Revisiting my Southern Ocean and Antarctic Sailing Experience

This is a very long post, make sure you are comfortably seated!

I have been back for two years already. Crazy how time flies when you are busy travelling the world and having amazing adventures!

Shortly after making it back to land in Chile, Seb and I had published a few posts and pictures about our adventure here. Two years after this awesome, yet very challenging experience, I feel like looking back. So here goes!

Infinity Expedition-Proudly wearing my used jacket from a previous US Antarctic expedition
Proudly wearing my used jacket from a previous US Antarctic expedition

After enjoying Indonesia and its many islands for a month, it was time to fly back to Malaysia. Our plan was to head North from Kuala Lumpur and visit South-East Asia for a few months. That’s when I heard about Infinity Expedition. I went on their website and discovered that two weeks later, the crew was leaving from New Zealand straight South to the Antarctic and then coming back up North across to Chile, weather permitting, or course! 

This sounded like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I though the chances of me being able to join were quite slim, but nevertheless, I sent a message. I had nothing to lose. Little did I know, the next morning while waiting in the airport I would get an email back asking us to fill a questionnaire. We excitedly filled the form and quickly received the following message: We’d be honoured to have you come for our cold voyage.” We now were in Malaysia and needed to decide if it was something we were ready for. It honestly took about half a second to see that we couldn’t pass on this opportunity. We booked new flights and said our farewell to South-East Asia.

We joined the Infinity crew in Auckland, New Zealand. After buying some warm items in the military surplus as well as food and drinks for over two months at sea with no opportunities for topping up supplies along the way, we left the city.

Infinity Expedition-Inside helm, a.k.a. not the one we were using
Inside helm, a.k.a. not the one we were using

Crew and onboard tasks

The crew consisted of 14 guys and 2 girls, from 10 different nationalities. About half the crew was very experienced in sailing whereas the other half (including me) had to learn everything. We had some classes provided by the captain to learn how to sail with all the different wind directions, what to do in case of someone falling overboard and all. We all shared the many tasks, from steering and raising the sails to cleaning and cooking.

After a few days, it was getting very hard to keep track of what we were doing during our days. It felt like all we did was steering, watch shifts, eating and sleeping. The schedule to start was usually to have 2 steering and watch shifts per day, (2 x 3 hours) and a daily task taking anything between 2 to 4 hours. The daily tasks ranged from bread making, cooking, cleaning, fixing and improving things and everything in-between.

Inifnity Expedition- galley before we needed to secure everything
Infinity’s galley before we needed to secure everything

Living with constant movement

Our first day entirely at sea quickly became challenging as we went through what would be our first storm of many. That’s when we discovered who was seasick on board. Unfortunately, that is also when the only two thermos we had to keep our coffee and hot water warm broke.

Some days the waves were very big and I found it pretty impressive to steer the boat in these conditions, having to hang on tight every time the boat would become at a very low angle to the water. It was quite demanding. Doing anything inside was also very challenging. Especially cutting veggies as they would rock from side to side of the cutting board! Trying to find ways to secure everything or preventing water from coming through the doors and some windows was also challenging especially when the waves went over the deck.

Living on a boat means that everything is always moving. It also means that when you intend to go downstairs, you might end up doing acrobatics and somehow manage to slide to the bottom, still standing, without having touched one step. Not something to be tried willingly!

The number of times I fell are much greater than I am willing to admit, and to my defense, the inside of the boat was more often than not quite wet so we would slide from one side to the other all the time. On the plus side, I wasn’t the only one struggling with balance, everybody fell at one point. One time that comes back to mind though is when I was taking a lunch break in between laundry loads. There were different piles on the floor, and as I was carefully carrying my soup to the bench, I tripped and dropped my soup all over the pile of dirty clothes before landing on my knees. It was noodle soup, and I found noodles everywhere for the next few days. I wasn’t really a happy camper; already having issues with my mood when I am hungry sometimes, this was double the fun!

