The Deep South is no Picnic.

I like the words of Vendée Globe sailor Alan Roura aboard La Fabrique and his realistic description of typical sailing in the Southern Ocean:

“The Deep South is no picnic. I have never been so frightened, taking routes or diversions to round the big lows, enduring front after front with crossed seas and breaking waves, some of which are 8 to 10m high. Going from 20 to 40 knots of breeze without having the time to realize that the boat has already broached. The South has its secrets and calls for you to sail in a way that you need to learn. Above all it forces you to never think you’re more powerful than the ocean.”


Vendee Globe- The Everest of Sailing

Some of my blog posts are more urgent than others and this is one of them. The Vendee Globe is undoubtedly the hardest and most demanding sailing race in the world. It is a single-handed, non-stop race around the world in 60 foot sailboats. The race is now in its thirty-ninth day and this posting is urgent because the leaders are soon approaching Drake Passage – a passage that I crossed six times when I was a doctor aboard the USCGC Glacier. I know the kinds of conditions these built-for-speed sailboats could end up facing and pray they are not confronted with anything like the mountainous seas we faced aboard the Glacier during our last crossing.

The Vendee Globe race was founded by Phillipe Jeantot in 1989. Since 1992, it has taken place every four years. The race is open to 60 foot monohull yachts conforming to the Open 60 criteria. The race begins in Les Sables d’ Olonne, France, then down the Atlantic and around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, Australia’s Cape Leeuwin, and South America’s notorious Cape Horn before heading back up the Atlantic to the French port where they began. Competitors in this race are not allowed to receive any outside assistance, nor are they allowed to draw alongside a dock, quay or another vessel, but they may stop at anchor. Many of the sailors choose to withdraw from the race.

In the 1996-97 race one of the sailors, Gerry Roufs from Canada was lost at sea. His boat was found five months later off the coast of Chile. The sailors are often far from any normal emergency response, particularly during the long treacherous stretch of the race in the Southern Ocean, although two capsized boats were rescued by Australian rescue teams in the 1996-97 race. A third capsized boat in this same race was rescued by one of the participants, Raphael Dinelli, who was later awarded France’s Legion d’honneur.

During the 2000-2001 race 24 -year-old Ellen MacArthur almost won the race, but ended up second after striking a semi-submerged container and being delayed in order to make repairs. Yet she arrived to great fanfare as result of being “the youngest ever competitor to finish, the fastest woman around the planet – and only second solo sailor to get around the globe and less than 100 days.”

Sebastien Josse finished fifth in the 2004-05 race in spite of hitting an iceberg—a constant threat while sailing in the Southern Ocean. The 2008-09 race was won by Michel Desjoyeaux, who set a new record of 84d 3h 9’ 8”. This record was eclipsed in the 2012-13 race by François Gabart, who completed the circumnavigation in 78d 2h 16’ 40”.

The race is fascinating to follow on the Vendee Globe website where you can see video footage of segments of the race while it is happening. Some of the sailboats exceed speeds of 25 knots and can sailmore than 500 miles during a 24-hour period. Videos taken off the stern of the boats give one a very good sense of the speeds they can attain.

I’m looking forward to more excitement and incredible feats during the remaining portion of the 2016-17 race.

Shackleton's Voyage: Part One

Sir Earnest Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, was crushed and sank in the Weddell Sea icepack on November 21, 1915. He and his twenty-seven man crew subsequently lived on the icepack that continued to drift in a northerly direction somewhat parallel to the eastern edge of the Antarctic Peninsula. When the icepack finally melted beneath them, they took to their three longboats. They rowed continuously for several days in these open boats before finally reaching Elephant Island off the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. Shackleton spent less than two weeks on the island. Midwinter was approaching. There was no time to waste.

     On April 24, 1916, Shackleton and five of his crew sailed for South Georgia Island, 650 nautical miles (1,050 kilometers) away. There was a whaling station on this island, which Shackleton and his crew knew about because they had stopped there on their way to Antarctica. It was the closest outpost of civilization. And a razor-thin hope for salvation.

     Elephant Island was a remote island, far away from any shipping lanes. No backup ship would be coming to rescue them and they had no radio to inform the world about their plight. The only ship available was the ship they lost. Even if there had been a plan for a rescue ship to come searching for them, they would have been almost impossible to find. All any potential rescuer would have known was that they probably were somewhere within the million square miles of the Weddell Sea.

     The craft that was going to undertake this desperate voyage to South Georgia Island was the James Caird, one of the longboats converted into a makeshift small sailboat by the ship’s resourceful carpenter, Harry McNish. He reportedly did carpentry work using only ‘eyeball’ measurements. Shackleton chose five men to join him: Frank Worsley, the captain of the Endurance, served as navigator, with McNish, the Bosun, John Vincent, and two seamen, Thomas Crean and Tim McCarthy. The remaining twenty-one crewmembers remained on the island—with little hope that Shackleton and his small crew would ever survive.

     The worst danger the James Caird faced on this voyage was colliding with a large piece of berg ice. Such an event would have likely sunk them. Consequently, Shackleton immediately turned north and tried to get as far away from the icepack as he could, before turning east towards South Georgia Island. Luck was with them. They never hit any significant ice. But then they had to deal with the terror of Drake Passage in a twenty-two foot, double-ended boat. (To be continued in subsequent blog postings.)

