No Good Choices: A Study In Ice

Iron Lady and Grey Wolf have been cruising together in Antarctica, what the few truly experienced high latitude sailors will tell you is the toughest place on earth. These waters are more difficult and dangerous than Svalbard; the Northwest Passage is a cakewalk compared to this. And summer 2019 has been even more challenging than the recent past. In Pete Rossin’s post below you will catch a small sense of what it is like when there are simply no good choices. The photo above looks tame enough but think about it in 65 knots of breeze with eight to ten foot seas, and a glacier at your back.

You may be wondering why anyone would choose to cruise in this environment? It draws you in slowly.
You’ve heard the tales and seen the photos, but nothing prepares you for the visceral impact of the stark beauty…
…and proximity of wildlife. The awareness of risk is there but the severe nature of consequences is masked.
Then you find that in an instant things can change. Wind, current, a calving glacier, it doesn’t take a lot, maybe just the loud bang of a piece of ice looking for a weak spot in your hull. And suddenly you realize that this is for real. You begin to review the things that could go wrong, and what should be done in case anything happens. This is not the time when you want to be worrying about deferred maintenance, the failure of primary systems, or the structural safety of your hull.
We can tell you that the mixture of risk, unrivaled beauty and wildlife in high latitude cruising is addictive. There is nothing like it anywhere else on the planet. This unique blend of elements presents a challenge to your skill level. It demands teamwork, and a constant sense of awareness. You quickly come to understand at the gut level that a mistake can be costly, even fatal. Though mentally and physically exhausted you feel alive, in a manner that is virtually unknown in modern life. When you’ve exited the region and are safely beyond its reach you heave a grateful sigh of relief.  Within a couple of months you begin to think about the next voyage.
Once you have sampled this elixir of the gods your life is changed…forever.
Pete Rossin’s comments below:

62 28.9S  059 40.8W

Mother Nature reminded us yesterday on the trip north that she is in charge. The winds that were forecast to drop didn’t until late in the day and a major swell was running from the deep Southern Ocean.

As we left our anchorage, the initial plan was to head up Orleans Channel and then into the Bransfield Strait. It turned out that Orleans was iceberg alley and the combination of a confused sea, haze and glare from the sun on the water made it almost impossible to see the bergs until we were on top of them. The other option was to head directly toward Bransfield Strait.

Each option had its various advantages and disadvantages.

The passage via Orleans had lots of ice with poor visibility and the potential to hit a chunk capable of doing damage to our props or stabilizers. The advantages included a less vigorous sea state and Grey Wolf already had made the passage and had a safe track thru. It was a slightly longer route and once thru the passage, a more westerly heading would be necessary for the rest of the trip up the Bransfield putting the wind and seas more forward of the beam.

The passage via Bransfield called for a more westerly heading early directly into the winds and seas.  It had the advantage that the ice was clearly visible, easier to avoid  and we would pass into ice-free waters more quickly. A disadvantage was that we would spend more time exposed to the deep Southern Ocean as there was no land to our port side which meant more time in bigger seas. Once the turn north was made, however, they would be more on our beam. The biggest negative was that we had no prior tracks thru the area and a large area to our lee was shoal and uncharted – not a desirable situation – particularly with a long period 5-meter swell that would build substantially as it entered shallower water.

You pays your money and takes your chances. Grey Wolf felt more comfortable dealing with Orleans and we felt more comfortable dealing with Bransfield. This was the first time we actually traveled separately even though it would only be for a matter of 6 hours or so until our courses rejoined.  There really was no right or wrong choice here. When making decisions like this at sea, you list all the positives and negatives of your various courses of action and try to rate which ones are the most critical and then act accordingly. It doesn’t remove all the variables but it does lend a rationale to the decision making process.

Winds dropped in the afternoon but were projected to go northerly overnight which made Pratt untenable. We anchored in a nice “V” shaped bay across the channel in around 15 meters. Took two attempts as we harvested a great glob of kelp on the first go. Second time was good holding in clay and mud. Quiet night as we were protected from the winds and the glacier bits were being blown away from us.

