Elephant Island

As I write these lines, Elephant Island is already moving away in the wake of the Selma.

Today, at around five o’clock in the morning, our destination emerged dimly from the darkness of the night. At first all we could see was the bright glow of a glacier, but a little later we could also make out the first land masses in the blackness. Shortly afterwards – a magical moment – the rising sun emerged from the ocean as a glowing orange ball right next to the tip of Cape Yelcho.

What a welcome! Here in this place, the destination of our journey. Or the starting point – however you look at it. This is the place why we are here, the place where it all began. The place that has been haunting my dreams for many years, that was the reason for looking for a suitable boat two years ago, a skipper and people who were also enthusiastic about the idea of sailing here. And now we have actually arrived here on Elephant Island.

This and much more goes through my mind as we sail along the north coast after passing Cape Yelcho and the Seal Islands, which protrude from the sea like the pointed teeth of a monster. I stand on deck, lost in thought. The cloud base is high enough, the island passes us by. Nothing but rock and glaciers, barrenness and exposure.

It is still 15 miles to Point Wild, the place where Ernest Shackleton and the crew of the ice-crushed and sunken Endurance sought refuge. They had rowed for five days through the stormy, icy Weddell Sea in their three lifeboats after having to abandon their camp on the melting, cracking ice in April 1916. Exhausted, the 28 men had solid ground under their feet again for the first time after 497 days at sea and sea ice at Cape Valentine in East Elephant Island. Solid ground that nevertheless meant neither protection nor any prospect of rescue from outside, just like Point Wild, which Shackleton chose as the location for setting up camp a little later. A few days later, on April 24, he left the camp with five other men and the James Caird, the least desolate of the three lifeboats, to seek help in South Georgia, 800 nautical miles away.

The remaining 22 men stayed behind under the care and leadership of Frank Wild, built a makeshift dwelling from the remaining two boats and waited there, fighting for their survival, for another four hard winter months for a rescue that seemed almost impossible.

When we reach Point Wild, our eyes scan the coastline in search of this place. From a distance, from close up, with the aid of binoculars and the zoom lens of the camera. In vain: there seems to be no place there. Even up close, there is only a narrow strip of black, stony beach before a high rock face rises up steeply behind it. There is no way forward to the left or right either – glaciers limit the length here. In the meantime, the glacier, whose huge front was still directly in front of the rock face at that time, has retreated several hundred meters.

It is high tide, but even at low tide, this stretch remains just a tiny, towel-sized beach a few meters wide. Barren, rocky, merciless and at the mercy of the elements. And yet this is the right place for us.

As hard as we try, even with the knowledge of this story, the reports of Shackleton and other expedition members … it seems unbelievable. Even the thought of having to spend just one night here on the few meters of rock between the wild ocean and glaciated rock is one that you’d rather quickly push aside. It is impossible to even begin to imagine what it must have meant to spend four cold, dark months here. 22 exhausted and exhausted men in a makeshift dwelling made of two small upturned open boats. After the sinking of the Endurance, they had already endured a 15-month, exhausting and desperate odyssey in and on the ice. Who – to be honest – could hardly have hoped that Shackleton, Worsley and Co. would succeed in their daring coup to reach South Georgia and bring possible help. It is probably thanks to an almost inhuman will to survive, and not least to Frank Wild, that all 22 men survived and came through this time physically and mentally.

Wind and high swell crash directly onto the coast, the Southern Ocean hits the coast, which is dangerously dotted with numerous offshore rocks, unchecked. White spray breaks high and wildly foaming on the dark rocks. The conditions today are the same as they almost always are here: landing is not possible. Not even for us. Unfortunately.

We would have loved not only to have looked out from the deck of the Selma, but also to have set foot on this piece of coastline, to have walked on this historic ground, compared the individual rocks with those in Frank Hurley’s photos, searched for the exact location of the camp… stood there ourselves, felt it … the towering rock face behind us, looking out to sea. Just as the men around Frank Wild had scanned the horizon with their eyes every day for weeks, more than a hundred years ago, until at the end of August, after four long, anxious months of waiting, a ship – the Yelcho, a Chilean navy guard ship – finally and indeed appeared on the horizon. Shackleton was on board and single-handedly took all his remaining expedition members into his care.

