Snow Petrel Down Under - Tasmania to Antarctica by Sailboat
Words, Photos and Video by: Matt Tucker
“On the horizon ahead I see a low wall of white and gold. To the south-west, the sun hangs poised on the horizon emitting a golden light which reflects off the bergs around us. To the north-east, a nearly full moon glows in a pale blue sky. We’ve reshuffled the watches today so I’ve got the evening watch. Ben is asleep and I delay calling him up until I’m sure the white horizon is not a mere trick of light. Twenty minutes later there’s no doubt left. We’re motoring on a flat calm sea toward a seemingly impenetrable barrier, a jumble of white and golden shapes, angular and random quite unlike the flat rafts of pancake ice I had envisaged. Ben emerges from his bunk, suddenly awake and focused. This is a moment we have been expecting for some hours, and he scans the approaching ice edge with binoculars, searching for an opening to lead us in. Hearing our excited talk Matt surfaces too, camera in hand - as always - and stifling a yawn. The photographer in him registers the colours, the sheer beauty of this setting, an artist’s delight as he considers shutter speeds and lens selection. I marvel at how two people can focus on such different aspects when placed in an identical situation: Ben, the navigator/skipper, ever the practical one, and Matt, the artist, both from the same gene pool, yet such unique and distinct individuals.”
Excerpt from Snow Petrel, Jon Tucker
My name is Matt, I am the younger brother described in this excerpt from my father’s book Snow Petrel, documenting himself, my brother, and I sailing in a tiny 34ft yacht to Cape Denison in Antarctica. At the time I had just turned 21 and had jumped at the chance to go along on this incredible adventure that my oldest brother Ben had been planning for years. I could try to recount my first experience of this incredible place but I think that dad has captured it better than I ever could.
Antarctica is of those places that no matter how many photos you look at and films you watch, nothing prepares you for the real thing. Extreme is probably an overused word but it really is the only way to describe Antarctica.
The experience dad shared above is one of a handful during three visits to Antarctica that are some of my most treasured and vivid memories in my life. A few days later we would be holed up in Cape Denison as the infamous katabatic wind blasted the boat for four days with the strength of a hurricane and laced with ice and snow. In my experience, it seems to either be amazingly beautiful or terrifyingly brutal - there are few moments in between.
“Without even opening my eyes, I’m aware of a sustained pitch of shrieking wind outside. I’ve lived with incessant wind before, for several years at Chaffer’s Marina in downtown Wellington, but this has a much deeper resonance. It doesn’t rise and fall with the gusts and squalls of normal gales. It’s a solid constant rush of dense snow-laden air. With my eyes still closed, I guess the wind-speed from the pitch. Eighty knots maybe? This sub-zero air is so much denser than anything I’ve experienced. There’s no point getting up so I doze a while. But my bladder is complaining, and I’m curious. The incessant shriek has set my adrenaline off. It’s ten o’clock and the cabin thermometer reads minus two. The porta pot pump has frozen up and I scrape the ice from inside the galley window to peer out. It’s a spectacular look. Ice-encrusted stanchions and shrouds, snow-covered decks, and beyond that a frenzy of white-streaked waves far larger than could possibly be generated in the hundred-odd metre fetch from land. Beyond that, no land, nothing but a mist of white particles rushing past at unbelievable speed. Surely we can’t have dragged our way out of the inlet? Alarmed, I poke my head into the dome. Nothing but white. Of course it’s snowed up, stupid. Opening the hatch, I peer into a flurry of swirling powder. At least now there’s the comfort of two stern lines stretching away in a wind-tensioned arc to some point beyond the flying frozen spray. We’re holding.”
Excerpt from Snow Petrel, Jon Tucker
This incredible six-week journey took us from Hobart in Tasmania nearly 3000km south to Cape Denison in Commonwealth Bay, described by Sir Douglas Mawson as the "Home of the Blizzard" during his scientific expedition in 1911-1914, and then on to the French research station of Dumont D’Urville.
The "sailing" season is very short in these waters so after a total of two weeks in the ice, we returned home via the south magnetic pole, one of two points that every compass in the word is aligned to. When we returned to Hobart I made an hour-long documentary from the footage that I managed to snatch while not busy with other tasks on the boat, called Snow Petrel Down Under.
Ice-encrusted stanchions and shrouds, snow-covered decks, and beyond that a frenzy of white-streaked waves far larger than could possibly be generated in the hundred-odd metre fetch from land.
In the summer of 2010-2011, I returned to Cape Denison to work as a Heritage Carpenter for the Mawson’s Hut Foundation. I was very excited to return as we had only spent a week there during our Snow Petrel voyage and four of those days we were confined to the boat in the screaming katabatic blizzard. This trip also gave me the chance to get to know the historic hut, which we had only managed a very quick look through during the previous trip when Don and Margie McIntyre had opened it up for a brief cruise ship tour just hours before the blizzard came in.
Returning as Heritage Carapeter with a team of an archaeologist, a conservator, another carpenter and a doctor (due to the extremely remote location) for nearly four weeks at the start of the summer season meant watching the Adele penguin chicks hatch, as well as the daily changing ice conditions as the sea ice broke up and left the bay.
We left Cape Denison on the exact day that we arrived in Snow Petrel five years earlier, and I left with a much greater appreciation for Mawson and his men who spent 1-2 years there nearly 100 years ago. They were there when communication from Antarctica was virtually non-existant, and you might as well have been on the moon in terms of possible help from the outside world. It also made me realize just how short the summer is in this part of the world, a few more weeks and the seals and penguins would begin making preparations to head north with the returning sea ice for the long and dark winter.
The following year I asked to join one of Heritage Expeditions’ Mawson Centenary voyages as a subject matter expert on Mawson’s Huts Historical Site. Unfortunately, we were unable to land at Cape Denison due to heavy sea ice caused by a blockage from a huge Iceberg and a piece of the nearby Mertz Glacier that had broken off recently. We did manage to spend several days roaming the ice edge, spotting wildlife and experiencing the spectacular sites of the pack ice.
Though it has been several years now since my last visit, Antarctica is still regularly on my mind. I am unsure in what capacity I will return but there is no doubt that it is a priority for me in the coming years. Life has a tendency to fill up with various commitments and complications that make it difficult to fit in, but I have no doubt that an opportunity will arise at the right time and I would jump at another chance. I think that experiencing such an extreme and isolated environment is a great way to reset from all the stresses and responsibilities of everyday life and get back into living in the moment, where there is nothing but what is happening at the time and what needs to be done to deal with it.
Antarctica is still regularly on my mind. I am unsure in what capacity I will return but there is no doubt that it is a priority for me in the coming years.
Antarctica is also one of those places that gives you a feeling of appreciation for nature’s beauty and power - a feeling that we are just visitors and when we are not there the cycle will continue as it has done for millions of years. Unfortunately, this is not necessarily true. Antarctica is at great risk from climate change and the potential for industrial-scale harvesting of the natural resources beneath the ice - whether that be marine life, oil, or minerals.
While the Antarctic Treaty has been mostly successful in protecting Antarctica so far, it relies on the goodwill of all parties and is hard to police in terms of International Law, as we have seen with the continued whaling and Patagonian Toothfish industries in Antarctic waters. I think that the more we can share our experiences and invite other people to have their own, the more people begin to understand the importance of these wild places.