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18 degrees of latitude separation

The Alaska Eagle heads north to avoid extreme weather as it passes through the 'Furious Fifties' and 'Roaring Forties.'

March 03, 2011|By Brad Avery, Special to the Daily Pilot
  • Alaska Eagle crew members tuck in a reef on their journey.
Alaska Eagle crew members tuck in a reef on their journey. (Courtesy Karen…)

ABOARD THE ALASKA EAGLE, at sea in the South Atlantic — We departed South Georgia Island on short notice.

Our weather routers, New Hampshire-based Commanders' Weather, gave us an immediate "go" when we asked for a good departure date within the week. So we sailed for Buenos Aires five days early to increase our chances of avoiding extreme weather on our 1,600-mile journey from South Georgia Island.

The Alaska Eagle's eight-leg schedule demands being on time for changing our student crews. A worst-case scenario is departing with a bad forecast because of a deadline. Even with a good forecast, you can't expect a smooth voyage in this part of the world, where the latitudes are known by sailors as the "Furious Fifties" and the "Roaring Forties."

Starting at 53 degrees south, we sailed northward through 18 degrees of latitude in eight days. The rise in temperature was dramatic as we sailed almost due north. We crossed the Antarctic Convergence within 36 hours, leaving the Circumpolar Current in our wake.

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A sudden warming told us we were in the South Atlantic. Two days and 400 miles farther north, layers started coming off and our diesel cabin heaters were shut down. The first shorts appeared on deck on day five, worn by Peter at Latitude 43 South.

Our latitude climb became challenging halfway to Buenos Aires. Eventually, we had no choice but to sail between high- and low-pressure systems for 60 hours. The sea rose up quickly and the level of comfort aboard sank.

With everyone in full gear and in safety harnesses, Rich led the crew in reefing the mainsail and changing to our small No. 4 headsail. None of it was easy, especially for Bruce Tice and Anton, who worked at the headstay, taking the brunt of the weather.

Sailing at 8 knots upwind into 30 knots of breeze created a melee of rushing air and water. Alaska Eagle's 85,000 pounds hit 10-foot waves with incredible force, sending volumes of spray into the air. Amazingly, the spray felt warm compared to sailing off South Georgia.

The boat's sudden lurches and rolls made the simplest tasks difficult. Just getting aft to the wheel was challenging, with more than one crewmember ending up in a heap to leeward. Helmsmen Anton and Frank were celebrated for the loudest crashes into waves and the most water shipped. One good wave would send cascades down the decks and flowing into cockpits.

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