South to Antarctica

0001a Shackleton's Bow Wave 2Out of the ashes of the Christchurch earthquakes came the opportunity to join an expedition ship to the Antarctic Peninsula and South Georgia. It began, with a winding journey from New Zealand to Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost town in the world; Antarctica is not an easy place to reach. Joining ship, we set course south along the Beagle Channel, named after Charles Darwin’s vessel.

   Emerging into the Southern Ocean, Sea Adventurer turned hard-a-port to the Falkland Islands rather than her intended course to the Peninsula. With no suitable fuel in Ushuaia,  we were to bunker at Port Stanley just as the old steam ships of yore. We had only six hours ashore but it was an unexpected bonus. A further two and a half days steaming brought us to South Georgia. The change of direction meant we would be tracing Shackleton’s bow wave rather than following in the wake of his epic 1916 voyage in the diminutive lug ketch the James Caird. And what a place South Georgia is- on first sighting it in 1775 James Cook recorded- The wild rocks raised their lofty summits til they were lost in the clouds and the valleys lay buried in ever-lasting snow.

   Ferried ashore in sturdy black zodiacs, we wandered amongst thousands of king penguins, fur seals and mighty elephant seals. Giant petrels and wandering albatross wheeled overhead. The penguins and elephant seals were totally unphased by our presence but get too close to the fur seals and they would gallop towards you baring their teeth and snarling fiercely. But face them down and they would stop a few feet short, give a final snort and simply wander off. It took a bit of getting used to.

   We made six landings on South Georgia including at the old whaling stations of Stromness and Grytviken as well as making a four hour trek across the hills following a section of Shackleton’s crossing of the island. So much history at our feet; it was St David’s Day and I raised the Welsh flag in honour of those bravest of men. At Sir Ernest Shackleton’s grave at Grytviken we gathered at 7pm as the light began to dim, to toast the great explorer in Jameson’s finest Irish malt whiskey.

   Sea Adventurer steamed for three more days to Elephant Island, the journey the James Caird completed in 17 days in the opposite direction. At Point Wild we stared in disbelief at the scrap of beach upon which 22 men spent four harsh winter months surviving on penguin and seal meat, living under two upturned small boats. It is hard to imagine their utter fortitude. The nearby South Shetland Islands provided several opportunities for getting ashore, although Deception Island, where the ship sailed into the heart of a flooded active volcano, alluded us. An icy 50 knot wind made it just too dangerous to launch the zodiacs. But later we were able to make the all-important landing on the continent of Antarctica. It was at the site of the Argentine research station Almiranta Brown in Paradise Bay. The station itself had just closed for the winter but a hard slog up a steep hill nearby gave a wonderful panorama of a landscape dressed overall in ice.

128 IMG_1603evThe Lemaire channel lies between the mainland and Booth Island and is barely wide enough for even a small ship like Sea Adventurer to navigate. Yet it must rank as one of the most spectacular places in the world. Great rock edifices flanked by magnificent glaciers rise up from the sea on both sides and icebergs litter the surface. A rolling mist cleared away as we entered the channel to give a spectacular vista of flat calm sea with the ice and everything else bathed in honey coloured light of a very special evening. A hump-backed whale mother and calf stayed two points off the port bow as the ship ghosted her way slowly forward. When the sun finally dropped below the icy horizon it sent a blaze of fiery light lingering across the sky. It was simply breath-taking and a privilege that everyone on board, including the crew, will treasure for a long time to come. 

   There was one more landing on a small island in half a blizzard before Sea Adventurer set a course across the notorious Drake Passage. She pitched and rolled a little but it could have been a lot worse. Yet whatever the sea might have thrown at us, it would have been worth it, because this whole voyage has been a unique and rewarding experience for everyone. For fifteen independent days in a fine ship, sharing the company of experts and friends, we have been living in our own Antarctic world. It was an extraordinary adventure.

Projects and Passages

A004 P1000924evI invariably have one or two photo projects on the go and have recently finished two long term ones. The first was a daily photo throughout 2013- happily concluded without missing a day. (It is refreshing now not to have a camera in my pocket wherevere I go!) What shall I do with them? I’m still thinking about that. The second, spread over two or three years, has been to make a photo-journal of State Highway 6 which at 1,000 kilometres or 600 miles, is the longest road in New Zealand. It begins at a roundabout at Blenheim, sweeps across the top of the North Island, becomes the Glacier Highway all along the west coast, crosses the Southern Alps at Haast to pass the adventure capital of the world at Queenstown, through rural Southland to finish at another another roundabout at Invercargill, the southernmost town in Australasia. It is a fascinating road with many different faces and people. I have covered it all at least twice and it has been a joy. The photo here is of a small live-aboard catamaran beached beside the road on the outskirts of Nelson.

