In the wake of the explorers
Sailing towards the South Pole
Early in the seventeenth century, a Dutchman was the first man ever to get sight of Antarctica. WideOyster retraced the journey and sailed during three weeks with the three-mast bark Europe to Antarctica, the White Continent. A report on life aboard, penguins and icebergs. Lots of icebergs.
Behind me I see a towering wave and I wonder if it will either pass underneath us or if it will hit the poop deck where I’m standing. The heavy ship gets lifted by an invisible hand and we surf down into the depths. The wind pushes the ship down to an angle of 45 degrees and I’m fighting the helm to keep it on course 140 towards Antarctica. At that moment the bow breaks through the wave and all the pressure on the helm is gone. The ship turns even though I’m trying to steer it back on course with everything I’ve got. Quickly the compass is passing 160 degrees and when it passes 170 degrees the captain Eric Kesteloo’s head pops out of the hatch. “Helmsman! What are you doing over there? Keep it on course 1-4-0, otherwise we will never reach Antarctica!”. At that moment the pressure returns on the helm and soon after that I’m back on course. This has only been the 2nd day that I’ve been at the helm of a ship and the adrenaline rushes through my body. “Aye 1-4-0!” I shout back at the captain.
Because two oceans collide here, it storms at least two hundred days a year. In 1905, an exceptional tempest year for the area below the fiftieth latitude, more than a thousand large sail ships sailed around Cape Horn. Of those thousand proud congregated, fifty perished miserably with all and sundry. The three-mast barque British Isles, the exact same type of boat as the Europe, took ten weeks to pass Cape horn. A part of sea one would have passed in two to three days with favourable wind. The barque was repeatedly beaten back by the storm. One storm depression wasn’t raged out or the next one was already pounding against the ship. Of the crew, three men went overboard, three men died from their injuries, three caught bad mutilations, while five sailors struggled with frostbite. Back then, death was a loyal companion.
The barque was repeatedly beaten back by the storm. One storm depression wasn’t raged out or the next one was already pounding the ship
On an ancient world map only one grim word is stretched across the entire southern hemisphere: brumae, the Latin plural for cold. No ship ventured so far from land, out of fear to sail off the world, straight to the gates of hell. In some stories the end of that world was a burning purgatory, others ventured to believe that nothing was left except icy cold, colder than death. Europe was the known world and everything that was situated beneath was Terra Australis Incognita, the Unknown Southerly Land. The Southland was mysterious and prohibited; the ground of the mystic man-eating Andophagi and the Monoculi, a weird, one-eyed race that, despite the possession of only one leg, was extremely fast. That leg doubled in bad weather as an umbrella, by the way, according to the myth.
Europe was the known world and all that was underneath it was Terra Australis Incognita, The Unknown Southern Land
That the world must have been round, the Greek philosophers like Thales and Pythagoras already figured out four hundred years before Christ. With a keen sense of symmetry they calculated that as a counterpart to their known northern world there also had to be a southern world. In order for balance, that had to be the case, or else the globe would have fallen down. The Greek named the northern part of the globe Arktikos, because that part was situated right under the constellation Arctos ‘Bear’. The Southern counterpart of the northern pole they logically called Antarktikos, the opposite. No one went to check if the rocking chair geographers were right. When in 1054 the Catholic clout came down in Europe, the Great Discoveries were completely over during the following centuries. Antarctica had to wait until 1911 till first Roald Amundsen and a few days later Robert Falcon Scott put the first steps on the South Pole ever. Before it came this far, many adventurers and explorers did venture on the unfamiliar waters where the so-called Zuytlandt should be behind. In search for adventure, fantasised wealth or to increase the territory of their own country, these daredevils defied the elements in small ships. Driven, or driven off by the wind.
