South Georgia’s School of Hard Knocks

After a series of unlucky breaks, weather-induced delays and logistical hurdles, Canadian sea kayaker Hayley Shephard still considers her attempt to make the first solo circumnavigation of Antarctica’s South Georgia Island a success. On March 17, Shephard returned to her launch site at King Edward Point, a British research station. According to her blog, she felt dejected by her failure to complete the circumnavigation. But after stopping by the nearby grave of her hero, Sir Ernest Shackleton, the leader of the famed, ill-fated 1916 Endurance expedition, Shephard was satisfied by her effort.



“I sat beside his granite grave and said out loud ‘Well mate, it wasn’t quite what we expected eh? I reckon, the best thing about all this is that we are here and isn’t it so bloody beautiful?’” she wrote in her blog.


The hardships Shephard faced were the modern equivalent to those Shackleton encountered in his epic. En route to South Georgia, an injury to her support vessel’s captain forced an unplanned detour to the Falkland Islands. The expedition was nearly called off but a successful, last-ditch search for an additional crew member got them back on the water. Rough conditions in the Southern Ocean further delayed her journey. Once she finally touched down in South Georgia, Shephard was dismayed to find her custom-built expedition kayak had been damaged in transit from Canada to the Antarctic. “The kayak had been completely crushed and is now utterly screwed,” she wrote in her blog. But on February 28, three weeks after her intended departure date, she launched in her back-up boat on South Georgia’s eastern coast.



Having only three weeks to complete the 375-mile circumnavigation, Shephard was behind the eight ball from the outset. In her first week on the water she paddled barely 50 miles, and was stormbound much of the time. Still, her blog recounts of encountering fur seals and various species of seabirds, including the albatross, the massive, threatened bird that inspired her expedition.


Unlike the British-led Operation South Georgia, a four-person team that completed the second-ever circumnavigation of the island in 2005 from the safety of a support vessel, Shephard spent all her nights (and many windy days) camped alone on one of the wildest coastlines in the world. From her written and audio blogs, it was obvious that Shephard cherished the experience. On March 13, she filed an audio recording live from Prion Island, prime albatross habitat just off of South Georgia’s northeastern shore. “I will still have a story to tell,” she said, “I’m very lucky to have experienced beautiful South Georgia.” – Conor Mihell

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