Adventures — 3 September 2017 at 12:41 pm

Sailing and Free-Diving in Antarctica

Nick Carter / Consultant in Rheumatology & Sports Medicine / Polar Sailor

Dr Nick Carter has sailed over 50,000 nautical miles cruising on his own boat, racing or ‘adventure sailing’. He has crossed the Northwest Passage and the Southern Ocean from New Zealand to Uruguay. In this article, he tells us about a recent trip free diving in the Antarctic peninsula, and give his thoughts on being a ‘sailing medic’.

The Brief

The brief was very simple: in February 2016, take a bunch of British free-divers down to the Antarctic peninsula. Simple. Three blokes from London had chartered the yacht “Pelagic” from Puerto Williams in Southern Chile to sail south, past Cape Horn and across the Drake Passage to as far south on the peninsula as dictated by the ice. There, for a couple of weeks, they would free-dive amongst the ice and wildlife. Something which had not been done before.

I was hired as the “mate” and doctor. Together with skipper Magnus and chef Laura as professional crew (Pelagic Expeditions) we would attempt to facilitate what the boys had been planning for more than a year.


Magnus and I had arrived in Puerto Williams mid-January, a month before the planned departure date, after a convoluted series of flights from the UK. We spent the month familiarising ourselves with the boat, taking a group of Russians on a short charter around Cape Horn, together with the usual maintenance, cleaning and provisioning over February and March. Pelagic was coded for commercial off-shore charter work. As such it was equipped with a Category A (no limit to trip distance or duration) medical kit in accordance with the Maritime & Coastguard Agency (MCA) regulations. Not surprisingly, it took a while to go through all of this and check which drugs were either out of date or in short supply.

With no shops or the opportunity to resupply for a month, we had to make careful preparation to feed six people (something like 550 meals). Water would be a key issue. Desalinators generally work well on yachts but much less so in polar regions. Micro-algae clog membranes quickly and the very cold sea temperatures render them pretty useless. Essentially, it meant cooking and cleaning in the galley with sea water, very limited showering, and taking every opportunity to re-water either from ice melt or (if we were lucky enough) being offered water from one or any of the Antarctic Research stations. But we would eat well, something like porridge/fruit for brekky, sandwiches at lunch and a big stew/chilli with pasta or rice at dinner.


Puerto Williams (540 56’S, 67036’W) sits in the Beagle Channel (Tierra del Fuego) on Isla Navarino, almost opposite Ushuaia, and is administered by the Chilean Navy. The Navy has the authority to restrict marine traffic leaving the port when bad weather is forecast. On the planned day of departure, 15th February, strong winds were forecast (Beaufort Force 10 or > 48knots) so we slipped our lines before the port was shut. Six or so hours later (40 nautical miles) we were tied up to the dock in Puerto Toro, the southern-most community in the world and waited for the heavy weather off Cape Horn (just a little to the south) to subside.

Cape Horn (55058’S, 67017’W) is not really a cape at all. In fact, it’s an island just off the tip of South America. “Isla de Hornos” is part of the Hermite group of islands south of Tierra del Fuego. The first reported sighting was way back in 1525 by Franscisco de Hoces sailing in the San Lesmes and again by Sir Francis Drake in 1578. Interesting that Drake didn’t actually sail through the passage named after him. I think it was formally recognised by a Dutch expedition of the Eendracht and Hoorn that left Holland in 1615. In January 1616 Cape Horn was spotted and named after the Dutch city of Hoorn – though the name has since been somewhat bastardised. As one of the icons in sailing, it is one of the three “great capes”, the others being Cape of Good Hope in South Africa and Cape Leeuwin in Australia.

We passed Cape Horn the following morning, still in 40 knots of breeze, with shortened sails and a very lumpy sea. What lay ahead was the Drake Passage before we would make land-fall in Antarctica. This narrow stretch of water (by ‘narrow’, I mean 600 nautical miles wide) sits between the Chilean Andes to the north and the Antarctic peninsula in the south. Not remarkable in itself other than around Antarctica there is no mass of land obstructing the westerly winds as they hurl around the bottom end of the world. The winds funnel and strengthen as they hit the high land off these two land masses. Add into that the continental shelf that sits at either end of it (upon which the waves mount) then this creates a much-to-be-respected body of water. Rather than heading due south, we wanted to pass by the west (windward) side of the peninsula as far south as we were able. This meant sailing a little more up wind for 850nm (six days), past the Antarctic Circle (66033’S) before we arrived in Marguerite Bay south of Adelaide island.