Infinity Expedition-Always on the lookout for wildlife, highly fashionable as always...
Always on the lookout for wildlife, highly fashionable as always…

Another slippery time was when I was finishing my steering shift and went to the aft cabin to put all my wet gear to try to dry. When going inside, the boat rocked, my feet slipped and I fell backwards. The hatch came closing down on both my hands. I was stuck hanging by my hands, my feet balancing from one side to the other as Infinity rocked. Seb was quick to come to my rescue and open the hatch again to release the pressure. It obviously hurt a lot but gladly nothing was broken. Even though we didn’t have a doctor on board, we did had a vet. Luckily he did not need to perform any medical treatment other than taking care of the occasional cuts and bruises. 

During one of the storm, part of the hooks on the big jib ripped so we replaced it with the medium one… which also ripped in the afternoon. Third time’s the charm. This time, we put the storm jib instead. At night, we were sleeping in our cabin when it ripped to pieces. We woke up to Seb’s computer landing in our faces. Not the best way to wake up!

Making sure everything is secured becomes such a big part of your routine, you stop realising it’s become second nature. One night the captain was laying on the floor of the main area watching a movie. As the actor put a wine glass on the table, he reached to grab it before it would fall and break to pieces, his brain failing to realise this was on TV and there was no need to worry about it!

Infinity Expedition-Lovely sunset along the coast of New Zealand
Lovely sunset along the coast of New Zealand

Lack of sleep, stress and tension

As with any isolated group of people experiencing challenging situations, there was some frustration sometimes on the boat, some tension between crew members. People deciding to be part of such a trip clearly need to be strong-headed and opinionated, which can lead to arguments. Even though there were some tensed moments, everybody got along surprisingly well. We all knew there was nowhere else to go anyway, and that whether we liked the person or not had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that we needed to work as a team to make this adventure a success.

Some days, stressed and exhausted, I would have trouble steering properly, and I ended up spending a few shifts crying and wondering why the hell I had decided to embark on this adventure. I’ve always struggled to be patient when I am learning a new skill and being surrounded by people who were more experienced and much stronger physically than I was made me feel inadequate. I had a lot of learning to do. Accepting that I can’t be good at things I’ve just started to learn. Finding the limits of my mind and body and discovering that I can actually still push through and move them further. But mostly learning to ask for help when needed. A few nights, the winds were so strong I couldn’t turn the helm fast enough. And sometimes I couldn’t actually move it at all. I used to be too proud to ask for help, but sometimes you don’t have a choice and you get to learn that asking for help is not a failure, but a way to improve. And sometimes you literally need an extra hand to help you complete your task.

Infinity Expedition-Albatrosses hoping for lunch
Albatrosses hoping for lunch

Wildlife encounters

We had numerous wildlife encounters. Along the coast of New Zealand, we were met and surrounded by many Albatrosses. They were probably expecting us to be fishermen as sometimes the fishing boats will cut the fish’s head off while at sea, throw them back in the water and feed the massive birds at the same time.

Another encounter, (this one I didn’t really appreciate as much) was when we were still along the coast of New Zealand, sailing in warmer water. One of the guys caught a big yellow tuna. It was about the size of a cat. They killed and arranged the fish, ate some raw parts as sashimi and froze the rest. Every time we would see marine wildlife, we would all gather outside to have a look, just like when we saw a few seals hanging out in the water. I remember thinking it was a little ironical that everybody on board wanted to protect the animals, yet they would eat fish, beef, chicken and pork as if these animals were not as worthy as a seal or a whale.

Infinity Expedition-Some of the many dolphins who came to say hello
Some of the many dolphins who came to say hello

A few times some intrigued Hector dolphins came to visit. We saw them swimming under the boat, flapping their tails and even jumping around, a little further away from Infinity. The day we left the coast and started to head straight South, the dolphins followed us. Some of the guys even jumped in the water with them. The pod of dolphins was circling the guys, clearly eager to find out what those strange creatures were. And at night, during my watch shift, the dolphins were back. It made it very difficult to focus on the oncoming big boat, or lowering and changing the jib while hearing the dolphins flip flap on both sides of the boat! Another time they spent a few hours swimming and seemingly playing in the wake of the boat. Very distracting, but oh so adorable!

