“I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die.” These were the words I was yelling, convincing myself to stay alive in a 60-70 knot katabatic wind that attacked us on our first day’s paddle along the Antarctic Peninsula in early 2006.
Three days earlier, myself, together with Stuart Trueman and Andrew Mcauley were attempting to paddle unsupported along the entire length of the Antarctic Peninsula. We were attempting to honour an early Australian Antarctic explorer John Rymill, an explorer credited with charting the Peninsula between 1934 and 1937.
We had just been dropped off at our start point at the old British base of Hope Bay at the very northern tip of the Peninsula and had packed our kayaks ready to start our trip. However, we spent the next few days frustrated from bad weather and unable to paddle. Finally, after three days of strong winds we awoke on 9 February 2006 to calm seas and fair winds and off we paddled to what would be an eventful first day but also a gruelling 30-day paddle along one of the harshest coastlines in the world.
We left Hope Bay and paddled off south around the corner, excited about finally starting. Five km into the first day, we had our first of many close calls. We were straight lining from headland to headland due to the load of the kayaks (weighing in at approximately 200kgs each without paddlers), we were one third of the way across a big bay that was surrounded by high ice cliffs when we first noticed a light head wind. Slowly at first the wind strengthened and then it increased within half an hour to a full gale force wind of at least 70 knots. A good size sea was hitting us, dangerously blowing Andrew’s and my kayaks uncontrollably beam on to the wind. This left us fighting individually for our lives as we had become separated in these winds, independently deciding to turn and run back to Hope Bay. Stuart who was in the only skeg-operated kayak — a Nadgee Expedition — simply put his skeg down and surfed back to safety behind the last headland, but strangely it was Andrew and I in ruddered boats who had the handling problems.
I was fighting for my life screaming, “I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die”, fighting off large chunks of icebergs that were being tossed around on the three metre seas that the winds had unleashed. I began to cramp from the cold and the exertion of having to high brace into the beam on waves in the energy-zapping cold water. I was beginning to struggle in the elements. Finally after a lengthy battle, I made enough ground to be in the lee of the ice cliffs offering protection from the winds. As I paddled on wondering what had become of my mates, I rounded a small headland to see Stuart Trueman in his Nadgee Expedition excitedly waving his hands, glad to see some one else alive. We rafted for a few minutes but quickly decided that if we were to survive we had to keep paddling to keep warm. After a few hours we crossed Hope Bay safely making it back to the Argentine Base quickly deciding we would give Andrew 30 minutes before notifying the authorities of his no-show. Just as we notified the authorities we spied Andrew coming around the corner heading back to where we were – thankfully.
After fighting the last of the winds across Hope Bay we were reunited as a team again and from what we caught on film we were pumped with adrenalin from the experience – all this on the first day of our expedition!
In hindsight this was a blessing as we learnt that Antarctica was the master and we were at his peril. We quickly had learned that there are NO RULES in Antarctica, something we would see many more times over in the coming weeks
Understandably we took the rest of the day off and the next to recuperate and get our heads together after coming so close to tragedy the day before.
Days two to eight
From the experience of the first day, we all had the jitters badly and it was with trepidation that we again headed off into the unknown, but this time we saw no Katabatic winds letting let us relax and finally start enjoying the spectacular scenery as we paddled past 30 metre ice cliffs that were collapsing (calving) into the ocean before our eyes. We showed respect by keeping a fair distance from these big chunks of ice.
We spent the next week or so slowly jumping from camp to camp in between gales. This was made more frustrating as I had taken an unknown kayak on the expedition, finding out the hard way that it didn’t handle well in headwinds and was slowing down considerably; extra punishment that I just didn’t need at this early stage of the expedition.
Our first camp was on a small rock outcrop that held us down for two days. We landed on the rock at high tide and found out that the tide receded so far out that the next morning, although fair conditions for paddling, the drop-off from the rock needed an abseil down the side. This also had to be done with an 18-foot 200kg plus sea kayak. We took the soft option and waited and waited and waited for the tide to rise. The wait was for nearly 24 hours before it came in again, allowing us to quickly slide off our rock and resume our paddle
We were quickly getting into good team work in an orderly fashion for the communal duties of cooking and so on. As everywhere in the world, the washing up was the worst job, although in the Antarctic this was complicated by our hands freezing in the water to scrub the pots, resulting in having to hold our hands under our armpits for the next five minutes to get feeling back in the hands. Our fingers remained numb for quite some time on our arrival back home.
