Monday, November 30, 2009

From Beagle Channel to Drake Passage & Beyond

Ship Log

2nd day. Third of way across Drake. Last night very rough. On watch today at 04h00-08h00. Sea sick: added lots of colour to the ocean. Recovered quickly. Sailing instruction today. Watch at midnight. Arrive Wednesday at 14h00. All well.

Sunday 29 November, Drake Passage
  • 04h00: 56°11.8 South / 065°46.6 West
  • 08h00: 56°30.2 South / 065°24.2 West
  • 12h00: 56°49.1 South / 065°09.7 West
  • 16h00: 57°14.7 South / 064°47.7 West
  • 20h00: 57°37.5 South / 064°27.3 West
  • 24h00: 57°58.0 South / 064°10.2 West

19h00: Just began to write and the call for dinner came up. Such is the routine of a tallship in the southern seas. The last 24 hours has seen us all settle into ship’s life, getting to know our other crew members and the professional crew. Leaving the Channel pilot yesterday morning, we were quickly taken on a series of briefings about ship safety and a guide of the ship. Much of it was pretty straightforward, but the routine on abandoning ship was presented in such an orderly fashion on the video that one could wonder if we would ever come across such conditions in these seas!

In a similar way to the Soren Larsen we are organised in a series of watches. The difference with the Soren, though, is that the watches are slightly rotated each day so one is not working, say, a 12-4 slot over a period of several days. We had briefings on setting the sails, look-out and taking the helm. Memories of the Soren quickly came back as I remembered many of the sail and rope names, though remembering how to coil ropes exactly proved another matter entirely: I blame the Dutch – they have a slightly different system.

Our first watch was at 16h00 running through to 20h00. We were leaving the Beagle Channel and heading south – as far as the wind would allow us – around the remaining islands of the continent, with Cape Horn and its infamous seas ahead of us.

After dinner and the first two episodes of an Attenborough programme on Antarctica to get us in the mood, if more were needed, I retired to my cabin to get some shut-eye. However this proved something of a challenge as we finally arrived in the seas around Cape Horn in late evening. I didn’t actually see the scale of the waves being below deck, but people on the other watches say it was pretty bad. It certainly felt bad in bed. I swear the boat was tipping from side to side to the tune of 45 degree angles. I was concerned about the possibility of falling out of the bunk – especially since I’m in the top one!

But sleep in the end was achieved, and I felt relatively ready when the call came for our 4am. Blinking out into the cold pre-dawn morning, the wind blowing a gale and the seas still looking on the rough side, the next four hours suddenly looked a long way in the distance! Unfortunately for me, my combination of tablets and wrist bands to combat sea sickness let me down and soon I was feeling distinctly queasy. Thankfully, I didn’t go for too long before being sick and accordingly added some of my own colour to the Southern Oceans. Three times. But recovery came relatively quickly, following some attempt at breakfast and a surprising solid three hours sleep before a sail instruction lesson at midday. I had managed to recall all the names of the sails so rattled through them when our group was asked by the crew member – not in an attempt to impress you understand, but rather being more than conscious of the time I could handle being inside and not lying down!

And so the rest of the day has meandered along. Another short watch after lunch so that the watches end up rotated. And now, sailing along calmly in the early evening: it is 22h30 now and the view outside the deckhouse is truly magical. The sky is still light and I’m looking out at the remains of the sunset on the starboard side.

The sea is rapidly taking on a grey hue, but it is a lot calmer than it was this time yesterday. One unfortunate thing is that we don’t have a lot of wind so we’re being assisted by the motor engine. But there is not a lot you can do about the wind! Our arrival in Antarctica is scheduled for 14h00 on Wednesday.

Saturday 28 November, Beagle Channel

  • 08h00: 54°54.9 South / 067°20.0 West
  • 12h00: 55°22.9 South / 066°29.2 West
  • 16h00: 55°22.9 South / 066°27.4 West
  • 20h00: 55°35.5 South / 066°12.1 West
  • 24h00: 55°57.6 South / 066°02.5 West

9h40: On board Europa. Embarked yesterday afternoon at 17h00 and departed the port at 4am this morning.