Four days ago, on the 8th of February, I boarded the ship together with 39 other passengers in Ushuaia, the Southernmost city in the world. Taking into consideration the costs for this journey I expect to see a lot of rich Americans, but I couldn’t be further from the truth. The voyage crew – paying customers who participate in the sailing – is a mixed group of people consisting of Dutch, Germans, Australians and a few Americans. We have a police officer, a retired guide from Sydney Harbour Bridge, a female NASA pilot, a professor and especially from the Dutch side some people from the sailing world and the boat building industry. Most of them are pretty fit, aren’t scared of heights and are drawn by the adventure.
topsails, royals, gallants, staysails, jibs, all with a variant for the foremast, mainmast and the mizzen. To put these sails, the crew has no less than 254 ropes
After the explanation of the safety procedures we receive a climbing harness and instruction on how to safely get up into the mast. This is optional though and the first time you are guided by a member of the crew, but after that you’re on your own. On a ship with 24 sails there are a lot of ‘hands on deck’ required to assist with all the sail handling. And as such sail handling is on the program for the first few days. As English is the main language on board we learn all the English terms for the sails such as: topsails, royals, gallants, staysails and jibs in combination with the variations for the foremast, mainmast and mizzen. To put all these sails the crew needs to handle all 254 ropes, each with its own unique name. In short, learning the ropes is a process which will take months, so for now we will just follow the instructions of the crew.
Before we reach the Drake Passage, we will be sailing through the Beagle Channel which was named after the ship on which Charles Darwin explored this area in 1833. At the end of the channel the Chilean pilots leave the ship and we set sail whilst being escorted by a big group of dark striped dolphins. Jumping, tumbling and swimming along with the ship they keep us company for an hour before turning towards Cape Horn, the point where the Pacific and Atlantic Ocean meet.
The year 1599. The Dutch ship Het Vlieghend Hert floats on the crests of Drake Passage, the strait beneath the southern tip of Tierra del Fuego. The ship had entered a hellish storm five weeks earlier and was almost torn to pieces by the pounding water. The foremast and the bowsprit were broken like matchsticks and a brisk northerly wind had drifted the ship far to the south. Aboard, one is busy repairing damage, but it won’t go quite fast. Ice floes float in the water and some of the crew now suffer from frostbite. This was not what Captain Dirck Gerritsz (1544-1608) had in mind when he left with a convoy of five ships from Rotterdam a year ago. He wanted to find a new passage to the wealth of India by sailing through under Tierra del Fuego.
On 29 January 1616 Lemaire and Cornelisz Schouten find land and name it Cape Horn after Hoorn, the Dutch hometown of Schouten. The most fearful cape in the world was discovered
His mission seems hopelessly lost now. Will they ever be able to get out of here and where in God’s name are they? Gerritz is peering over the waves while thinking, when he suddenly sees high, mountainous land. ‘Full of snow, like the land of Norway’. This passage can be read in the travel journal of the Amsterdam merchant Jacob Lemaire. If his word can be trusted, Gerritsz has been the first to see the continent Antarctica with his battered three-mast. Seventeen years later, Lemaire himself boats in these southern latitudes. Aboard of The Unity he seeks, just like Gerritsz, a new passage to India, together with skipper Cornelisz Schouten. Again, the weather is rough. Scurvy and other diseases manifest themselves amongst the crew. Yet they persevere, and with success. On 29 January 1616 they see land and name it Cape Horn after Hoorn, the Dutch hometown of Schouten. The most fearful cape in the world was discovered.
In the era that Lemaire and Gerritz explored the seas, an average of fifteen per cent of the crew died underway. We have more luck, aside from those who wished they were dead because of their seasickness.
At all times we have two lookouts on the foredeck to watch for ships and icebergs and two at the helm
Bark Europa in the ice in front of the Brequet Glacier
It’s half past four in the morning. In the twilight of the summer polar night I get commissioned to throw a pulley on deck that swings back and forth at the topsail. The topsail is the sail above the main sail. It sounds simple, but I have to climb onto the yard of the mast, which is around thirty meters high. Hesitantly, I put my feet from the crow’s nest onto the jackstay. My foot sways dangerously back and forth on the steel rope. My hands are numb. I throw my belly across the snowy yard and shimmy inch-by-inch, double folded to the far end. Which is all pretty hard, because the ship is also being thrown back and forth by the waves.
We find ourselves in the world of famous explorers such as Robert Falcon Scott, Roald Amundsen and ofcourse Ernest Shackleton. With the barque Endurance Shackleton stranded in the Weddell sea on the 15th of January 1915, there was no other option for him but to wait for better conditions which would separate the pack ice again. For months the wooden ship floated between the pack ice until the pressure on the ship increased to the point where the wooden frame started to break. In November of the year 1915 the ship sank and the crew was stranded on the pack ice. On the 20th of December the ice became so unreliable that Shackleton gave the order to abandon the camp they had set up. With three life boats they set out to sea and in April 2016 they reached the relative safety of Elephant Island, one of the South Shetland Islands. At this point they had survived for 497 days without seeing any land.
