Paulet Island is home to the largest Adelié penguin populations in Antarctic as well as one of the huts for the Nordenskhold’s expedition. *Photo by Sue Smith
Paulet Island is home to the largest Adelié penguin populations in Antarctic as well as one of the huts for the Nordenskhold’s expedition. *Photo by Sue Smith

WEDNESDAY, FEB 29: After sailing in Argentina and southern Chile in 2005, I put a visit to South Georgia Island in Scotia Sea off Argentina on my ‘bucket list’.

I had heard that the wildlife was amazing and the terrain rugged and wild. I wanted to see and experience it.

So in 2009 an e-mail popped up on my computer announcing the ‘Centennial Trip on the Bark Europa’ starting in the Falklands and taking in South Georgia, South Orkney Islands, Weddell Sea, Antarctic Peninsula, South Shetland Islands and disembarking in Ushuaia. 

I got excited. However five weeks’ vacation during Christmas 2011 seemed like a tall order. After several e-mails, I was granted the vacation time from work.

The preparations started in January 2011. After three weeks of staring at a computer, I had my itinerary planned. I had very few warm clothes to wear and Bermuda having a subtropical climate I was forced to resort to online shopping.

It was hit and miss. My challenge was to buy sufficient of everything for the trip and stay within my luggage allowance.

There were no shops on the boat or along the way to buy what I forgot. Another part of my preparations was photography. I bought a new digital SLR camera and learnt how to use it and take creative photos.

Preparations completed I started my journey on December 7, 2011.

The journey to the boat was uneventful — no lost luggage.

In the Falkland Islands, I had a tour operator meet me at the airport and show me the sights on the way the capital Stanley. It was windy and sunny, but no trees. Thirty years after the Falklands War, there are still many war relics and huge areas off limits due to mines.

I boarded the Europa in Stanley.  After the standard safety boat drills, which include a demonstration of how to get into a dry suit, we hoisted anchor.

The Europa is rigged as a bark tall ship with 12 square sails in total, six on both the fore and main mast. 

The mizzen mast carries a spanker and the gaff topsail. There are 10 staysail sails. The ship looked magnificent sailing out of the harbour with most of her 24 sails set, and in the light of a fabulous sunset and rising full moon.

However the ‘newbies’ on board like me were totally confused when the crew said ‘let go of the bunts and clews for the upper topsail and pull on the sheets and halyards’.

There are at least four sets of ropes for most of the 24 sails and miles and miles of rope to coil after we had hoisted the sails. 

The trainee crew, i.e. passengers, discovered other manoeuvres throughout the trip which again totally befuddled us.

It was a learning experience and the professional crew were patient and calm in teaching us the intricates of sailing a square rigged ship

The voyage to South Georgia 800 nautical miles was remarkable with bright blue skies, down wind sailing all the way, and birds circling.

On the incredibly beautiful and wild South Georgia, we enjoyed several visits ashore, including visiting some of the largest king penguin rookeries in the world, the rare and difficult to reach macaroni penguin rookeries, elephant and fur seals breeding and moulting areas, and also historical sites such as the remains of Grytviken whaling station (largest in Antarctic area) and ‘The Boss’ (Shackleton’s) grave.

We celebrated with a swig of whiskey at the graves of Shackleton and his first mate Wild.

My most memorable excursion was the huge king penguin rookery at Salisbury Plain. The penguins were friendly and so amazing and funny to watch.

After a week of enjoying nature’s bounty and the fabulous weather, we sailed southwest towards the South Orkneys.

We visited British Antarctic Station at Signy where we had a rare opportunity to see how people lived in the Antarctic and learned about their activities and scientific research.

We celebrated Christmas dinner three days late at anchor in the South Orkneys. The tables were laid and crew waited on us.  It was a special treat and we all had a merry time.

Once in the Antarctic peninsular we managed landings to different penguin rookeries, historical places and a few walks.

I was blown away by the sight of so many icebergs.

It is difficult to put into words the overwhelming feeling I had when I saw them; truly amazing.

There is a lot of early exploration history related to many of the places we visited. 

We saw the wintering huts of Nordenskhold’s expedition — an expedition similar to Shackleton’s  — where they struggled to survive and were forced to overwinter in the Antarctic.

We experienced different aspects of the Weddell Sea; landing in several places, doing walks, viewing the wildlife and amazing surrounds of tabular icebergs, sea ice, both small and large.

Navigation was difficult through the ice both day and night but captain Klass and first mate Martyen guided us safely through these dangerous waters. 

From the Weddell Sea, we set sail again through the Bransfield Straits towards the South Shetland Archipelago, home for thousands of chipstrap and gentoo penguins, giant petrel and elephant seals, amongst many other species.

We stopped for a while in the rough Astrolabe Island for a zodiac cruise along its incredible cliffs and grounded icebergs.

In the South Shetland Islands we enjoyed the roughness and solitude feelings of the volcanic Deception Island, visiting the former Hector whaling station, and then enjoyed a swim in Pembulton Bay thermal springs. 

We visited the beautiful and barren Half Moon and Barrientos Islands.

The major sea story for this voyage was a bent jibboom, which occurred when leaving the Barrientos Islands heading out to sea.

At the height of the outgoing tide and against force five headwinds a ground swell was created.

We pulled anchor and with a 2.5k current astern and a narrow waterway for safe navigation we sailed towards the open sea.

In a large set of standing waves, the Europa’s bow sprit and head-rigging submerged, and the weight of the seawater on her gear caused heavy point loading on the tip of jib boom resulting in the final 1.5 metre of jib boom pipe to bend 90 degrees downward.

The crew and captain responded immediately removing two staysails and assessing the damage. 

Fortunately we were able to continue our journey to Ushuaia.

The final leg of our journey was across 450 nautical miles of The Drakes Passage, notorious for it’s stormy seas and high winds.

However, we managed to hit some of the calm weather between lows as we had fabulous weather until we were in view of Cape Horn’s steep cliff face and rough forested headland.

When the winds picked up to force 8 (34-40 knots) with gust to force 9 (41-47 knots) just to let us know that there can be rough seas in this area. We reached Ushuaia on the January 9, 34 days after setting sail from the Falklands.

After a celebratory barbeque party on deck we bid our fellow travellers farewell and headed back home. It was a once in a lifetime trip and one which I will never forget.

Bermudian Sue Smith, a laboratory technologist, developed a passion for sailing 10 years ago and has been on numerous voyages.