The little barque “Europa” was built in Hamburg in 1911, and is now registered in the Netherlands.  Between 1986 and 1994, the ship was completely refitted in Holland, and spends the Southern summer months sailing in Antarctic waters. She carries a crew of ten professional sailors, plus a doctor, two cooks, engineer and barman.  Her overall length is 56 metres, she has three masts and 22 sails, and  two 340 hp diesel engines as auxiliary power.

I joined her in the Argentine port of Ushuaia on 4th February 2010, as one of thirty trainee sailors. We were a mixed bunch – about half Dutch, the remainder from New Zealand, Australia,  Britain, America, Brazil, France……….   I was the only South African.  Ages varied from the early twenties to mid-seventies.  The make-up of the permanent crew was much the same except as regards age, being mostly young men and women in their twenties.

After an uneventful voyage down the Beagle Channel, we entered the open sea – and the Drake Passage, renowned as one of the roughest and most dangerous stretches of water in the world.  The trainees were divided into three watches of ten each, duties being four hours on and eight hours off, day and night.  The worst watch was the Dog Watch from midnight to 4 a.m.  Main duties were manning the wheel,  standing look-out, and helping as much as possible with handling the sails which were set as soon as we left the Beagle.

The extremely rough seas soon took their toll, and the watches were reduced, by sea-sickness, to about half-strength, which meant that those of us who were still able had to stand double duties.  Wind strengths of 6 and 7 on the Beaufort Scale gradually increased to  8 and 9, howling and whistling through the rigging which roared defiantly back  We were making between five and a half and six and a half knots, and eventually with seas crashing over the decks,  safety lines and safety nets were set up, no-one being allowed on deck without a safety harness.  Watching the masts dipping towards the sea, one wondered if the little ship could ever right itself – but, gallantly, she always did.

Eventually, as the gales increased and we encountered snowstorms, sails were reduced.  At force 11 (force 12 being a  hurricane) we had to rely on the diesel engines to bring us in to Greenwich Island for shelter.  Then suddenly the winds dropped, and for the next ten days we had to rely on the engines.

On 10th February, after five days in  the roughest seas, we made our first landing on Barientos Island.  It was snowing lightly, and we saw Gentoo and  Adelie penguins sheltering  in little mounds of snow.  The next day we entered the immense caldera of Deception Island, a semi-extinct volcano which in the past provided shelter for whalers and a British research station. Here we had the opportunity to swim in allegedly “warm” volcanic waters.  The rising steam belied the fact that the temperature of the water was in fact little above zero, and I didn’t stay in long !  Others, more hardy, did.

We sailed on among vistas of increasing drama and beauty. David Livingstone, on seeing what became known as the Victoria Falls, wrote that “scenes so beautiful must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight”.  An apt description too for what we were seeing.  Huge black volcanic peaks reared up from blue seas and snow or ice-bound shores, and icebergs of fantastic shapes and colours abounded.

Landings on the islands were made at least once a day, and sometimes twice, in Zodiac rubber dinghies.  We walked among Gentoo, Adelie and Chinstrap penguins, some so trusting that a young  Gentoo at one stage, having investigated my boots and trousers, fell asleep in the crook of my leg !  Elsewhere we saw Weddell Seals, Antarctic Fur Seals, and  Leopard Seals.

The days were generally bright and sunny, though cold.  Lunches were often buffets on the deck, and at one point we were nudged by a passing iceberg.  Eventually, at 65 degrees 15 minutes South, we reached Vernadzky Island with its Ukrainean Research Station.  We were welcomed by the most hospitable staff, and plied with their excellent home-made vodka.  I was pleased to see a little Rhodesian flag I had left in their bar five years before was still there, as was another traveller’s New Zealand flag.

Winter comes early in these latitudes, and it was now time to turn back northwards. We visited the British base  at Port Lockroy, and continued northwards, landing on more islands and marvelling at humpback whales and orcas playing about the vessel.  And all around, magnificent icebergs.

On 20th February, we re-entered the Drake Passage, sails were set, and the Europa heeled over with the force of the wind.  At one point, we reached nine knots, but later dropped down to about six .  The sea was extremely rough, with huge waves, but the wind not as bad as on the earlier crossing.  Two days later, we came in sight of Cape Horn and the fulfilment, for me, of an ambition I had cherished since the age of about eleven or twelve : rounding Cape Horn under sail !

A few more days of battling wind and wave, and then we re-entered the Beagle Channel and eventually saw the welcoming lights of Ushuaia.  Truly an experience of a lifetime.

 Lewis Walter,  Fish Hoek

For information about the “Europa”, and other Antarctic voyages, contact Hans and Leo van Heukelum, Unique Destinations, 021 462 7032.  www.uniquedestinations.co.za