This initial first third of the trip was always going to be the hardest as it had more exposed coast line and bigger crossings with one bay being a seven hour crossing and being notorious for Katabatic winds. After our first day’s paddle fresh in our minds we tentatively started the crossing, quickly finding ourselves engulfed in a mist that had visibility down to about 10 meters. We had to navigate by compass for the rest of the crossing. Try staring at your compass for hours and hours – it is bloody boring so we quickly got into a 20 minute routine of playing follow the leader, jokingly soaking up the hours until we again had land in sight. We finally rounded Cape Rockmoral finding ourselves stuck in a giant field of brash and pancake ice that looked impenetrable. For the next three hours, we struggled slowly, weaving and bashing our way through the ice trying to find a way through, finally breaking into a clear path that allowed us clear passage round the Cape line. Rounding the majestic Cape was inspiring as we now were heading into a more protected part of the trip with the possibility of human contact from the scientific bases stationed in the area — something we were looking forward to.
Days nine to nineteen
Leaving what we thought was the more dangerous part of the trip behind, we were all smiles as we were now entering a more sheltered area of the peninsula that would allow greater daily mileage as well as the chance for some R&R along the way – or so we thought!
We had just enjoyed a rare sunny day that had allowed us to paddle alongside Minke whales as they glided along beautifully-shaped bergs with crystal-clear water. The water was so clear that it allowed us to watch these gentle giants swimming along while we paddled with them in their own surroundings. We left the whales and chanced upon a rookery of penguins that allowed us uninterrupted views of them swimming up to us under the water, quickly darting left and right.
We only had a short paddle to our next destination at Spring Pt and we arrived that early afternoon to a sheltered bay that had an endlessly calving glacier thundering away at one end and an old disused Chilean Army hut on the west side hut that hadn’t seen any people in it for quite awhile. What a joy not to have to pitch a tent that night!
After an enjoyable sunset that lasted for hours in clear skies, we tramped off to our hut for the night, only to awaken in the morning to a bay totally covered in brash ice, in our immediate vicinity! Just three km away was clear ocean, so it was a great day for paddling and this had Andrew frustrated as he wasn’t one to sit still for too long. So we pushed off and attempted to paddle through the thick ice only to find that after only less than 50 metres offshore we were stuck hard in the ice. As the ice slowed us down considerably we were unable to turn our kayaks and this was frustrating Stu as he only had a skeg in his kayak. Even though Andrew and I were not much better off in our ruddered boats, we could slowly turn and I mean slowly! We spent the next two hours stuck in this thick soupy ice mix that slowed us to a crawl and had us fighting to turn our boats. Finally Andrew and I managed to turn our boats to point to shore and as we pulled ourselves through we bumped our bow onto Stu’s stern and shoved his boat the right way so he could also make it safely to shore.
After another half hour we finally reached our little cove that only had room for one kayak at a time so we slowly emptied each kayak then dragged each boat up a steep bit of ice cliff only to find we had made only 100 metres distance for about four hours work!
While climbing our kayaks out, I slipped and managed to chip a bone in my elbow that became swollen and would see me miss three days of the trip although I didn’t know this at the time. We were quite frustrated with the day and decided to pack it in and walk the 300 metres back to the hut for another night. We awoke the next morning to again find ourselves iced in, deciding to carry all of our gear around the next small headland, trying to get closer to clear seas. To achieve this we had to carry our gear first up a 500m steep rocky hill, then along a jagged ice cliff, then down a crampon-assisted climb down onto large bouldering moraines. Finally, we climbed along to a sheltered cove that gave us a fair chance out of there. Eventually after eight hours of humping, climbing and pulling we were carrying the last of the gear down into the cove when an unexpected off shore breeze quickly pushed all of the pack ice in our little bay out to sea in about 20 minutes, to say we were frustrated was an understatement!
