DOWN FOR THE COUNT

Yachting World|June 2020

DOWN FOR THE COUNT
SKIP NOVAK PROVIDED LOGISTIC SUPPORT FOR AN AMBITIOUS SCIENTIFIC MISSION TO THE REMOTE SOUTH SANDWICH ISLANDS ARCHIPELAGO OF THE SOUTHERN OCEAN
SKIP NOVAK
The rule of thumb when doing these tricky inflatable beach landings is to hang in above the surf line for a good ten minutes to watch the sets coming through. Maybe we were a bit premature, but I gave Thomas, the boat handler from Pelagic Australis, the thumbs up to drive the Bombard C5 ashore.

We surfed into the cobbled beach and before we could turn the boat around it was flooded by the next breaking wave. Our survival gear in dry bags floated to the surface and, waist deep, we snatched them out and ran them up above the surf, stumbling like drunks and slipping and sliding on the football-sized boulders.

The term beach was definitely a misnomer. Having bailed out the C5, we pushed Thomas into a backwash but he was caught by a breaker beam on and came close to capsizing. Only his aggressive and expert boathandling saved the day and he made it back out to Pelagic Australis a half-mile offshore, rolling heavily in mist in the wide mouth of the bay.

Clearly this stretch of the coast was a non-starter for getting the rest of our team and equipment ashore. We watched as big breakers came in one after another. Even with the line system we had developed to pull gear in and back out from the dinghy, the chance of someone getting dumped on their heads on rocks was too great.

We had tents, food and fuel, which is always first in and last out, but although three of us had their personal gear drybag with clothing, mine had mistakenly been left on board, slated for the next trip. I was in a dry suit, hoodie and booties and felt slightly vulnerable in what was looking like a stranding ashore. As I ripped off the hoodie and felt the chill wind, I realised the lack of my ‘lucky hat’ was an unwelcome portent.

BELOW THE POLAR FRONT

We had landed on the very open beach of Kraken Cove on Candlemas Island, which lies in the north central section of the South Sandwich Islands chain. Here, it is all about plate tectonics. The 180-mile long arc of 11 volcanic cones, some active, along with outliers demarcates the eastern margin of the Sandwich Plate. This balances on the edge of the 7,400m deep abyss of the South Sandwich Trench.

The trench is a subduction zone – the South American Plate to the east is diving under the Sandwich Plate and creeping west at an average of 70mm per year. This dynamic interface releases magma from the earth’s crust which rises and gives birth to these volcanic islands and associated sea mounts. Zavodovski Island, the northern most and most active, is 300 miles south-east of the southern tip of South Georgia. We were truly deep in the Southern Ocean at 57°S, well below the Polar Front.

The South Sandwich Islands Expedition had sailed with us from Port Stanley in the Falklands on 30 December. Specialists for volcanology, climate change, penguin biology and whale identification and acoustics were on the team, plus two film makers. Candlemas Island was on everyone’s hit list with its smoking crater to be studied, chinstrap, Adélie and macaroni penguins to be counted and vestigial glaciers waiting to be drilled for ice cores.

Now it was already mid-afternoon and we had no choice other than to walk the kilometre around the length of the bay on those awkward boulders to the spit named Demon Point that defines the eastern side of Kraken Cove, in hopes of finding doable surf. This meant several trips to bring the survival gear around and by the time this was accomplished it was obvious we’d have to abort the landing. Time had run out.

Luckily, the surf under Demon Point was safe enough in between huge sets that ripped around the spit to get a throw line ashore from the C5 so we could be towed back out, one by one, with a gear bag each.

Back on board we had a debrief and were convinced that if the swell did not increase next day we could get a slimmed down version of Team Volcano ashore with a few of us in support. Under the circumstances we had to scrub taking Team Penguin ashore; they could fly the drone from the deck to census the colonies. Also, Team Ice would have to take a pass with their heavy drilling gear.

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June 2020