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Adventures / Sailing / What It’s Like to Sail the World’s Most Dangerous Sea

Dirk Collins

Sailing 2,500 miles across from South Africa to Antarctica is about as remote and dangerous a voyage as they come. For seasoned South African explorer Mike Horn, 50, this daring crossing was just the beginning of his circumnavigation of the planet via the poles, a multi-year expedition he calls “Pole2Pole.” After the 60-day ocean crossing in his 110-foot sailboat, Pangaea, Mike began his attempt to ski some 3,100 miles across the Antarctic continent—unsupported and alone. “I wanted to get to the Antarctic like Shackleton did, like Scott,” says Mike, the father of two daughters who has navigated the length of the Amazon River, completed the first circumnavigation of the Arctic Circle, and trekked from Siberia to the North Pole in Arctic darkness, among other achievements. “I don’t always think the easiest road is the best road for me.”

Here filmmaker Dirk Collins tells us about what he experienced with Mike on this daring ocean crossing.

ROAM: What It’s Like to Sail the World’s Most Dangerous Sea
Breaking the ice

Let’s talk about crossing the Southern Ocean. Why is it so dangerous?

Crossing the Southern Ocean is a big journey.  The ocean is widely regarded as the most dangerous ocean on the planet. It is extremely remote. And with Antarctica at the bottom and Africa slightly above, storms can just race around the bottom of the world, unencumbered, and build up speed and steam. From Cape Town, it’s 2,000 miles straight south to Antarctica. About 30 minutes after leaving Cape Town, we crossed the shipping lanes. After that, we didn’t see any other vessels. We were out there for 60 days, and didn’t see another boat, human, or plane—nothing. It’s the combination of bad weather, big seas, and the remoteness that really inhibits any kind of rescue that makes it one of the most dangerous oceans on the planet.

Did you experience any of those infamous storms?

We did. We actually ended up spending an extra week in Cape Town before we departed, partly because of a storm that was blowing offshore. Instead of leaving and getting completely beaten up right out of the gate, we ended up holding off for a few days, waiting for that to pass. Then we had really amazing weather on the way down. The boat captain was an amazing navigator and used several different systems on board the vessel to keep us away from storms—at least for about the first 800 miles before the pack ice began for 1,200 miles.

Why didn’t Mike want just to fly to Antarctica and reduce his risks?

With Mike, it’s never about the easiest route. It’s more about the adventurous route and in honoring the tried and true practices of early explorers and adventurers, back to the days of Shackleton or Cook. He said, “Okay, we’re going to do this the old style. We’re going to sail down there, and we’re going to get through the ice, and hopefully get to the continent. And then, I’ll get off, and start going from there.” I think with Mike, that’s the true adventure. Just flying down there would be too easy.

If that sounds insane, it’s because it is. Most people would never want to do it in that manner because there’s just too much risk in actually losing the primary objective. We could feel the stress building as we got closer and closer to the continent. We were in thick pack ice, struggling, and getting beat up.

If that sounds insane, it’s because it is.

Did you ever think you might not make it?

Yeah. Everybody started getting a little bit anxious and stressed out about that to some extent. But of course, Mike was calm and said, “If I don’t make it, then it wasn’t really meant to be. But this initial part of the adventure had to take place. I wouldn’t have changed it, if I could.”

What was going to prevent you from making it to the ice shelf to drop Mike off to his crossing?

The ice shelf sticks out from the continent anywhere from 60 to 120 miles. We had to push through and fight our way through varying degrees of pack ice, where in some places we were completely stuck. Then there were these giant icebergs, pieces of the continental ice shelf that had broken off, and were floating. As we got closer and closer to the continent itself, of course, you’re getting into colder and colder water, and the ice is getting denser and thicker, and harder to move through. There was a period of four or five days, where we just really went in circles, and zigzagged around, and literally smashing with the boat, like trying to break through, and push giant pieces of ice that are as big as a football field. As we tried to push them around, and the ice would push back on us. But Mike couldn’t get off of the boat and just start skiing on the pack ice, either, because the pack ice is adrift. It’s all moving in open water. To get off, and venture very far from the boat, you’re going to die, or be adrift, at best. We had to get him all the way to the ice shelf. From there, he could ski, and after about a hundred miles, he would actually be on the continent itself.

