Sailing Antarctica in a World-Class Racing Yacht

By Stephen Hartshorne

The 'Spirit of Sydney' - photos courtesy of Adventure Life
The 'Spirit of Sydney' - photos courtesy of Adventure Life

Antarctica has become a very popular travel destination in recent years, and there are dozens and dozens of tour offerings there.

But if you want to get really close to the striking Antarctic landscapes and the hardy animals that make their homes there, you might want to take a hands-on sailing tour of the White Continent aboard the "Spirit of Sydney," an eight-passenger yacht designed for round-the-world racing.

In addition to their other popular Antarctica cruises, Adventure Life of Missoula, Montana, now offers sailing excursions to Antarctica which embark from Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego. Passengers travel through the frequently rough seas of Drake's Passage in an expedition vessel to the protected waters of the Antarctic Peninsula.

Hands-On Adventure

There they board the "Spirit of Sydney," a sea-tested racing yacht designed by Australia's Ben Lexcen for the 1986 BOC Challenge Race, a solo race around the world sponsored by the British Oxygen Company.

Originally designed for racing, the "Spirit" has been re-outfitted as an expedition yacht. The tour is a "hands-on" adventure, and passengers are welcome to participate as members of the crew, take a turn at the helm or just sit back and enjoy the scenery and the wildlife.

Adventure Life President Brian Morgan, who designs all AL tours, says the new tour is the first of its kind.

"The only other way to sail around Antarctica is to charter an entire vessel," he says. "The 'Spirit of Sydney' trips are unique because they offer individuals, couples and small groups the opportunity to join a sailing trip. Also, you're a lot closer to the water when sailing. This trip will allow passengers the opportunity to view the amazing wildlife that Antarctica is famous for, including whales, penguins and sea birds, up close."

Sailing Antarctic waters in a yacht gives passengers an up-close view of the wildlife and scenery.
Sailing Antarctic waters in a yacht gives passengers an up-close view of the wildlife and scenery.

"Anyone who has ever dreamed of feeling the wind in his or her sails will enjoy being at the helm of this thoroughbred racing yacht," he says.
The "Spirit" has also been likened to "an ocean greyhound," with long clean lines and flared bow sections designed for surfing the big rollers of the Southern Ocean. The ship had a major refit in 2002 including a new engine, new mainsail and a plexiglass dodger on the cockpit.

In 2004 the "Spirit" got a new saloon and navigation area and was outfitted with central heating and hot water systems.

Check Your E-Mail

The ship is also equipped with state-of-the-art weather information and communication systems, including he Xaxero Sky-Eye System for downloading real-time satellite images, Iridium phone access to Global Marine Information Network

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and e-mail facilities. Imagine checking your e-mail while sailing on the coast of Antarctica!

Adventure Life offers 14-, 23- and 27-day sailing tours. All the tours begin in Ushaia and voyage across Drake's Passage aboard the Peregrine Mariner, an ice-s strengthened expedition vessel designed for rough seas. (Though the passage is named for Sir Francis Drake, Drake himself decided not to hazard it, sailing instead through the Straits of Magellan which cut through the southern tip of South America.

A macaroni penguin
A macaroni penguin

Sea Birds, Penguins, and Seals

The 27-day tour includes stops at the Falkland Islands and South Georgia. In the Falklands, which is warmer than any of the other destinations, visitors can see three species of penguins -- Magellanic, rockhoppers and gentoos, as well as 60 species of birds which migrate to the islands to breed.

This tour also stops at South Georgia, the most mountainous of all the islands in the Southern Ocean.

Antarctic wildlife here includes albatross, skuas, giant petrels, tens of thousands of fur seals and hundreds of thousands of penguins including king penguins, and macaroni penguins, named by early English explorers, not for noodles, but for the plumes which resembled the feathers that "Yankee doodles" stuck in their hats when they went to London.

Visitors to South Georgia can also visit the old whaling station and the grave of legendary Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton.

An ice castle in the Southern Ocean
An ice castle in the Southern Ocean

Zodiac Excursions

All three tours stop in the islands of the South Shetland Archipelago, from which they take a variety of excursions by zodiac boat to King George, Half Moon, Aicho, and Livingston Islands and, weather permitting, sail into the flooded caldera of the active volcano on Deception Island.

On these islands, the wildlife includes Adelie, chinstrap and gentoo penguins as well as several species of seals, and some of the most dramatic scenery in the region, formed by massive tabular icebergs, some several miles long.

The voyage aboard the Peregrine Voyager includes a series of educational presentations about wildlife, conservation and the history of Antarctic exploration.

Up-Close and Personal

On arriving in the relatively sheltered waters of the Antarctic Peninsula, visitors board the "Spirit of Sydney" for an up-close and personal exploration of Antarctica's bays and passages inhabited by humpback whales, leopard seals and, of course, penguins.

The cabin of the 'Spirit of Sydney'
The cabin of the 'Spirit of Sydney'

As an independent yacht, the "Spirit" can visit tiny coves and shallow anchorages where larger vessels cannot go. Members of the expedition, even "landlubbers," are invited to help sail the vessel, take a turn at the helm or just enjoy the awe-inspiring landscape of Earth's "last paradise."

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Evenings are spent at anchor in the comfort of the ship's cabins, and dinner is generally a focal point for social activity as well as planning and communication.

The Co-Skippers

The "Spirit of Sydney" is owned and skippered by Cath Hew and Darrell Day, both experienced Antarctic sailors. Hew has designed and built her own yachts and sailed them around the world in many ocean races. Day is a veteran mountaineer who has climbed peaks all over the world.

In 2000 Hew and Day visited the Antarctic Peninsula and decided to make their dream of sailing in the region a reality they could share with others. They purchased the "Spirit of Sydney" in 2003.

The 14-day excursion includes five days of sailing aboard the "Spirit" while the two longer tours include eight days of sailing.

Passengers view Antarctic landscapes from the bow.
Passengers view Antarctic landscapes from the bow.

Returning to Tierra del Fuego

The return trip to Tierra del Fuego features onshore hikes, zodiac cruises among the icebergs, a visit to a working scientific research station and, weather permitting, a trip around Cape Horn.

The final night on board, passengers are invited to a captain's dinner as the ship makes its way down the Beagle Channel.

Adventure Life was founded in 1999 with the goal of providing quality small-group tours that have a positive impact on local culture and environment. The company offers more than 40 tours in South and Central America, exploring local cultures in remote villages and bustling city markets.

Adventure Life's grassroots approach to travel utilizes local guides, family-run hotels and local transportation. Groups are rarely larger than twelve, and every tour is is designed by founder Brian Morgan with the goal of providing fun and excitement.

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