Early this morning we got an invite to Pratt Base–a very impressive year-round station run by the Chilean Armada. Joined them for a celebration of their 70th birthday here. The base is occupied with 26 residents during the summer and 10 over the winter. From March to November there is no way in or out and snow gets as high as the roofs of the station. It is dark 20 hours a day during mid-winter.  They also have meteorological records dating back to the late 1940s and the glaciers around the bay have either retreated substantially or disappeared during that time–the conclusion being it is a consequence of global warming.

It was a wonderful visit and the Armada personnel were most hospitable as they were at Waterboat.

More later as we plan our last few days in Antarctica, study weather, and prepare the boats for the crossing.


62 12.1S 058 56.7W

Anchored in a small bay around Frei Station around 1830. We toyed with the idea of side-tying the two boats together but the wind was blowing 35 and was projected to be a bit higher overnight. Trying to separate the two boats when they are side-tied and rocking and rolling has the potential to be hazardous if someone gets caught between the boats.

Everyone came aboard Iron Lady for a pleasant evening on what was to be our last night in Antarctica. It seems, however, that Mother Nature had different ideas. At 0500, the wind came up to the mid 40s with gusts to 65 knots. By 0800, it became obvious that our anchorage was untenable as the wind was projected to shift southerly which would put us on a lee shore and we were already in only 5.5 meters of water.

Reluctantly, we chose to up anchor and move out into the middle of the bay in 35 meters of water with 120 meters of chain out. Even though the fetch was limited, waves in the bay were up to 2 meters. All this made worse by the fact that ice was blowing both down the bay and into our former anchorage. We are currently doing ice watch with the engines running and, while still anchored, using the engines to negotiate around the bergs as they come down the bay.

We continue to prep for that passage but, at this juncture, do not believe the window will open until early tomorrow morning after the wind dies and the seas have time to subside. I can only imagine what it is like in the Nelson Strait with huge waves being in the shallow water of the strait with strong tidal flows as well. Not a good place to be under any circumstances.

Among our preparations is to vacuum out water from the forepeak, lazarette and margins in our stateroom. We are getting bilge water alarms as a result. The very cold water, 0 degree C, against the aluminum hull is resulting in condensation and build up of water in these areas. It is just enough water to trigger the alarms but not enough for the bilge pumps to pick up. Yesterday, we vacuumed up some three liters of water from the margins around the master stateroom.

When we built the boat, we installed a home dehumidifier in the salon and that has been most helpful keeping the moisture down and the windows clear. Our main air cons have a dehumidification mode as well and we have also used them, but the thermal driving force due to the very cold water has rendered them marginally effective. We also have installed fan coils which use hot water from our Webasto heater, which also heats the boat, and our domestic water to blow warm air onto selected window areas to keep them clear.

Ice has been a problem in our new anchor position as well. Grey Wolf moved to a spot down the bay that offers more protection from the current winds so we are pulling up the pick and moving in that direction as well. Once the wind shifts, we will have to move again but it will be more pleasant then where we are.

More later as we see what the weather does and assess our strategy for the Drake.

62 17.9S 058 44.4W

Underway bound Puerto Williams.

The day has been one of significant transformations. At 0500 the windows were iced over and the decks were covered with snow. It was blowing steady 40s with higher gusts – peak was 70 knots. Outside air temp was -5 C and wind chill was a lovely -17 C. Even in our best gear it was painful to be on deck. We moved two times from our first anchorage – once because of a lee shore and a second because of ice and waves. On the trip to our last anchorage, we had steep 3 to 4 meter seas in the bay. It stayed like that until 1700.

By 1900 the sky was clear, the winds had dropped to less then 10 knots and the bay was smooth.

