Tom Cunliffe introduces an extract from Andrew Halcrow’s book, Into the Southern Ocean, his account of a singlehanded Southern Ocean crossing using only a sextant for navigation
Rudyard Kipling famously wrote that the complete person can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same. Most books of the sea end with some sort of triumph, be it a gentle circumnavigation or a race well won. Andrew Halcrow’s Into the Southern Ocean is cut from a different cloth.
Having already sailed around the world through the tropics in his engineless, self-built yacht Elsi Arrub, he felt the need for harsher challenges and set out in 2006 to cross the Southern Ocean single-handed, navigating entirely by sextant.
Having been foiled by a medical emergency, he vowed to do it again, from east to west against the prevailing wind.
In 2013, a dismasting cut short this effort, but the book this Shetland islander wrote about his great voyage is stirring stuff.
In this extract, he has just weathered the Horn, but is now faced with the certainty of a dangerously extreme storm. He has to decide whether to run for shelter or ‘ride it out’. The choice is far from simple and the description of his seamanlike decision-making is exemplary…
Extract from Into the Southern Ocean
The good sailor weathers the storm he cannot avoid and avoids the storm he cannot weather,” (anonymous).
Elsi and I had rounded the Horn but the weather chart showed winds up to Force 9 which, by the way the forecasts had been going, could easily be Force 11. I had to try and make the most of the present fair wind to get offshore as far as I could and get some sea-room before it hit us. I really didn’t fancy being off the Horn in a Force 11 but there was a chance it might ease back a bit as it moved east. Even if it went down a little, I was sure we could cope with that.
But where was the best place to go to avoid the worst of the weather? Almost 60 miles south-west of Cape Horn are a small group of islands called Diego Ramirez.
The islands didn’t offer any chance of shelter and, worse, the seabed rose steeply from the deep ocean to the shallow shelf the islands sit on; probably a perfect place for massive waves to form. If we went south it meant heading more towards the centre of the low and the weather would be worse.
To the north of Diego Ramirez the seabed was very uneven and heading there would also bring us nearer to the coast with less searoom. But I also didn’t want to turn back and run for shelter east of the Horn after having got this far. The fact was there were no good options and I had to make the best of a bad thing.
By midday there was no wind at all. When the storm came in I knew it would blow from the north-west first and Diego Ramirez would be a potential lee shore. Between there and Cape Horn we were literally between a rock and a hard place. The only option now was to go south of Diego Ramirez to make sure we had open water to leeward and hope for the best.
By the time we reached there on late Friday afternoon the wind was north-west Force 6-7 and rising. The early hours of Saturday morning were miserable as we lay hove to under triple-reefed main with a Force 9 howling in the rigging.
Run for cover
The latest forecast wasn’t great. The low had deepened and the forecast winds were now Force 8 to 10, which going by the previous forecasts meant that could be Force 10-12. The seas were about 4-5m high now but were forecast to be near double that as the wind picked up.
Elsi was a strong little boat but there are limits to everything and a Force 12 off the Horn was outside my comfort zone. It would be madness to stay out here with this forecast while there was still a chance to run for shelter.
I remembered advice about Caleta Lennox and decided to head for there. Caleta Lennox is a sheltered bay on the east side of Isla Lennox, one of three islands which lie at the eastern entrance to the Beagle Channel.
Once we had reached the Horn again it would be just over 50 miles from there to Caleta Lennox. At 1430 on the Saturday afternoon I rigged the small storm jib and turned Elsi’s bow to the east. It grieved me to lose all the ground we had sailed so hard to gain but it would be crazy to do anything else.
The wind was no more than Force 8 when we started back. I had to hand steer as the Aries couldn’t hold a straight course. At one stage we had a seal, a dolphin and an albatross playing around us; all of them masters of their element and revelling in the conditions. I was definitely the odd one out in a sea that was building all the time.
Many times during that run-in two separate waves would rush past us and crash together up ahead to leave a jumbled chaos of water to get through. The forecast showed Force 6-7 but it was about Force 9 all the way in. I didn’t feel the cold too badly, partly because the wind was at my back and partly because I had to work the helm all the time to keep us on course .
At sunset the sky was split in two. To port, the clouds burned a hazy blaze of angry red, a sky bursting blood vessels from blowing too hard. When I turned to look on the other side a grey mass of sodden air, heavy as lead, had crushed the lower cloud to a menacing jet black. Five minutes later we had a ferocious hail shower that peppered us like machine gun fire and turned the decks white.
