Photos and words by Andrew Maffett
Three quarters of the way through our attempt to be the fourth team to successfully circumnavigate South Georgia Island (SGI) by sea kayak, all had been going just as expected. That is, the trip had been nothing but challenges and excitement.
And as we hit the water early on Day Nine, we headed off into gloomy conditions toward what we knew to be the crux of our 310-mile journey around this remote South Atlantic Island: Cape Disappointment. Its jagged peaks and dramatic cliffs loomed large ahead of us as a brisk 15- to 20-knot tailwind and moderate seas set us on our way. We swung up the sails from our kayaks in near-perfect kayak sailing conditions, and I glanced around to catch the faces of my fellow trip-mates — John, Chris and Jim — grinning as we flew in a close pack down waves and runners that sent spray flying up the sides of the kayaks.
But as we reached the beginnings of the Cape, the wind lifted and the swells steepened as they approached more shallow ground. We knew that this would truly be our expedition’s biggest test.
Lying 1,100 miles east of Cape Horn, SGI is an adventurers’ paradise abounding in natural beauty and opportunity for exploration. Steep mountains rise sharply from the surrounding sea for the whole of its 105-mile length, dripping with glaciers and, on a good day, looking like a vision from a fairy tale. Its rocky beaches teem with penguins, seals and sea birds, all vying for space to live out their lives on this isolated oasis in a stormy sea.
Lashed by frequent storms and pounded by massive swells rolling unhindered from Antarctica and beyond, it is wild and remote — aspects that entice and excite anyone with a thirst for adventure.
I’d wanted to visit SGI since I first knew it existed in my early 20s. I’d tried to organize trips there in the past, all of which had fallen flat in the face of the huge logistical challenges and associated costs of getting there.
But two years ago, with the daunting prospect of our 50th birthdays coming up in 2015, my good mate John Jacoby and I decided to make it happen. We wanted to embark on what would be the adventure of a lifetime to celebrate our final coming of age, and to show that “old blokes can still do good stuff!”
We knew of the New Zealand team led by Graham Charles who completed the first successful sea kayak trip around the island in 2005, and immediately thought of repeating this epic achievement. Although we looked at lots of other options to mark this grand occasion, we were always drawn back to SGI by its wildness, challenge and isolation, and the fundamental attraction of going around something.
An undertaking of this magnitude was always going to take a lot to organize, but once we locked in the decision to go, the stars began to line up. Longtime paddling buddy Chris Porter quickly joined the team, and while we had quite a few candidates for the fourth position, were delighted when another good friend Jim Bucirde completed the team.
With an average of 52, we would surely be the oldest team to attempt the circumnavigation, but we reckoned that this also gave us the advantage of experience! All of us have been paddling whitewater and sea kayaks since our teens, including previous sea kayaking trips to Antarctica, Fjordland and Stewart Island in New Zealand, and multiple crossings of Bass Strait (separating mainland Australia from Tasmania), but we also knew that SGI would challenge us to a whole new level.
Although SGI has a permanently manned research base with 10 scientists and government officials, it doesn’t have enough flat land for an airport and no regular shipping service. To get there, we’d need to arrange our own transport and all support for the trip — including our own means of rescue if anything went wrong.
There aren’t many suitable vessels for such a mission, but after some research we arranged to charter the 54-foot steel sailing yacht Pelagic. It was purpose-built for polar exploration by legendary sailor Skip Novak, and had supported a Norwegian team of paddlers who completed the third successful circumnavigation in 2010. Pelagic sails out of the Falkland Islands and would be ideally suited to our objective.
With the support vessel confirmed, our next big challenge was arranging approval from the Government of South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands (GSGSSI) for the expedition. SGI is a self-administered British Overseas Territory (BOST), and they are rightly concerned about regulating who they let loose on the island. The wildlife and natural environment are fragile and sensitive to human contact, but mostly the authorities are concerned to ensure that expedition teams are experienced and well prepared for the hostile conditions they will face, and capable of rescuing themselves from any trouble.
After preparing a 70-page expedition plan, and many months of liaison and review by the GSGSSI, we got our permit. The trip was becoming a reality.
All we needed now were the kayaks.
