It’s charter season “Down South,” where breathtaking beauty, teeming wildlife, and challenging seas offer the adventure of a lifetime.
Antarctica remains a rampart of inhospitable ice and wind with a facade of beguiling beauty that for over a century has drawn intrepid explorers, scientists, and wayward seafarers into her frozen clutches. Recent decades have seen a rise in commercial tourists aboard cruise vessels and hastily refitted ex-research vessels, heralding a new era in cruising off the beaten path. This deviation from the well-worn “milk run” has also brought new, complicated logistics and compliance requirements to yacht captains and their crew, as well as routes through tempestuous waters to test even the finest sea-going hulls.
A visit to the Southern continent aboard a yacht should not be taken lightly. Apart from the inherent dangers of ice, thundering wind, and heavy seas, the great distances just to reach the tip of South America will challenge fuel range and maintenance — as well as the transit crew! The yacht will require passing Polar Code compliance, and navigating officers will need at least a basic Polar Code certificate.
Most, if not all, yachts will stick to itineraries that wander around the Antarctic Peninsula, an 810-mile protuberance from the main landmass. To go further requires ice-strengthened hulls and ice-breaking bows, and includes the real risks of getting caught in the ice, possibly damaged, or even destroyed. The majority of yachts are neither designed nor constructed to withstand heavy ice conditions or allision with “growlers” or “bergy bits.”
The typical jumping-off points are Ushuaia, Argentina; Puerto Williams or Punta Arenas, Chile; or Stanley, Falkland Islands. All are a considerable distance (more than 7,000nm) from Europe or North America. Fueling points to consider on the transit are the Cape Verde islands; Trinidad; Recife, Brazil; Montevideo, Uruguay; and Mar del Plata, Argentina.
Once based at the chosen jumping-off point, the next great challenge is crossing the infamous Drake Passage, a more than 600nm stretch of some the most violent seas on the planet that skirt past the equally infamous Cape Horn. The stories of gigantic seas, screeching winds, and battered ships are more truth than fireside fiction, and any crossing should be timed with a wary eye on the weather forecast.
That does not mean, however, that it cannot at times be generally calm, and after eight crossings, I can vouch that only two were uncomfortably rough. The sea is usually on the beam and comes out of the west. Even on a calm day, the swell is large and lumpy because there is nothing to stop it, or the wind, as it circles the bottom of the earth until it gets compressed between Patagonia and the Antarctic Peninsula.
It can be tough on crew, but it’s downright horrible for guests if they choose to experience the “Drake Shake.” The best option for embarking guests is to have them fly into King George Island in the South Shetlands from Punta Arenas or Ushuaia. However, there is a very real chance for delays due to weather when flying into or out of KGI. It’s not unusual for a flight to take off from South America in beautiful weather, then have to turn back when nearing the island because of snow, fog, or screaming wind. It’s important to factor in these delays and to warn your guests in advance.
Meanwhile, the vessel can stand by at anchor in Slalom Lake, just off the Chilean scientific base of Presidente Eduardo Frei Montalva. This provides a (mostly) protected anchorage for pick-up operations, but don’t expect a limo and a nice dock to meet your guests. The runway and apron are dirt, and the “road” is a muddy track down to a beach, where they will hopefully not get wet feet when boarding the Zodiac. (A rubber boot selection arranged on the beach is a welcome footwear change for guests.)
Transit from the airport will be either a 1.5-mile walk or a bumpy ride in the back of a dilapidated vehicle — or if they’re lucky, a tracked Snow Tiger tractor. Again, it’s within your best interests to advise your guests before arrival on the conditions they will face in getting to Antarctica and on board the yacht.
The vessel’s insurance company may require an ice pilot on board at all times, and if the captain doesn’t have ice experience, it is definitely recommended. A guide/naturalist will add to the guests’ experience and alleviate some of the planning chores for the crew in regards to daily itinerary and getting guests ashore. They can also assist in coordinating the timing of visits with other vessels to avoid overcrowding. The pre-eminent company handling luxury yachts in these remote locations is EYOS Expeditions. They can supply ice pilots, guides, aircraft, and advance planning services.
A 7- to 10-day cruise will allow the guests to experience the main highlights of the peninsula, including Deception Island, the Lemaire and Neumayer channels, and Port Lockroy. The abundance of wildlife is staggering and, apart from the jaw-dropping scenery, is the main focus of shore visits. The hardier among them can try a polar plunge into the icy waters, kayaking, paddleboarding, and even scuba diving.
