It is rare to leave the Antarctic Peninsula earlier than need be. No matter how much time you allow for a cruise in that splendid and awe-inspiring environment, it’s never enough, and the return across stormy Drake Passage is done with regret as much as trepidation.
In February 2017, my Swiss-Italian charter guests, on their sixth cruise aboard the 75ft, aluminum-hulled Pelagic Australis, were somewhat disappointed with the adverse weather conditions. We had planned an eight-day ski mountaineering trip on Anvers Island. But due to miserable drizzly weather with continuous low cloud, enthusiasm for what would be a major undertaking had ebbed, evolving instead into a series of short day trips ashore. I always blame the comfort of Pelagic Australis for these easily made decisions to forego camping. The bad weather continued unabated, so we sailed farther south, searching for the edge of the polar high, but without much luck.
The highlight of this foray in search of clear skies was a skin up to the summit of Andresen Island and a fast ski down, all astride the Antarctic Circle, followed by a less than relaxing night at anchor amongst rocks off the abandoned British Antarctic Survey station on Detaille Island. The day after that the team needed no convincing to head back north, rather than attempt my proposed offshore passage around Adelaide Island and into Marguerite Bay. The thought of a rolling sea, it seemed, had put the alpinists off their lunch. We subsequently motored our way through brash ice and bergs on what turned out to be the only blue-sky day we had and spent a marvelous evening in Crystal Sound, having reconnoitered the ice-bound anchorage with our drone, or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), a piece of kit that has long since become more than a toy and is now standard equipment for serious polar sailing. Without the UAV, we would have probably given the sound a miss and kept on going.
After that, although the dull gray weather persisted, we still mustered some limited enthusiasm for a few more day ski trips in the Penola Strait. Luckily, all but one of the team had been on the Antarctic Peninsula before and knew what it could be like. They were also resigned to the decision to head back to Tierra del Fuego early, not least to beat a major depression that would be approaching the western Drake Passage in three days’ time. Seasickness is always an issue for non-sailing mountaineers, so there were no dissenters. Motorsailing it was, and we were soon “pedal to the metal.”
To burn off the charter time remaining, I also proposed a four-day visit to the infrequently explored Argentine coast east of the entrance to the Beagle Channel. After the 50 shades of gray to the south, the lush beech forests would be easy on the eye, and we could stretch our legs on the spongy, boggy terrain the locals call la turba. Bushes on the margins of this solid sea of sphagnum moss are also peppered with ripening calafate and manzanita berries, well worth picking for making crumble, a good antidote to any bad memories of mal de mer.
Shortly after setting out, though, our plans quickly changed when we received an e-mail from Roxanna Diaz of Ushuaia Logistics, our fixer at the “end of the earth,” explaining a 32ft Belgian yacht with a solo sailor on board had been blown ashore in Bahia Aguirre—exactly where we planned to make our first stop. Apparently, his EPIRB alarm had set in motion a rescue by the Argentine Navy on February 18, after which he was taken to Ushuaia. There he signed a document with the prefecture agreeing he was responsible for removing his boat from the beach. Easier said than done, so we decided to try and lend a hand.
Bahia Aguirre is 80 miles from Ushuaia, but there are no roads that go there, only the vestiges of an old horse trail leading to an abandoned estancia, or cattle ranch. Even on horseback, it is two days riding to the roadhead. On foot, it takes five days of arduous trekking, something I experienced firsthand when I walked the route in 1993.
While we were still on passage, one of my colleagues and an old hand in the area, Olivier Pauffin de Saint Morel, aka “Popof,” set out on his 45ft Kekilistrion with the shipwrecked Belgian skipper to take him back to the wreck, which was now high and dry. Soon afterward, a friend of ours who was ahead of us on the return trip from the Antarctic, Igor Bely on Kotic II, also dipped in and tried to pull off the yacht, but failed. By now Mira, as the boat was called, had walked herself well up on the beach, and her keel was partially buried in the sand. Fortunately, our arrival would coincide with as especially higher tide, which we hoped would improve our chances.
As a side note, the “bahia” in Bahia Aguirre is a slight misnomer. In fact, it is an enormous rectangle, five miles long and fully exposed from the southeast to the southwest. Puerto Español, a small cove in the northwestern corner, gives some protection from a southerly, but this is not evident to a newcomer. The puzzle of why the Belgian skipper had anchored off the open main beach would be revealed later.
Upon our arrival on February 24, we brought Pelagic Australis within a few hundred yards of the wreck. Rather than risk landing in a big surf with the inflatable, though, we made contact, backed off and anchored in our usual spot in Puerto Español. After that, we trekked two hours around to the estancia. In 1993, I had actually spent two nights there with a French friend as part of a two-week trek across the “toe” of Tierra del Fuego, then visited again the following year on a solo trek. Absentee-owned, we’d found four rough-hewn cowboys in residence whose job it was to roam the hinterland on horseback and muster the wild cattle into a manageable herd, killing any bulls in the process and then driving them out to the head of the road to the west. This was a hard life, even for an Argentine cowboy, as they were essentially marooned for 11 months of the year in a very remote area. They had a radio, but it never worked. They were provisioned once a year with the basics, but otherwise were left on their own, eating off the hoof, wing and fin. Visitors by yacht were scarce to say the least. Today, the cowboys are long gone, and the estancia has fallen into disrepair.
Approaching the dilapidated farm buildings, we gave a wide berth to a lone bull who pawed the ground huffing and snorting. A herd of wild black horses also galloped across our path on their way down to the beach, their long manes flying in the wind, the ranch’s only remaining residents. In this big-sky expanse of semi-tamed wilderness, once occupied but no more, the mood was a melancholy one: much like that of our stricken 42-year-old Belgian skipper, Alex Van Cauwenbergh, who we met soon afterward and was soon telling us his tale.
