Antarctica from the Suffolk mud by Julia Jones

Snow Petrel reaches the Antarctic
So, here I am in Boat Harbour, Cape Denison with five shore lines attached and the anchor down with 60 metres of chain. It’s the windiest place on earth but today, miraculously, the sun is out and the water calm. I’m being observed by crowds of Adelie penguins while dark brown Weddell seals lie like slugs on the stained ice. It’s taken two months to get here – six weeks of frantic, relationship-testing preparation and then two weeks sailing south through the most feared waters in the world. Three thousand kilometres through the Roaring Forties, the Furious Fifties and the Screaming Sixties. We’ve survived a knockdown, felt our way through the pack ice as if crossing a minefield and now we’re here and the sky is a hard, bright blue and my two boys are out in the dinghy as if this is a childhood picnic spot. We have reached Antarctica.

It is dark and damp in Suffolk and I should be conserving my torch batteries. It’s four in the morning and I can hear the tide running through the gap in the plank which I haven’t been able to plug. It’s okay. The electric dirty water pump which I’ve managed to borrow is just about keeping pace with the inflow. I don’t have any electricity on board but I’ve plugged into a neighbour’s supply. I had thought he was away and broke into his boat with another neighbour's connivance. Then he came back at 1.30 am, found my trespassing cable and unplugged it. Chucked it back at me. Very likely cross. I’d fallen asleep by then on the wheelhouse floor but I woke when the pump went quiet. My brain was slow to work out what had happened and by the time I’d gone on deck my neighbour had gone to bed. I'd never met him and I knew I was already in the wrong but I was desperate so I banged on the side of his cabin until I woke him and then I managed to explain why I needed to use his supply. I don’t know what I’d have done if he hadn’t let me plug back in; I couldn’t keep pace with that quantity of water by hand.

Misc floating objects
I wasn't in the mood for photography
All I need to do now is stay awake and keep checking. Everything has been swamped and soaked up to two and three feet in the cabin. The bunk where I’m lying slopes sideways because the big, empty fresh water tank underneath floated up in the earlier flood and has settled back down at an angle. It’s too heavy for me to move and anyway it’s not a priority. All that matters is that the pump should keep running for as long as the tide is up. In four or five hours’ time the water will be gone again and she'll be safely back down sitting on the mud. It’ll be Monday morning – it is Monday morning – I’ve asked a shipwright to come and assess the problem and then I’ll decide what I need to do next. How bad is this? Will it be give-up time for this poor old boat, Goldenray? I don't want to think about it.

Meanwhile I’m far away, amazed and exalted in Cape Denison’s sun-drenched tranquillity. I have never been to Antarctica; I have never met the Tucker family but I'm reading Jon Tucker's Snow Petrel, his account of a voyage to Eastern Antarctica in a 34' steel yacht belonging to his oldest son, Ben, and reading in my current circumstances has been an extraordinarily intense experience. Later in the Tuckers' Antarctic adventure the weather turned violent. Jon, Ben and Jon's youngest son, Matt, were trapped for several days in their bunks as the blizzard raged outside. They’ll never know what speed the wind achieved as there was no possibility of venturing outside to measure it. All they could feel was their small yacht, Snow Petrel, sinking steadily lower as the weight of snow and ice on deck pressed her down. So what did they do in that situation where there was nothing that they could do? They read. 

Tucker and his wife Barbara have brought up their five sons afloat. They have made long voyages, often out of sight of land, and frequently in potentially dangerous situations where they all have learned to trust one another's watch-keeping and seamanship, even when the person at the helm is a 10 year old boy. Books are an essential part of this: There is something intensely private about a small boat passage […] You are constantly in the centre of a disc of sea with a visible horizon radius of about three miles. Above is a dome of blue or grey or speckled black. Your only habitable area is little larger than a walk in wardrobe. Your only company is more often asleep than awake during your conscious hours.
And yet you are free of the constraints of everyday society. Your existence has been stripped to its barest essentials. Your sleep patterns are re-programmed into short blocks, irrespective of the passage of the sun. You become introverted and focussed on a few vital specifics. Food, scheds, progress reports and weather predictions dominate your thoughts.
But it is not a prison. That is why a supply of engrossing books is vital on a well-prepared yacht.”

Today's yachting families may expect to be able to watch DVDs, blog, play games, post photographs and message friends. Let's be practical, however; all these activities are power-hungry. If the boat engine will be running regularly there’s little problem -- except that engines use fuel and, on board Snow Petrel, both fuel and battery consumption was constantly monitored, as was water, food and beer. I couldn't help giggling at the 'happy hour' where these three grown men shared a single can between them. But my giggles sprang from admiration. One of the most impressive features of this voyage was its research and planning, triumphantly undertaken by Tucker's eldest son Ben, the captain on this trip. Ben was a young man (late 20s? early 30s?) he wasn't financially rich, didn't have sponsorship or media support. This voyage was something he was doing from his own resources to achieve certain private goals. Specialist equipment was saved for, was homemade, bought in jumble sales, borrowed or received as much-appreciated, unsolicited gifts. Ben had organised at least three different methods of power generation, including solar panels, but Snow Petrel was going to be out of sight of land for weeks -- and beyond realistic hope of rescue for the majority of that time.  
Snow Petrel, iced
"Put it in perspective,” writes Tucker (from latitude 55 south), “three of Australia’s most famous Southern Ocean rescues took place well to our north. Isabelle Autessier in 1995 was rescued at 49 south, while the even greater publicised dual rescues of Thierry Dubois and Gerald Bullimore were at 52 south.” 
There would be none of that rushing ashore to plug in the iPhone chargers that has recently become a feature of our Peter Duck holidays!

