By Conor Mihell
Published: December 23, 2010
If Antarctica’s South Georgia Island is the “Mount Everest of expedition sea kayaking,” then the recent accomplishment of four Norwegian paddlers is akin to climbing the world’s highest summit without supplemental oxygen. On Dec. 2, Simen Havig-Gjelseth, Dag Marius Ammerud, Sigrid Henjum and Tormod Austring became the third team of sea kayakers to paddle all of South Georgia’s 375-mile perimeter. But unlike the two successful 2005 expeditions that preceded them, the Norwegians did it self-supported—taking 20 days to paddle around the island, crash-landing on surf-washed pocket beaches and camping amidst hordes of hostile seals.
All paddling expeditions to South Georgia are required by law to have a support vessel. While the Norwegians’ progress was shadowed by a 54-foot sailboat, they never boarded it—unlike previous Kiwi and British teams that used their support vessels for resupplying provisions or as floating basecamps. “We wanted to be self-supported because that’s how we do expeditions,” says Havig-Gjelseth, 38, the team’s leader, in an interview. “You have such a great freedom when you carry everything you need in your kayaks and do not have to wait or have to meet up at certain times.”
On South Georgia, freedom comes at the expense of comfort and safety. British explorer Captain James Cook, who was the first to sail around the island in 1775, called it “a land doomed to perpetual frigidness, whose savage aspects I have not words to describe.” Its coastline is comprised of cliffs, glaciers and very few sand, gravel and cobblestone beaches, most of which are guarded fiercely by territorial fur seals. “The males defend their territories with all they’ve got,” says Havig-Gjelseth. “We had to fight our way on to the beach every time we went ashore, during lunch, during bladder breaks and at night for camping.” The team used their paddles as “poking sticks, swords [and] bats” to clear space to pitch their four-person tent. At one stop, a seal took hold of Ammerud’s paddle, leaving bite holes in the blade.
The trip nearly ended early for Henjum, 26, the youngest and only female member of the expedition, when a 4,500-pound elephant seal crushed the bow of her kayak at an overnight camp. Havig-Gjelseth admits the experience reminded him of his 1999 expedition to the Arctic island of Spitsbergen, when a polar bear destroyed two kayaks in search of food, necessitating a helicopter rescue. In South Georgia, the team brought the damaged end of the kayak into their tent, dried and heated the area with camp stoves and used copious amounts of fiberglass cloth and resin to complete the five-foot-long repair.
Wildlife aside, weather is South Georgia’s biggest factor. Sudden, powerful offshore winds descend from the island’s 9,000-foot peaks, the south coast bears the brunt of the Southern Ocean’s notoriously fickle temperament and the route is subject to shifting ice. The Norwegians spent their fair share of time stormbound, and took advantage of moments of calm with early morning starts and a several long 40-mile days. The crux of the journey was rounding the aptly named Cape Disappointment, where the team encountered 25-foot seas and reflection waves.
Havig-Gjelseth credits the team’s cohesiveness to its success. “I think it is more important that the person can work in a group, create a nice atmosphere and not complain, rather than being an Olympic champion in paddling,” he says. The plan worked: Austring only began sea kayaking in 2008, but Havig-Gjelseth says, “Hard and straight-to-the-point training made him a fantastic kayaker.” Meanwhile, the communal sleeping quarters (which also proved invaluable for boat repair) were chosen to facilitate group discussion. “I did not want to risk two opposing tent parties forming,” says Havig-Gjelseth.
Now, three weeks after the trip and home just in time for the holidays, Havig-Gjelseth has had time to reflect on his experience on South Georgia. “There is always a two-sided feeling [at the end of an expedition],” he says. “I love expeditions, but I also love going home. We have nice cold and white Christmas weather, my wife still loves me and so do my two boys.”