For months Endurance floated around in the pack ice, until finally the trusses collapsed under the pressure of it. In November 1915 the ship sank and the crew got stuck on the ice
Convinced that no help would come, Shackleton made the decision to go and look for help himself. So on the 24th of April he left, together with five others, in the direction of South Georgia where they expected to find whalers. The group which remained was ordered to set out for Deception Island if they weren’t found before Spring. They braved heavy storms and against all odds reached South Georgia on the 15th of May. Now all that remained was to climb an enormous glacier which was between them and the base of the Norwegian whalers. After they safely arrived, Shackleton organised three attempts to reach Elephant Island. But each attempt would end up in the pack ice preventing him from reaching his stranded crew. Shackleton did one final attempt with the ship Yelcho and thanks to a favourable wind the ice parted just long enough for him to reach his crew. On the 30th of August he had saved his entire crew and it would be recorded as one of the most arduous survival stories in history.
Dark clouds are racing across Deception. The black volcanic sand stings when it gets into my eyes whilst walking into the gale force winds across the beach, which is covered in whale bones. The Europa lies close to the beach of the old volcanic cauldron and a few fur seals are resting behind a steel construct, which is slowly being devoured by time. Long ago, here in Whalers Bay, thousands of decaying whale carcasses were afloat here. Skrot is what they called it when the Norwegians started in 1906. They would use the blubber of the whales and boil it to extract the oil. The global demand for the oil kept increasing and the production was expanding with more and more whales being hunted.
By 1920 there were 36 high pressure kettles and there was a permanent staff of 120. The production of the whale oil was so high that it actually saturated the market and the price of the barrels of oil plummeted. Petrol came on the market at this point and the demand for whale oil fades away, but by this time the whales are nearly extinct.
A blue-white world
I look around and in the swelling blizzard I can only see about a hundred metres. The legacy of the whaling industry on the island gives off an eerie vibe in the blizzard. Between the blue and white glaciers, I see Gentoo, Chinstrap and Adelie penguins. On the island of Yalour a few young Adelies are cool posers with their fluffy mohawks, the final spot they couldn’t reach themselves and which prevents them from becoming adult penguins. The massive death rate under the young penguins is clearly visible when visiting the colonies, as there are carcasses all around. They’ve either died from malnutrition or the local predators. On Antarctica it is either eat or be eaten and as a young penguin you’re pretty much at the bottom of the food chain. One of our last days in Antarctica is also one of the most beautiful ones we’ve had during the entire trip. The sun is shining and because it is quite warm we have lunch on deck before we visit the Argentinian base “Almirante Brown”. After a short climb up to a rocky outcrop I’m overlooking Paradise Bay. And as far as the eye reaches, I see glaciers and mountains covered in snow and ice. In the depths below Bark Europa floats between the icebergs, some of which have lazy crab eater seals on top of them basking in the sun. There is no wind at all and the dark waters reflect the cirrus clouds.
As far as the eye reaches I see glaciers and mountains covered in snow and ice. In the depths below Europa floats between the icebergs, some with lazy crabeater seals basking in the sun
Bark Europa is one of the very few ships that is still today embarking on this journey. A bit more luxurious than before of course, with central heating and a never dwindling supply of liquor at the bar. Still it is an adventure that can hardly be matched. I’d love to come back and explore more of the white continent. And that did the famous explorer James Cook, who first sailed to the Antarctic continent, not foresee when he wrote in 1774, after a gruelling journey, full of disgust in his logbook: ‘This continent will never be further explored and visited. The world will not make any profit on it.’ But then, tourists did not yet exist of course.
Discover the beauty of Antarctica with Bark Europa
Bark EUROPA, built in 1911, is the only square-rigged sailing vessel that sails Antarctica. From Ushuaia, the ship departs 4 times a year, between December and March to the frozen continent. Voyage crew need to be fit and in good health, because you will be helping with setting sails and watches. You will be at the helm and can even climb into the mast. Once in Antarctica there will be 2-3 zodiac landings under guidance of professional guides.