Going to the bathroom one day, I noticed some possible Fin whale out the window, so I ran back downstairs, looked by our porthole, but couldn’t see enough, so I woke Seb up and we both decided to run on the deck to do some whale watching. The whales were hanging out between 30 and 200m from the boat, feeding on krill. The five of them stayed around the boat for well over an hour, before I decided to come back inside as I was getting too cold.

Infinity Expedition-Water, water and only water. For weeks.
Water, water and only water. For weeks.

Cold and wet

There was nothing to shelter us from the elements or keep us warm outside while steering so I was cold and wet for most of the duration of the trip, except in my sleeping bag. I was really glad I had invested in a warm one. At first, we would use only a duvet in bed as it wasn’t too cold yet. We were warm enough, wearing our thermal underwear, but as soon as the boat was rocking, we would be sliding to a very cold area of the bed. 

Fashion was clearly not a priority on board. While we would always wear many layers, the colours rarely matched. And because we had issues with the heating system, nothing actually had a chance to dry between our shifts. My boots were usually still wet from the previous shift and so were our gloves, and hats.

The temperatures were not as cold as one would have expected, but with the humidity, damp clothing, and nowhere else to go warm up, it felt much colder. The cabins, warmest place on board, except for next to the stove, would usually stay between 10-13°C.

Infinity Expedition-Daily view
Daily view on Infinity

Stormy Southern Ocean

The Southern Ocean is commonly regarded as being the world’s roughest ocean, home to very frequent stormy conditions due to the cold waters of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current meeting with the warmer waters of the other oceans. Being still new to this sailing thing, I’m not sure how one would know which ocean is the roughest; all I know is that we experienced storm after storm. 

During such a storm, the wind suddenly picked up a lot, and the steering was quite difficult. The boat would change its course from 140 to 180 almost immediately while the intended course was about 165. The wind was gusting, making it even more difficult to control. We had to keep the lights shut because of the very dark cloudy sky and it was very difficult to see the potential icebergs. It was a little bit daunting to be sailing on a fairly rough sea, in a pitch dark night, in the middle of the Southern Ocean. Acutely aware that nobody was around should something go wrong. It did scare me sometimes, especially when we started seeing icebergs. They are a real threat to the safety of anyone sailing in this area. It would have had very dramatic results to run into an iceberg while surrounded by icy water.

In such conditions, sleeping also had an extra challenge; my sleeping bag would slide from one side of the bed to the other and I kept smashing into the walls. Great for the abs, but not so great for a good night sleep.

Most of the time I wasn’t realising what crazy adventure I had embarked on. And it was probably better that way as it would have been very scary otherwise!

Infinity Expedition - Still happy to see icebergs!
Still happy to see icebergs!

Icebergs

It’s funny how anything can quickly become your new normal. Understandably, everyone was very excited to see our first iceberg. Its shades of blue and turquoise sparkling in the sun were simply gorgeous. However, after a few weeks of being surrounded by massive ice walls, ice islands, and ice towers, day and night, I was not liking them as much!

Infinity Expedition - Can you spot the iceberg?
Can you spot the iceberg?

Icebergs have very varied shapes and colors. Even though they are gorgeous they can be quite dangerous. Even in day time, they can be hard to spot from a distance, especially if it is snowing a little as they are then hidden in the clouds. We had to be extra vigilant at night as we couldn’t see as far. The larger icebergs were quite easy to spot on the radar, but the real danger was the smaller pieces called growlers. They are the ones that can easily damage the boat. When we started seeing icebergs we changed our steering schedule to make sure we would always have at least one person on the bow looking out for potential growlers. This was one of my favourite tasks, especially at night. It was the coldest place on board, but it was also the only place to have some alone time. Staring into infinite darkness is both unnerving and mesmerizing.

