by Captain Murray Lister

Rich Wilson and Great American III have passed below New Zealand, sighting the Auckland, Bounty and Antipodes Islands. The passage across the great Southern Ocean is currently being undertaken. From the last land sighting South East of New Zealand to the next landfall, which should be the island of Diego Ramirez, West South West of Cape Horn, Rich will sail some 4500 to 5000 miles in the most inhospitable waters of the world, all with out sighting land. Personally I have made this voyage eight times myself, fortunately all in a 61,500 ton container ship with its comfort and sheer size. Even then there were many uncomfortable days and nights.

The great Southern Ocean is a cauldron of hurricane force winds, huge seas, colossal swells, freezing temperatures and icebergs. There again, the sheer beauty of some of this world’s greatest natural exhibits continues to astound all who are privileged to enter this wild domain.

The winds created by the continual weather systems of Lows and Fronts, means that for all bar a few days in a month, huge seas are being generated, some as high as 45 feet, the force of the wind being so great that the tops of the waves are been continually blown away in huge sheets of spume and foam. The tumbling effect of these waves can created major problems for a 60-foot-long boat, such as those participating in the Vendee Globe. During the savage storm in which Rich lost the trimaran Great American, the seas were so high that even in my ship, with its main deck some 35 feet above sea level, we were shipping heavy water over the stern of the vessel.

During the winter months in the great Southern Ocean, there are very few hours of daylight, temperatures are often below freezing, with spray causing ice to form about the decks, and of course, more than a fair share of snow. During the summer months, the weather patterns themselves are not much better, but it is almost fully daylight for 24 hours a day. These summer months create their own problems as, with warmer temperatures, the ice shelf about the Antarctic begins to break up and icebergs drift Northward then East through the Drake Passage, South of Cape Horn, South America. While the large bergs are really no threat, as they are easily sighted, for small vessels such as Great American III, there is a problem with the smaller ‘bergy bits’ and ‘growlers’, which calve from the larger icebergs. A bergy bit the size of a house would be difficult to sight in extremely rough weather, as almost all is below the surface, and thus, if a yacht were to hit this ice, the consequences would be disastrous.

Marine life in these high latitudes is abundant.  As mentioned by Rich, the great Southern Albatross swoops about the skies as they continue their passage from New Zealand to as far East as Argentina. In general these birds only breed every second year and during the interim, are at sea full time. On passage from New Zealand to Europe via the great Southern ocean, I have seen these magnificent birds using the ascending currents generated by my large ship, and remain gliding, without any wing movement, for many minutes at a time. In various areas, whales abound in the summer, these being a hazard to yachtsmen, as hitting one of these huge animals is basically tantamount to that of striking a rock.

The weather is not always foul, thus on a clear morning or evening, with the planets Jupiter or Venus rising or setting, the sight can only be described as awesome. Being that there is absolutely no air pollution, and with the air temperature being virtually freezing, these planets give a display similar to that of a fire works exhibition. There is a constant changing of colours, working through the colour spectrum, to a point that the effect is so intense, one can almost imagine hearing the cracking of sound.

Another phenomenon seen in the Southern Ocean is that of the Aurora Australis, more commonly known as the Southern Lights. Created by the bombarding of atmospheric gases by electrically charged particles from the sun, these particles are attracted to the earth’s two magnetic poles. The particles then display in the evening or around dawn, as long rays of light, arcs of light or such as that of a curtain hanging down. At its most intense, a brilliant display may be strongly coloured. For those of us who have been in the Southern Ocean, most have been fortunate in seeing a display. The corresponding Northern Lights are seen by many more people as there is a far larger land mass closer to the North Polar Magnetic field and thus a far greater population.

The great Southern Ocean, an area of intense beauty, terrifying weather and home only to the brave.