International Cooperation in Antarctica

In spite of the ugly politics in the US and the rest of the world, there is upbeat news regarding Antarctica. For the past year a number of nations have tried to create a Marine Protected Area (MPA) in Antarctica. The US, EU, China and twenty-one other countries were in agreement. Russia was the only holdout, but they finally agreed to join the other nations to create the worlds largest Marine Protected Area— 600,000 square miles—in the Ross Sea of Antarctica. Nothing can be taken from this area including marine life and minerals, except for scientific purposes, for the next thirty-five years. This means among other things that “Chilean Sea Bass”, the brand name for Patagonian Toothfish predominantly found in Antarctica, may still be enjoyed in our restaurants for some time.

Russia’s Special Representative for Ecology, Sergei Ivanov said “Russia has a proud history of exploration and science and Antarctica. In this time of political turbulence in so many parts of the world, we are pleased to be part of this collaborative international effort to safeguard the Ross Sea.”

When I was in Antarctica aboard the USCGC Glacier in 1970, I had the honor of visiting a Russian station along with a small group of our officers. We joined a dozen Russians for lunch that consisted mostly of pickled food washed down with the best vodka I’ve ever had. In the midst of the Cold War, we got drunk together, raised both the American and Russian flags high above their station, and then gave them a tour of our ship. That experience left me with the feeling that there could be real cooperation between our countries. The recent agreement to create a huge marine reserve in Antarctica underscores that such cooperation can and does happen.

Antarctica is the only continent that has never experienced a war. The Antarctic Treaty has been a model for international cooperation since 1959.

The Benefits of Awe Experiences

Preliminary studies by Jennifer Stellar at Berkeley indicate that of all the positive experiences, only awe predicts a significant reduction in cytokine levels. High levels of this chemical messenger are associated with excessive inflammation and increased vulnerability to disease. Other studies at Berkeley show that simply watching a short video of expansive natural images lead to better results in test of creativity and more persistence while attempting to perform difficult tasks. I recently saw a documentary film, “Antarctica: A Year on Ice”, by Anthony Powell. I think essentially everyone would be awestruck after seeing such a beautiful film.

A study by Arnie Gordon at Berkeley indicated that awe experiences are relatively common, occurring on average every third day. These experiences create a “stop-and-think” moment that makes us more receptive to new information and more aware of others. Awe sensations can be triggered by such things as appreciating the wonders of nature, art, music, acts of kindness or experiencing something vast that is not immediately understood.

In modern society we tend to spend too much time looking at our cell phones or generally being self-absorbed. It’s important that we actively seek out every day awe experiences. It’s not that hard. For example, I have found that if I have a camera in my hand and I’m looking for something nice to photograph, I’m much more apt to see beauty in simple things like patterns, textures, or colors. Watching children experience the world is another frequent source of awe.

I recently heard about something my granddaughter did. I didn’t actually see what Emily did, but I could picture it in my mind. I was a bit concerned about Emily when she was younger because she seemed to be inordinately afraid of dogs, but that seems to have changed now that she is two years old. A friend of my daughter and son-in-law came to visit them and brought along a six-month-old black Labrador. Emily delighted in playing with the dog and chasing after him. She finally tired the dog out to the point where the dog needed to take a nap. She was told the dog needed to go “nighty night.” When the dog laid down to sleep, Emily got her blanket to cover the dog… along with one of her favorite stuffed animals. That act of kindness and altruism was certainly an awe moment for me.

Polar Regions, Vikings and Tomatoes

So what’s the relationship between the three things in the title you may ask? Since I’m three quarters Norwegian by heritage and I’ve always loved stories about exploring, it’s not surprising that I developed an interest in the vast explorations during the heyday of the Vikings. Their explorations covered an area including North America, Greenland, Europe, the Mediterranean and Russia. And they or their direct descendants not only settled many of these areas, but they also help set up major trading economies and helped establish stable governments, particularly in Russia, Iceland, and Sicily. And today Viking descendants are helping us in other ways.

The time I spent in Antarctica aboard the Glacier significantly increased my interest in polar regions, which led to my reading more about important Norwegian explorers like Nansen and Amundsen. The direct and indirect influence Norwegians have had on both the Arctic and the Antarctic is quite impressive.

I’ve always liked tomatoes, but modern day tomatoes don’t taste as good as the kinds I had more than sixty years ago when I was a little kid in Minnesota. It turns out that those good tasting tomatoes were less uniform, uglier and harder to transport. Round red tomatoes were not only easier to ship, but they also were more aesthetically pleasing and sold better. It wasn’t long before that was the only kind of tomato readily available. More recently, heirloom tomatoes are making a comeback, thanks to those who saved the seeds of the older varieties.

So what is it that links tomatoes, Vikings and polar regions? The connection has to do with plant seeds in general and all those plants that are dying out because of global warming, natural disasters, depleted soils, agribusiness practices, etc. It turns out there is a Global Seed Vault housed in a large tunnel and bunker in Svalbard, Norway— an island archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. The seed bank there opened in 2008 and now stores seeds from close to 900,000 plant varieties. The state-of-the-art facility collecting the seeds is funded by the Government of Norway and is the result of a partnership between Norway, the Nordic Genetic Research Center and the Global Crop Diversity Trust.

We need to do all we can to preserve and maintain the planets dwindling biodiversity. Hats off to the government of Norway and their partners.