have noticed that I didn’t finish the circumnavigation posts and then it disappeared. Turns out, while I was off traveling and not posting, my blog was infected by malware of apparently Russian origin (judging by the .ru urls in the infected files) and my hosting service shut it down. In the last few days, I finally wiped the old blog and restarted it in time for my next trip.

Maybe someday I’ll even upload the rest of the circumnavigation story! But not today. First, a couple posts about the longest sea voyage I’ve ever worked: New Zealand to the Falkland Islands, ’round the dreaded Cape Horn.

Of course we rounded during a dead calm