By Joan Larsen
Each time I return to Antarctica, it is, of course, an ever changing panorama of breathtaking beauty – always, always with unexpected encounters with animals and nature that seem to touch my heart. Only there have I come to expect the unexpected. A largely unreported story of the sinking of a yacht in Antarctic waters in 2012 – an unusual tale with the most beautiful photos – was a reminder of my own times on sinking ships. And yet – for us all – the tale seems to remain with us forever after.
Only two days before – early 2012 –, the crew of the Brazilian yacht “Mar Sem Fim” (which in English means Endless Sea) was rescued in Antarctica, unharmed, by the Chilean navy. The Chilean base, Bahia Fildes, received an emergency call by radio. The captain of the vessel requested assistance and support to evacuate the crew because of bad weather conditions with winds up to 129 kilometers per hour.
The yacht was about 20 meters long and was owned by famed Brazilian journalist and entrepreneur João Lara Mesquita, who was making a documentary in the region.
Luckily I was able to have a friend translate the Portuguese of his blog:
Then, with strong winds and high waves, the boat from the Chilean base came for us. Our evacuation was epic. Waves of more than 1.5 meters and winds over 40 knots made the boat jump from one side to another, like a bucking bronco. When the boat got close, each of us . . . threw ourselves into the arms of three Chilean crew members. Fortunately, all went safely.
According to the report of the owner, the four crew members remained at the Chilean base in Antarctica waiting for the possibility of returning to the yacht. However, on Saturday the vessel sank.
I woke up after eight o’clock, and had just left the bunk when the crew member came from outside, overwhelmed, and hugged me. “The boat sank,” he said. “Only the bow is out.” It was a terrible shock.
The near-freezing water that had been tossed over the ship, later froze and then split the hill when it expanded. The phenomenon is called “compression,” and is what was later determined to have been the final blow to the hull of Mar Sem Fin, sending her to the bottom of the shallow bay.
This photo was taken as the yacht lay in 30 feet of water, preserved and visible from above for almost a year. That image of the almost ghostly remains — still visible in the cold clear water — seems to remain in memory forever.
While few humans were able to see this ghostly scene pictured, sea lions were quick to get the word. They could be seen diving on the wreck, returning with an incredulous look in their eyes.
And, as you can see, a Gentoo penguin agreed to be tour guide, quickly bringing a large group of his peers on a long walk to this site. You can see he has asked them to stay close together so none will get lost!
Last year, João Lara Mesquita managed to return to the site when weather cooperated, sending down divers who wrapped strong lines under the hull, attaching them to inflated buoys on either side. The buoys were continuously inflated, slowly raising the vessel to the surface. Once there, it was towed back to the shore where the researchers recovered their equipment, and the Mar Sem Fin would head for salvage.
I am always asked if I see yachts and vessels of this kind in Antarctica. Frankly, the dangers of coming in a sailboat are so chancy that I often think that those who do have a death wish. But it is said that up to 200 from the world over try each year. Interestingly enough, the nationality of most of the sailboats is French.
For the very brave and very foolish, you can actually gain passage on a sailboat. I promise that with the high winds, the need for actual seat belts on your bed because of the high waves, and – oh then, there is the ice that can shut off your route in minutes, compressing your boat to nothing, you may want to think twice. You can hit a reef like my ship did. Or talk to me. I have gone down with the ship and I promise that if you survive, it will take a few years off your life.
The ghostly remains of that ship just beneath the water is unearthly – and beautiful. The photos of this stunningly beautiful place in our world perhaps will make you understand what draws us back again and again.
To me they call out: Welcome to Heaven. I don’t believe I want more than that.
Writer Joan Larsen has spent a lifetime searching for the most remote places on Earth. But it is the polar regions of our world that she has been drawn back to again and again. She has done research in these lands of ice, and considers Antarctica to be her “other home.”