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Sailmithril - ocean cruising adventures

South Georgia

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Among the penguins for St. Patrick's day.

South Georgia, Leith
leith.jpg
alonside the old whaling station

It's hard to believe that it was in February that I last wrote when we were still in Argentina. Since then we've sailed almost another 10,000 miles and it is with some surprise that I can say Mithril made a record breaking voyage. We became the first Irish boat ever to visit South Georgia. Obviously lots of Irish people have been there before us but never in an Irish registered boat so it was particularly appropriate that we arrived on 16th March.
The next morning we were invited to a coffee party by the chief administrative officer and his wife. Home for them is Shackleton villa a modern timber framed house - a bizarre combination of cosy suburbia and wilderness. Clannad played softly from hidden speakers, cabinets held ornamental china and family photos in silver frames. There was even a tv in the corner. At first glance the huge window by the tv looked like a framed black and white poster. Then you realised that the icebergs were moving - drifting quietly out to sea. They had calved from the massive Cumberland glacier across the bay. The glacier filled the valley like a rumpled blue-white blanket. The tall pointy mountains surrounding it had been dusted white by overnight snow and the eerie gray light over the current scene suggested more snow soon. Back in Shackleton villa the party hummed along and, even though it was only eleven o'clock in the morning, we got stuck into chocolate cake and wobbly coffee - made with Jamesons in honour of the day. Only about a dozen people from the British Antarctic Survey overwinter on the island and I think we met them all. It was all very jolly and - well - normal until you happened to glance out the window at the swirling, feathery flakes of snow now sticking to the glass.
March is considered late in the summer season for visiting South Georgia with its Antarctic climate and when we woke on 18th of March we found almost half a metre on snow on deck. "Unusual conditions, won't last", we were told. Next day there was ice floating all around us and small icebergs in the bay at Grytviken. Among the ruins of the whaling station we eventually found the coal store and this kept us warm while gales blew outside the cove and ice scraped the hull destroying the antifouling and staining the ice red. Our berth was alongside the flensing plane where the carcasses were once butchered and processed in vast pressure cookers. When the whalers last departed Grytviken they left everything in place for the next season; a season which never arrived. It's fascinating, but eventually depressing, to wander among the decrepit buildings with their miles of asbestos lagged steam pipes which once fed the factory and the wind moaning through the holes in roof. There are rusty tools on broken shelves, birds nest in the mouldy cinema seats and at the back of the restored church library books await their next readers.
The wildlife is awesome. A factory that was once a riot of blood and butchery is now an adventure playground for thousands of fur seal pups. We found them sheltering inside pieces of pipe and under machinery in the gloomy workshops from where they would growl menacingly at us. Out on the snow they chased us like irate terriers, snapping at our ankles. Apparently they have a nasty bite but they don't like high pitched noises and rapping a piece of pipe on a bucket was enough to get them to back off. From Shackleton's grave, which is marked by a block of rough hewn granite, we looked down on a group of male elephant seals moulting in stinking, steaming piles. There are a few dozen king penguins in Grytviken which trumpeted at us as we passed, their bills stretched to the sky. I sat on a length of snow covered pipe while Peter videoed them and within seconds two inquisitive old gentlemen, almost a metre tall, shuffled over to prod insistently at my legs possibly looking for food but more likely impressed by my bright red oilies. It was astounding I never expected to get this close to wild penguins. Up close their plumage is stunningly beautiful; gray to blue black with vivid orange splashes at the neck and a pristine white front.
We did manage to visit a couple of the other whaling stations where we saw reindeer which were imported to feed the workers and are now feral and have lost their migrating instinct. The stations are gradually disintegrating from age and neglect; at Leith we could only watch as a building slowly collapsed under the weight of snow. After almost a fortnight the weather showed no sign of thawing. We watched penguins skate over the pancakes of ice all around the boat and reckoned it was time to head north rather than risk getting iced in for the winter. Next stop Carrickfergus 81 days and 8,000 miles northwards.
 
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copyright Geraldine Foley.