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Simpel wetsuits in Antarctica with Joseph Harding

 We caught up with Joseph Harding to hear more about his recent trip to Antarctica. A trip he embarked on with a small group of individuals who made their way on a 55ft sailboat to antarctica on a quest to surf and explore. We packed him off with a Simpel. 6.4 Hooded and eagerly awaited his return to find out more. See Joe's words below.   

What inspired the trip and how long did you go for?

The main purpose of the trip was set out to be a surf trip, to find unsurfed waves at the end of the world. The trip was organized by 2 surfers and travelers, Ben and Laura, a loving couple who live in Victoria. It was really down to them and their eagerness to explore remote areas far out from the masses.

Overall, we spent the whole month of January on the boat, spending our first night on Ypake 2, on new years eve, waking up to set sail into the new year. 

How did you get there?

The journey to Antarctica started for me in south devon, England with a plane ticket to Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world. From there we all met and prepared ourselves to board the 55ft monohull sailing boat made from steel, made specifically for icy waters. This ship was to become our home as we embarked on crossing the Drake Passage to reach the South Shetland Islands and the continent of Antarctica.

Who planned the navigation to Antarctica?

We were lucky enough to have an amazing captain, Zeek Sundblad who was consistently recommended when Ben was researching sailors for the area. He’s a lifelong sailor and has been on many trips around Patagonia, Falkland islands and Antarctica so has a good understanding of the area and how to steer a ship. He had ideas of where there was surf and safe places to anchor up away from the gales and any underwater pinnacles of rocks popping up. We had ideas of potential surf spots from research we had done, so between that and Zeek's knowledge, together we could work out the routes we would go and where to explore.

What did you take with you?

It was predominantly a surf trip so the board and wetsuit was first to be packed. With limited space onboard I decided to take just one board, a 6,3 asym twin I shaped for myself a couple months prior. A 6mm hooded wetsuit, along with boots and gloves were packed around my board giving a little added protection in the board bag. Although, it didn’t seem to help as I ended up with a ding repair to do when arriving to Ushuaia. With surf equipment sorted, thermals, jackets, a pair of salopettes, hats and hoodies were packed preparing for the coldest conditions on earth. A few pens and journals were added to the bag along with a microkorg synthesizer (mini keyboard) and ukulele to help me pass any down time. Finally two old cameras to capture the trip and that was my life in a bag for the month.

 

Who did you go with?

The crew consisted of 9 in total, 3 crew and 6 surfers and explorers. Ben and Laura who live in Australia were the organizers for the trip and are keen surfers and explorers that have travelled all over in search for quiet surf in jaw dropping locations.

Two brothers Alex and Patrick Lussier from Canada, that have grown up skiing and exploring the mountains, ice climbing, snowboarding, and competing in ski events when they were young. Alex picked up surfing a little later on in life and since then has made many pilgrims to central America to change snow boots for boardie’s. Patrick had only surfed a couple of times before the trip, mainly on a river wave in Montreal, it was amazing to see him going for it and learning to surf in the coldest place you can get.

Rachel lives in Alaska, working, exploring and surfing the coastline and islands that stretch out to Russia. Probably the best trained for cold water surfing out of all of us and a bright smile that warmed us all, a heart full of love and ready to take it on, a great person to have on board.

Our captain Zeek who had vast experience sailing in the area and around the world, and daughter Pili, who was a great host to us and an amazing cook, cooking up delicious meals in tight rocking spaces of the boats small kitchen. Javier was second man, who was helping us sail and cook, he is also a shoemaker and bee keeper from Argentina. A super nice guy with lots of knowledge and music to share. All three being from Argentina, Zeek and Pili from Patagonia but spent most of Pili’s and her sibling’s childhood sailing the world.

What was your favorite part about sailing there and back?

The first-time setting sail and leaving the Beagle channel was pretty spectacular, surrounded by huge landscape’s, remote forests fading down into the sea, cliffs and headlands battered by the full force of the ocean as the last piece of land slopes down into the cold water.

On the way back it would have to be us breaking down numerous times, with the gearbox packing in, Zeek having to weld it in the middle of the Drake Passage as we bob around with no wind. It broke, we sailed into head wind, Zeek fixed it, it broke, we bobbed, it got fix, it broke, we sailed slow with light winds, he fixed it, it broke again. 7 times I think it happened, the last time nearly being a stone through away from port. Luckily morale was high, although Laura was bed bound pretty much the whole crossing from sea sickness. Still, we all made it with smiles on our faces.

Any really memorable moments?

Building connections on the boat with everyone, sharing stories and thoughts was special. Seeing how the bond between the group grew throughout the trip and becoming almost like a family.

Ben and Laura got married whilst we were there, so that was pretty special! We had our own little wedding ceremony, had a beautiful dinner and celebrations. Elements of the outfits we wore (bowtie, vail) were made using litter we collected from a beach clean we did the day before. This brought us all together, connecting us more and strengthening our awareness of the similarities and bond between us all.

The whole scenery down there was breathtaking. The vastness of the place was hard to describe, I went for a couple solo paddles through ice fields, surrounded by huge glaciers. The sense of awe I felt during these moments was exhilarating, an experience that both humbled me and deepened my connection to everything around me. It's something I'll always remember.

How was the wildlife? 

Everyday was like watching a David Attenborough episode. Penguins would pass alone and in groups, swimming around like torpedoes as they hunt their fish but the contrast on land was great, seeing them move really slow and at times almost stumbling. The community they harbored and the way they look after each other is amazing to see. We went to one little island that was packed with Gentoo penguins, where we saw the mothers’ hatching eggs on their pebble nests. We witnessed on a couple occasions a male stealing another female’s pebble and take it back to his lady and their nest. They are funny, cheeky, and curious characters in big colonies, which seem to be like one big family.

