Pelagic Australis at anchor in Port Lockroy on the Antarctic Peninsula

My advice to anyone crazy enough to consider sailing in the Southern Ocean

To survive the Southern Ocean you need a good crew and an even better boat. If you really are serious, you might also want to start by having a long hard think about why you want to go. It’s not like you can just stop the boat and get off if you don’t like it. That’s not really an option.

I spent over two years sailing the expedition yacht Pelagic Australis in the seas surrounding Antarctica. It was both absolutely incredible and fantastically tough.

The Southern Ocean is home to some of the most ferocious seas found anywhere in the world. Monstrous waves are commonplace, and if something goes wrong, you’re a very long way from home.

If you are indeed unlucky enough to get hurt, the chances of you receiving outside medical attention are slim, to zero. It’s not called the ‘Sailor’s Sinkhole’ for nothing.

It takes a certain breed of person to want to venture out into a place like this. You need the constitution of an Ox, the fortitude of Shackleton. I often felt like I possessed neither.

Westerly winds, cyclonic storms and the ever-present threat of ice makes sailing down there about as extreme an experience as you can get. Thrill seekers most definitely need apply. I’ve seen huge breaking waves bearing down on me from no-where. My advice? Hold on onto something stable, shut your eyes, and pray.

Being one of the most inaccessible places on earth, I believe its very isolation is what makes it both magical and humbling. The fragile wildlife is hauntingly beautiful, the raw power of the elements, hypnotic.

Pelagic Australis was built in Cape Town by my boss, the legendary ocean racing sailor Skip Novak. She was designed to cope with heavy weather and the extreme cold. She did this very well.

Her 65-tonne aluminium bulk offered about as much protection as you can hope when battling against seas that seem to scream at you. It’s not advisable to take your chances with 100,000 tonnes of ice.

It can be pretty bloody scary at times too. Changing sail in the pitch black with waves so big they block out the moon, can be terrifying. Tiny needles of frigid water pierce your face. You try to forget that the only thing keeping you on the boat is a thin, but strong piece of bright orange material.

Tiny needles of frigid water pierce your face

My pink fingers would throb with pain and my hair frequently froze into icy tendrils. In all respects, it was a mixture of pleasure and pain. But despite all of this, nothing will ever beat the thrill of arriving at a beach that’s home to half a million King Penguins.

Up to half a million King Penguins can be found on Salisbury Plain in South Georgia — Photo courtesy of Oliver Prince

In the Southern Ocean, when the rich smells of land are but a distant memory, the same Wandering Albatross can follow your boat for days on end. Tiny black-and-white Storm Petrels dart amongst amongst the spume, and when conditions were right, the boat would suddenly pick up speed and surf down the face of a mountainous wave. It’s pretty hard not to let out an involuntary whoop of joy.

It’s pretty hard not to let out an involuntary whoop of joy

Sitting here, warm at my desk, it’s easy to forget those mind-numbingly boring night watches, the depressing damp that sinks into your skin. It’s easy to forget what it’s like to get out of sopping wet clothes and into a damp bed. Nor is there much to rival the feeling of being slapped in face by the icy fingers of a wave at 3am when you’ve just woken up.

But on a positive note, it really doesn’t take long to wake up after that.

The Wandering Albatross have a wingspan of up to 3.4 meters — the longest of any bird
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