Into the Tempest

S59 40′ W 0 01′

Good old charts – the kind with inscriptions like ‘Terra Australis Incognita’ and ‘There be Dragons’ – often have similarly romantic slogans written in the margin of the mid-latitudes: ‘Zona Tempestua’ decorates the one hanging in my room. The Roaring Forties and Furious Fifties have earned their reputations, and are to be respected, but my innate love of the wild fills me with a perverse joy in anticipation of heavy seas. Indeed, the ocean has treated us tenderly so far… one wonders if it is the calm before the storm.

We left the ice-pack behind, but not the ice. Bergs large and small continue to appear regularly on the radar and over the horizon; some white, tabular and enormous, other deep blues streaked with black in unlikely shapes. Just before sunset last night we passed one shaped uncannily like an Origami swan, glowing under the brooding sky. We passed rapidly through the 60’s, steaming consistently at 12.5 knots through flats seas yesterday, but today awoke to strengthening winds and choppy waters. The swells are still negligible and the chop insufficient to cause major pitch or roll of the vessel, but nonetheless bear their own danger. Big ice-bergs are easy to see and avoid, but the little growlers – small bergs that barely break the surface and are invisible on radar – are hidden very easily by chop and white-horses. Every now and then, as I sit in the hospital near the stern, I feel the ship heel suddenly over as the officer of the watch makes a sudden correction to avoid a chunk of ice which will _probably_ bounce off the strengthened hull but _could_ hurt her. Still, we rather steam fast now while the sea is still friendly… the Fifties lie ahead.

Tonight is wonderfully dark. The thick cloud overhead has extinguished every hint of star- or moonilight, and the sea has no luminescence. My habit is to circle the decks as I climb from level to level on my way to the bridge, to make the most of the opportunity for exercise, but tonight I moved only by feel, barely able to discern the railings to which my hands froze and eyes wide to absorb any hint of light but blinking rapidly to clear the hard-blown snow. The monkey-deck above the bridge – the highest deck on the ship, completely exposed to the elements – was eerie, pitch black and battered by the wind. My hair was soon full of snow, and clad only in a thin fleece I had to retreat after a few minutes to the quiet warmth of the bridge. There, the still glow of the radar and a few other instruments served only to highlight the darkness; the mate on watch, hearing the door open and close but no other movement, nervously let off a soft “Hello?” after a minute or two and was patently relieved when I identified myself as mortal and no harpy Neptune sent to claim him for the deep. The radar showed what our eyes couldn’t; nine large bergs floated ahead within less than two miles, all on our course.

Due to the vagaries of wind and current, 55 to 60 degrees south is known as the ‘iceberg belt’, where bergs slowly circumnavigate Antarctica in great concentration. Add the tempestuous reputation of the Fifties and you have a great danger to vessels. Thus, we place a great deal of trust in the officers of the good Agulhas to find us a safe passage and not let their attention wander through the dark night. As I write the pitch and roll of the ship increases; at these latitudes there is no land anywhere around the globe to interrupt the ocean swells, and they too roll around the earth in magnitude unmatched elsewhere. Antarctica and her ice, despite the cold, have sheltered us; safe port now lies very far ahead, and with only the wild sea between.

One Response to “Into the Tempest”

  1. claudia scherer-scheltema Says:

    Dear SA Agulhas team,

    I recently learnt through a friend of mine that SA Agulhas will have its open day again on Saturday 20.6.09 from 10.00 – 15.00.

    As we would like to come aboard on that day, and even bring a friend who had been to the Antartica herself earlier this year, I was just looking for more details on your website how to find you on that day, but have not been successful.

    I would very much appreciate if you could let me have this info ASAP.

    Thanks and kind regards

    Claudia Scherer-Scheltema
    Cape Town

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.