Shackleton’s Bath: Dec. 27 to Jan. 5

The Guvernor's House, Port Stanley

The Guvernor’s House, Port Stanley


Log extract. Gale-force winds. Gusting to 50 knots. Fine. Wind down by 1230. Cleared away from Tamar and went to anchor as Tamar due to sail in the PM.

Most of us had been off walking in the hills during our time in Stanley either on our own or in groups. I had been out in the hills to the North West of Stanley where some hard fighting had taken place. The Argentinians had laid minefields everywhere in the area as that was where they expected the British to land; they were wrong as it happens.

“Most of the minefields had been cleared away…”

Most of the minefields had been cleared away and those areas where it had been impossible to sweep were very clearly signposted. Even so I never felt comfortable walking in the hills unless I was stepping from rock to rock or walking in the track of some heavy motor vehicle. After all an anti-personnel mine is not much bigger than a tin of tuna – how could they be sure that they had found them all?

Most of the crew had digital cameras and in the evening there was usually a show of the day’s take. There was universal horror watching one of these shows when we realised that one of our number, not understanding the significance of the signs – as they were not in his native language –had gone into minefield to photograph the penguins. I sent him up to the mine clearance and advisory office the next day to have a look at some of the anti personnel mines they have on display along with the pictures of legless cows. In retrospect I should have had a premonition at this stage that it was not the passengers that I had to worry about but the crew.


Guest arrival day and the yacht is washed and polished to a Mediterranean standard, flowers in the cabins and the weather is overcast with a light drizzle. Eight passengers came on board in the late afternoon of which only two had not been on board Shenandoah before. We gave the guests a safety briefing and I emphasised that their participation in the sailing of the vessel would greatly enhance their enjoyment of the adventure to which they all enthusiastically agreed.


A practice day sailing from Port Stanley, Falkland Islands

A practice day sailing from Port Stanley, Falkland Islands

With a departure for South Georgia planned for the next day a bit of a live practice seemed like a good idea. We had a great sail in and out of the port in a fresh breeze and we all enjoyed ourselves. While in the Falklands I had tried to get information about ice distribution in the South Georgia area. It was very difficult getting anything precise; in fact everyone was extremely casual about the subject. In the Falklands no more thought is given to a vessel going off to South Georgia than a vessel in Antibes heading off for Sardinia. In the British Antarctic Survey there were no satellite photographs showing ice distribution available.

“…I had tried to get information about ice distribution…this is the best available, Good Luck!”

I then sent an email to Tim and Pauline Carr, the curators of the museum in Grytvicken, and got a satellite photograph by return showing three icebergs aground off South Georgia which, when they had been joined up, were bigger than the island. Attached was a short note saying, ‘this is the best available, Good Luck!’ In spite of my apprehension about ice, I kept a cool exterior and decided to start worrying in the vicinity of Shag Rocks, which is where I expected to see the signs of ice.


It was midday Monday before We finally got under Way and cleared the harbour. It is always a good feeling to be clear of the land and have nothing but open ocean ahead. Well at least for a while. The distance to South Georgia is less than 800 miles and we would probably cover that distance in a bit over three days.

“The gimbaled table proved to be a great success…”

The forecast was reasonable but with a strong gale coming in from the West by the Weekend, by which time I hoped to be tucked up in Grytviken. The gimbaled table proved to be a great success once the guests had got used to the movement. All agreed that it was a huge benefit to life on board though in the first days the apparent movements made some of the guests feel quite seasick.

The watch system was based on three watches with three or four people to a watch. The weather was not especially cold, though miserable enough while it was raining. Mr Musto kept us dry and warm while the gloves that we bought in the Falklands kept our hands dry. Later on some of the crew wore goggles so that it was impossible to recognise anyone. We always had sail set and the engines were started if the speed started to drop below eight knots. We found that even with our shortened Sail plan it was easy enough to keep up 9 or 10 knots.

“…we were likely to find ourselves still surrounded by bergs when nightfall came again.”

We passed to the North of Shag Rocks late on Wednesday night and picked up two targets on the radar at the end of the 24 mile range, at first I thought that they were squid fishermen, later it turned out that they were icebergs. The next day, Thursday, we found ourselves completely surrounded by icebergs. The Wind was West North Westerly, about force four, and the visibility was less than two miles. Trying to find a passage through the bergs by radar proved illusory. A gap would appear and we would lay off for it only to have another target come up as the range shortened. There did not appear to be any smaller bits floating around where we were and it became clear that if we carried on this way, we were likely to find ourselves still surrounded by bergs when nightfall came again.

“As the mass of the berg came out of the mist, you could only be thrilled by the sight.”