Infinity Expedition -Another one of the countless icebergs
Another one of the countless icebergs

Landing on the coldest continent

One sunny day while I was steering and Gabo was on iceberg watch, he noticed what he thought was an iceberg but turned out to be land! I got very excited. After 5 weeks at sea, it felt very good to see mountains. From the moment we first noticed the continent, it still took us many hours to actually arrive in Cape Adare. The water was filled with icebergs and growlers all around us. We slowly made our way through the ice, seeing some amazing wildlife on the way. Somebody spotted a large pod of killer whales far away, and next thing we knew they came rushing towards Infinity to see who the intruders were in their waters. We stopped the motor and enjoyed our new company until their curiosity was satisfied (and they probably realized we were not really interesting food prospects.) Shortly after, while enjoying the magnificent views of the Antarctic continent, glaciers, and icebergs, we saw a lone seal on his little piece of ice. As the guys nicely pointed out; with our other new marine friends still lurking around, he may not have survived long.

Infinity Expedition - Curious killer whale around Cape Adare
Curious killer whale around Cape Adare

When we finally reached our anchorage, we split into different teams to go ashore, always keeping a team on board Infinity.

When it was our turn, we got in the dinghy and, rookie mistake, we let go of the boat before the engine was on. Of course, that’s the moment when the engine decided not to start. We started drifting immediately and we had to start paddling against the very strong currents. We were not making any headway, only preventing the dinghy from drifting further away. The team left on board quickly started to get some rope in the water to help us reach the Infinity again. We made it back, quickly changed into drier clothes and tried again, this time not letting go of Infinity before we were 100% sure the dinghy’s engine was on!

Infinity Expedition - Adelie penguins, who couldn't have cared less about humans
Adelie penguins, who couldn’t have cared less about humans

The first thing I noticed when landing was the smell. The stench of penguin poo was quite intense. Not something I had expected. You always see those gorgeous pictures of little penguins and great scenery, and nobody ever mentions the smell and very slowing decaying dead penguins scattered everywhere!

We spent a few hours enjoying the company of some Adelie penguins, totally unaware of the potential threat humans could pose to them. Ridley beach is an Adelie penguin rookery and they are everywhere, just standing there in small groups. I really wanted to pet them, but of course, I didn’t, plus I didn’t really want to carry the smell of the local cologne with me any more than necessary!

The scenery was breathtaking, many icebergs, mountains, deserted land, icy water and even a long lasting sunset in the distance. I enjoyed the area for a while but as soon as the sun disappeared it started to be very cold so we got back on Infinity.

Infinity Expedition - Me on Ridley Beach, Antarctica with penguins and Infinity in the background
Ridley Beach, Antarctica

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SeaShepherd and Japanese whalers

After the most amazing day of the trip, we were all trying to process our experience. It was a lot to take in, almost too much, an overload of awesomeness. Slowly winding down from the excitement, we suddenly heard some unknown voices. In the middle of nowhere… We went upstairs, and we had company! It was four guys from the Sea Shepherd, who had come to our boat after an hour in their small dinghy under the cover of darkness. They needed our help. Always being followed by one of the Japanese whalers’ ships, they asked if we were willing to act as a decoy so they could run out of the radar range and try to catch up with the factory ship, to document and prevent whales from being killed. We quickly made a plan. We would shut all our lights off, and they would bring the Steve Irwin around the cape. Then they would shut their lights, we would turn ours on and head North, hoping for the Japanese to follow us. The hours of darkness being very limited in the summer in the Antarctic, we had to act fast. During another very dark night, still surrounded by growlers, we slowly made our way North. As soon as the light came up, the whalers realized their mistake. They had been following a sailboat for about 5 hours! A few hours later, we saw the Sea Shepherd coming towards us, with the Japanese ship right behind them. Our plan had failed.

Infinity Expedition, Sea Shepherds - Japanese whalers' so-called ''research'' ship
Japanese whalers’ so-called ”research” ship

The Sea Shepherds generously thanked us for our effort by providing us with a very welcome top up of our fuel as well as some thermos (thanks to them we could now enjoy some hot tea and coffee during our shifts!) and vegan cookies, amongst other things. Talking to some of the crew felt so good! Seeing different faces was awesome after five weeks without anybody new.

I was very inspired by their mission and seeing how they were true to their convictions by not only saving whales and other marine life but living a completely vegan lifestyle. Their account of our encounter and more information about what they do is here.

