In March 2018, Oyster 72 Katharsis II became the first yacht to sail round Antarctica below 62°S. Skipper Mariusz Koper recounts this extraordinary expedition
Many believe number seven to be lucky. The seventh day of February proved to be just that. It’s seven weeks since we dropped the lines in Cape Town; the Amundsen Sea was the seventh Antarctic sea that we would cross through; and the seventh storm of the voyage was approaching soon.
For a couple of days now, we have been sailing along the 70th parallel. With humidity in the air, Katharsis II became covered with ice, which started to form on the shrouds, the mast and the ropes. The icy peak of the mast resembled a decorated Christmas tree. The wind transducer stopped functioning. These obstacles were a hindrance to our sailing and decision-making abilities.
For a week, the visibility has been limited to a few hundred metres. In fact, it has often been down to a couple of boatlengths. We were sailing through a milky mist, accompanied only by snowstorms and often had to shovel the snowy powder off the deck.
As for the icebergs, while appearing less frequently than off east Antarctica, they seemed older and thus more disintegrated, with deadly brash ice surrounding them. Our eyes strain while searching for icy shadows emerging through the surface of the sea.
It is a much easier task now that we no longer have the sprayhood, which limits visibility significantly. It was completely wrecked by a violent wave during a previous storm in the Ross Sea. Consequently, we were forced to disassemble it. But now it means we have nothing to shield ourselves from icy bullets of spray, though we do at least have a second small dodger to protect the companionway.
Our lucky seven has brought drier air, the ice is beginning to melt, and even the wind instruments have started to work again. Around 2200, Hanna, who is on watch, suggests that we reef the sails. We’ve been sailing with a second reef in the main.
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Specialist high latitude yachts invariably have metal hulls and are very solidly built with large fuel tanks and internal steering…
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The sea is rather calm and the wind instruments say it’s blowing 25 knots. I think we could still wait, especially considering the weather forecast, which predicts the wind won’t exceed 35 knots. However, barely a half an hour later I have to jump back outside. The wind is far stronger than the gauge was indicating and as the conditions continue to worsen I decide to drop the main.
It’s the right decision. The wind rises to over 50 knots, and from time to time, exceeds 60 knots. The waves start to build up, making it harder to manoeuvre in between the icy obstacles.
After three hours of running with the storm with the reefed staysail only, we sail in between some icebergs. In fact we are entering a cemetery of growlers. The ice is everywhere, and it’s impossible to sail around them safely. We cannot slow down so we turn into irons to stop. Then we slowly start sailing against the wind and the enormous waves towards a giant iceberg that we’d already passed.
We struggle for an hour before finally reaching the shadow of an ice island. At a few hundred metres long and weighing probably tens of millions of tonnes, the ice is pacifying the waves in its lee, as if it were a harbour. For five hours we drift along its side. Then, as the wind abates to 35 knots, we began to sail again, heading east once more on our voyage round Antarctica.
For years I had dreamed of sailing round Antarctica and within its waters – that is, entirely south of the 60th parallel. As a matter of fact, this route is the last significant tabula rasa on the world’s sailing map.
The two known attempts to circle Antarctica’s waters below the 60th parallel ended before reaching the finish line. The first of them took place in 2005, when the Russian yacht Apostol Anrdey lost her rudder around the Ross Sea. After performing temporary repairs, the crew was forced to retreat to Wellington, New Zealand.
The second attempt, conducted by a Russian-Ukrainian crew on the yacht Scorpius in 2012, ended at the D’Urville Sea. The yacht suffered major damage and the crew returned to Hobart.
Proof it could be done
There was, on the other hand, a successful non-stop circumnavigation of Antarctica above the 60th parallel. The goal, accomplished by Fedor Konyukov aboard the 85ft Alye Parusa in 2008, has been recognised by The World Sailing Speed Record Council (WSSRC).
Katharsis II is an Oyster 72, a yacht with a glassfibre hull. It’s commonly believed this sort of construction does not serve well in icy conditions, but several previous expeditions we’ve made in the region have proven that this fearless vessel manages polar conditions well.
During our first polar voyage, we sailed along the Antarctic Peninsula, south from the Antarctic Circle. That’s when we first experienced abrupt changes in weather conditions and the proximity of ice.
For the following expedition, I led Katharsis II to Greenland and the Arctic, and we successfully navigated through the North West Passage. We learned how to manoeuvre in between the drift ice and, at Ilulissat harbour in Greenland, experienced being trapped in it.
The challenge grew in 2015 with our expedition to the Ross Sea. Indenting the front of Ross Ice Shelf is the Bay of Whales, the southernmost point of sailable water in the world. We arrived in a year when the ice cap over Antarctica was the largest since it was first measured.