The men around Ernest Shackleton always believed in their boss. And he believed that he would succeed in bringing every single one of them home unharmed.

I have long dreamed of and believed in sailing to this place at some point. To find a crew that believes in this idea and that we can make it happen together.

To be here in this place today, to have sailed here with these ten people on the Selma, to have spent the last few weeks on the way here together, to have lived and experienced this moment, to share it now … all of this is an incredible gift and makes me happy and grateful.

It’s obviously not just me. We toast together: to the power of dreaming and believing in something, to Shackleton, to us, to the Selma, to our journey. We share with Neptune and bow our heads in respect to the men of the Endurance.

And then we set off, take a last look back at Point Wild and set our course north.

Course Elephant Island

Two days ago, on Sunday, we weighed anchor at four in the morning, left Deception Island and set course 060 for Elephant Island. There are a good 200 nautical miles between these two islands, both of which belong to the South Shetland Islands. We kept to the coast on the west side of the Bransfield Strait and gradually passed the island chain.

At the south-east corner of Robert Island, we crossed Selma’s old track, the one from our arrival in Antarctica at the beginning of February, after crossing the Drake Passage. It feels like an eternity has passed since then and we have experienced a lot.

We made another stop overnight after around 70 miles and anchored in Potter Cove, King George Island off the Argentinian station of Carlini. We will be underway enough over the next few days and nights, so a last break and a quiet night without ice navigation will do us good. As dawn breaks later, you can already tell that we are slowly leaving the south behind us.

On the way along the South Shetlands we were again accompanied by many whales, blowing all around us, sometimes 10 to 12 at a time. This time it was larger groups of sei whales migrating along the coast. Many penguins – Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins – were on the move, also in large flocks, which, when the bow of the Selma came too close to them, took to their heels and shot out of the water like torpedoes. We were also escorted several times by fur seals, in small groups of three or four, leaping, swimming and diving through the water in elegant arcs.

The icebergs are becoming increasingly rare. We look forward to each one, knowing full well that one of them could be the last one we leave in our wake on our journey north. Unfortunately, we won’t encounter the colossus A23A – at 4000 km2, this is the largest iceberg in the world to date and is currently underway between Elephant Island and the South Orkney Islands.

The wind picks up in the evening and we are finally out of the lee of King George Island. The open Southern Ocean welcomes us with a fairly high swell and perfect sailing winds of around 20 knots. The jib glows warmly in the evening sun, wind from 150-160 degrees from astern and the six meter wave pushes us forward. We are only making nine knots with the foresail, the Selma is rushing through the night, a huge wave, topped with white foam, occasionally roaring under us. Then it lifts us far up onto the crest of the wave and we surf down into the white spray. The sea foams and bubbles as if it were boiling. It’s great fun to be at the helm, sailing through the night, with nothing around but ocean, dancing wave crests and later even a few stars in the night sky.

Later, some ice appears on the radar. We are traveling too fast – for the ice conditions and for an arrival in daylight – and switch from the large headsail to the smaller jib.

Later, even this is recovered for two hours, we run without sails in front of the top and rigging, still making three to four knots. Now it’s just wind, waves and current pushing us along. The Selma rolls unbearably from left to right, but at least it does so in line with the course. Even when we set sail again later, we remain the plaything of the high waves. We in our bunks are rolling in the same way, so a restful sleep is out of the question.

However, there are no real complaints about this: after all, after a lot of effort by Mr. Perkins, we are on our way to Elephant Island under sail.

Deception Island

The next morning we weigh anchor at five o’clock in the morning and set course for the South Shetlands. It’s about 100 miles to Deception Island. We have zero wind, it’s gray and the water is as smooth as glass.

As on the way south, we encounter many whales again in the Gerlache Strait. Who knows, maybe the four from the previous evening are among them?

During Peter’s and my watch in the evening it clears up, we finally have enough wind and can set sail in the evening sun. Mr. Perkins has a break, we have a big grin on our faces. The night is clear, the starry sky is gigantic, the Milky Way stretches out in a wide arc above us, even the two Magellanic Clouds are visible.

