The Godforsaken Sea: Solo-sailing Antarctica's Southern Ocean

The Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica is the most dangerous and least understood of our great oceans. IDEAS producer Philip Coulter joins solo sailors and a historian on a radio expedition to find out about what happens to people who go to the loneliest place on the planet. Part two of a two-part series.

Part 2 of the documentary, Sailing Alone Around the World, explores the most dangerous of our great oceans

Sailing the Southern Ocean is the ultimate test of endurance. The high winds, cold weather, and remoteness can create lethal challenges. Sailing alone makes it even harder. (Eitan Abramovich/AFP via Getty Images)
Listen to the full episode53:58

*This episode originally aired May 13, 2014, but includes an update interview with Dee Caffari. Listen to Part One of Sailing Alone Around the World.

Sailing alone around the world is still one of the pinnacles of human achievement. Only about 200 sailors have made the epic voyage solo — starting with Joshua Slocum.

Every sailor knows his name. Slocum was a retired Canadian sea captain and in 1895 he set off to sail alone around the world. He was the first person to make the epic voyage, arriving back home three years later.

Nova Scotian-born, Joshua Slocum was the first man to sail single-handedly around the world from 1895 to 1898. It was determined he was 'lost at sea' in 1909 aboard his boat, the Spray (left). (Wikimedia)

And every sailor also knows that the most dangerous and least understood of our great oceans is the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica — an immense body of water where all the oceans of the world meet. It is the most remote place on earth where you are further from human habitation than an astronaut in the International Space Station.

There's an old saying among sailors: "below 40 degrees of latitude, there is no law. Below 50, there is no God."

Sailing the Southern Ocean is the ultimate test of endurance. And some sailors do it single-handedly.

IDEAS producer Philip Coulter met with four solo-sailors to explore what happens to people who go to the loneliest place on the planet.

'The power of the wind'

Nova Scotia sailor Derek Hatfield sailed twice around the world, single-handedly. He faced the currents, wind and endless torrents that drive the weather in circles around Antarctica. In July of 2016, he died at the age of 63.

"You're struck by the power of the wind because it's so much colder and the wind coming from the south off Antarctica … it's much denser, so has a lot more power in the sails," Hatfield said back in 2013. 

Hatfield told Coulter he didn't know what to expect when he reached the Southern Ocean and that uncertainty created adrenaline that helped him get through the worst.

"It makes you nervous. The first time down there, [the] sun is very low in the sky. So it always has a shadowy, low light. You're way down where there is no commercial shipping. You're alone and you know, you're a long ways from help — and it's cold."

The low light in the Antarctic peninsula. (EITAN ABRAMOVICH/AFP/Getty Images)

Facing darkness

Glenn Wakefield has been up close and personal with the various challenges that come with sailing the Southern Ocean. He has attempted two solo circumnavigations.

"You're stuck with yourself. So you really actually find out a great deal about yourself and your abilities to meet Mother Nature's challenges. And they are probably more daunting in the Southern Ocean," he tells Coulter.

Out in the ocean, alone, Wakefield says, "you find the frail limitation of a human."

"You can actually only stand so much cold and you can only be deprived of sleep for so long. You need water and food. And so you have to take care of yourself as well as your boat against those elements … And I think it's that challenge that really makes it feel human."

After his first attempt to sail around the world solo was cut short by crippling storms, Glenn Wakefield from Vancouver Island set sail from Cadboro Bay in Victoria to try again in September 2013.

Then there's the dark side. Wakefield says it's a feeling he always has but the remoteness of the sea makes it feel more powerful. 

"The dark side — it's a terrible thing to meet, but it is there. And I faced it." 

He says coping with the darkness, "dealing with my own humanity," was difficult to overcome. 

"You have to dig really deeply and pull yourself back out of that darkness, you know, minute by minute, hour by hour.

"You find something, you make yourself a cup of tea and put honey in it and maybe a dash of scotch and try and find some happy place — and gradually work your way back to see the sunshine." 

