Thursday, April 01, 2010

Rounding The Horn

On April 14, 1916 six men climbed into a 22 1/2 ft long whaler named the James Caird and set out for South Georgia Island. South Georgia lay 800 miles or so to the northeast, in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean.

After being stranded on Elephant Island off the Antarctic coast for months, Ernest Shackleton, Tom Crean, Frank Worsley, Harry McNish, Tim McCarthy, and John Vincent decided (well, Shackleton decided) that the voyage must be attempted if the lives of the entire crew of the wrecked Endurance were to be saved.

Shackleton chose Crean because he was a rock, Worsley because he was a navigational wizard, McNish (ship's carpenter) because the Caird may have needed repair during the voyage, McCarthy and Vincent because they were the most able sailors. (Shackleton despised McNish because of repeated insubordination during the first part of the attempted Trans-Antarctic Expedition, and additional acts of near-mutiny during the months on Elephant Island. But Shackleton knew that McNish's skills may have been needed, and so he included the mouthy Scot.)

In studying the expedition, watching the above NOVA (which is excellent), and in reading Shackleton's book SOUTH! it became clear to me that among the greatest hardships faced by the crew of Endurance was the boat trip. The voyage from Elephant Island to South Georgia. It was an act of complete desperation. The odds of those 6 guys finding their way through 800 miles of open ocean were slim at best. Shackleton spared no praise for Worsley's navigation skills, such as using a sextant in 50 ft. rolling seas. If Worsley's calculations had been off by so much as a degree, they'd have blown right by South Georgia, and been lost for good.

If you notice on that map, the trip from Elephant Island to the tip of South America would have been shorter, and much more likely to have resulted in landfall of some sort. Either the Falkland Islands or Deception Island would have seemed more likely choices for Shackleton, but Sir Ernest knew that he'd have been sailing into the prevailing westerly winds that whip through the Drake Passage and around the southern tip of South America.

The Horn.

Sailors have long celebrated "Rounding The Horn" as it is seen as the "Mt. Everest of sailing." When approaching from the west, sailors must first take it far south of course, and that means cold. It also means stormy seas.

What lies ahead, and what confronted Shackleton, Crean, Worsley, McNish, McCarthy and Vincent is the vast Southern Atlantic Ocean, which can be notoriously rugged depending on the time of year. Winter is the worst.

Back in January, Abby Sunderland set off from California aboard the 40 foot yacht Wild Eyes and headed south. After some mechanical difficulties halted her progress, she got back underway last month.

Now, Abby has the benefit of modern GPS technology, and as opposed to the 22 1/2 foot James Caird the Wild Eyes is about as nice as it gets when it comes to open ocean yachting. She's got a little kitchen, and a bed, and wireless internet so she can keep me updated on her progress (well, me and about 37,000 other people.)

It's worth noting however, that Abby is 16 years old, and she is attempting to become the youngest person to ever sail around the world solo.

The reason I'm boring you with all of this shit is that according to her blog, yesterday, March 31, 2010 Abby Rounded the Horn.


MichaelRyerson said...

Goddamn it, I love that story. From the first time I heard it, I think about it a couple of times a year. Jesus, I hope Abby comes through.

Schmutzie said...

Right where she is, by the Drake Passage, is fucking dangerous. I think it's a little smoother sailing as she gets out into open water.

Unlike Shackleton et al in the Caird, she's got some hi tech stuff on her side.

Yeah, that's it. Let's keep telling ourselves that! Fuck...16 years old. Amazing.

MichaelRyerson said...

I had a sailboat once. 34 foot sloop. When I graduated high school my father gave me a choice of him co-signing with me for a car or a boat. I bought a derelict Pontiac from a widow-woman who lived up the street and began haunting the backwaters of San Pedro and Terminal Island. I knew the neighborhood pretty well. The summer between my senior and junior year I'd tried to catch on as a stevadore. The union told me I had to have a berth to get a card and the piermasters and captains all told me I had to have a card to get hired. I was too green to realise what I really needed was to 'know' somebody. But anyway and friend of mine, Ronny Daro, and I began talking about sailing around the world so I spent a couple of months looking at every beaten skow in every oily channel south of Los Angeles. Gave $3,500 for the Restless, a 34 foot, mid-30's one-design with a four banger below decks, a brimming rope locker and an extra set of sails. Ronny and I had a 'falling out', I ended up with the boat and the payments, got a job at Lockheed, started school at UCLA and lived aboard even though it meant driving 30 miles each way. Haven't been sailing in 35 years. I envy Abby and I fear for her.