Currently sailing along the Beagle Channel in an easterly direction heading towards the Drake Passage and the crossing to Antarctica.

Weather so far is good, cloudy and windy, but no rain. The sea is calm. The ship is a lot bigger than the Soren Larsen, I’d say twice the length and with three masts instead of two. The cabins are also a lot bigger and the plus point is that we have a spare bunk so more room to spread out in. Sharing the cabin with Daniel, a Belgian from Leuven, and Nicolas, a Scot from Inverness. Seem like good guys. A good mix of people on board, well balanced between Dutch and English-speaking, with the odd German, Swiss and Spaniard thrown in for good measure. This morning we are having a series of briefings on safety and various aspects of the ship. We hit the Drake Passage at around midday – the pilot has just left the ship: we’re on our own...

More pictures at:

Friday, November 27, 2009

Europa - Tracker

I forgot to say: the boat's journey can be followed live at "logbook" section of

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Tierra del Fuego

All pictures of the day through here. Antarctica pre-departure pics here...

A final full day on dry land ahead of the departure tomorrow afternoon. Well I say departure, but in reality we only board the boat tomorrow at 17h00. It turns out departure is not until the following day. I suspect we are being taught the fundamentals of tallship sailing, no bad thing at all!

But more on the sailing front later! In the meantime, today I went to to the Tierra del Fuego national park. I joined an organised tour to do a trekking and canoe trip round the park. This was well worth it and gave me an excellent impression of the park and a good appreciation of the Beagle Channel as we walked along it.

The views were simply stupendous. This was taken looking out over the channel towards the south and the snow capped mountains. The water was a bright and clear though at times choppy as a brisk breeze funnelled down the channel.

Here you can see me testing out some of my gear for Antarctica. I had the bare minimum of layers on - four - which were more than enough for this day. To this I can add another two so fingers crossed I should be toasty during the trip.

This shot is looking back east along the Channel, in the direction of Ushuaia and the path we will be taking out on Saturday morning. It seemed to be beckoning me every time I looked across in that direction. Our guides gave us a good description of the fauna and flora of the park, and some of the history of the indigenous peoples, the Yamana tribe. They populated this area for over 10,000 years but were wiped out in the space of a few decades following the arrival of the Europeans, their diseases and "clearance" programmes. It was interesting to learn how the first arrivals interacted - in a positive way - with the indigenous populations to learn about berries they could use for medicinal purposes, notably ones providing them with vitamin C after the long trip!
Later on in the afternoon, after a big lunch and several glasses of wine to prepare, we went on a short canoe trip. Not on the channel itself, but on some of the small lakes and rivers flowing into it. Thank god it wasn't the channel is all I can say, it was hard enough paddling against the stiff breeze on the lake! But good fun. This photo was taken at the end of the trip - note how far we have come from BA - over 3000km!

Now my attention is turning to departure. This evening I have been pouring over maps with other travellers in the B&B, one of whom is also going to Antarctica. She however, is going on a modern ship, but is doing mountaneering down there. Pretty good stuff! I also had to buy some last minute materials, with still more to do tomorrow morning!

I'll be getting on the boat at 17h00 tomorrow afternoon but we won't be leaving until Saturday morning. This is likely to be my last post on here until 18 December. However, the blog will still be active as I'll be able to send emails to my friends Kris and Colin who have very kindly agreed to post them here. I'm trusting them to be on their best behaviour and not post too many football related stories or other non-relevant materials! Right guys? Thanks again!

So, wish me a fair wind and forgiving seas! For those I have promised postcards and other things too, I shall be endeavouring to remember them all! Antarctica here I come.

Signing off from Ushuaia - 26 November 2009, 23h30

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


Here I am then, El Fin del Mundo (TM), otherwise known as Ushuaia, right down at the bottom of the South America. The end of my overland trip and the start of the sailing, as of Friday. In the meantime, still a lot to do in Ushuaia and the surrounding Tierra del Fuego. As ever, more photos can be seen here.