Grey Wolf has been joined by an Ice Pilot who will go with them to the Falklands. Based on her expertise, she says it is time to go. The passage weather reports we have look really good but we were concerned about Nelson. She says we will be fine so at 2000, we pulled the anchor for our trip north across the Drake Passage.

Grey Wolf will be heading north along with us as they watch the next weather system. If things look favorable as we approach Cape Horn for their passage to the Falklands, they will bear off. If not, they may head to Puerto Williams as well. Either way, it will be good to see their lights within visual distance for as long as they are headed our way.

Will report along the way.


February 9, 2019

Current Position at 0500 local.  58 8.0S 64 09W.

We are approximately 155 nautical miles SSE of Cape Horn. Speed 10 knots. Winds have been boxing the compass (light and variable) since yesterday afternoon. They have now shifted southeasterly as forecast and are projected to rise to 20 to 25 knots depending on which forecast model you believe. The glass is steady at 980mb. Skies are overcast and temps are on the rise. Sea is now 5 C. Sea state is pancake flat in Drake terms.

Our plan is to complete the sailor’s rite of passage by rounding the Horn if the weather holds. We passed down the the east side of the Horn on our way to Antarctica and will pass by it on the west side on the way back. Admittedly a bit different with a southern terminus of 65 South but a rounding none the less.

Yesterday afternoon our watermaker decided to blow a gasket, literally. The watermaker is used to produce all of our potable water needs by passing sea water thru a special membrane at 850 psi. The water molecules pass thru and the salt molecules are rejected. We can produce about 240 liters an hour and the product water is then pH balanced and filtered thru a charcoal filter before being fed to our tankage. Our fresh water capacity is substantial – around 7500 liters – far more then we typically carry. The reason for such large tankage is that we also use fresh water as ballast to keep the boat in proper trim as we burn off diesel fuel. At this stage, we have lots of water to get us to Puerto Williams given the diesel we have burned during the trip. Needless to say, repair of the watermaker will be high on the list when we get in. 

That became part of a larger discussion about prioritizing chores once we get in.

We have a program called Wheelhouse that we use to maintain the boat and our spares inventory. When the boat was built, Circa furnished us with a complete list of every item used on the boat including manufacturer, part numbers, serial numbers and paper manuals for same. An electronic list of all this was furnished to Wheelhouse and they assembled a complete set of electronic manuals. From that, they extracted all the recommended service requirements for every part on the boat and set up a work order system which gives us a working list of preventative and scheduled maintenance by system and part number. As we complete each task, it updates our spares inventory, creates ordering reports and a full record of all service work done on the boat. We can also add, adjust and add comments and pictures to tasks. There will probably be a pretty significant list for us when we get in.

We also need to re-provision. We are pretty well stocked on staples but are about out of fresh fruit and veggies as we have not been able to re-provision since leaving Puerto Williams. In fact, we actually ended up giving away some of what we had to the various bases we visited as they are always in short supply of fresh items. Prior to getting in, Suzie prepared a list of items she wanted and emailed it to the store in Puerto Williams on Tuesday. They order it from Punta Arenas and it is brought down by the supply boat on Saturdays so it should be there waiting for us. A few people will have to go to town and collect it all. The store is usually kind enough to cart the stuff by car down to the dinghy dock for us.

In addition, there will be the usual round of cleaning, doing bedding and laundry and re-stowing things after our time away. Boats tend to go to chaos when left to their own devices so putting things back in order is just part of the process.

Our forepeak is smelling a bit dicey. The anchor chain has managed to bring aboard an assortment of mud, kelp and other biomass which is fermenting into an evil brew. Probably a few dead veggies in the forepeak as well, as that is our cold cellar. We need to run out all the chain and clean the chain bin with hot soapy water before re-stowing the chain and deep six the dead veggies.

While we have basic email and weather capabilities via HF radio and Iridium satellite, we do not have any internet or access to our land based email aboard.  Thus we are completely out of the loop. (Is the US Government still shut down? Where does Brexit stand?)

