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Southern Spars - North Technology

Southernmost sailing voyages - who really has the record?

by Andrew Troup on 14 Apr 2012
SY Morning, barque-rigged steam yacht .. .
Recently a Ukrainian/Russian sailing boat, the 98ft steel-hulled Scorpius reached 77 degrees south and claimed a world record. This was greeted by a storm of protest from our readers, one of whom pointed out that in 1965 a tiny Moth was sailed at (but not to) 77.5 degrees (See Sail-World http://www.sail-world.com/Cruising/international/And-the-most-southerly-sailing-boat-ever-is.../95506!story_and_photo). There were other claims too. Andrew Troup here corrects the records.

There have been only a handful of voyages by yachts south of the 77th parallel. These have all taken place in McMurdo Sound, in the Ross Sea. Until now, that has generally been the southernmost place where open water has been available, with the possible exception – depending on the extent of the ice shelf – of a location in the vicinity of Roosevelt Island, about six hundred miles to the east.

The Ross Sea was discovered by James Clark Ross in 1841. Having penetrated through the pack ice at the northern extremity with his ships, the Erebus and the Terror, he looked into McMurdo Sound. He named it McMurdo Bay, not realising that the mainland was not connected to Ross Island except by the Ross Ice Shelf, which he (and Scott and Shackleton after him) called the 'Great Ice Barrier'. He recorded his southernmost position as 78 deg 11' S, but neither of his vessels could be considered a 'sailing yacht', either by the limited use of the term at that time, or in the broader sense in which it has since come to be applied.

I cannot pretend to present a complete list of sailing yacht voyages. I can only set out those I am aware of. However I'm confident there have been few if any visits in the 20th century additional to the two I will mention, having checked the very comprehensive list of all known sailing yacht visits to the Antarctic up until 2000, compiled by one of the people best qualified to be considered a 'local', namely Sally Poncet. This has been added as an appendix to 'Southern Ocean Cruising', which is available free as a pdf on the web, at www.era.gs/resources/soc/SOC_web_v2.pdf

It now seems inevitable that the Ross, Ronne and Filchner ice shelves will start to retreat southwards due to global warming, on their way to probable eventual disappearance. The human failings which led to that warming seem likely to be exploited by people pushing yachts further south than has hitherto been possible, in search of records and recognition. Although the retreat is not yet noticeable on the Ross ice shelf, there have been three such voyages in the last two years, roughly half the total from the entire era of humans in the Antarctic.

However, let's return for the moment to the first 'yacht' visit by Captain Colbeck, in 1902-3. He commanded the 140' steam yacht, the 'Morning', a support vessel for Scott's ship 'Discovery', originally built as the Norwegian whaler 'Morgenen' for high latitude work. On her first visit she was brought up about 10 miles short of Winter Quarters Bay, where Scott's ship was iced in. They sledged supplies to her across the ice, and left a depot of coal on the glacier tongue of Mt Erebus. Unable to break out that summer, the 'Discovery' stayed for a second winter, while the 'Morning' – with great difficulty – broke through the ice at the head of the sound in order to go back New Zealand and resupply.

She returned in the summer of 1903-4 (along with the Terra Nova, a small steamship). This time, the field ice was heavier (nearly half a metre thick) and extended further north, bringing them up short about 18 miles from the 'Discovery' (around which the ice had thickened to nearly 5m). However 'Morning' and 'Terra Nova', after weeks of arduous work, broke a channel through into the Sound with the help of explosives and even more by significant swell, arriving periodically from the Ross Sea. This arose because the latter was much more free of pack ice than in the previous seasons. The 'Discovery' had meanwhile managed to free herself from the ice, and all three vessels were able to extricate themselves and return safely to England.


So, for the record, the yacht 'Morning' made it as far south as 'Winter Quarters Bay', in 77 deg 51' S (NZ14901), in 1904.

The next yacht to sail in that location was considerably smaller: a 3.4m Moth sailing dinghy, 'Tiny Too' sailed by Lt. Commander Steve Cockley, but she neither sailed to nor from the location.


The second true visit by a yacht, ninety years later in 1994, was a little shorter at 36m, a little wider, had more powerful engines, considerably longer range, and was more strongly built even than 'Morning'.

This was Jean-Louis Étienne's 'Antarctica', which as the name suggests, was purpose-built. Subsequently renamed 'Seamaster' under Peter Blake, now 'Tara' in his honour. Étienne's purpose was scientific; they climbed Mt Erebus from their anchorage in Backdoor Bay, in 77 deg 34' S, (at the 'back door' of Shackleton's Hut) The crater interior was much disrupted by recent activity and they were unable to reach the lava lake on the crater floor, but they were able to collect gas samples from the volcanic crater emissions, which a previous expedition had not been able to do.


The ice in the Ross Sea was unusually compact that year, causing the vessel to spent more than three difficult weeks traversing it.

They were trapped in the pack ice for days at a time, trying to find nearby passages by observing the colour of the sky, which is often darker when it reflects a lead in the ice. On one occasion, the vessel was unexpectedly able to follow in the wake of an American icebreaker. Refer 'Expédition Erébus' Editions Arthaud (1994)
also http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mont_Erebus

On the face of it, it seems remarkable that nobody had been inspired to try to follow the Morning's example for the best part of the twentieth century.

There are good reasons:

There is not much there to attract a private vessel.

The ice-free period is too short, too unpredictable, and too late in the season, to be an attractive proposition for anything other than a fleeting, opportunistic visit.

Finally: the sound is a dangerous cul-de-sac in terms of ice entrapment, with the entire Ross Sea as a potential storage area for mobile ice.

There are no safe anchorages or berths available to private vessels, particularly for a fixed keel yacht which cannot be hauled into the shallows, out of reach of movable ice.

Strong currents can bring large concentrations of floating ice southwards along the eastern shores of the Sound, even against the wind, subsequently curving and exiting towards the northwest

Strong katabatic winds can rake the anchorages from nearby glaciers, occasionally exerting forces comparable with severe tropical cyclones.

The third and fourth sailing yachts to enter the Sound were the 'Berserk' in 2011, and 'Nilaya' in 2012. The circumstances of these voyages were controversial and verifiable details have not been made public. However it seems that while neither vessel went south as far as Winter Quarters Bay, they apparently got within ten or twenty nautical miles. Berserk, in particular, was seen anchored in Backdoor Bay (see above for latitude) shortly before she sank with all hands in a severe storm.


The stated purpose of 'Nilaya's trip was to find out what happened to 'Berserk'. Having found nothing, the vessel has been renamed 'Berserk'.


The next visit was only weeks behind 'Nilaya', a 30m Ukrainian yacht called 'Scorpius', under captain Sergey Nizovtsev. She reported having reached 77 degrees S, but seems to have been unaware of previous visits, as she claimed the furthest south record for herself.


As this article should make clear, she cannot claim to have been first, smallest, or largest, let alone furthest south.

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