It's unlikely any solo-sailor wouldn't find a little darkness out on the ocean, says Wakefield, as well as incredible light.

Swinging from the mast

Dee Caffari is the first woman to have sailed non-stop and single-handedly around the world in both directions - a total of three times. 

After a storm hit when she was sailing the Southern Ocean, she found her autopilot wasn't working — a small part at the top of her 95 foot mast would have to be replaced. 

"I'm not good with heights at the best of times, so it was a job that I knew I had to kind of build up for and make it happen," she tells Coulter.

In 2006, Dee Caffari became the first woman to sail solo around the world, non-stop. Caffari has circumnavigated the globe non-stop more times than any other woman. (Reuters/Charles Platiau )

As she continues to explain her predicament, she points out that the worst part of getting up the mast up is the middle section.

"I was kind of swinging around a bit violently, and I wasn't enjoying that and got myself further off and then for some reason, I couldn't even tell you what it was — I kind of was stuck," Caffari says.

As she was trying to stop swinging herself around holding on to the main sail, her grip weakened. 

"You know, when your hands are cold and you've been out walking, how hard it is to undo buttons on your coat? Now, imagine that in the Southern Ocean just a little bit worse. And it's quite hard to coordinate your movements," Caffari says. 

"I was stuck there, not going up or down. And so it took a little bit of convincing."

Caffair says the only thing at that time that was keeping her grounded was being strong wiled, strong minded — thinking about ways to get down and having confidence to get out of the situation.

A terrifying beauty on the horizon

Derek Lundy is a historian and author of The Godforsaken Sea. After interviewing a dozen sailors who braved the Southern Ocean for his book, he realized a common wisdom shared among everyone.

"They all came back saying, I know exactly who I am, what I'm capable of. I know the sort of person I am," Lundy says.

"One of the great veterans of Southern Ocean sailing, the Frenchman, Philippe Jeantot, said to me: 'I just can't lie to myself anymore. I know who I am. I know what's important. Life is wonderful. I accept death more readily now."

When humans face danger and come through it, it's a powerful experience, says Lundy. 

"It seems like the time when you were most alive, when everything was most vivid and present to you. The great beauty of the Southern Ocean, particularly in storms. It was terrifying, but it was always beautiful. The waves, the colour, the clouds."

Guests in this episode:

  • Glenn Wakefield has attempted two solo circumnavigations.
  • Derek Lundy, author of Godforsaken Sea, about the single-handed non-stop Vendee Globe race of 1996-97.
  • Derek Hatfield, completed Around Alone race (five stages) in 2002/3.
  • Dee Caffari, first woman to sail solo in 2006/7 non-stop, around the world. She also completed 2008/9 Vendee Globe. She has written a book about her first epic voyage called Against the Flow, published by Adlard Coles.

Recommended reading list:

  • Sea of Dreams by Adam Mayers, about the 2002/3 Around Alone race, published by McCLelland & Stewart, 2006.
  • Sailing Alone Around the World by Joshua Slocum, a narrative of his 1895-98 circumnavigation.
  • The Sailing Spirit by John Hughes, about his 1986 BOC Challenge race, published by Seal Books.
  • The Hard Way Round by Geoffrey Wolff, a biography of Slocum, published by Knopf.
  • 40,000 Miles in a Canoe  by John Voss, International Marine/McGraw-Hill, 2001.
  • Dove by Robin Lee Graham, Harper & Row 1972 (account of a 16-year old boy's solo circumnavigation).
  • The Circumnavigators: small boat voyagers of modern times by Don Holm, Prentice-Hall, 1974.
  • By the Grace of the Sea: a woman's solo odyssey around the world by Pat Henry, International Marine/McGraw-Hill, 2002.
  • East toward dawn: a woman's solo journey around the world by Nan Watkins, New York:Seal Press, 2002.
  • Maidentrip by Laura Dekker, New York, NY: First Run Features, 2014. 

* This episode was produced by Philip Coulter


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