Infinity Expedition - Around Cape Adare, icebergs and killer whale in the distance
Around Cape Adare

Heavy storm

We encountered many storms during the trip, however, this particular one was quite strong. We knew this was coming so we tried to find shelter in a bay located South of Cape Adare. Unfortunately, when we arrived there, we had to turn around as the water was packed with ice and we could not get through. We went away from the coast and waited for the storm to pass. The waves were massive and regularly came crashing onto the boat. The wind was so strong that when looking straight at it, our head would go backwards, just like looking out the car window when on the highway going 120km/h. It was pretty rough! The wind and current were so strong that Infinity was actually going backwards. That meant that we now had to look behind us for icebergs.

During our night shift, we were drifting and keeping the motor on idle, in case we needed to use it. Which we did. Somehow people outside hadn’t noticed the huge wall of ice next to the boat and had to manoeuvre very quickly to avoid being dragged into it. The radar also picked this moment to stop working, so in the dark of night, we could only rely on our human eyes to spot icebergs and avoid them.

After our stressful night shift of iceberg watch, we crashed into bed. In the morning we all had a meeting to go over what needed to be cleaned up or fixed, picking up every object that went flying in the days prior, and a lot of general cleaning. The storm was over.

Infinity Expedition - Sunset over the Antarctic mountains
Sadly time to leave already

Heading back North

After the storm, the sky cleared up and we enjoyed a very nice sunset as we were sailing away. I sadly said goodbye to the Antarctic as I watched the frozen continent disappear slowly, already making plans to be back one day.

The sea now being calmer, I finally had a hot shower! It had been a very long time since I had showered because the water pipe was broken, but that night we were able to shower using the hot water from the stove and a bucket of cold water. Because I went shortly after they had turned the stove off, I didn’t even need to use the bucket of cold water and got to enjoy a warm shower. It felt like such luxury and coupled with catching back on sleep, it recharged by internal batteries.

Our next shifts were spent dodging icebergs. We could easily count 10+ at every given time. During daytime, they were very easy to spot but were still very scary at night.

Heading North to Chile, knowing we had, at best, a few weeks of seeing only water was a bit harder on the morale, but once we were out of the iceberg zone, we changed to a new schedule which allowed us to have longer nights. We had some sun during our shifts which got everybody on board very excited.

Infinity Expedition - Quieter water, no more icebergs meant time to catch up on reading and relaxing
Quieter water, no more icebergs meant time to catch up on reading and relaxing

The waters were a lot calmer and it was the most comfortable the boat had been in a long time and the first time in what felt like weeks that we could steer with just a half-turn of the wheel. It gave me enough time to start daydreaming about our arrival in Chile. I just couldn’t wait to go to a restaurant, have a nice cold beer, fresh food and not have to eat the same thing as everybody else. I was so looking forward to being able to order my own food!

It also started being time to arrive as we ran out of toilet paper roll. I’ve never been happier to always carry some of my own!

Infinity Expedition - Little snowman, our new steering and watch companion for a few days
Our new steering and watch companion for a few days

Wonderful nature, snow and Southern Lights

Some day it started snowing while we were sailing. So needless to say a snowball fight was in order, as well as snowman building! And during one of my night shift, we noticed some lights in the sky. The timing was perfect, the sky cleared up for about 30 minutes, and because of the hidden moon, we were actually able to see the lovely Southern Lights. They were quite faint but still very impressive to get to see them in summer.

Being with the same people all day, every day

I was starting to look forward to being on land again and having a conversation with other people. Except for a few minutes with the Sea Shepherd, we had been only the 16 of us chatting for over two months. We were starting to run out of things to talk about!

It was hard at times living in a closed community like onboard Infinity as we never had anywhere but our cabins to go and rest, or have some alone time. When it was not too wet or stormy, I would go sit on the bow and enjoy being alone with my thoughts. 

Infinity Expedition - Steering and smiling
Steering and smiling

The calm, and party, after the storms

Once everybody had finally gotten some rest and there were no more icebergs to worry about, we enjoyed an impromptu party, finally releasing all the stress we had accumulated over the previous months. Everybody was pretty happy, tipsy, dancing, chatting, wrestling. A much-needed decompression night for everybody.