As he explained it, after a hard, year-long delivery from Europe, during which most everything on board Mira either broke or came adrift, he’d finally made it down the Argentine coast, headed for Ushuaia. At some point during a storm, though, a line got caught in the propeller, and he’d sailed into the open anchorage in Bahia Aguirre and dropped anchor in front of the estancia, admittedly exhausted. While there, a southerly buster had caught him out, and in a jiffy, he’d dragged and was on the beach: no surprise, especially given this was not the first shipwreck on this coast when a southerly kicks in. In 2010, a Polish yacht came ashore in nearby Bahia Sloggett, with the loss of two crewmembers who were blown off the deck while grounded after dragging their anchor in 100-knot winds. Luckily, Alex had landed on a sloping sandy beach, avoiding some nasty rocks only 100 yards away.
Since rejoining the yacht, he had removed all the loose equipment he could. He’d also taken off the boat’s movable lead ballast and a fair part of the fixed interior, piling it all up on the beach above the high-water mark. A cockpit hatch had also come adrift during the grounding, and everything was saturated with diesel-contaminated bilge water—a right mess. Apparently, Alex had been sleeping in one of the abandoned farm buildings, where there was still a functioning wood-burning stove.
After listening to Alex’s story, we made a rescue plan, sketched in the sand with a stick. Basically, we would get close enough with Pelagic Australis to float some lines ashore and then try to pull him off by brute force. The higher of the two tides the next day was predicted for the pre-dawn hours, so we would call him on his handheld VHF at 0500. After that we trekked back to Pelagic Australis, my Swiss guests feeling better after the Drake Passage and having smelled solid ground, and settled down to our dinner at anchor. As we did so our thoughts were with Alex, cooking his own meal alone by candlelight.
The next day dawned windy and pitch black, so the plan was scrubbed. But by mid-morning the wind had eased substantially, so we re-anchored in 30ft of water about 400ft from the beach and ferried all hands ashore with the inflatable. Still having time to kill until the next high tide later that afternoon, we stayed busy digging the keel, rudder, propeller and much of the hull out of the sand. This was something the Swiss really got stuck into. Mountaineers are always handy with shovels, although wet sand is a good bit heavier than snow.
At one point during a fierce rain squall, we all retreated into Alex’s chosen farm building, built a fire and put the kettle on. A rum bottle appeared, and Alex was asked by one of the Swiss businessmen where exactly he was from in Belgium. Alex replied he was a citoyen du monde, or citizen of the world. This did not go down well, and I thought to myself, yes, why stop there and not d’universe? A Bernard Moitessier moment if there ever was one. After the squall passed, we took up our shovels again, while skipper Dave Roberts and crew Thomas Geipel and Kirsten Neuschäfer on board Pelagic Australis got ready to run two of our floating shorelines onto the beach with the inflatable. The plan was to attach one to Mira’s bow, the other to her stern. That way after the bow line spun her round about 90 degrees, the stern line would also be loaded, and she could be dragged off on her side along a path of least resistance.
With the lines attached and rigged, we returned to Pelagic Australis, leaving Alex on board Mira. Still well short of high tide, we gave it “full welly,” and our 55-ton displacement and 250 horsepower engine spun Mira around with a few snatches, after which we soon had her bumping along the outer sand bar and then through the surf with spray flying across her deck. Eventually, she reached deep water, Alex gave us the thumbs-up, and we brought him alongside and reset our anchor. That done, our work began in earnest as we embarked all the kit from ashore with the inflatable straight onto Pelagic Australis’s foredeck. We lost count of the trips but were finally able to motor back to Puerto Español for the night, where the rum and cigars came out after dinner in celebration.
After that, and before we could tow Mira back to Ushuaia, she had to be emptied of all the sand that had accumulated on her port side during her week ashore via a sprung cockpit hatch. Ultimately, it was impossible to remove it all, but we did reduce the boat’s list to just 10-degrees to port. Reloading Alex’s gear off our deck took us all morning. The interior furniture he had removed now proved handy as dunnage to brace the various pieces of equipment to starboard and put Mira back in trim.
Finally, we set off late on the afternoon of the 26th with Mira secured at the end of our nylon anchor rode, riding comfortably 130 yards astern. Once around the corner of the bay and heading west, it was an uneventful trip as we came onto a spell of calm. After that we steamed into and up the Beagle Channel at 5 knots and docked in Ushuaia on the afternoon of February 27, where Alex would ultimately remain for some time, hosted by the AFASyN yacht club, while rebuilding Mira with an eye toward carrying on up the west coast of Chile. Meanwhile, my guests returned to the fastness of their Italian Alps, having enjoyed the added bonus of helping rescue a fellow sailor in distress.
Ed Note: After competing in no less than four Whitbread Round the World Yacht Races, Skip Novak built the expedition yacht Pelagic in 1987 and has spent every season since in Antarctic waters, where he runs Pelagic Expeditions (pelagic.co.uk). In 2003, Novak launched Pelagic Australis, and in 2015, he received the Cruising Club of America’s prestigious Blue Water Medal for his lifetime of voyaging to high latitudes. The Cruising Club of America (CCA) is North America’s premier offshore cruising and racing organization. It is comprised of more than 1,200 accomplished ocean sailors, has 11 stations around the United States, Canada and Bermuda, and is also the principal organizer, along with the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club, of the biennial Newport Bermuda Race. For more on the CCA, visit cruisingclub.org
Photos By Skip Novak