Surviving the Southern Ocean Rock

 bernie harberts windora south georgia antarctica sailboat christiesen phil and lynda

Fighting for her life. Hurricane force winds threaten to splinter the ketch Windora‘s 40 year old wood hull. She dragged her anchor and wound up on a submerged rock in South Georgia, the Antarctic island. I was aboard her. Video footage is at the end of the article.(Vessel “Braveheart” photo)

“Below 40, there is no Law. Below 50, there is no God.” They saying comes from Southern Ocean voyagers. The 40 is the Roaring Forties, the 50 the Furious Fifties. It’s a bo-ho line to use down at Ye Olde Yachte Clube when it’s raining outside and you want to lay some salty lingo on a dirt digger.

But damn, here I was in hurricane force winds and snow. At Latitude 54 South. Standing on Windora as she threatened to pound herself to splinters on a Southern Ocean rock….

If you ever had a wood boat die beneath your sea boots you’ll know the sickening the sound. The rise of the timber body. Up the face of the wave. And then your guts fly up as your body goes down with the wave and “Bammmm!” down on to the rock you go. The jolt up through your feet and the sound of wood fibers ripped apart and the whole things is going down with you inside.

That’s what I felt on Windora but it was never supposed to be this way.

Okay, maybe I need to catch you up to speed.

Last time I wrote you, I was sailing from the Falkland Islands to South Georgia with my friends Phil and Lynda aboard their 40 year old kauri wood ketch Windora. The plan was to sail the 800 miles to the Antarctic island. Spend a few months there. Then sail 2,800 miles across the Southern Ocean to Cape Town, South Africa.

falkland islands bernie harberts

South Georgia is way down south past regular old Georgia. Think Antarctica, not Jimmy Carter.

falkland islands bernie harberts

Windora is an Athol Burns design. New Zealand built, she’s strip planked in kauri. Phil and Lynda raised their two sons aboard her as they sailed around the world. They’ve put another 30,000 miles on the 20 ton vessel since a major refit. Here, she’s exploring a South Georgia glacier face.

This was just going to be a personal trip. A time of reflection. A chance to get back in to the wider world after taking care of my parents and, more recently, my aunt who was diagnosed with dementia. My brother and I wrapped up her affairs, sold her home and moved her back to native Switzerland.

There would be no book about this trip. No articles. No blog posts. Just a cold ocean ramble to South Georgia, a glacier covered island off Antarctic.

And for the first month and a half, things went according to Plan. Think South Georgia, and we’re talking glaciers, ice bergs, penguins and elephant seals. Here’s a sample of what we saw.

 bernie harberts south georgia windora

South Georgia has some the highest animal densities on the planet. Here, I’m catching up with some King penguins. The trick is to sit quietly and they come right up to you. This is easy because…. (Vessel Kestrel photo)

 bernie harberts south georgia windora

…there are thousands of penguins around. This colony on Salisbury Plain was estimated to contain 100,000 pairs of nesting King Penguins.

 bernie harberts windora south georgia antarctica sailboat christiesen phil and lynda

Hunted to almost extinction, fur seals and elephant seals, abound. Elephant seals, like this female, look cute…

 bernie harberts windora south georgia antarctica sailboat christiesen phil and lynda

…but don’t like being approached too closely.

 bernie harberts windora south georgia antarctica sailboat christiesen phil and lynda

South Georgia’s weather is variable. A nice day like this in Grytviken harbor – where Ernest Shackleton is buried – can quickly turn ugly. There’s even a color named for this – sucker blue. The sky’s nice and blue. You go for a walk. Then….

 bernie harberts windora south georgia antarctica sailboat christiesen phil and lynda

…things turn ugly. I started this hike in sunny weather. Within two hours, the snow drifts were thigh deep.

 bernie harberts windora south georgia antarctica sailboat christiesen phil and lynda

The water is just above freezing. Here, Windora passes one of the many icebergs encountered in these remote waters.

Then we had the encounter with The Rock.

For the impatient, here’s the video.