Can you share a specific example of Mike in action dealing with a hardship?

We were probably a week from the ice shelf, and we were in super thick ice. The ice was just pushing us around, and we were stuck. Finally, at the end of the day, we couldn’t move any more. We were pinned.

“Shut the boat off. Shut everything off. We’re just going to drift,” Mike instructed. And we just all sat down. He broke out a bottle of wine and some dried meat, and everybody just took a break. We had been running 24 hours a day for close to a month at that point.

He was like “Okay, look. Let’s just take a break, and just drift with the ice, and think about this for a little while.” Everybody ended up going to bed. Mike and I were the only ones still awake. We jumped off the boat, and we’re running around, out on the ice, around the boat, in the middle of the night. We were kind of in that transition period where we were still getting a couple hours of darkness. So, we’re out there under the stars, jumping from iceberg to iceberg, and it’s 20,000 feet deep under us, and we’re just having a great time.

Then we get back on the boat, get a little nap, and wake up. During that time out, the ice changed. It had moved and opened up, so we continued on our way. I think it’s that type of attitude and persistence—but also not always just continually beating your head against the wall—that is a good example of Mike’s approach.

ROAM: What It’s Like to Sail the World’s Most Dangerous Sea
Chilling
We’re out there under the stars, jumping from iceberg to iceberg, and we’re just having a great time.

Mike has seen more of the world than anybody alive today. Do you see hints of wisdom from all of his life experiences showing up in the way he leads an expedition?

For sure. I think that ability to know that he’s going to make it, really shows up in that. He goes into situations with confidence, without doubt or second-guessing. Also, Mike loves to tell stories. He’s got phenomenal stories about all of the different expeditions he’s been on, and all of the different things he’s had to overcome. I’m sure I’ve only heard what really amounts to a handful of them in the few years I’ve been spending time with him.

Did you see very much wildlife, and whales, and ocean life?

Because we South Africa a little early, we were ahead of the migration of the sea life that would be going down for the summer months. We saw a few whales on the way down. And then, as we got closer to the continent, we started seeing different types of penguins—and quite large numbers of penguins, in some cases.

And then, once we hit the ice shelf, we had leopard seals and other seals, and more penguins. We did see a few killer whales at certain times.

On the way back, on the way to Australia, it seemed like we would come across these groups of whales— southern right whales, humpbacks, etc., that would be moving in large groups, and then sometimes in pairs, or singles.

Seeing the yacht sail through those steep alleys between icebergs—did you have to worry about ice rolling over? What was all of that like?

From about 800 miles off of the continent, you start seeing these giant mountains on the horizon, which are actually massive icebergs that have broken off from the shelf. As you get closer the continent, there are more and more. Then on the very last day, where we broke through the sea ice, and we had this inland body of water between the sea ice and the ice shelf, there were these massive ice chunks, some that were miles long. We sailed through those corridors, and they definitely were intimidating.

If one were to break off, or roll, or pinch the boat or something, then you would have a huge problem. So, we would just move through with a lot of care, but also kind of with this awe and amazement, and enjoyment, where you’re getting to witness something that very few people ever would have the opportunity to see. It was like going through the gates of Narnia, or another world, where you’re like you’ve passed beyond what anyone has ever experienced.

One thing that I can say for sure, is that the pack ice broke up and moved out faster than it ever had in previous years.

We see Antarctica in the news a lot, because of melting sea ice and climate change. Having, with your own eyes, just been down in that ice, did you have thoughts on the climate change that is happening down there?