I got here this lunchtime after a relatively quick flight down from El Cal. Coming in to land was an experience as we seemed to descend through unremitting cloud cover - it stayed "grey" outside for so long I was beginning to wonder if Ushuaia was actually down there. But suddenly, the clouds broke and we were coming in over the Beagle Channel, heading west in to the town. And by god, what a grey and choppy sea it looked - and this is the Beagle Channel! "Gulp" might be the best way to describe my reaction... Perhaps I needed to reconsider and take a boat like this one:

Perhaps this rust bucket sitting in the front of the harbour in Ushuaia was a potent warning, left to all travellers considering venturing out of its safety...

Or perhaps it was just a case of Latin laziness leaving the thing to rust there in such public view?? Who knows, and enough of my easy cliches :) Of course, the boat, the one I have travelled all this way to join was also there in the harbour. Sitting rather bizarrely and perhaps uncomfortably between the large cruise ship and what I think might be icebreakers. But clearly she wins on the elegance front, don't you think:

All the Eurocrats and assorted Brussels coterie should be pleased to note the EU Flag proudly fluttering - if that's the right word to describe it in a "stiff breeze" - from the top of the mast.
Unfortunately I couldn't get closer to the boat as you have to get in via the port authorities and I didn't have the official embarcation letter with me. But well, enough time for that on Friday.

So this is Ushuaia. Looking out over the Beagle Channel, looking to the east and the direction I think we'll sail on Friday evening. In the afternoon I took some time to walk up the foothills of the town to take these pictures. The town is surrounded to the north by mountains, all snow capped but these pictures are looking south. I guess in the broad direction of Cape Horn.

The pictures I took of the mountains immediately behind Ushuaia didn't come out, my attempts at fancy photography mixing sun, clouds and mountains clearly, and patently, came to nothing. I'm staying in a great little B&B, just up the hill from the main town. I have a lovely room in the loft with a view out over the channel, reminding me just how choppy it looks!

Now I'm down in the lounge writing this and chatting to a Dutch couple who are also in the B&B. It would appear that most of Holland is in Ushuaia - the airport was full of Dutch people and I have heard lots of Dutch in town. This got me thinking about the boat, it's Dutch after all. Are they all coming on the it I mused? Will I be the only non-Dutchie? Will they take their revenge on the sole Englishman abroad for wrongs of the past? Probably not, but hey, one can never know... :)

And so to tomorrow, my last full day on dry land before the grand depart. I have decided to keep up my fitness push and signed up to a trek AND canoe outting in the Tierra del Fuego national park. It's all day long. Should prepare me just nicely for the trip. On that point, I'm off to sort out my gear and peruse the maps I bought today: one of the Drake Passage and the other of Antarctica (helpfully with all the famous shipwrecks - nothing like a positive outlook!). I shall photograph them and add them to the blog when time permits.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Perito Moreno Glacier

All photos can be accessed here ...

The awe-inspiring Perito Moreno glacier. The reason for my trip to El Calafate, with all due respect to the treasures nearby like the flamingos... I went on a full day trip today, involving a 6am start but it was well worth it. On the journey over, I realised how far I actually cycled yesterday - a cool 20km round trip. I mean, don't laugh, up hill and down dale, with gales in my face... No wonder I was knackered (if you're wondering how I know the distance I spied a sign on the way back indicating 10km to El Cal just at the point where the infamous "uphill" sign was!) Anyway I digress:

After a couple of hours in the bus we arrived at the glacier. I don't think any photos really do it justice, it's very hard to capture the scale. I suspect this will be a recurring theme on this trip! The photo you see here is just ONE side of the glacier, the southern side. The northern side follows in a bit. Now what can I remember about the technical side: well the height of the glacier is around 60 meters with another 120 metres submerged under the water. Going back up the glacier the thickness of the ice grows to 800 metres.