Up next, the blow-by-blow.


 bernie harberts windora south georgia antarctica sailboat christiesen phil and lynda

South Georgia is half covered in mountains, ice and snow. This can lead to really windy conditions better suited to penguins than humans. (Harpon, South Georgia)

South Georgia has a heavily indented mountain range running down the middle of the island. Winds funnel down the valleys to the coast in what are called williwaws, or “woolies”. These compressed blasts of wind can reach hurricane force (65 knots) and higher.

On the Beaufort scale – used by sailors to classify wind speed – 35 knots is considered a gale, 55 knots is considered a storm, 65 knots is considered a hurricane. Friends who spent over 2 years aboard their boat in South Georgia would later tell me they experienced wind well over 100 knots.

The first two weeks in South Georgia, we experienced three days of snow and 65 knot winds. In other words, standard behavior for this part of the world.

One month in to our visit, while anchored in Husvik harbor, a weather system blew in from the direction of Antarctica.

The wind rose to 40 knots. 50 knots (a knot is a bit more than a statute mile). Snow plastered Windora’s pilot house windows. Williwaws – which are violent microbursts – slammed in to the securely anchored vessel.

Her 75 pound anchor and 150 foot of 1/2” chain held the 20 ton vessel fast.

Then, a howling gust of wind and snow started the sickening drag across the anchorage. The 85 knot winds dislodged her anchor. The rest of the anchor chain was paid out. Phil fired up the 120 horsepower engine so we could re-anchor.

The roar of the engine. Windora started moving back.

We were dragging anchor.

We started winching in the anchor, motoring in to the raging wind so we could reset our anchor gear. But the anchor was wrapped in a ball of kelp. When dropped, the wad of kelp and anchor just dragged across the bottom.

Then silence. The engine had overheated and stopped.

Windora traced a slow, horrible arc to the black rock off her transom.

No! No! This is the stuff you read about. In adventure books, this is the part where the engine dies, then fires back up in the nick of time and the vessel escapes. Or the captain raises the sails and claws to open water.

Phil went to deploy the secondary anchor, another 75 pound plow-style anchor.
The anchor was in the bow roller. The anchor rode and chain – used to attach the anchor to the boat – was stored in the stern locker, at the boat’s stern.

In the howling wind, Phil lugged the rope and chain forward, hurrying to attach it to the spare anchor, so he could deploy it.

He ran out of time.

The crunch of keel timber and lead crashing on to the Southern Ocean rock. The sickening lurch to port. The vessel captured. The howl of the wind and no way to get her pounding hull off the reef.

 bernie harberts windora south georgia antarctica sailboat christiesen phil and lynda

Windora on the rocks. This is the view from her cockpit.

A metal boat might survive a few hours. That’s why most boats that venture here are steel or aluminum.

Other materials, like Windora’s wood hull, are less forgiving.

What followed were four hours of put-on-your-life-jacket-and-grab-your-passport conditions. Still, we stuck with our stricken vessel. There was no way to get off, even if rescue had been an option. The snow and storm conditions made approaching the grounded vessel impossible.

Slowly, the tide dropped. Windora stopped pounding. Conditions eased. A kedge anchor was rowed out to deeper water. Windora, incredibly, was winched off the rock and back in to deeper water.

Suffice to say, it was a miracle Windora’s back wasn’t broken on Bar Rock – the rock she hit. She was lucky. Windora struck the rock on a bulkhead, a strong part of the hull. More important, she was well prepared. Phil and Lynda have spent an incredible amount of preparing her for such an encounter. They’d spent the better part of two years, back in New Zealand, preparing their Windora for a journey in to the ice. That afternoon, it all paid off.

Most years, only a dozen or so sailboats visit South Georgia. By coincidence, two other sailboats, Kestrel and Caramor – plus a commercial vessel Braveheart – where anchored close to Windora as she took her beating. None of the boats could have assisted as conditions were too rough.

They did film our plight, though. Kestrel and Braveheart gave us video footage which I edited it in to a hell of an account of what happened. Sure, there’s plenty of video out there of boats that run aground on the Intracoastal Waterway or some sandy beach. But a kauri wood boat that survived an Antarctic island bashing? Damn, that’s a rare beast!

 bernie harberts windora south georgia antarctica sailboat christiesen phil and lynda

Kestrel. Her crew Isolde and Gabor shot some amazing footage of Windora on the rocks. They said it made them feel sick to watch. There was nothing they could have done to assist. Kestrel is Jay Benford’s Argonauta design. Note all the kelp clinging to Kestrel’s anchor chain. It is legendary in these high latitudes for fouling anchors.