A great add-on trip after Antarctica is to make your way from Ushuaia through Patagonia up to Punta Arenas or Puerto Montt in Chile. Pilots will be mandatory for most large yachts moving in and out of the Strait of Magellan to Punta Arenas and the Beagle Channel to Ushuaia and Puerto Williams, depending on size and/or tonnage. Be sure to have all necessary pilot boarding arrangements squared away per SOLAS regulations.
On a trip from the Falkland Islands to Argentina once, we embarked an Argentinian pilot for the transit up to Ushuaia on the Beagle Channel. He arrived on the bridge in a crisp white uniform with epaulets and a jaunty naval cap. In a deep baritone, he asked what our last port of call was. “Stanley, Falkland Islands,” I replied. He immediately erupted and yelled across the bridge at me that it was Isla Malvinas and belonged to Argentina. I shut up after that and let him have his opinion.
- Antarctica, covering 5.5 million square miles, is the world’s fifth largest continent (larger than Oceania and Europe), as well as the highest, driest, windiest, and coldest continent on Earth.
- The Antarctic ice sheet is the largest on Earth and contains 70% of the world’s fresh water.
- The continent has no indigenous population.
- Multiple research stations dot Antarctica, but no sovereignty claims have international recognition.
- Under the Antarctic Treaty System, countries do not attempt to enforce claims and no one country owns Antarctica.
- Military activity is banned, however, military personnel and equipment may be used for research or delivery of supplies to bases.
Growlers: Small, dense pieces of ice smaller than a pickup truck.
Bergy bits: Medium to large pieces broken off of an iceberg.
Fast ice: Grounded sea ice on shore or shallows.
Brash ice: Accumulation of floating ice from fragments not more than 6½ feet (2m) across. Usually, the wreckage of other forms of ice.
First-year ice: Sea ice of not more than one winter’s growth.
Frazil: Fine spicules or plates of ice suspended in water.
Iceberg: Massive piece of ice of varying size and shape that has been carved off a glacier.
Shuga: Accumulation of spongy white ice lumps a few inches across. Formed from grease or slush ice.
Sastrugi: Sharp, irregular, parallel ridges on a snow surface created by wind erosion and deposition.
The ubiquitous Zodiac-type inflatable boat is the go-to tender for ice operations. A solid bottom tender will be easily damaged or holed, and will be difficult to extract off a shoreline after picking up guests.
An outboard motor with good fuel supply and recommended safety equipment is the basic setup. It must have room not just for the crew and guests, but also for the polar safety gear that must be carried on every trip, which includes shelter, food, clothing, and other survival equipment in case the tender cannot return to the mother ship.
It must be easily deployed and recovered onto the mother ship, and a full inventory of spares is recommended. The crew will spend time pushing and dragging the tender onto the shoreline, so weight is a consideration, as well as ruggedness.
Yachts visiting polar zones must comply with IMO regulations. The first objective is to obtain a Polar Ship Certificate. The vessel must:
- Conduct an operational risk assessment of the yacht and its intended operations in polar waters.
- Prepare a Polar Water Operational Manual specific to the yacht, its arrangements, and its intended operation in polar waters.
- Have the yacht surveyed to verify its compliance with the relevant requirements of the code.
- Carry the relevant rescue and survival kit on board.
- Apply to its flag administration or authorized representative for the Polar Ship Certificate.
- Obtain an updated certification for pollution prevention.
- Insulate exterior pipework, particularly for firefighting, against freezing fluids.
- Update communication and navigation equipment for high latitudes.
- Have bridge officers obtain certification for polar waters.
NOTE: This is not a comprehensive list.
AGUNSA (Chile and Argentina) agunsa.com
Wilhelmsen (Chile, Argentina, Uruguay) Wilhelmsen.com
South American Superyacht Support (South America) SASYSS.com
Antares Ship Services (Argentina and Uruguay) antaresshipping.com
GAC (Uruguay) gac.com
Patagonian ports can experience rapid changes in wind strength and direction. Local port authorities may issue you a directive to depart a berth immediately. Don’t dilly-dally or second-guess this information because the wind can go from dead calm to 60 knots in mere minutes. Make sure to have plenty of robust, oversized fenders to handle being blown onto the dock and fending off other vessels caught in wind storms. It goes without saying that the bridge crew will be doing plenty of anchor and dock watches when in these areas.
STORES, SUPPLIES & GARBAGE
There is a decent selection of high-end foodstuffs and supplies in Patagonia, however, they will cost you a pretty penny, and it may be the case that the chef has to fly to Santiago to source particular items. Before departing Europe or North America, it’s best to load up on most essential or hard-to-find items for guests.
Be prepared to store all garbage, including food waste, once south of the 60-degree latitude. It’s against all protocols to dump anything over the side. A robust plan needs to be devised beforehand to find space to store this on board.