Here is the start of the expedition, kitted out and all ready to go. Right, back to the technical stuff. We had an interesting explanation on how glaciers are formed (packed snow and pressure) and the age of the ice (in parts up to 300 years). It is one of the few glaciers which is actually stable, not in the sense that the others wobble about, but in the sense that it maintains its size - whilst growing and receeding according to the seasons. This glacier is naturally responsible for the Argentino Lake, carving out the valley as it advanced and receeded during the last Ice Age.

Yep, its big. The glacier, not me. There was quite a lot of ice falling off the front of the glacier, enormous booming cracking sounds and then the tell-tale waves rolling out across the lake. Let's hope Europa is always moored head on in Antartica...

Ok, so then the fun bit, climbing over the ice! However, I nearly didn't get that far as they had problems fitting the crampons to my new boots. Jeez, I would have had issues with Canada (the shoes' origin) forever if that had prevented my little jaunt. But a bit of pushing did the trick and I soon caught up with the group to be given a how-to-walk in crampons talk. Not to be ignored, certainly when I had the potential for achilles issues front of mind... And then we were off, walking up the glacier. It was amazing, in a very small way I could see the attraction of this stuff on a broader scale. The photo above was taken at one of our first stop off points, although Sony can't do justice to the blues in this ice pool. We were able to eat/drink thin slivers of ice which had formed on the pool last night. That was great, and more on-the-rocks was soon to follow...

These are a couple of photos of the path we were taking. We were very lucky as a group as we were the first up there in the day so we had the place to ourselves. I noticed later that there were long lines of people trekking over the glacier, a situation we managed to avoid. The photo below was the steepest climb we had to do:

But one I survived, and was able to enjoy the view looking up the glacier as one of my fellow hikers, Greg from Australia, took this picture. He was quite a character, a former investment banker working for Kleinwort Benson back in the 1980s-1990s in Australia. He had lots of colourful stories of dealings with London. Plus ca change.

So we walked around the glacier for around 90 minutes. It was a great experience, the feel of the ice, the sensation of walking on crampons, crossing little crevasses (Mark - I see what you mean about these things ahead of your running trip - I looked down one and couldn't see any bottom, just a blue bottomless pit...), hearing little rivers running under the ice (and moving quickly on), understanding what makes the ice look blue (apparently its down to the frequency of the colour blue, it's the only one which ice reflects....)

And then we discovered another colour ice reflects - a kind of amber, warm glow. Oh hang on, no that was the whisky on the rocks we enjoyed at the end of the hike. I'm not normally a big whisky fan, but I must say this one tasted damm good - it must have been the fresh glacier ice...

Back on firm land, we enjoyed our packed lunches and the views. Every minute the glacier seemed to subtly change in appearance, as the light changed with the passing of these high clouds in front of the sun. It was spectacular and something I tried to capture in these two photos.

This second was taken from the boat as we travelled along the edge of the southern side of the glacier heading round to the northern side and the "ruptura". I took this video as we rounded the corner:

Anyway, back to the ruptura. Essentially what happens is the glacier meets land at a point where the lake is L-shape in form. When the glacier meets the land it can completely block off one side of the lake from the other, leading to the water levels on the southern side to steadily grow higher and higher. Eventually, and the increase in water levels can reach 20 meters, the pressure becomes too great and the water breaks through the glacier - hence the name "ruptura". They say this event can be heard many miles away, as far as El Cal itself (75km) and it wouldn't surprise me - the booming sounds of relatively small pieces of ice falling off were loud enough in themselves!

While the ice has reached land now, the water has already found a tunnel through so there is no build up at the moment as the photo below shows. The big hole below my hand is where the ice collapsed on this tunnel - unfortunately not while we were at this viewing point!

So El Cal draws to a close. I'm going to treat myself to Argentine steak this evening, I have been trying not to have them every day, I mean that would be too much, wouldn't it?? Tomorrow I fly to Ushuaia, the last stop for now in Argentina and where I'll join Europa on Friday....

Monday, November 23, 2009

El Calafate Cycling

I cycled the best part of five hours - yes five hours - to get to a view like this today! And it was well worth it, the landscape is incredible, and I guess I'm still in the "foothills" of the experience to put it one way. So rewind five hours and I'm back in El Calafate renting out a mountain bike. Iwas told there were essentially two ways to go, east or west along Argentino Lake.