In the darkness, we pass the narrow entrance – known as Neptune’s Bellows – to Deception Island at around midnight. On the left, a beacon marks the passage, which is only a few hundred meters wide; on the right, the shadow of a steep rock face looms out of the darkness. At one o’clock we drop anchor in Telephone Bay.

Deception Island is a volcanic island, the summit of a collapsed volcanic crater that rises above the surface of the sea. An almost circular caldera, flooded by the sea, with a diameter of approx. 6 miles. The volcano is still active, but the last eruption (1970) was a good 50 years ago. During an eruption in 1967, an English and two Chilean research stations were severely damaged and subsequently abandoned.

Between 1912 and 1931, the world’s southernmost potion factory was operated in Whalers Bay. The remains of this Norwegian whaling station, as well as the remains of the abandoned British research station B, can still be seen today.

On Saturday morning, fog and sun bathe everything in a mystical light. We don’t see much of the island – just a black strip of beach in the bay where we are anchored, calm and protected. The silvery-grey veil seems to lift a little, so we decide to take a short walk up the hills around Telephone Bay in the morning. On the beach, we are greeted by two lone Weddell seals in the fine black volcanic sand. The landscape looks bleak and inhospitable, consisting – at least in this part of the island – of mostly black volcanic rock and rubble. We climb a chain of hills and enjoy an hour and a half of exercise in this seemingly lifeless lunar landscape. Unfortunately, the rest of the island remains mysteriously engulfed in fog.

A cruise ship had registered for the morning in Whalers Bay. We don’t get to see it, but we hear on the radio that it is on its way again, through Neptune’s bellows – which can only be passed by one ship at a time. In the afternoon, we have the hot spot of Whalers Bay to ourselves.

Back on the Selma, we move to Whalers Bay, just 6 miles away, anchor and take our time for an extensive shore excursion. Everyone swarms out, some on their own, others in groups. Fortunately, the sun eventually makes it through the fog and the white clouds clear, revealing the countless remnants of the whaling era and the remains of the abandoned British research station.

Numerous fur seals populate the black beach. Many are lounging around lazily, others are involved in small scuffles with each other. Apparently it’s mostly about who gets to lie on which piece of sand. A few penguins are also out and about at the water’s edge. I meet a funny pair of a Gentoo and a Chinstrap penguin (Gentoo and Chinstrap penguin) walking together on the beach.

I myself first climb a small hill up to a gap between steep cliffs – at the top, the view through Neptune’s Window opens out onto the vast ocean. Deep below, a powerful swell rolls in, smashes against the cliffs, and there are plenty of seals lying in small bays.

Scattered in the sand of Whalers Bay, partly covered by volcanic ash, you discover wooden debris and the remains of former buildings, barracks, waterboats … a few whale bones, a former floating dock …

Water vapor mixes with the clearing fog along the edge of the beach. Hot water from the volcanic soil mixes with the cold water of the crater lake, smelling of sulphur. If you dip your hand in, it is almost boiling hot in places.

The surroundings have a mystical, morbid quality, as if from another planet. In the background of this scenery, which looks like a witch’s kitchen, there are lots of huge tanks (whale oil, fuel), ovens, stoves and other metal objects, some of which look very futuristic, rusting away. I feel like I’m in a Jules Verne movie.

Old buildings battered by wind, weather and the harsh climate are falling into disrepair, silvery weathered wood everywhere, here and there lichens colonize and conquer this new habitat. Far behind are two individual wooden crosses, remnants of the small cemetery covered in ashes.

Unfortunately (or fortunately for the landscape and flora), the surrounding hills and mountains are a protected area. We would have loved to have climbed them to get a view of the bay and the crater lake from above. The landscape here is barren, but for my taste very colorful: the black and white of volcanic rock and glaciers is mixed with lush green (lichens, mosses) and a velvety dark red-black in some places – stone or ash, it’s impossible to tell from a distance.

It is exciting and fun to wander through the past in this extraordinary place, this very special landscape, and time flies by.

Back on board the Selma, we return to our tried and tested anchorage in Telephone Bay. After another quiet and starry night, we set off the next morning in the direction of Elephant Island.