We decided on plastic boats for their durability (rocky landings were expected, not to mention the long voyage just to get to SGI). Fortunately, an Antarctic cruise company agreed to drop our kayaks on an early season voyage to the island. But first we had to get the kayaks to the cruise ship’s re-supply stop, in Poland.
After scheduling and arranging freight from Melbourne to Poland, disaster struck. Shipping delay! The kayaks missed the Polish connection, and after much research (and remonstration) we rerouted the kayaks to Uruguay, then to the Falkland Islands, just in time to for the cruise ship to collect them before for the last leg of a very circuitous trip to SGI. A total journey of over 25,000 miles!
After being reunited with our kayaks, we’d added 250 more miles under our own power. We’d dealt with 60-knot Katabatic winds that screamed down from the islands icy spine, whipping spray into smokey spumes, and jostled for with seals and penguins for space on the beaches. Now after three days of near-perfect conditions, when we’d paddled more than 125 miles, our blistered palms and overworked arms ached as we made our final push to Cape Disappointment.
The cape began living up to its name as I found myself back-paddling to stop my kayak from plummeting down the wave faces and burying its nose up to and over the sail. Periodically swinging wildly from side to side, the sail threatened to capsize the kayak with its momentum.
I yelled to the others that it was time to put the sails away, but to no avail. I wasn’t sure if they couldn’t hear me as the worsening conditions pushed us farther apart, or if they were just having too much fun and were simply ignoring me.
So we charged farther on, now with reflected swell coming back at us from the cliffs of the Cape making the sea conditions even more confused and threatening. I was now starting to wonder if I would be able to get the sail down at all, as there was no way I could see myself taking a hand off my paddle (let alone both hands!) to complete the procedure without being knocked over by the wild seas and madly rocking sail.
In the last half-mile before the end of the Cape the wind picked up again to around 35 knots and it was all I could to control my kayak as it steamed down the swells madly trying to broach at the base of every wave. Although I could hardly consider anything beyond my own 6-foot bubble, the cliffs of the Cape towered above us, with hanging glaciers hundreds of feet up threatening to slide off their nooks and plummet down onto us.
The cloud was low and the situation getting more desperate, especially if I couldn’t work out a way to get my sail down before we passed the small gap between the Cape and Green Island that we were aiming for, and that would bring shelter and calm water again.
Jim was about 300 yards ahead and seemed to be having the same problems; if we couldn’t do anything with our sails, we were both headed for Antarctica. I then noticed that John, who was a lot closer to the cliffs, had got his sail down and brought things much more under control. I steered toward him, yelling and whistling for him to wait. When I reached him, we rafted up and I quickly pulled down my sail, which changed my whole world! I pulled out my camera for some photos of Chris, behind us with no sail loving the runs and drama of the setting. Jim finally saw the gap we were aiming for, almost too late, and fought his sail down with one hand and his teeth, steering left into the funnel that would take us through the small passage between Green Island and the Cape itself.
As we entered the funnel, the wind strengthened again, now ripping sheets of spray off the wave tops to whip us in the face. The swells flattened out a little, becoming a maelstrom of reflected chop and waves creating a sea of standing waves. The wave action pushed us deeper into the bowels of the passage, still unable to see any way through. Finally we turned a corner and saw the 25-foot-wide wide gap we’d been hoping for, bookended by 100-plus-foot-high cliffs on either side. We’d finally found some shelter.
Waves of relief flooded over us. We’d made it. Not only had we completed the crux of our trip down the treacherous south coast of South Georgia Island, but we had also survived the wildest sea kayaking ride imaginable — in one of the wildest and most remote places in the world. Only Cape Horn sits lower into the Southern Ocean than all of the world’s southerly capes. With icebergs all around and 2-degree water temperatures, any mistake could have spelt disaster.
The four of us came together to share the experience we’d just survived, feeling like we were coming down from a drug high. We couldn’t put in more than a couple of paddle strokes without stopping for a break and a huge sigh of relief. This was, quite simply, as exciting as sea kayaking gets.
— On February 15, 2015, our crew completed the 310-mile circumnavigation in a total of 13 days — six days faster than the previous record set by the Kiwis, with only one non-paddling day. I’m glad to say we’re all safe and all still friends, having shared some amazing experiences, seen incredible landscapes, and shown that ‘old guys can still do good stuff!’