I opted to go East first and came across a nature reserve which was well worth seeing for the somewhat surprising sight of flamingos.

It was a great setting, nestled next to the lake and with the snow topped peaks in the background. I had a good look around, nearly getting stuck in the bog several times over... Clearly the flamingos et al must have looked on thinking what a crazy tourist.

Saying that the birds soon had other things to contend with as suddenly one of the many wild dogs here swam out to one of the islands and had a go at the nests. Cue lots of squawking and general mayhem... After that I decided to leave the wildlife to their own devices and headed further down the coast.

As you can see, it was a wonderful day, barely a cloud in the sky and not too cold, although there was a sharp breeze. Weather like this for the rest of the trip will do just nicely. I stopped for part 1 of a packed lunch somewhere around here. I had come to the end of the road - of sorts - and my attempts at cycling on the beach had literally ploughed to halt. And I started thinking of where to go next.

Clearly there was a lot more to see and I decided to head off west, round the other side of town to see if I could get a clearer view of the snow topped peaks given that they were slightly blocked by the hills on the other side of El Calafate. Heading back that way, I had one of those "small world" experiences when I got chatting to two Dutch women. When I mentioned that I was going on the Dutch boat Europa one of the women told me that her nephew's girlfriend is on the ship, working as one of the permanent crew! How funny I said, and asked her what the girl's name was so I could mention it when I'm on board the Europa... Great idea, said the lady until she realised she couldn't remember the girl's name! In the end, I got a little note - in Dutch - to hand round the permanent crew! Here they are:

They also took a photo of me on the bike to prove to any doubters that this little cycling trip did indeed take place!

So after lunch part 2, this time on the western side of El Calafate I decided to strike out, thinking that just over the little hill on the edge of the town I would find a perfect viewing spot. How naive. This was clearly a case of there always being another "little" hill to overcome to get to the objective. And throw in a nice westerly breeze and it was tough going. But eventually, I thought voila, I'm there as a summit of sorts seemed within my grasp.

Not quite. It was another few kilometres along the rather desolate road, but beautiful and vast landscape.

Not a soul in sight, except for a few fellow cyclists (I temporarily lost my aversion to cyclists due to their pavement abuse in Brussels and joined in a chirpy "hola") and the occasional bus.

But eventually I came round a corner, through another small pass and thankfully next to the road which seemed to continue forever across the plain in a way rather reminiscent of the fairy tale Jack and the Beanstalk --

-- I had finally made it to a proper viewing point. Or at least one that satisfied me and allowed me to avoid heading off into the sunset along this road...!

It was an amazing view and I took some to take it all in and catch my breath... the latter clearly being the most important thing given my apparent lack of conditioning...! Now there was only the small point of the trip back. Thankfully I had a tailwind, but there is still nothing quite as depressing and morale sapping as seeing this sign in front of you having cycled the best part of a km across a barren plain

But I did arrive safely back in El Calafate. No one had to come out and rescue me, no insurance cover was tested :) Since then I have been recuperating, I feel knackered, but thankfully tomorrow will be a nice, relaxing day. Mini trekking on the Perito Moreno. Should be a walk in the uhhm Park?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Buenos Aires

Arrived here yesterday lunchtime and have spent my first day in Argentina, checking out some of Buenos Aires!

Needless to say, much more than a day, perhaps more than a few weeks could be devoted to this place, but I’m moving on again – heading off down to El Calafate this afternoon. First impressions: a big, crazy and eclectic city. I was fortunate to be staying relatively centrally on the Avenida de Mayo, between the Plaza de Mayor at one end and the Congress / Parliament at the other. The hotel I stayed in was once visited by the great Federico Garcia Lorca in the early 1930s when his play “Bodas de Sangre” was being performed at a theatre nearby.