I decided to attack, after all dozens of whale catchers had worked these waters up until 1961 and they did not have half of the navigational equipment that we had. I found a big berg on the radar that lay across our course and headed straight for the weather side. The visibility was still around a mile or so and the breeze had not increased. As the mass of the berg came out of the mist, you could only be thrilled by the sight. Nothing can prepare you for the sight of an iceberg in the flesh if you have never seen one before. It was magnificent. It was huge and every shade from ice blue to the palest emerald, a range of colours that I never seemed able to catch on film.

Keeping an eye out for icebergs!

Keeping an eye out for icebergs!

The swell was breaking along the base of the weather side and there was a bit of brash drifting off to leeward. Everyone was on deck to see the sight and now that we had seen at close quarters, what had been so worrying in the mist and fog and imagination, I made the decision to head straight for the South Georgia coast. We doubled the lookouts port and starboard and in no time at all you would have thought we had been sailing these waters all our lives.

A good lookout was essential as the growlers were numerous but in general they all seemed to be in the vicinity of where the larger bergs were. By the late afternoon we were close to South Georgia, the wind had died away and there was little or no swell. By the time that darkness came we had stopped the engines and were drifting slowly East in a flat sea having stopped in the lee of a stranded berg that looked like an office block. It was calm enough so that we would have probably picked up any smaller blocks of ice on radar at the half-mile range. I came on watch the next morning at 0200 to find dense fog and a very light Westerly breeze. I rapidly became bored sitting around peering into the murk and so, with a gentle Westerly, we laid off on starboard tack with just the mainsail and a headsail and started heading for Grytviken once more. The fog started to lift as the breeze filled in and by 0900 we had a near gale up the aft end.

“…the fog continued to lift until inside Cumberland Bay when it rose like a theatre curtain…”

Double lookouts on deck, but most of the ice that we saw was aground. Navigating with the benefits of radar and GPS we had no worries as to where we were. In the late morning we started our turn to the South into Cumberland Bay, the fog was starting to lift and the wind was now a full gale out of the West. As we closed the land, the fog continued to lift until inside Cumberland Bay when it rose like a theatre curtain and there was South Georgia ahead, crystal clear from the top of Mount Paget to the mighty Nordenskold Glacier at its foot. It was spectacular and quite awe inspiring, so much so that I barely noticed the wind dropping off as we sailed deeper into the bay. We rounded up in the lee of Shackleton’s monument and handed sail and then at half ahead we motored slowly through the relatively narrow entrance to King Edward Cove, passing the British Antarctic Survey base on our starboard side and up to our anchorage off the Grytviken Whaling station.

The stunning panorama at Grytvicken

The stunning panorama at Grytvicken

In my briefing chat to the guests I said that the cruise would consist of three stages, the voyage out, the cruise in South Georgia and the Voyage back. With our safe arrival on Friday the 9th of January, stage one had been successfully completed. As soon as the port formalities had been dealt with, everyone was ashore to visit the museum and the post office and to generally run around in a new strange land. Tim and Pauline Carr, curators of the museum in the Grytviken whaling station came to dinner. Tim was to sail with us as pilot, wildlife expert, ski guide and mountain expert for a week or so.

“…we soon found that there was a problem with our charts.”

Once we started to sail around South Georgia we soon found that there was a problem with our charts. The charts we had were all new, however the areas that were regarded as inadequately surveyed were left blue with no soundings or anything else, just plain blue. Some of those areas turned out to be quite large and we always seemed to be sailing through them. Tim’s words at those times, that he had never seen or heard of anyone hitting anything in those areas, were quite comforting. My personal feeling was that the whale catchers and sealers had been working around South Georgia for so long, particularly on the northern coast,  that they must have found the majority of rocks by now.

Arriving In South Georgia

Arriving In South Georgia

It was not until 1961 that Salvesen abandoned the whaling and then they just walked out and shut the door behind them. With no one to look after the whaling stations, they were stripped of valuables and started to fall down. The Argentinian scrap dealers helped in the ruination and the wind and the weather took care of the rest. The general depredation was ably assisted by the army – they used the whaling stations for training exercises as well as for live fire practice.

“The fear is that some hapless tourist from a cruise ship gets decapitated by a sheet of flying metal…”

The katabatic winds, that can screech over the mountains at over a 100 miles an hour, can do extraordinary things to a sheet of corrugated iron that is no longer well fastened to the roof. The fear, as always these days, is that some hapless tourist from a cruise ship gets decapitated by a sheet of flying metal – and so the whaling station at Grytviken is being dismantled.

Most of the station will be removed as scrap and those materials that cannot be removed will be buried forever. At £4 million reputed cost, the whaling station will be no more, apart from the church, the museum, the curator’s house and a large collection of artefacts as well as a couple of ex-catchers converted to sealers. The museum is charming, small yes, but well filled with things of interest for anyone who has taken the trouble to visit the Southern Ocean. The museum is also a credit to the curators, Tim and Pauline Carr, active restorers who are always in pursuit of new projects and challenges.