To sail from the Southern Ocean towards the open waters of the Ross Sea we had to push through the ice a number of times as we navigated through an ice barrier 100 miles wide. Despite the difficult storm conditions, we got south to 78° 43’S, 163° 43’W. This experience reassured me that, with careful navigation, Katharsis II is capable of facing the hardest stuff.
To prepare for the record voyage I analysed the weather conditions and previous annual ice charts in the region. As the Southern Ocean is dominated by strong westerly winds it encouraged a clockwise route, though the only pattern you can guarantee is the variability of direction and speed of winds. Records differed substantially in terms of the number of days with weak winds (under 10 knots) and strong winds (above 25 knots).
I estimated that we’d struggle 15-30% of the time with weak winds and about 15-25% of the time with strong winds. But I observed a certain correlation: the icier Antarctica was over the astral winter, the stronger the winds were over the following summer.
East winds, which are inconvenient for this route, could accompany us for about a third of the voyage. And, although less troublesome closer to summer, the ice made the overall situation more complex. I paid close attention to ice level changes in two spots, at the Ross and Weddell Seas.
Entering into the Ross Sea the route can be shortened significantly, but very rarely can this be accomplished by the end of January. In turn, the drift ice at the Weddell Sea can reach the South Orkney Islands, that is, beyond the 60th parallel.
The most favourable conditions, ice-wise, occur in mid-February. This became decisive in determining our start point – Cape Town – so that we’d reach the Weddell Sea by the second half of February at the latest.
I planned to finish in Hobart – it added an extra 2,000 miles to the shortest version of the route, but at the same time it increased our chances of sailing with following winds in the stormy waters of the Southern Ocean.
We were supposed to start in December 2016. Katharsis II was already waiting for us in Cape Town when my second officer and partner, Hanna Leniec, was diagnosed with breast cancer. This terrible news shocked everyone. I didn’t consider anything other than postponing the voyage.
For Hanna, it was a difficult year. The surgery, the exhausting chemotherapy and the radiotherapy affected her physical condition, but not her mental fortitude. A year later, she was ready to embark on the challenging sail, which we dedicated to the prevention of breast cancer. Hanna prepared a series of short videos, documenting her struggle with the illness.
During the expedition we planned to conduct a couple of research projects: one on the presence of plastic micro-particles in waters surrounding Antarctica; the other, as part of the International Scientific ARGO Program on temperature and salt levels, which would require the installation of several buoys. One of our crew was Piotr Kuklinski, a professor of oceanology who was responsible for the conduct of the science project.
Over the last eight years, Katharsis II has sailed 100,000 miles, so before embarking we unstepped the rig to check it out. We replaced running rig and sails, and replaced some electronics including the radar and the chartplotter so we’d have two independent navigation systems.
Above the radar we installed a thermal camera that would help with spotting ice when we had limited visibility. We also acquired some flexible tanks to take extra fuel so we could cross the Southern Ocean by engine if we were dismasted.
All our preparations were directed at serving one purpose: to be completely self-sufficient. Apart from the Antarctic Peninsula, which is a tourist destination, we’d not be able to count on any outside help. We also prepared to set up a camp in case we needed to abandon the yacht.
It was a challenge to provision for nine crew for over 100 days (plus extra in case of a serious delay). We turned one of the five cabins into a pantry where we could store more than 1,200kg of food (not counting drinks).
We prepared over 1,000 portions of dinners, pasteurising the meat in jars (with a dozen different flavour variations). We stored 80kg of food in the freezer and hid treats for special occasions, including Christmas, birthdays, and other important moments we wanted to celebrate.
We were particularly careful about storing delicate items such as tomatoes and eggs. Each of the tomatoes was covered in a paper towel, which we would change every couple of days. We took 522 eggs and they required constant turning to avoid the yolk sticking to the eggshell. Lastly, our diet was supplemented with freeze-dried meals, which are lightweight and easy to prepare.
On 23 December 2017 we left Cape Town. A gentle breeze let us set full sail and cross our start line, but the wind died soon after and reflected in a really weak first 24 hours’ mileage – barely 70 miles logged. The beginning was not very promising for reaching the finish line at Hobart within 100 days.
The main goal of the voyage was to complete a circle around Antarctica south of 60°S, but speed was still an important factor as it would allow us to pass the unwelcoming waters faster and leave them behind before Antarctica’s seas begin to freeze again.
We had no problems adapting to the pace of life at sea. We divided into four pairs, switching the watch every three hours with an extra three hours’ standby below deck. This arrangement gave us time to rest and restore our energy. Each watch was also responsible for the preparation of the main meal of the day.