And the Passages? I am leaving New Zealand in a couple of days for a four day flight passage to Ushuaia on Tierra Del Fuego to await the arrival of the expeditioin ship Sea Adventurer. Then another journey, of a different kind will begin. A sea voyage to the South Shetland Islands, the Antarctic Peninsula and South Georgia in the wake of Ernest Shackleton. All being well I will be home to Wales in the middle of March. Is not the world such a small place?

The New Adventure Begins

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Tomorrow I will be catching the 1545 hours Arriva Trains Wales service to New Zealand, calling at Cardiff Central, Paddington, change at Heathrow for Dubai, change at Dubai for Sydney for a connecting service a little over a week later for Christchurch New Zealand and a re-acquaintance with a certain sturdy little camper-truck.

The return service will leave Christchurch towards the end of February and call at Sydney (again), Santiago, Buenos Aries, Tierra del Fuego, South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula where refreshments with plenty of ice will be available. Back soon.

Nutmeg in the Solent

P1090674evThe 19ft Shrimper Nutmeg, some times known as Gumnut, spent a few days exploring the Eastern Solent after the Old Gaffers Association festival weekend at Cowes. Up the Medina River to Newport on the Isle of Wight, across to Southampton Water and the River Itchen, then hugging the mainland coast to Portsmouth.

Coming out of Portsmouth single-handed against a spring flood tide provided a moment or two of high interest. I could tell it was going to be a challenge when we began to slow well before the narrows. I increased the revs of the 8hp outboard bit by bit until there was no more to give. The GPS unwaveringly read zero speed. There is I discovered, nothing quite like standing dead in the water with the engine howling at maximum revs against a flood tide in a narrow channel. I was wary of larger boats inching passed me on the starboard side, close to an imposing stone wall. Then over my other shoulder appeared a towering car ferry, overtaking not twelve feet away on the port side. Pushed along by its wash in the sea’s turmoil, we crept agonisingly slowly towards the mouth. Just as I could see that, brick by stone brick, we were making a tiny bit of progress, a forty-foot yacht appeared from around the fort on the corner. Entering the tidal stream she was tossed around in an on-coming rush of tide over wash. We were bows on and a collision looked ominous; I turned to starboard as much as I dared to offer my port side. She answered with a turn to port (!), changing the odds of a collision to almost a dead cert. At the last second her helmswoman seemed to grasp the collision regulations and she turned away to miss us by two coats of anti-fouling. A collision in that situation and at that velocity would be unthinkable.

But safely out in the Solent it turned into a great day to be on the water. Up went full sail and with the tide under us and a SE breeze, Nutmeg raced the 19nm to Keyhaven on one tack in an exhilarating four hours. We just beat the ebbing tide to get back on her swinging mooring to spend a glorious evening sitting on the mud, conjuring up a meal from left-over tins.

The Abandoned House

IMG_6882evTwo and a half years after the first Christchurch earthquake in September 2010, there has finally been some progress. With time running out on the red-zoned condemned land, a new house was purchased at auction. A packed room, full of expectancy, uncertainty, back stage negotiations, then SOLD! to a round of applause.

Ten days later there was more drama when a ‘big cheese’ from the insurance company flew in from HQ following our  intent to commence legal proceedings to recover adequate re-building costs for the earthquake damaged house. Hastily arranged meeting with ‘BC’ and our lawyers- more negotiation, then suddenly the deed was done. Nobody’s expectations were fully met but everyone walked away reasonably satisfied – and happy it was all over at last.

Betty’s son Ariki, daughter Ceri, and four granddaughters Anikah (8), Talia (6). Bella (4) and Jemima (1) came for a last visit to Grangi’s house on the edge of the sea; the children gleefully painted and crayoned on the lounge walls. We all left our handprints too- evidence of the life of a family.

Two days later we locked the door of a much loved house- now empty, sad, broken, desolate, abandoned. The next visitor will arrive in a bulldozer.

Noises in the night

australian-possum-male-22avAt 2.30 in the morning I was woken by the sound of an animal eating- loudly! It was a new sound, much louder than the mob of black swans still mewing on the estuary. The sliding door was open and I crept out onto the balcony where we had slept out under a rash of stars the night before. The sound of mighty munching was coming from the corner of the garden; it paused as I leaned over the rail peering into the darkness, and then resumed. I could see nothing. By the time I found a torch the munching had stopped; whatever it was had moved on.