As well as the penguins, we woke up to families of humpbacks feeding and breaching, albatrosses gliding effortlessly over miles of open ocean, tiny little birds that were also far, far out to sea surviving the rawest of conditions.

Huge seals, sea lions, leopard seals and more would be spotted in the water and easily found on the beach in big groups, making loud farting and burping sounds as well as long sighs as they lounged around on the beach. We witnessed a couple of fights between some big boys, trying to bite and slap their bodies together making loud claps as they hit. The whole place was a hive of activity, crazy given it was so cold and such a harsh environment.

See anything you didn’t expect to see?

We saw a King penguin which we really didn’t expect to see, as the islands we visited weren’t in the areas that kings live, it’s mainly just Gentoos and Chinstraps that live there. I felt a bit sorry for him as he had been standing in the same spot for ages, all alone. We didn’t hang around to see if he moved but I felt confident he knew what he was doing.

Did you score waves?

We scored some micro sized peeling waves and glassy conditions. It was always quite small as a lot of the spots needed a good size swell so it could wrap around and get in. If we had the swell I think it would have been amazing to surf! We found and surfed mainly boulder reefs and reefs and some surf spots that had never been surfed or seen. I felt so lucky to have been there and even named a couple spots, Chinnies, and Glaciers rock.

It must have been cold?

It was summertime so there was 24 hours of daylight, the sunset around 11:30, it remained twilight until 2:30/3:00ish when it would start getting brighter again before the sun rose. These long days allowed it to feel warmer for longer as the sun tried to heat up the land throughout the day. The maximum temperature reached around 7 degrees Celsius, mainly lying around 2-5 degrees, which far exceeded what I was expecting. The wind was howling somedays making the boat ride in the dingy back from surf a bit chilly. The water was around 1-3 degrees most days, it gave you instant brain freeze if you had a head dip without the hood. Simpel provided me with a 6mm hooded, boots and gloves that kept me toasty though. We all found It was definitely best to keep moving, the more waves the better!

What was the weather like in general?

We seemed to have a fair bit of sun most of the time, but there were a couple rainy patches which apparently were unusual as it’s normally either snowy or sunny. Antarctica is a dry environment; it is actually considered a polar desert. We did get some good snowy days where it fluttered down for hours. The wind was the big factor that could potentially be a problem with it gusting up to 60knots if I remember right, which made it un-surfable some days. One day we went for a hike and one of the sections, we crossed a ridge where the wind was blowing so hard, that you had to push your weight forward and lean into it, to stop you getting pushed off the track. During these periods of high wind, I’d feel grateful that we had a captain that knew where to anchor up away from the gales.

Can you describe the Landscape?

If I had to sum up the landscape in a few words, it would be; vast, expansive, raw beauty. Everything about the place was jaw dropping. The distance between land was completely unrelatable. The expansion of nothing but deep blue water all around as we crossed the Drake. The black volcanic hills gave striking contrast between bright ice and the water. Icebergs the size of cities floating miles and miles away seemingly close enough to touch. It was all breathtaking, the beauty of the place put you in a silent trance of awe.

How was the morale of the crew?

Morale was high onboard with a few spells of seasickness when crossing the drake passage (deep trench of water between south America and Antarctica) but with smiles on everyone’s face from the point we met to the time we left. It was a joyful month full of laughter and positivity. Most of us had never met before the trip, our common denominator was Ben and Laura, which we all knew somehow. We all got on super well together, it felt seamless on board. With such close quarters it would have been easy to get in a few quarrels, but there was no drama throughout the entire trip. The whole crew were mellow, conscientious, and easy going, a pleasure to be around and I am very grateful to have had such a nice group onboard.

   

What kept you occupied on the boat?

We had a couple good games that were rotating to keep us entertained. Banana gram was a regular. I brought a couple small instruments along; Rachel had her ukulele and there was a guitar onboard, so we had a couple jams. Books were read, pictures were drawn, and music was played every day. Some of us also filled Journals with the day’s excitement.

Were there any unexpected challenges?

We ground the boat out on a rock, not really where you want to be when you’re hundreds of miles away from anything. What happened, you ask? We were on the hunt for an anchor spot, so we could check a wave we thought might be working. Looking for somewhere suitable, we traveled between 2 small rocky islands, this was a risk as this particular area is uncharted, therefore the seabed isn’t mapped. We pulled the keel up, so it was only just in the water, and we travelled through slowly trying to avoid any potential stacks. However, not long in, the keel clipped a stack rock, pushing the keel fin up and knocking the lock pin out allowing the keel fin to drop to its full length of 4m into what I assume was a hole in the stack rock. There were thundering noises coming through the hull as the boat was rocking on the tip of the reef. Luckily, we didn’t get stuck for long as the captain managed to wrestle the keel up within 20 minutes and get us back on our way, which was a relief for everyone.

Did you learn anything from others on the trip?

It was nice learning from everyone on the trip and how they worked in different situations. Just observing how people delt with things was cool and how everyone was learning from each other.

Any advice for anyone wanting to go and do something similar?

Take warm thermals, socks, and wet weather gear, download more songs than you think, make sure you have a good captain that has experience in the area and just go for it, do it.

Would you go again if you had the chance? If so, what would you want to do differently?

Yeah, for sure I’d go again if the chance arose, I would have to take the opportunity. I would download more albums and bring a longer board too. It would be cool to anchor up in a few places that are more exposed or near more open areas that face the prevailing swell direction. Easier said than done though, when there’s 20-meter waves and 60 knot gusts moving across the Drake Passage.

 

 

Words by Joseph Harding, Thanks for sharing Joe! Also, a big thanks to @Lauramaywilson13 for the Imagery. We look forward to the next travel update!

 

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