Southern Ocean nights

22 Feb 16

The nights down here are beautiful, when you can see them.  With only water and clouds in sight, the oranges and reds of sunset are reflected indistinctly in the waves, filling one side of your world with dazzling colour.  As the sun sank below the horizon last night, the cold, crisp South Atlantic air was cloudless, and with no light pollution within 300 miles, we had an amazing view of the stars.  Looking up at our rigging, watching the sail bobbing back and forth across the foreign starscape gives a sense of peace and isolation like few other views I’ve experienced.  A foreign starscape, of course, because these aren’t “our” stars.  Looking “down” into the universe from the Southern Hemisphere rather than “up” as we do in the UK, we see a whole new arrangement of constellations, most famously the Southern Cross (and, at this time of year, an upside-down Orion).


Beautiful, but epically cold.  The strong winds the Southern Ocean is famous for whip across the deck, stealing heat from any unprotected body-part.  Bare hands become numb in minutes and unless returned to the safety of gloves, would rapidly develop a painful and life-long injury: frostbite.  So we wrap up warm.  Very warm.  My current attire includes merino wool baselayers, a thick woollen jumper, winter hill-walking trousers (everything has a double purpose!), fleecy waterproof sallopets and jacket, then a full set of high performance, foul-weather gear (think of the most epic waterproof jacket and trousers you’ve ever seen and add a collar stolen from the 1970s that wraps around head and face), hat, gloves, thick socks, welly-boots and a fleecy neck-warmer.  While it’s a look unlikely to be seen on the streets of Paris, it’s de-rigour down here.  You can imagine, however, that going to the toilet is a lengthy process!  With all these layers, communication becomes difficult.  Much is done by specialist hand signals but sometimes a good bellow is the only way to safely convey a message across 67 feet of howling wind and rain.  Sadly the “off watch”, attempting to sleep, are less keen on this method: we’ve just been offered a megaphone.


But the nights down here are scary, when you can’t see.  A clear sky gives a beautiful view, a star to steer her by and a full moon illuminates our work.  But when mist settles, which it often does even when windy, we can be plunging through waves at 9 knots, only able to see 2-300 yards ahead, steering a compass course and relying on the radar to look for ships and large icebergs.  Imagine trying to drive your car looking only at the sat-nav.  We use floodlights on the darker nights for adjusting the sails but have to turn them off afterwards to preserve our night vision.


But thankfully, a clear night last night heralded a beautiful day today.  Clear skies and a stiff breeze make for good sailing as we head further West towards civilisation.  Clear skies, of course, means it’s staying cold, but that’s ok, because the nights down here are beautiful.


Photo 1: Marine Matthew Bower, huddled against the cold, at sea at night.  In the foreground is a liferaft and an Emergency Position Indicator Radio Beacon (EPIRB).  In the background the two black lines of our running backstay help keep the sails in position.


Photo 2: Like over-dressed aliens, my watch-mates reef the main-sail (top-left) as the wind strengthens.  Extending from the bottom right is a spinnaker pole used when sailing downwind, the red circle in the centre is a ventilation port.