(By Jon Amtrup) The Norwegian kayakers Simen Havig-Gjelseth, Dag Marius Ammerud, Sigrid Henjum and Tormod Austring has just returned home after a truly memorable circumnavigation of South Georgia. They are the third expedition to manage the feat, and the first ever to do it unsupported.
A kiwi and a British team where the only ones that had ever circumnavigated the remote island of South Georgia when Simen Havig-Gjelseth, Dag Marius Ammerud, Sigrid Henjum and Tormod Austring started from Grytviken in November. 20 days later the four was back having done the trip unsupported. The 54 feet sailing vessel that escorted them round the island was just used to comply with the rules that requires all expeditions to have a safety vessel.
ExWebs Jon Amtrup caught up with expedition leader Simen Havig-Gjelseth after their safe return back to Norway.
ExWeb:How was the katabatic winds on the northeast side of the island?
Havig-Gjelseth:- We quickly baptized the north coast "the head wind coast". The prevailing wind on South Georgia is from the west, which can give strong katabatic winds out from the fjords. One of the first things we found was that the weather is extremely local on SG. We could have dead calm in the shelter behind a mountain one moment, then we could have 50 knots katabatic coming out the fjord behind the next point.
- We called our north shore tactics "licking the shoreline". We kayaked as close to shore as possible (meaning 3-10 meters from land). We felt this was a very safe approach since chances of being blown to sea was minimized. And by using this tactic against the katabatics we had great progress on days with the strong headwinds. We had to paddle far into the fjords for then to turn and get blown across and out on the other side.
- The biggest lesson is that one can not predict the force of the katabatics, the direction however, is more predictable, and the wind profile across a stretch of fjord / water is normal hydro/fluid dynamics, with the strongest wind in the middle of the fjord and then the strength is reduced due to friction towards the mountains creating the fjord.
ExWeb:How did you fend of the fur seals and how was it to camp among them?
Havig-Gjelseth:- The first days we were a bit nervous about the seals, but after a couple of close encounters we found that we could treat them quite similar to how you treat Greenland huskies or any other dog really. Approach them with tons of confidence, never give up, be the strong part in the conflict.
- This approach worked 99% of the time. We used our paddles to extend our arms, this way we could hold them at a 2 meters distance and this helped us a lot. At some occasions we stumbled and fell or lost our balance, these were the critical moments because the fur seals then charge instantly. They constantly look for weakness in our defense. And they attach from all angles and directions.
- However, once we had claimed our territory (25 square meters) and placed our kayaks in a square the seals seemed to accept us and kept away. (away meaning 20-50 cm outside our kayak square) The farting, winching, "barking" and snoring sounds of the seals continued continuously 24 hours a day.
ExWeb:Did your planning and logistics work out as intended?
Havig-Gjelseth:- Our planning over the last two years have been very accurate. We mentioned it often during the trip, specially the training have been very straight to the point. The wave surfing from Hoddevika, the distance training from Denmark to Norway, the winter paddling on the west coast of Norway, it all paid off 100%.
- Logistics went well, we had our doubts about our food though. It seemed that we should not get our premade dried food in time. But one week after
we left Stanley it all arrived and Hurtigruten managed to get our boxes onboard and brought it out to Grytviken for us. Sigrid had made all the food in Norway and the rations were perfect, we had a little too much food for each meal which is on the right side of the margins.
Havig-Gjelseth:- My worst moment was the day we crept around the north west corner, we went into rough seas which we were not 100% prepared for. I hoped that we could find some shelter along this piece of coast but there were no possibilities to land anywhere and the seas kept growing. As we passed between some reefs with waves breaking everywhere around us I felt really bad for the rest of the group and was actually expecting a capsize or two. All went well and we camped in Johan harbor for the night.
Havig-Gjelseth:- There were so many good moments, and the scenery just got better and better. Every campsite was the best, and just kept getting better. However, as we came around cape Disappointment was awesome, that was when I realized we were going to make it around in time.
ExWeb:How did the team function? What roles did you have?
Havig-Gjelseth:- The team was the best one could ask for. All very dynamic and focused on safety. Sigrid being the self appointed cook was great at that, and being the only girl she was worried that she would be weaker physically than the rest of us. However, she is just as strong as any. We all carried kayaks together to camps, then usually Tormod and Dag Marius started pitching the tent, I filmed, Sigrid started preparing the dinner. After we finished one task we filled in with the rest to finish all tasks.
- Generally during paddling I went naturally up in front as a leader, both because I usually kayak a little faster than the rest of the group and because I was the official leader. Dag was our tracker, drew our lines on the map and kept track of lunch spots and campsites. Tormod is very light-footed and does any task that comes up during the day. During the night when it came to jumping out and fending off seals Dag and me took that job.
ExWeb:Austring didn't have that much kayak experience, how did that work out?
Havig-Gjelseth:- Tormod started kayaking 2 years ago. Meaning that the very first time he was in a kayak was in 2008! He had his first course with Simen & Sønner Kajakk og Båt. After that he has trained a lot, and the training has been very much straight to the point and at times quite extreme. This has raised his level of competence very fast. Tormod is a surfer so he is very confident and comfortable on and in the water. Certainly he will be even better with more experience, but I am really impressed with his commitment and performance.
ExWeb:How many of the 20 days did you spend storm bound?
Havig-Gjelseth:- We had to turn back one day to Coal Harbour, however, made some progress that day, then one day WOW (waiting on weather) in Elephant Cove, one day WOW in Ranvik and one in Luisa bay.
ExWeb:How was the sailing trip t/r?
Havig-Gjelseth:- Sailing to SG was easy going, very light wind, flat seas and a lot of motoring.
- Coming back it was quite the opposite. We had to go below 56 degrees to get some use of the low pressure systems hammering on from west. We sailed as fast as possible 24 hours a day, pushing on with the engine as well when necessary, we did 12 knots in surf at the most, but generally we did between 5 and 8 knots. Constantly at a 30 degree angle. I was very seasick for the first 3 days throwing up constantly but after that I quite enjoyed the sailing. However, I think I prefer coastal sailing rather than long ocean crossings. 3 days after landing in Stanley they recorded 70 knots there. We used 6 days down, and 8 days back.
ExWeb:How will you describe the adventure?
Havig-Gjelseth:- Fantastic, awesome, the wildlife is very WILD and in abundance. I think this expedition is the most fantastic one can do in a kayak. Everything about South Georgia makes is so extremely special. The Island is only 170 km long and 35 km wide. It has mountains close to 3000 meters high, 4.000.000 fur seals, 2.000.000 various penguins, 100.000 elephant seals, and more than 30.000.000 different birds. The fauna is just incredible! When you throw in the unpredictable extreme weather conditions it becomes just the most interesting adventure a sea kayakker can wish for.
ExWeb:Any new expeditions in the making?
Havig-Gjelseth:- For me it will be small kayak trips with my two boys of 6 and 8 ears old on various places in Norway. But I would like to start planning a circumnavigation of Nordaustlandet, but first I'd like to do the Shetland Islands, that seems very doable and easy accessible from Norway. After all we have all the equipment now.
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