As one would expect, Avenida de Mayo is a great place to be located for a first impression of the city as it seems to reflect many elements of its history: inspired by Haussmann style visions of wide boulevards and beautiful architecture from the late 19th century there are many places which do indeed live up to that expectation. But alongside that, much of it betrays signs of a faded glorious past, a sort of worn and torn Champs Elysees. Clearly this gives the area an edge and a certain charm.

I had time yesterday afternoon to check out the Plaza de Mayo.

Strangely, but perhaps fittingly, I managed to arrive during two days when spring seemed to be on pause: grey skies and rain dominated much of my first afternoon and, though it was mild, some of my Antarctica gear made an appearance…A return on investment already!!

I had wanted to do an Evita Peron tour but BA London being slow conspired against my plans and I missed it.

However, it turned out to be something of a blessing as I discovered that the Casa Rosada – the Presidential residence – was open to the public to celebrate “20 November 1845”.

Essentially, from what I understood, this was all about a trade war of sorts between the French and English on the one hand, and the Argentines on the other, over import taxes. Needless to say, the Argentines were successful against such an alliance and yesterday was all about demonstrating this to the public. It was very interesting – and most unexpected – to be wandering around the Casa Rosada, a lovely old-style colonial building. I even got to stand on one of the balconies where so many Argentine leaders have made – usually impassioned – speeches to the throngs gathered on the square. It’s interesting how the tour is set up: the first room you go into is a homage to great Argentine women. 10 or so accompany the one you would expect to see in such surroundings, and I found it interesting that this was the first element of the tour. Although on reflection their current Presidente is of course a woman so that might have influenced thinking as well!

Looking out from the balcony you get a birds eye view of the Plaza de Mayor.

As with Avenida de Mayo it has a certain faded charm to it, and certainly a feeling that it is a “lived in” square, from the Mothers of the Disappeared (harking back to the last dictatorship) to the ex-Malvinas (Falkland) soldiers camped out there.

Moving back up the Avenida de Mayo, I checked out the wonderful Metro line. Getting on at the “Peru” station was like being transported back 100 years or so – and that was before the metro arrived. All varnished wood and no visible sign of any health and safety provisions given that the doors were opened manually with a quaint message informing people not to open them between stations! From an old style metro, I was back then back in very familiar surroundings at the Tortoni Café: familiar not in the sense that I had been before, but familiar by its Art Nouveau décor – it could have been the Horta House on rue Americaine! So much for crossing continents!

I had met family friends David and Graziella who very kindly showed me around the town in the evening: from the aforementioned café, once a favourite of intellectuals, poets and writers, and now tourists, to a tango-dinner show!

This had been one of my must-do activities (alongside a football game – watch this space for the return visit) and it didn’t let me down. The Homero Manzi appears to be something of an institution, and located right in the centre of one of the city’s tango quarters. But before the tango came the food and by god those Argentine steaks don’t disappoint! At least 3 if not 4 times as big as the usual Brussels fare and with no fat at all. Despite purposely not eating since the plane I was unable to finish mine…that’s how much there was. And then the tango.

A five-man band, three dancing couples and two singers took us through a range of tango styles. I was very pleased to be able benefit from the local knowledge provided by David and Graziella.

This morning I decided to check out the port area, not for any particular aesthetic reason, although they say it has been cleaned up a lot in the recent past, but rather to check out a tallship with more than a passing connection to my upcoming travels.

The “Corbetta Uruguay” is an institution in Argentina: well this is what I thought until my taxi driver couldn’t find it….!

It was the first iron ship operating in Argentina (built back in the UK naturally) and in 1903 came to the rescue of the Swedish scientific expedition, Nordenskjolk, around the Antarctica Peninsula.

Thanks Jess for putting me on to this, it was very interesting to see the ship and explore its history. As I stood on the deck I swear I could already anticipate the sway and motion of a tallship on the high seas. It was before midday so it clearly wasn’t a case of too much vino

I have now moved south and am in El Calafate. It’s 23h00 and only just getting properly dark. And cold. My clothing investment is one I’m increasingly content with. Tomorrow is acclimatization day before trekking on the Perito Moreno on Tuesday...