Our shifts started to be pretty mellow. The sea was much calmer, we had nice speed and easy steering, and I found it was almost too quiet. It was enjoyable to be able to relax and not be sore before the end of my steering shift, but it also lacked a bit of challenge!

Even though steering was now a bit boring, every day we were making progress and getting closer to land.

Infinity Expedition - What a sight after months at sea! The mountains of Patagonia, Chile
What a sight after months at sea! Patagonia, Chile

Seeing land after months at sea

One day I woke up after a good night sleep and got up to a blue sky, with mountains!?! I hadn’t seen mountains or land in so long it was actually very odd. The trip was coming to an end and everybody was in such a better mood. I, however, was unsure how I felt. On one hand, I was looking forward to being on my own, but at the same time, I did like the community life most days. I also knew I needed to start thinking about my next move and I was not looking forward to that at all.

Infinity Expedition - Gorgeous sunrise in the fjords of Chile
Gorgeous sunrise in the fjords of Chile

Entering the fjords of Patagonia was great. Steering while looking at mountains was a very different experience! The second morning of motoring through the fjords I was the one on the helm during the sunrise. It was amazingly beautiful. We saw some more wildlife, including Magellanic penguins, seals, birds and what looked like sea lions or fur seals. When we anchored at night, facing Puerto Natales, I was amazed to see a clear sky with many stars, lots of city lights and even cars! Puerto Natales is not a big city by any means, but after so long at sea, it looked so busy and bright!

Infinity Expedition - Chilean fjords of Patagonia
Quite different to navigate through fjords

Reconnecting with normal life

After filling our paperwork and getting our passport stamped, we walked into town to find a place where we could go online, tell all our friends and relative we were still alive, all while enjoying my dreamed-about cold beer. I skyped with my parents but it was very weird to talk to them after so long. It was like we didn’t know how to have a conversation anymore. After over two months, I didn’t know how to deal with small talk, and talking about my experience was difficult as I hadn’t processed anything from the trip yet. I needed more time to transition between the boat life and the normal life.

Seb and I had booked a room in the Patagonia Adventure Hostel. I was so excited to finally be in a normal room with a comfortable bed, heating system that worked and showers that were not rocking from side to side! When we cooked dinner I was so excited. We could cook for only two people, on a regular stove. I was amazed that it took only minutes to have boiling water! And very quickly everything was cooked and we had a nice dinner. It was also lovely not to have to secure the pot or the glasses to prevent them from falling. Being able to leave them on the table instead of holding them was so odd!

Sitting in a restaurant with a well-deserved cold beer
Well-deserved cold beer! photo by Pascal Chabanne

Redesigning my priorities and making life-changing decisions

I had now been on the road for over a year. It had been a crazy adventure and I didn’t want it to end. However I was very tired, and after such an intense experience I need time off to process everything.

I wasn’t really ready to settle somewhere, I had no interest in finding a regular job, but I needed to make money. So back to Canada, I went. I knew this experienced had changed me, in many ways I couldn’t understand quite yet. To see why this year back in Canada was one of the most difficult of my life have a look here

In some ways, sailing from New Zealand to Chile was the best and the worst experience of my life. Some moments were just perfection and others were… well, less than perfect. I learned a lot about myself, and what I could accomplish. When I go through challenging times now I always remind myself: If I could do this, I can do anything. And if I was to find another opportunity like this, I would not hesitate and I would, once again, book my flight within seconds.

Want to read more about Infinity Expedition and other crew member’s experience?

Andy’s Infinity Expedition Review 

Infinity Expedition‘s next adventures (including the famous Northwest passage, which means I definitely want to go back on).

Nico’s SeaGypsies Movie, so you can enjoy without getting wet!

What experiences have you had that both challenged your limits and your way to see things?

Would you get on such an adventure if you knew ahead of time of the challenges, or would you be more likely to join if you didn’t know the hardship ahead of you?

Infinity Expedition - Sailing vessel Infinity with mountains in the background
Time to move on to new adventures. Goodbye Infinity. Thanks for keeping us safe!