I love reading on board. I have done since I was a tiny child. It’s quite simply the best place in the world -- though others might argue for tree houses or sunny hollows amongst the heather. Looking back I realise that even as a child, much of my reading was done to shut out the nautical anxieties and family tensions which I was powerless to affect. This night, the adventures of Snow Petrel gained special intensity from being read on board Goldenray, our loved, neglected, dilapidated houseboat which had just survived a near-sinking experience. With a monitoring part of me I was listening to the flow of the water and the sound of the pump in the darkness but my mind was away with the penguins.

I read Jon Tucker's book, Snow Petrel, again yesterday, skimming through it on a train knowing that my reading period was finite. I can tell you now why I admire it. Firstly for the sheer scale of the adventure: the small, home-built yacht, the lack of finance, of sponsorship and high tech equipment. Secondly for the prevailing attitude that this was nothing portentous or extraordinary; that it was merely an extended family cruise, taking a slightly unfamiliar direction (ie due south and far beyond the point where the compass card would jam, dragged downwards at an impossible angle by its closeness to the magnetic pole). I relished Jon Tucker's style of writing; some passages intensely present, others reflective or informative. I also responded to his stance as the father who was standing aside; who was respecting the expertise of his eldest son, supporting the photographic passion of the youngest son, loving and knowing them both and only once finding it necessary to intervene when the brothers' priorities clashed. And all the while he was thanking and missing Barbara, his wife, their mother, who had been so generous with her understanding and her practical help and good advice. This was the longest period in their marriage for which Jon and Barbara been apart -- and I can't tell you how refreshing it is to read a tale of derring do which is also a tribute to gender equality and married love.
Jon and Ben entering the pack ice
(photo by Matt Tucker)

But this was Ben's voyage and when I'd finished Jon's book I went to visit Ben's website: Snowpetrel Sailing. 'Show your working' as we used to be told in maths lessons. I read carefully through his thoughts on power consumption and battery maintenance and let out a silent cheer when I reached this final sentence: "it is a good feeling to know that I can cut my needs down to just one small light and a book."

Thank you, Tuckers all -- from Julia and from Goldenray (who is now so much recovered that I can get back to worrying about the leaks in her decks rather than the holes in her hull!)



Bill Kirton said…
Breathtaking, Julia. What a wonderful (and so different) post. I'll be reading it again later, but much more slowly, savouring the thrills and scariness of it in my comfortable chair. Thank you.
Jan Needle said…
By golly, Jul, you do have some adventures, don't you? Best of luck with everything. Me and Rosthorn always available if you need help. xxx
Susan Price said…
This is a shoo-in for any future collection of blogs!
Lydia Bennet said…
Good grief Julia, how amazing! You put Nancy Blackett in the shade! What a wonderful adventure, you intrepid bunch. I too shall re-read this later to savour it. I'd love to see antarctica. Wonderful blog post. I love reading books about the polar regions too.
Umberto Tosi said…
Thank you for sharing your extraordinary, philosophic and harrowing adventure in such vivid, personal detail. I salute your derring-do and wish you smooth sailing and/or good luck.
Penny Dolan said…
What a truly glorious and magnificent post, Julia! Good wishes and good luck.
julia jones said…
I love you all - but if you think that I went to Antarctica anywhere other than in my mind, and courtesy of Jon's wonderful book - I have do disabuse you. Yes I had a hideous time on dear flooded Goldenray but Cape Denison was only vivid through the medium of words (and personal desperation)
Dennis Hamley said…
Julis, I've just read your Facebook comment this morning on your blog. I'm rather glad that the first paragraph should have been in italis because I wanted to comment but then I looked at the wishy-washy blog I was composing for Wednesday, made the obvious comparison and my nerve failed me. However, even with the italics, I'm still gobsmacked. Nevertheless, now I'm emboldened to comment. What a great post. Blog of the Year. Yes, of course it will be in Sparks 3. Mine won't!
barb said…
Once again you've come up trumps, Julia - you've hit the nail right on the head of why books are such a vital component of our lives, even while we're in the midst of adventures or personal crises. For me, I'm humbled that you've chosen to juxtapose this particular adventure of ours with your own equally intense maritime drama. Thank you for this. And we're glad to hear that Goldenray has survived her ordeal as well.
[Jon Tucker]
Ben said…
Nice write-up, thanks for sharing our story. Good luck getting Goldenrays deck leaks sorted out, nothing worse than a soggy book, except for having no book!

Cheers Ben

Popular posts

A Few Discreet Words About Caesar's Penis--Reb MacRath

A Glittering Gem of Black, Gothic Humour: Griselda Heppel is intrigued by O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker

The Splendid Rage of Harlan Ellison - Umberto Tosi

Little Detective on the Prairie

Misogyny and Bengali Children’s Poetry by Dipika Mukherjee