We spent the next five days plugging our way down the coast exploring uncharted bays and camping in some pretty wild places. On a small uncharted island after a long day in the boats, we found ourselves on the only bit of flat rock that allowed us any chance of a landing. We could only sleep outside as there wasn’t room for tents. We spent the next eight hours watching the tide creep up onto our little bit of rock, going to sleep finally about two am having seen the last of the flood tide.
At this stage our kayaks had been taking a battering with Andrew’s Mirage and my Sea quest sustaining damage that had required a few repairs along the way, however Stuarts Kevlar Nadgee Expedition had held up well. It’s amazing the little damage they all sustained from the hard rock landings and the constant battering into icebergs we gave them. Stuart had the best idea, running a strip of Kevlar along the keel line of his boat as a wear strip resulting in hardly any damage to his keel at all
Days twenty to thirty three
After arriving at the Ukrainian scientific base, Vernadsky, we finally caught up with our yacht that was planning to pick us up soon. Luckily they were there as my elbow was quite swollen, desperately needing rest, and requiring no other choice but to sit out a few days paddling, hoping we could meet up maybe in a few days. It was devastating to admit defeat to something that had taken three years of planning and cost thousands of dollars to get there and I was quite depressed by being beaten by something I had no control over, despondently watching the fellas paddle off the next day.
At least I had the chance to have a famous round (or ten) of home-made vodka with the scientists at the base. Resting the next few days, my elbow quickly mended and I was biting at the bit to again catch up and paddle with my mates. That same day I rejoined the fellas, we were again hammered by strong winds but this time the winds were coming from three directions having been forced up and over gullies and valleys to hit us at about fifty knots. This time we weren’t pushed out to sea like our first day. We tried to paddle into this wind but soon gave up when we could see ourselves being blown backwards. We ended up paddling back to a sheltered spot enjoying the moment by filming ourselves in a small cave having a laugh at what we had just attempted. Later that night we were to see the winds change direction by 180 degrees and increase in speed to the point that one of the tents was ripped and torn leaving Andrew and I to sleep with our backs to the poles trying to hold the last of the tent together.
We were now very close to the Gullet, the main crux of the whole trip; an area of the coast known for ice to pack even in summer, not allowing access to any vessel. We had knowledge of a Chilean Navy ice breaker that had attempted to push through but had failed so we were sure our little fibreglass and Kevlar boats didn’t stand a chance.
We only had another two days of paddling left, having been forced to abandon our trip on the Kidd Islands. After paddling south one final time to ensure we paddled over that imaginary line called the Antarctic Circle, sadly our trip was over. We had paddled over 850 km over a total of 33 days, camping out on the Antarctic coastline — a once in a life time adventure.
It’s now four months since Andrew was tragically lost at sea, possibly on the last night of his major expedition paddling a sea kayak from Tasmania Australia to Milford Sound in New Zealand. This was always an ambitious project but if anyone had a chance of pulling it off I was confident he was the man for the job. I’m sure whatever happened it was a major accident that just couldn’t possibly be avoided. Coincidently the day Andrew went missing was exactly a year to the day when we had our very close experience on our first days paddle in Antarctica…spooky.
I had the pleasure of paddling with Andrew many times over the years, around the wild west coast of Tasmania where we found ourselves in 50 knots plus of wind and seven metre swell, paddling to an outlying coastal island 20 km off the coast, and many numerous weekly trips, but most importantly we held an annual trip with a bunch of mates the first week in October where paddling become second to the socialising side of kayaking.
Andrew was an extreme sea kayaker who pushed boundaries in all of his pursuits but his first priority was to look at the safety aspects of his challenges; if these met his high standard he then would move onto the next stage of his meticulous planning. He had boundless energy, a trait that constantly amazed and annoyed me, especially long into a trip when feeling tired and sore this leaping bean pole would jokingly urge me on to the next headland.
He was always so far in front that you had no choice but to push on cursing his name on every stroke, but amazed when after a physically-draining 50 km paddle he would jump up grab his camera heading off on a three hour mountain climb to get the best position for a good sunset photo. If he was sharing a tent he would not only pitch your tent, but brew a hot drink ready when you arrived.
Andrew was one of the best sea kayakers I know and a good mate and he will be sorely missed by all.