Schmutzie said...

See, now that's the sort of thing that appeals to me. The living on a boat thing. Used to go out on a friend's boat (his parents' boat) for day sails on Lake Michigan. I think it was about a 30 footer. I'd never been on a sailboat in my life, so I was mainly in the way, but I got to know a little bit about gybing (as Abby spells it, always thought it was spelled jibing) and sailing into the wind, and tacking and shit. I got the basic idea.

But the most fun for me was parking the car, unchaining the dinghy, cruising out to where the "Annabelle" was moored in the middle of Burnham Harbor, and just spending the day on their boat in the harbor. Very fuckin' cozy. One day, our assignment was to lug a few gallons of this extremely expensive red paint out to the boat, and paint where we could above the waterline, I guess the stuff contained some chemical that killed off algae. (Supposedly the stuff would stick underwater as well, but we only painted the sides of the hull where it was dry.)

A frickin' thunderstorm blew in, and fast. We scrambled into the cabin, and sat inside smoking dope and sipping some white wine they had on board, while this storm just poured down rain. I cannot recall a more snug, cozy feeling than that afternoon. Immediately thought, I could live like this, only not here. The damned winters.

Ever think about taking sailing back up Mike? You're close enough to the water where you could probably rent something for day sails or whatever...

(Fritz just corrected my brain fart on Magellan, Drake, Darwin...all were heading west, not east. D'Oh!! I knew that about the first two. Always thought the Beaagle came from the Pacific heading east.)

MichaelRyerson said...

Yeah, its a pretty intoxicating thing, the self-containedness, the perceived mobility thing, the naturalness. The paint you're talking about may have been 'sloughing paint' which actually never really sets or dries so barnacles and algae can't get a foothold. Spent many a fine afternoon or evening alone with the weather outside and me in, with a book and something to eat. Snug, quiet and dry with the gentle movement of a boat tied off properly is a great place for high quality sleep. But wooden boats are insatiable taskmasters and require constant, and I mean constant, attention. Middle of the second year, found a note pinned to the cockpit hatch, offering to buy it and, to my complete surprise, reading it engendered a sense of relief in the pit of my stomach. I knew it was time. Sold it to a white headed gent who'd recently divorced and was looking for something to take south a long ways and liked the size and shape of Restless. All cash. Had a postcard from him the next year from Jamaica having passed through the canal. Have rented little daysailers a couple of times over the years, really like sailing Hobiecats, daydream about owning one, all the while knowing I won't.

Schmutzie said...

Nice to know your vessel lived on and showed another sailor some real pleasure, yeah? Maybe Restless is still out there somewhere, all restored and sailing around the Caribbean or something.

I often watch Super Yachts on Travel Channel. Oh man, that's actually way more than I would want. I'd like something in the 40-50 ft range that could go pretty much anywhere, but some of those friggin' boats are unreal. Floating mansions with butlers,dining rooms, 12 bedrooms, 15 bathrooms, billiard room. Jesus, like not even being on a boat. Must be something to have that kind of range of motion though.

Now that you mention it, I recall that "paint" set up kinda like a powder-coat and we had to be real careful not to rub it. Swimming around the hull with these little flat floaty things that could support the weight of a paint tray, and pulling ourselves up with a line tied to the rail just enough to give it a couple of quick strokes,and if we brushed it while dropping back into the water we'd wind up with rusty-red palms and no paint would be left on the hull. A perfect streak imprint of whatever we'd brushed against it. Elbow, side of the hand, whatever...

Keifus said...

Some other girl came up on a radio interview last week, following her solo row across the Atlantic. Rowing across the ocean, hard to imagine anything that feels more futile while you're doing it. Sailing, though, that has some mystique, I'll agree.

Both girls are nuts, of course. But the people who did that sort of thing before the days of satellite communications, those folks shoulda been committed.

Schmutzie said...

Rowing across the Atlantic.

My god how long did that take?

Hold on let me Google a second....

In 1999, after rowing for 81 days and 4,767 kilometres (2,962 mi), Tori Murden became the first woman to cross the Atlantic Ocean by rowboat alone when she reached Guadeloupe from the Canary Islands....

3000 frickin' miles K, by rowboat, and alone.


Keifus said...

More recently than that. Here, found it:

She had a desalinator with her too, also pretty vital.


Schmutzie said...

Nice boat, for fishing.

Oh well, Katie took the easy Senegal to Guyana route! I could do that, probably.

I just googled for trans-Atlantic distance. Didn't mean to imply that Katie was old news.

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