In my early school days, our teachers used to quiz us regularly on our knowledge of the British Empire (yes, we once had one). Our gimlet-eyed geography teacher would swivel his head in the manner of a sniper selecting a target before alighting on the daydreaming fool at desk B35 and after firing a well aimed piece of chalk at the hapless miscreant, bellow, “tell me about South Georgia, boy!”
Tough one. An icy wasteland in the South Atlantic sitting in the middle of the ‘furious fifties’, once home to a genocidal industry that nearly brought the mighty whale nations of the Southern Ocean to their knees? Or, perhaps, as the magnificent cinematic backdrop to one of the most extraordinary stories of human courage and endurance in living memory? If you, the dreamer, assembled at least a few of those facts to formulate your defence then you might just survive until break time with your hide intact.
One of the wildest places on earth
For South Georgia is all of those things and more, a destination that evokes longing, fear and respect in equal measure. Almost halfway between the landmasses of South America and Africa, right in the path of the almost ceaseless westerlies that circumnavigate the globe in those harsh latitudes, it is, to say the least, in sailing terms ‘not for beginners’.
But in the right boat, with a crew to match, it’s doable, and ranks as one of the great sailing challenges. As we learned in Part I, for Jean-Francois Delvoye and his family this was unfinished business, and the time had come to put that right. As he told me, “in many ways South Georgia is the ultimate test of a yacht’s capabilities. And to be the guinea pig in such a trial, who better than the man who conceived and built the boat!”
Juan Sa Bulan III, their Boréal 44, had been sailed down through the Atlantic with this goal in mind during 2013, with crew swaps along the way in the Cape Verdes and Brazil.
Once down in Puerto Deseado, Argentina, she was sailed direct to the Falkland Islands by Jean-François’ son Simon, to wait for a suitable weather window for the passage to Grytviken in South Georgia.
Finding your way from the Falklands is the ‘easy’ part, as with the prevailing winds it’s not a question of fighting your way out there. But the return voyage, coming back against those winds—now that’s tough.
A wild ride
Once the weather gave them the green light, they were off, receiving the kind of welcome that this part of the world’s oceans is notorious for, with day after day of winds that never dropped below 38 knots. But these are the kind of conditions that the Boréal 44 was designed for and she ate it all up.
Despite the cold, she remained warm and dry below decks, largely due to the heavy (10cm) insulation of the hull and deck and the priceless addition of a doghouse with watertight door, which kept the occasional wave that came aboard where it belonged. Even in the most extreme conditions; watch keeping isn’t such an ordeal when much of it can be carried out from inside the doghouse with a 360° view of proceedings.
With the twin daggerboards to assist her tracking ability, the autopilot was easily able to do duty for most of the time, conserving the energy of the crew in such tough conditions.
After several days of hard running the long awaited prize was in sight, and the jagged, white capped peaks rose out of the sea, a vista unchanged from that seen by six haggard, frozen men peering out from a tiny wooden boat as they neared the end of a desperate errand of mercy to save their comrades trapped in the Antarctic—Sir Ernest Shackleton and the crew of the tiny James Caird.
The renown of that remarkable man and his gallant comrades knows no national boundaries, and the crew of JSB III were well aware that they were following a mythical wake. What an extraordinary moment, and what an exclusive club to join, those who have sailed their own small craft to this lonely ocean outpost. Formalities concluded, and blessed with a rare spell of almost perfect weather, it was time to go exploring.
The British authorities are trying very hard to allow South Georgia to regain its previously pristine state, and have placed restrictions on visiting many of the old whaling stations, not just to safeguard the wildlife, but also due to the large amount of asbestos insulation in many of the now collapsing buildings, and the risks they represent to visitors. But there are still many places to explore and, from a historical and environmental perspective, much can be learned from a visit to the small museum, developed by legendary sailing couple Tim and Pauline Carr who made this place home for many years, and whose book on their time there is not to be missed.
Sitting as it does in some of the world’s richest oceans, South Georgia is home to a myriad of wildlife, from fur seals to sea elephants, a variety of albatross to King penguins, and much more. Due to the abundance of food in the waters between South Georgia and the Antarctic peninsula, the numbers of many of these species have recovered dramatically from their parlous state at the end of the hunting era, although, sadly, the numbers of whales have not shown the same resilience yet. Humpbacks in particular, hunted almost to extinction in the region, are still rarities locally, and the mighty blue whale is only just hanging on due to the catastrophic depletion of its numbers globally.
For the Norwegian whalers who lived and endured the conditions in those days, the stations must have been hellish places. The sights, the sounds and smells of the charnel house would have been inescapable and all pervasive. It would be hard to doubt that most of those hardy men must have breathed a deep sigh of relief the day the order came to abandon the stations. That decision was finally made as a result of the extirpation of the whales, to the extent that the whole enterprise was no longer economically viable, and one week later the entire operation was abandoned wholesale to the wind and the snow.
To the visitor today, the sight of the rusty ruins and the whale catcher vessels lying at their berths, forms a melancholy sight alleviated only by the comical activities of the local animal inhabitants that have taken up residence amidst the wreckage, as if none of it had ever happened at all.
Jean-François and his family crew made the most of their time in the islands, even taking time out to follow Shackleton’s Way, where Sir Ernest, Frank Worsley and Tom Crean climbed over the mountains to seek help at the whaling station at Husvik.
Two weeks allowed time to visit many of the outposts as far as Larsen Harbour in the far south of the island, an opportunity to see the islands in a variety of moods, and to observe the wild nature of the place and its fauna.
Not only were they able to see this for themselves, they were also lucky enough to have with them a gifted photographer in son Simon, whose stunning shots grace this piece, and whose portfolio from the voyage will help to keep it alive for them all in years to come.
But all good things must come to an end, and with more than one eye on the weather, the time to depart was soon upon them. Knowing just how tough the return trip might be, JSB III had sufficient food and water to head for South Africa if all else failed, but in the event there was no need for that. Acting on advice from a weather router, they headed out on Boxing Day to ride the southern sector of a depression tracking to their north, and by sailing south initially to pick up favourable winds, made great progress all the way back to the Falklands.
I asked Jean-François what it had all meant to him. He replied,
it was the ultimate dream for me, to sail into those waters with my family, in a boat I had designed and built myself. It was also highly symbolic for all of the staff at Boréal, who were there with us in spirit. And of course it all generated many new thoughts, perspectives and ideas for the future development of the boats we build at Boréal.
Which I am sure leaves you, like me, dying to see what that might imply—watch this space!
[A huge thank you to Simon Delvoye for giving us permission to publish his stunning photographs.]