You know, all of us on board were very studied along the lines of climate change, and what’s happening in the Arctic and the Antarctic—and all of us have experienced it firsthand. Mike, more so than any. But I’ve experienced a lot, as well, just between my travels in Antarctica, and in the Arctic, prior to this trip. So, it was something we talked about a lot, on the way down there. Although there would seem to be an excessive amount of large chunks of the ice shelf broken off, it wasn’t really for us to say whether that was normal or abnormal, just because we hadn’t been there before. One thing that I can say for sure, is that the pack ice broke up and moved out faster than it ever had in previous years.

When we left Cape Town, the satellite image showed solid pack ice, anywhere from 900 to 1,200 miles around the continent, where we were approaching from, from that side. And there was no way to kind of get through. And then, as we got under way, it started breaking up. And then, it just started dispersing. We were getting news reports from the states, from friends and family and whatnot, where they were saying “Hey, we’re seeing things in the news about how the ice run in Antarctica is breaking up earlier than ever this year,” and so on.

And we were actually seeing the signs of that first hand, where the ice was really coming apart, and then moving out to sea a lot faster than we expected, and what seemed to be verifying the reports from the scientific side, that were showing up in the news.

That changed your expedition, for sure.

I think if it would have been more of a typical ice year, there’s a good chance that we wouldn’t have made it, because the ice would have been too dense for us to get through. The fact that things happened, the spring came a little sooner than normal, and the ice broke up sooner, allowed us to get in, and get Mike onto the ice shelf, on schedule, where that probably would not have happened, otherwise.

When you were dropping off Mike on the ice shelf, and he was off to begin the next objective, or primary objective of crossing Antarctica, what was running through your mind?

That was an interesting moment for everyone on board, and for Mike, as well. It was sad in some ways, and worrisome in some ways, and then exciting in other ways. It was the beginning of a new adventure for Mike, and it was the beginning of a new adventure for Pangaea, and all of us on the boat. Because Mike had his crossing ahead of him, solo and unsupported across the continent, and then we had 4,500 miles of the Southern Ocean to cross. Both are relatively daunting and super dangerous.

All of us on the crew walked up a little ways onto the ice shelf with Mike. We had put his sled up there the night before, and then came back down to the boat, and had a little ceremony with a little bit of whiskey to toast to separate adventures—Mike having a safe journey and to Pangaea making it to Australia safely.

Then everyone kind of went to bed, and then the next morning, got up, which really was only a few hours, because of 24 hours of daylight at that point. We took Mike up to the sled, where he then proceeded to start on his way. I skied with him for three or four more miles after that. Right before I turned around to head back, we sat down and had a conversation and some tea. It was not a lot of words, just a little bit more companionship before Mike went on his way, and before we went on our way.

I’ve been in those situations with friends and athletes before, when a big event or feat was about to be attempted, and one of the results is death, or not ever seeing that person again, or injury, or just a lot of bad things that can go wrong. Those conversations are kind of like, “This could be the last time I get to talk to this person,” so there’s a lot of interesting emotions in that. It’s powerful.

But when I skied away, I know we both turned around a couple of times, as we got further and further away, and I could just see an ocean of white in front of him, and he could just see an ocean of blue in front of me. And eventually, we couldn’t see each other again, and that was kind of like “Alright. We’ll see what happens from here.”

Seeing the yacht going through those steep alleys between icebergs—did you have to worry about ice rolling over, and I don’t know, what was all of that like?

Those big icebergs are actually chunks of the ice shelf that have broken off. So, on the way down, basically from about probably 800 miles off of the continent, you start seeing these giant like mountains on the horizon. As you get closer the continent, there becomes more and more of those. Then on the very last day, where we broke through the sea ice, and we had this kind of inland body of water between the sea ice and the ice shelf, there were these massive ice chunks, some that were miles long. We sailed through those corridors, and they definitely were intimidating.

If, for some reason, one were to break off, or roll, or pinch the boat or something, then you would have a huge problem. So, we would just move through, and along them, with a lot of care, but also kind of with this awe and amazement, and enjoyment, where you’re getting to witness something that very few people ever would have the opportunity to see. It was like going through the gates of Narnia.



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