After 11 days of sailing, still before reaching Antarctica, we saw our first iceberg: they’d accompany us for the next three months. Initially, they were scarce but, a week after entering the Commonwealth Sea, we could see a dozen of them in a six-mile radius.
Sailing off east Antarctica, in the Davis Sea and the Mawson Sea, we were at one time able to count some 100 icebergs in sight. It was a magnificent landscape, and the majestic giant sculptures inspired respect.
It’s easy to spot an iceberg – even in limited visibility an iceberg will send out a clear echo on the radar screen. Growlers pose a bigger threat to a yacht’s safety, and they always drift along with icebergs. This was our main concern, especially when visibility was limited with snowstorms or during the polar nights, which began to lengthen from mid-February.
We crossed the latitude of 60°S on 5 January and the navigation through Antarctica’s waters turned out to be extremely exciting.
We met our first Antarctic storm in the Davis Sea, a storm of such intensity it called the success of our expedition into question. We barely moved for two days. When our boom vang hydraulics failed we had to go into this storm with only a staysail.
Winds over 50 knots blasted from the east and forced us to sail upwind. We made so much leeway that, after 24 hours of sailing back and forth, we found ourselves back where we’d started.
We spent the next day drifting in the shadows of an ice pack emerging from behind the Western Ice Shelf. That was our ally, calming down the sea.
We managed to keep our course much closer to the intended heading during the next storms, no matter what the direction of the wind.
Light winds – especially in eastern Antarctica – posed a different sort of challenge. Katharsis II manages quite well in light breezes, despite her weight. But if the wind fell to 4-6 knots, we couldn’t exceed 100 miles a day. Having sailed a third of the course we were concerned that the voyage would take more than 120 days, but fortunately winds picked up at the beginning of February.
The situation at the Weddell Sea was favourable. It let us sail along the latitude of 62°S but we couldn’t avoid encounters with drift ice. There is usually a couple of hundred metres of clean water adjacent to drift ice, but on 25 February we were sailing along an area packed with ice, and when night fell we realised we were surrounded by it.
We turned upwind to slow to about 2-3 knots and, using our infrared camera, we managed to escape the hazard a few hours later. We brushed against the ice several times, but luckily without ramification.
We saw land only twice and both times the encounter was accompanied by stormy conditions. After 38 days of sailing we were waiting out a storm in the shadow of heavily glaciated Balleny Islands, and there we saw penguins for the first time. Until then we’d been occasionally kept company by whales and albatross.
Three weeks later, soon after passing Cape Horn, we saw the majestic Antarctic Peninsula. In the Gerlache Strait part of our main track came off the mast when reefing. In the shadows of the Melchior Islands we managed to replace the damaged track and resume sailing.
The last storm before closing the loop at the Cosmonauts Sea was one of the worst. The pressure dropped from 960mb to 928mb in a matter of hours. Again we were forced to struggle against adverse winds and endure a dark polar night among icebergs.
I opted for the shortest route that took us through the eye of the storm, and although exhausted from the cold and the snow constantly freezing on our foulies, we found our way out without any damage.
Most of the damaged we did experience we could repair or minimise… except one. We weren’t able to fix our carbon fibre boom, which snapped during a storm 1,000 miles before the finish line at Hobart.
Smashed by the crest of wave that broke over us, coming from a direction opposite to all the others, Katharsis II was side-swiped off course, which led to an uncontrolled crash-gybe. The boom broke, so then we were slowed to sailing under foresails only.
On 20 March 2018, we completed our circumnavigation round Antarctica. It had taken us a total of 72 days and 6 hours. We made the entire circumnavigation south of the latitude of 62°S, including 25 days of sailing south from the Antarctic Circle. We were filled with a sense of satisfaction and relief. We could begin sailing back towards safer – that is, ice-free – waters.
We reached Hobart on 5 April, after 102 days and 23 hours. Ironically, the stormy weather subsided only after we reached Storm Bay, Tasmania – we needed 18 hours to complete the last 50 nautical miles.
After almost 103 days of isolation in a confined space we returned to civilisation, but not a single crewmember was in a hurry to leave. That spoke of the atmosphere we had in our crew. We were a group of friends who managed to stay friends. And for me that’s one of the most important accomplishments of the voyage.
Katharsis II’s circumnavigation was accomplished under World Speed Sailing Record Council rules and was awarded Performance Certificate No54.
The expedition is also recognised by Guinness World Records as ‘The first circumnavigation of Antarctica in a sailboat south of the 60th parallel.’
About the author
Mariusz Koper, 57, is a Polish entrepreneur and former educational publisher. He has logged 160,000 miles, sailed around the globe, done four polar expeditions and competed in the Sydney Hobart Race.