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Sailmithril: The voyages.

To Kerguelen

To Ireland
Nova Scotia
To the Caribbean
To Devil's Island
To Brazil
To St Helena
To Namibia
To Mauritius
To Rodrigues
To Chagos
To Cocos
To St. Paul and Australia
To Kerguelen
To South Africa
To the Canaries


Click here for Kerguelen photos and here for wildlife photos

Kerguelen island

It’s 2000 miles from Cape Town to Kerguelen. We expected roaring weather from the Roaring Forties so we headed due east along 40 degrees for the first 1000 miles before dipping south for Kerguelen at 50 degrees south. We had a surprising passage; no strong winds at all. We didn’t have to deploy our long warp, which was ready rigged on a drum (garden hose reel) at the back of the cockpit. It was a very pleasant surprise. In fact we had lengthy calms when we motored and also light easterly head winds. We had to motor for the last day and a half as high pressure was stationary over the island. We actually saw our landfall which according to the pilot book is rare. Normally it’s shrouded in mist and rain.

However Kerguelen’s reputation for consistently strong winds is not in jeopardy. We motored east along a headland at the north of the island – calm seas and no wind. We rounded the point and motored back westwards to visit Christmas harbour. The wind started to increase rapidly and by the time we were near the anchorage it was blowing 40 or more knots with williwaws whipping the water into flying spray. It was impossible to anchor there. We drifted back out to sail down the coast and had to motor again in a calm. This pattern continued with strong gusts and steep waves coming out of every fjord-like inlet we passed while we had virtually no wind. It seemed that the land created its own wind regardless of sea conditions. The land at this north end of the island is mountainous and formidably bleak and bare.

Kerguelen is about the size of Northern Ireland but with many 100s of miles of coastline much indented by long inlets and with many off-lying islands. For charts we had a 3 sheet series of French ordinance survey maps, which showed land and sea heights and depths and proved very useful. It didn’t of course show detail of the tiny nitches which would be the kind of anchorage we’d need where we could get close inshore and tie off. The only charts we could find was one of the whole island and a few anchorage plans. There’s virtually no cruising information to be had and the most useful books we had were a French yachtsman’s account of his year there in 1904 when he sought to make his fortune collecting seal oil. Bill Tillman visited aboard Mischief in 1957 but didn’t visit many anchorages being more intent on climbing part of the icecap, which covers most of the central part of the island. We had contacted a Frenchman, now a sail maker in Cork, who spent a year there in the 1990s and his advice was "don’t go – too windy, too wild and too remote" – very useful.

Our first anchorage was to be in Anse Phoque or Baie Caille – either a seal or a quail. We looked into both and chose Quail – Caille. This is where a crew of two can be two too small as it’s hard graft working your way into an un-sounded anchorage and then getting tied off stern to the shore with anchor ahead. Fortunately this bay was not a wind funnel and we got our lines ashore without much trouble. Huge seals wallowed in a corner of the cover and on a beach at the far side we could see King penguins. That was the kind of thing we’d come to Kerguelen for. Our proposed strategy was to visit only a few anchorages, tying ourselves up like a fly in a web and sitting out the winds; walking ashore as much as we could. By and large the strategy was a good one but we did have to spend a few nights in an anchorage where we couldn’t tie up as it was too big and we had a horrendous gale there from a depression of 955 millibars. We stood anchor watches for 2 nights tapping the barometer ever hour - longing for it to at least begin to rise. This anchorage was Baie Yacht Club and that was a misnomer if ever there was one – makes you think of a well sheltered, windless bay in pleasant conditions and g & t’s in the cockpit. But it was a huge bay with a 400 metre mountain alongside and a massive glacier only 5 miles from the head. The wind shrieked through it with williwaws churning the water up like a garden sprinkler. I watched fascinated as a waterfall lost its flow - driven sideways in a curtain of spray. Fortunately the holding was good and there was plenty of sea room if we did drag but with the barometer at 960 and still falling to have been beamed up to the Bahamas or somewhere would have been very nice!

Even though the shores team with wildlife in the summer the inland is pretty empty. There are no land birds and only introduced animals. We saw cats, reindeer and rabbits by the million. These animals were all very shy and we rarely got close to them but the penguins and seals were fearless. We spent hours at penguin colonies teasing the moulting King penguins who would stretch themselves up to full metre height and trumpet at us, or watching the Rockhoppers with their single chick snuggled up on the adult’s feet and covered by a fold of stomach. I never knew that Rockhoppers have a transparent eyelid that works like a sliding door rather than up and down like ours. That shows how close to them we got. The most famous plant is the Kerguelen cabbage, which does look like a big Savoy but with a big woody stem. The leaves are peppery to taste and it’s a powerful anti scorbutic. The rabbits have eaten it almost to extinction but we found some on small islets or on off lying rocks. The landscape is mainly very boring, unrelieved brown bog mosses or bare brown lichen covered rock. Patches of dandelions seemed as pretty as sunflowers by comparison. Peter’s red oily jacket was a single, startling, vivid splash of colour on the drab landscape. With no plant more than 6 inches high the wind roars unchecked across the island. Even the slightest breeze across the smooth, wind-eroded cliffs sounded like a waterfall with echoes. Unlike anywhere else we’ve ever been Kerguelen had no rubbish on its shores, no driftwood or plastic. It was as if it was cut off from the rest of the planet.

The only sign of human intervention was at Port Couvreux where the French tried to make a sheep farming settlement in the 1920s. I’m not really surprised that the venture failed. It’s very dangerous terrain for sheep and shepherd, lots of cliffs and steep slopes of loose scree. There’s very little for a sheep to eat and then there are the hidden bog-holes. These are famous among visitors to Kerguelen – big sink holes covered in moss and looking like the rest of the ground but you sink up to your oxters as soon as you put weight on it. We found a couple of places where the ground wobbled but we didn’t sink in. All that remains of the Port Couvreux settlement is the seal oil rendering plant – huge tri-pots and pressure cookers – all rusting slowly in the frigid air. A large wooden punt full of grass and wind-stripped of its paint sits forlornly on the shore. In place of the homestead now is a French refuge hut. The island is run by the French dept of Antarctic territories and they maintain a permanent base in the south with scientists and military personnel. The Couvreux hut had emergency army rations all chewed by rats and sundry tins and packets of out of date food along with a few boxes of sour wine – all very forlorn looking. We had many long walks ashore from our various anchorages but in the end everywhere was much the same – bare brown rocks, slippery brown bog and the odd lower slope covered in prickly acaena grass. There are only so many penguin and seal photos that you can take and the continual passage of gale force depressions got depressing. We also were getting short of firewood. We took advantage of a lull in the weather giving some south winds and gathering up all our warps we sailed north leaving a gray mist-shrouded island behind and sailing into sunshine and blue skies towards St. Paul island.

Go on to read St Paul to Australia

copyright Geraldine Foley 2008. "sailmithril ocean sailing adventures."