Anyway, a trip to the local internet cafe will be in order to catch up on things.

Add to that a the need to catch up on some rest and it begins to sound like rest may have to wait (NOT). Our goal will be to get the essentials done and try to pick off the rest once we are underway again. Hopefully within two or three days of our arrival.


February 10, 2019:

At 2000 local last evening we made Cabo de Hornos (Cape Horn) and passed around the west and north side of the island. We then rejoined our outbound course completing the rounding and proceeded onward to Puerto Williams. The Drake had indeed been kind to us in Drake terms in both directions. Weather windows opened in a timely manner and afforded us safe and comfortable passages. (Peter Watson called it the Drake Lake, but it is not a good idea to play dice with Mother Nature with such comments).

The Horn itself put on a minor show for us just to give us a taste of how horrible it can be. Skies turned leaden gray and spat rain. The Horn itself is an island – a huge and foreboding rock edifice looking all the more forbidding in the gloom. Winds, which had been light in teens and twenties, rose to gale strength and the sea rose up into a confused and angry four to five meter mess. Passing down the west side, the waves crashed against the rock shore throwing up huge sheets of spray. None of this was dangerous, but it was completely appropriate that the Horn gave us a taste of its nastier disposition as part of the total experience. It was awesome.

From the Horn it was eight to nine hours to safe harbor in Puerto Williams. Everyone was exhausted from our time in Antarctica and the passage back to Chile. Two day passages are the worst as your body does not have time to adjust to watch keeping schedules and life at sea. We decided that we would stand dual watches the rest of the way in. Kim, Lane and Suzie took the 2000 to 2400 watch and Jim and I took the dog watch from there on in.

While uneventful, the rest of the trip in was thru channels that required vigilance as we approached Puerto Williams. The final hurrah was a snow squall and 35 knot gusts as we approached the anchorage in total darkness. We had to laugh at that, tired as we were. 

At 0500 local, the anchor went down very close to the position we were in when the anchor came up for our journey south – thus completing our Antarctica adventure.

The talk over coffee this morning among the crew was all about the experience. I have more thoughts as well, but they will have to wait as we tend to boat chores – Iron Lady deserves some well earned TLC. 

For now, this is the good ship Iron Lady, anchor down Puerto Williams, signing off.

Posted by Steve Dashew  (February 12, 2019)

5 Responses to “No Good Choices: A Study In Ice”

  1. Steve Dunbar Says:

    Thought you might enjoy seeing some photos and stories of the early US Research vessel RV Hero plying the area. She had some adventures in her time.

  2. John Risner Says:

    Great story. thanks for sharing it online.

  3. Scott Dempster Says:

    thanks for sharing the great commentary and photos.
    I have worked and or visited at all the Ausralian bases in the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic, and I could feel and smell the scenery in your pictures.
    My vessels on which I was a passenger were slightly larger.
    MV Nella Dad
    MV Icebird and
    MV Aurora Australis.
    working with penguins and seals and being visited by whales regularly is a real pleasure, especially to turn around to a King Penguin standing on your deck checking things out.
    I would love to do a FPB trip one day.

    Again, thank you for sharing

  4. John Risner Says:

    Regarding the Orleans vs Branfield transit decision was one favored, or were both as expected and each Captain happy with their decision?

  5. Steve Dashew Says:

    Howdy John:
    We put your question to Pete Rossin who answered “I think it really boils down to your comfort level. Grey Wolf was happy into the sun with ice and I was not. Hence my decision to go towards Bransfield which is generally ice free (or easily navigable). While we were there, even though that meant more weather to deal with until we turned north, that was a better trade in my estimation. Having said that, GW made it perfectly safely thru Orleans without issues.”

    “As I said in my original comments- there is no right or wrong. You choose based on your conditions and what you feel is YOUR best option. You might be right or you might be wrong, but at least, you made the best call you could at the time.”