Magnus and I stood watch: four hours on, four hours off. The three chaps supported with three hourly watches, giving them each six hours off watch. This way, we could “rotate’ through each other, getting to know each other a little better. Sail changes often required a couple of hands on deck and if, as you’ll see in a moment, anyone was sick below deck, we could call on the least sleepy of the other crew to assist.


With a big swell and new crew who didn’t yet have their sea-legs, seasickness was likely to be an issue. It was. Two of the free-divers really felt it in the first couple of days of the crossing. My recommendation was to take Stugeron 12 hours before departure (cinnarizine 30mg initially, then 15mg 8 hourly). They didn’t. Not surprisingly, they developed fairly miserable symptoms early on. Despite efforts to get them up on deck and distracted whilst avoiding time in the galley, they suffered. For the sick, I favour Scopoderm patches (hyoscine hydrobromide 0.3mg/hour) which last for 72 hours. After applying the patches and following 24 hours of lying in their bunks drinking water, they were up and about, functioning and with renewed appetite. I also carried intra-muscular Stemetil (prochlorperizine 12.5mg) if the patches didn’t work.


The first hints of land were the impressive icebergs as we closed land off the coast near to Adelaide island. We were unable to press further than 70ºS because of the floe (sea) ice. Even in Marguerite Bay, “bergy” ice from the Sheldon Ice sheet made navigation awkward, with a couple of detours required to find a reasonable lead. Approaching an ice-field often brings fog with it, making anchoring at night off Anchorage Island, a few miles from the BAS station at Rothera, something of a challenge.


The following morning, 22 February, we were greeted with the sight, sound and smell of the Southern Elephant seals on the island. The boys opted for a trial dive that morning. Pretty quickly came the revelation that the under-water visibility in Antarctica was poor and that cold tolerance would be an issue…! Sea water freezes at -1.80°C and as there was plenty of sea ice around the temperature couldn’t have been much warmer than that. Despite careful pre-dive preparation (thick wet-suits, gloves, boots and hoods), little more than an hour or so was the limit. In addition, after meeting the BAS team at Rothera that evening, it became clear that there was a real risk of attack from Leopard seals.

Over the next week or two, we gradually moved north and east up the peninsula: first the Argentine Islands, then the Russian research station at Vadansky, Port Lockroy, Neumeyer Straight, Paradise and Piccard Bays. The wildlife and underwater ice architecture were stunning.

The Austral summer was coming to an end, it was getting cooler and darker at night. When we rounded Adelaide Island to head north, we had 30+ knots of wind blowing from the southwest. Lovely downwind sailing with reefed sails. Watch-keeping was intense. Bergy-bits and growlers look remarkably like cresting waves and are even more difficult to differentiate in failing light. By the following morning, the wind had eased and shaking out the reefs should have been easy, had there not been the revelation that the rigging had frozen!


Whenever we headed ashore from Pelagic, we always left someone on board the boat. We always set down a shore barrel (above the high tide mark!) containing tent, stove and fuel, tools, water, food, some warm items, radio, head-torch and spare batteries. In the event that the weather or ice should change for the worse and the boat needed to move, the shore party had a least some protection until they could be collected.

The International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAARTO), amongst other regulations, are explicit about engagement with wildlife in that part of the world. For example, it is not permitted to approach close (less that 10 metres) to penguins or seals. If their behaviour changes, move away. IAARTO are clear on practices to avoid contamination in the region and prohibit removing “souvenirs” like feathers, bones and other items from the continent. All sensible stuff. Its permitted however, to sit down quietly some way off and if animals waddle over for an inquisitive look (as they did), to enjoy their company.


After a couple of weeks, and now nearer to the northern tip of the peninsula, we tied up to the wreck of the whaling ship, Governoren that floundered in 1915. Here, we waited for a weather window to head back across the Drake passage to Chile. Two days later we left with reasonable forecast. However, for the last day or two we were battered by 45-55 knot winds as we approached Cape Horn once again. By mid-March, after nearly 2000 nm sailed, some minor damage to the sails and marked fatigue, there was nothing that couldn’t be remedied by a few beers, sleep and a little sewing.

Sailing Medic?

With good preparation and attention to safety whilst at sea, the risk of injuries is quite low. Often, sailing expeditions can ill-afford to fill a berth with a medic who may essentially be of limited use for long periods of the voyage. All the more so with the advent of telecommunications support via sat phone for medical advice. Many expeditions do, of course, value and feel re-assured by the presence of a medic. So, I think the best approach is to aim to be a valuable member of the crew, an experienced or better still professional sailor with additional knowledge of the type of boat and waters you maybe sailing in. Your medical knowledge then becomes an incredible bonus for the trip. Good luck!

Nick is part of the crew for Pen Hadow’s summer expedition, which has just set sail for the North Pole.