In the morning I examined the scene; that corner was considerably less dense than it had been and some of the branches had been stripped. The most likely suspect is a possum, not entirely unknown in New Zealand, having somehow crossed the Tasman Sea from Australia, but unheard of here in Southshore. So not only are we being forced out of the house by the earthquakes, we are being eaten out of the garden by possum as well. Whatever is the world coming to?

The Japanese Emperor Hirohito, Jolene, and me

SONY DSCWe were at a pre-Christmas dinner party the other evening. It was eclectic affair- an Australian lady, a Scottish lady, a Sri Lankan man, two young New Zealand women, our hosts and friends, Jonny and Linda- a home grown Kiwi couple, me as the token Welshman, and Betty, currently a Kiwi but previously an Aussie and before that an English girl with a Welsh father. It was a rather splendid evening with good food and great company. In conversation, Jolene, the Australian woman, and I discovered that, more than forty years ago we had been just yards apart in a London street.  How do we know? Because on the 5th of October 1971 we were both standing outside Victoria Station to witness the arrival of Hirohito, the 124th Emporer of Japan on a State visit. He travelled to Buckingham Palace in an open horse-drawn landeau. Jolene was there as a spectator and I was there on duty as a police constable sprung from the training school especially for the occasion.

Swimming in the rain

P1040733evBoxing day- began in bright sunlight and a wild southerly gale. Not long after we talked to the Cardiff clan on Skype, the wind dropped and it greyed over. It began to rain as we set out on a two mile walk along the estuary, around the point passed Shag Rock (now locally known as Shag Pile since the earthquake reduced it to one third of its previous pinnacle size) and onto the glorious sandy beach that stretches northwards for many miles. It is a walk we do often- at the end, a short sprint across the road brings us neatly back to the house.

   By the time we reached our favoured swimming spot, the rain was coming down in earnest and we lost sight of the headland beyond Sumner. But the water was warm although the surf left over from the earlier blow was a bit messy. We had no towels but since it was pouring with rain there was no point in drying off anyway. Back home, we stripped off for the outdoor shower to wash away the sand and the salt, hung togs on the line and disappeared indoors for a steaming mug of coffee.

The annual migration: time flies

The last eight months have been incredibly busy- rushing towards a faraway date in November with increased intensity as the amount of time left grew less & less. Enquiring, writing, organising and meeting commitments (or sometimes not) along a self-elected path. Enjoying time with my family and friends but knowing with certainty that I should have been doing more of it for longer. No-one else to blame but me.

 Never before have I set out for anywhere in such a rush. Closing the front door with my fingers crossed, leaving some undone things in the hands of others for which my grateful thanks. I despatched the Sailing Gaffers manuscript a few hours before I left, and posted final letters on my way to the airport. No hassle though; I made it to ‘Coryton International’, my local end-of-the-single-track-line railway station with four minutes to spare. Twenty-eight hours later I was with Betty viewing houses for sale along the beach in Christchurch, South Island. Standing on the top of a sand dune on the edge of a city, a 180 degree arc of empty horizon was spread before us. Long-distance ocean rollers washed onto a wet sandy beach that disappeared into a shimmering blue haze in each distant direction. There was not a soul in sight.

An Unremarkable Day

Chloe approachingThere are so many things I should have been doing- a book deadline in just over a week for one thing. But the boat is due out of the water next week and there is just such a good spell of mild settled weather at the moment. Anyway, I like deadlines, I love the whooshing sound they make as they going flying past, rather like waves rushing under the boat on a lively downwind passage. It was one of those drear, late October days you hope will stay dry and it did. High tide was 2pm-ish, a whopping 13.7 metre spring tide so there’ll be no messing with that in the Bristol Channel! Nutmeg locked out of the barrage at 11.30 together with a small motor fishing boat. There will be two hours of flood remaining- a nice hop up-channel, or so I thought. But there was little wind and it was a north-easterly headwind (of course), so it meant tacking ever so slowly up-channel. An hour after putting to sea I hadn’t made a mile.

But the wind did pick up a little and I gave a little whoop when the GPS clicked over to show 2 knots of speed. Apart for the dim outline of a ship on the horizon, there wasn’t another vessel in sight. Glorious. Then I spotted a red sail with a topsail aloft. Even in the distance I recognised Chloe and called Charlie up. We both changed course for a quick natter across the water. Soon after, the tide turned and so did I and enjoyed the gentle rush of a downwind return. In the midst of an empty sea an ocean-going tug suddenly appeared over my shoulder and crossed in front of me. He wasn’t tramping but his wash was enough to give the 19ft Shrimper a bit of a wake up. After a slow drift back up the River Ely it was 5 o’clock before I was back on the berth. An unremarkable but utterly satisfying day on the water.