A Journey to the End of the Earth
The next time I would step foot onto land would be on the coldest, windiest and driest continent on earth. My eyes anchored onto the last glimpses of South America sinking into the horizon, as I climbed into the big, white sails billowing aloft. My mind soared to the open ocean ahead, as Schooner Windjammer set sail from Puerto Williams, Chile, on an expedition to the end of the earth. Our crew of six, from the warm, sheltered waters of North Queensland, were on a quest to become apart of the finite group of cruisers to round the infamous Cape Horn, cross the notorious Drake Passage and go beyond the 60 degree parallel. A challenging voyage through the roughest waters on earth.
Antarctica is bound by imperfectly chartered waters that lie beyond the Southern Ocean. The existence of the icy continent was often doubted, however the pristine and unspoilt peninsula covers more the 17million km2. The handful of audacious sailors who brave Antarctica’s waters do so during the Austral season; the short three months between December and January, which affords the most hours of sunlight and best ice conditions. This popular tourist destination is explored by specially designed cruise ships and steel hulled commercial vessels. We however, sailed a traditional gaff-rigged schooner with a fibreglass hull and an open cockpit.
Windjammers captain, Ashley, met his wife Cathie when she travelled to the Whitsundays to learn to sail. He hired her as the host on the yacht he was skippering and two years later they took off to cruise the eworld. For six years they worked in the private charter industry on five yachts and in as many countries, but in 1988, Cathie decided she was ready to return to Australia and settle on land. At this time, the Blue Danube – a private motor yacht they had been operating – was destined for Alaska; Ashley’s dream of cruising amongst glaciers was crushed. The following month, they married on land. On the day they promised their lives to each other, they also vowed that once their youngest became an adult, they would roam the brine once more, and cruise the Alaskan waters on their own private yacht.
December 29, 2010, was a sunny Wednesday, with a moderate southeasterly breeze; it was the day Ashley and Cathie departed the Whitsunday’s on Schooner Windjammer and didn’t look back. They battled a powerful cyclone across the Pacific to New Zealand, then crossed the equator to French Polynesia and sailed on to the Hawaiian Islands. They spent the winter of 2011/12 in the San Juan Islands before heading north through British Columbia. After two challenging, glorious years at sea, they finally made it to the south east of Alaska.
Ashley and Cathie had sold their business, Barefoot Cruises and their children grown and moved out; they had sailed Alaska and fulfilled their dream. They traversed America’s west coast and in Mexico they met a French couple who planted a new adventure in their minds: Antarctica. They continued cruising the coast of Central America and explored the Cocos Islands, Galapagos, Easter Island and Juan Fernandez Islands, but by the time they reached Valdivia in Chile, Antarctica was now a question of ‘can we really do this?’.
Schooner Windjammer is thought of as ‘a floating curiosity’ as it draws attention across the seven seas. With its shiny green topsides and glossy wooden frames, it is traditionally Gaff-rigged with an open deck and stretching bow sprit. Sixty-eight foot long, Windjammer was built by shipwright Greg Vining in 1992, as a replica of the Schooner Integrity, a one-off Pete Culler design. Vining’s initial plan was to take his family sailing around the world – he named his boat Leannemarie, after his three children. However, as he obsessed over the detail after meticulous detail, the launch date was pushed almost a decade off schedule; by the time he finished, his children, now young adults had become busied with their own lives. In 1995, he decided to sell his boat.
It was a year later that Ashley laid his eyes on Schooner Windjammer in Sydney Harbour, and knew it was the boat that he would sail to Alaska. He got a crew together and sailed it to the Whitsunday’s, to join his modest fleet of chartering vessels: a square rigged ship, tall and traditional, and an ex American Cup racing yacht. He renamed her: Windjammer.
I am Cathie and Ashley’s youngest daughter; sailing, adventure and the open water is an inherent passion. The moment they told me of their plan to cross the Atlantic Ocean to South Africa, I dropped everything and joined their crew. My itinerary: fly to Buenos Aires and travel down the east coast of Argentina to Ushuaia, where I would join the crew and set sail for Africa in February. However, two weeks before leaving Australia I received a Skype call from my parents: “Mags, we’ve decided to go to Antarctica in January, can you make it to Ushuaia a month early?”
Two days, five flights and four cities later, I was on deck of Schooner Windjammer as she pulled away from the dock and set sail down the Beagle Channel for Puerto Williams, Chile. I pushed aside the lonely planet guide to Argentina as I sleepily unpacked the many layers of thermals and finally began to appreciate the enormity of what I was about to do.