So here’s what you’re about to see.

As the clip opens, you’ll see conditions in the Husvik anchorage. Wind gusting to 85 knots. Snow. Williwaws.

The boats, in appearance, are Caramor, Windora, Kestrel and Braveheart. Braveheart recorded 85 knot winds during the blow.

The first boat you see is Caramor dragging her anchor. Her crew, in yellow, is on the bow trying to raise the anchor so they can escape (which they did).

 bernie harberts windora south georgia antarctica sailboat christiesen phil and lynda

Carmor is a Rustler 36 sailed by Franco and Kath. Here, she’s in about 35 knots of wind. When the williwaws the hit…

 bernie harberts windora south georgia antarctica sailboat christiesen phil and lynda

…the 36 foot sailboat pretty much disappeared in the haze of salt water spray and rain.

Then you see Windora covered in snow hours before she dragged. That’s Phil scrapping snow off the pilothouse windows.

Next is Kestrel’s cockpit and the large motor vessel is Braveheart.

Finally, you’ll see Windora as she pounds on Bar Rock in storm conditions. Trust me, we thought she was a goner.

Oh hell, let’s just cut to the footage.

What caused Windora to go on the rocks? That’s the subject of a whole other article. Suffice to say, if you sail long enough, you’re going to go aground. Especially in these high latitudes. So sailors are sensitive to point out blame when they hear someone hit the bricks.

Still, there are reasons – in seamanship and equipment – that ships wind up on reefs.

Windora’s seconday anchor – including rope and chain – was not ready when it was most needed. It was still in the bow roller – undeployed – when she struck the reef (see photo above). This cost precious time.

Other boats in the area had dragged. They often do in these extreme climes. But when they drag, a second anchor must ready for immediate deployment. A vessel simply can’t rely on its engine to get it out of trouble.

As to the engine dying, that was later traced to six cable ties. The plastic cables supported a coolant hose broke. They broke, dropping the hose on to propeller shaft driven alternator. The hose chaffed through. The engine coolant leaked out. And so the engine overheated.

It was though that an off-gassing battery had made the cables brittle.

That’s how it goes in life and sailing. It’s the little things that can sink you…or at least, almost put you under water…

Still, we got lucky. Windora was winched off the rocks, by her crew. And lived to sail another day.

Post script: cheers to the staff in Grytviken, South Georgia, who helped with Windora’s repair. Also to Kestrel, Caramor and Braveheart for film footage and, after it was all over, a few nerve calming drinks.

Also, a big thank you to Phil and Lynda for asking me to accompany them to South Georgia aboard Windora. See you out there!

John Almberg
2016-04-28 15:53:06

Ugh! I hate to hear about stories like this. But it does help remind people not to take their anchor or engine for granted. Engine in particular.

I made the same mistake myself – having the emergency anchor stowed away too deeply to get at quickly. I was in Georgia, though, not South Georgia, so the consequences weren’t as dire.

Note when you interviewed me in Oriental, one of the photos shows my emergency anchor on deck, ready for instant deployment.

Anyway, glad you survived. I check in on you from time to time to see how you are doing. Looking forward to your next post from South Africa or wherever the wind takes you.

Take care.

Lynda Campbell
2016-05-06 10:10:24


WOW! You are in our thoughts and prayers each day. Looking forward to your return and hearing of all your adventures!

Joe and Lynda Campbell
Lenoir, NC

2016-05-10 19:03:50

Hi John, Joe and Lynda,
John, great to hear from you again. Sure enjoyed reading about your sun sight compass project. Nice (okay, is there a better word?) touch how you dragged in the “other” Georgia. Yep, it can happen to anyone, especially the sailor with the buried-too-deep-in-the-bilges anchor.
If you’re in the neighborhood Joe and Lynda, come on by. The spring garden’s cranking the arugula out faster than a man and his mule can eat it!
Keep ‘yer scope long and your spare anchor handy. Bernie


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