I could see a vague outline of the Horn now before the daylight went completely. In any other small yacht I might have been scared but I had massive confidence in Elsi and knew as long as I could keep her pointed in the right direction she would get us there. It was a wild, whitewater ride but we were doing okay.
We got hit quite a few times. The two worst waves broke over us just before we rounded the Horn. The first filled the cockpit to overflowing and the second broke right over us so that all I could see ahead of me was a smother of white foam with a mast sticking up out of it.
I couldn’t see Elsi’s decks at all and before it all ran off I was sitting waist deep in water wondering if we were going to stay upright or not. But the one great thing about Elsi was that she was always dry inside, even after being pretty much completely submerged.
We rounded the Horn at 2210. For once the current was helping us and I kept in close to make the most of it. This legendary lump of black rock was silhouetted by a half moon and looked particularly impressive towering over us. Once we passed the Horn I pointed Elsi’s bow north between Isla Deceit and Islas Barnevelt.
Islas Barnevelt lay to leeward and I wanted to be sure we didn’t drift down towards it. The channel is 10 miles wide and in daylight there would be no problem in passing through. But in unfamiliar territory in the dark with a gale heaping the sea up and the current running strongly to the east, it wasn’t so easy to be sure of an exact position.
As we sailed further north we came under the lee of Deceit Island and found some shelter from the worst of the seas. The swell gradually began to flatten out and I was able to set a triple-reefed main. With Elsi now better balanced, the Aries could steer her again. Soon after, the wind eased a bit and I was just letting out the third reef when a sudden vicious squall came out of the blackness to hit us and I had a real struggle getting it back in again.
I’d had no sleep and about 0700 I noticed I was doing everything more slowly and taking more time to make decisions. We were out of the worst of the weather now in any case and I could relax a bit, but I had to be careful my tiredness didn’t make me do anything stupid. I made a pot of oatmeal gruel to warm me and washed it down with a mug of coffee. It seemed to give me a second wind.
Going nowhere fast
The gale dropped away to a fine west-north-west Force 4. With daylight and a good sailing wind everything was so much easier. I pulled up more sail and we cruised fine over a flatter sea, but it soon fell to only a handful of knots and we struggled to keep moving. What had been a whisper of wind fell lighter till the air was almost still. As we rounded Isla Luff on the east side of Isla Lennox, and headed for the pass into Caleta Lennox, I sat in the cockpit barely daring to move for fear of shaking what little air there was out of the sails. The sea was flat and that was the only reason we kept moving; any motion and we’d have stopped long ago.
I could see the wind was going to fall completely. We weren’t too far off the shore; in fact we looked to be getting nearer to it all the time. I nipped below and made up a paddle out of the first things I could find, a bread board and a long broom handle.
When I got back on deck the wind had gone completely and the shore was only 200m away. In the night there had been so much wind a scrap of canvas the size of a hanky would have carried us in, but now, a sail as big as a football pitch wouldn’t be large enough. I paddled for about 10 minutes before the lightest of breezes filled in and we sailed slowly into Caleta Lennox.
At 1450 we anchored in 4m of water. I payed out around 40m of nylon and kept a further length handy in case we dragged. I wrapped some sheet rubber around the nylon where it passed over the bow roller to stop it chafing, then covered that with a towel and tied the whole lot up with twine.
I hadn’t planned on anchoring at all on this trip and had put ashore our usual pile of chain that would have been ideal here. Instead I was putting all my trust in a length of 22mm nylon and was a bit anxious whether it was up to the job or not; with this storm coming in I’d have far preferred to see a heavy length of chain between us and the anchor.
I snugged everything down on deck and lashed the mainsail tight to the boom. The wind began to rise as I finished off securing the boom; we’d got here just in time. I was feeling a bit jaded now with the lack of sleep and was in my bunk by 1800. It felt odd for Elsi to be lying still after 90 days of ceaseless movement on the ocean. I really didn’t want to be here but given the choice between being in a Force 12 south-west of the Horn or a secure anchorage there was only one sensible option. I closed my eyes and fell asleep .
By 1000 the following day the wind was up to Force 8 from just south of west. A small fishing boat came in and anchored to the north of us. By 1100 it was gusting Force 10 and driving spindrift across the water.
I had been up in the night every couple of hours to check on our position and monitor the nylon for chafe but it was doing a sterling job and holding okay.
Caleta Lennox is about 75 miles north of Diego Ramirez, where the weather was far worse. If we had stayed out there it would have been a desperate situation. There was every chance we might not have survived and it was the right decision to come in. At 1430 the wind suddenly dropped to Force 4 and 20 minutes later it was only a light breeze. The storm would continue on east to wreak havoc but it had passed us and I could breathe easier again.
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