The Southern Ocean

I had a dream last night: a giant wave welling upwards, black as obsidian, the dark heart of a chipped flint set in a lattice of silvery spindrift, torn from the crest in the whistling wind. It was real – a replay of an actual wave earlier that day that had bulged and swelled in front of us, our small craft tacking diagonally along the face of it as it ran away beneath us, carrying us higher and higher, until the top of it began to break, uncurling at the edges, pouring steadily forwards as it crashed over the bows, soaking us all. We emerged into dazzling sunlight and rainbows of spray, the tang of salt water on our lips, laughing in relief. The next wave began to build, looming ominously ahead, obscuring the distant stacks of rock that marked the southernmost point of Australia, puffs of white spray thrown upwards from them like smoke signals as the waves pounded their base. An albatross skimmed across the darkly glittering face of the wave, wings held steadily outstretched, three-and-a-half metres in width, dipping this way and that on the wind which scalloped the water, chiselling it into a thousand coal-black facets of refracted light. With a crash it broke over us once more, the passengers shrieking in delighted terror, and the ocean ran away from us on all sides, the sea-cliffs and bush-covered hills of Bruny Island coming briefly into sight again, washed fresh and sparkling anew.

I’d had a few days in Hobart to recover from the ride around Tasmania. Being without transport again imposed its own limitations, but the city is easy to walk around, which was just as well – there was a distinct lack of corner shops, so to buy milk it was necessary to walk to the other side of the city centre to Woolworth’s, some 15 minutes away down Liverpool Street. One became a regular at certain restaurants quickly, as there weren’t many to choose from. I decided to head down to the one bit of Tasmania I hadn’t got to on the bike – Bruny Island, south of Hobart. An outfit called Pennicott Wilderness Journeys ran trips down to the island by minibus and then a three-hour cruise to the southernmost tip of the island in 12m Naiad open boats, powered by three 250hp outboard motors. They had won countless awards – Tasmania’s Best Tourist Attraction in 2006, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013 – posing the question what had happened in 2007? Departure was from Hobart waterfront at 7.45am, the briefing was to dress warmly, and lunch was included at Bruny Island.

I duly appeared bleary-eyed at a quarter to eight the next morning, after a 15 minute walk from Narrara Backpackers. A small crowd had gathered by the office, of all ethnicities, and with varying interpretations of what constituted warm clothing. I had on a fleece under my Barbour jacket and the woolly beanie, but some of the passengers were more attired for a cruise around an ornamental lake, not the rigours of the Southern Ocean. A Chinese man in fake leather jacket, slacks and slip-on shoes smoked furiously at the water’s edge, so I joined him. His wife soon appeared wearing jeans, trainers and a hoodie. Fortunately the company supplied ankle-length waterproof coats with hoods, otherwise, no exaggeration, they would’ve died. But the morning was warm and sunny, the forecast good. We piled into our respective minibuses and set off. An African couple took the seat in front of me, both perhaps in their 50s, the lady of ample proportions – known euphemistically as ‘traditional build’ in Southern Africa. I couldn’t quite make out the language; at times it sounded a bit like Sindebele, but it wasn’t – it may have been Xhosa. I got to hear plenty of it – they didn’t stop talking once for the entire journey, the lady giving that theatrical “eeh-hee-hee” of African laughter on a regular basis. People sat very much in their own little groups on the bus ride down to the island – Chinese speaking in Chinese to each other, the Africans, a couple of Brits and the rest Aussies – no one really interacting with the other apart from perhaps a polite nod.

After tea and a muffin at the cafe in Adventure Bay, we boarded the boats. They were open to the elements, but an overhead canopy extended perhaps two-thirds of the way along it. The pilot explained that the stablest place was at the back, so the boat filled up from the rear, with a few rows empty at the very front, where you got bounced around the most. After a struggle with the waterproofs, and passengers all dosed with ginger tablets as a remedy against seasickness, we set off, cruising around bush-covered headlands and leaving the last few isolated houses behind. It was a sparkling day, and we hadn’t gone far before we saw another of the boats (there were three in total) halted a short distance from the shore. It was a group of dolphins, fishing in the shallows. We drew closer and watched their dorsal fins arc out of the water in synchronicity, various passengers giving cries of delight. Having snapped numerous photos of blurry grey shapes we then motored on along the coast, picking up speed as we got further out to sea until we were skimming across the waves. I was sitting roughly a third of the way back from the bow, and while we were bouncing around a fair bit, it was enjoyable, like a car at speed over a humpback bridge, the pit of your stomach briefly falling away. But it was too much for the lady behind me – the Chinese woman in the hoodie. She closed her eyes and groaned. The further we went the more the swell started to hit us, and the worse she got. Soon Katie the deckhand spotted something was wrong, and signalled to the pilot to halt. “You’ve got to stand up,” Katie said. “If you sit down it gets worse. Stand up and walk with me to the back of the boat”. The woman shook her head, flapping a hand. No, no, no. Katie tried appealing to her family, but they couldn’t budge her. So we set off again, and she groaned and turned green and rested her head between her knees, but wouldn’t get up.

We were approaching two enormous sea stacks that faced each other – dark monolithic rock jutting out of the sea. The further one had a curious jagged top to it, like the spikes of a crown, and it resembled some malevolent sea-god of Celtic mythology. The waves swelled white around their base, a cascade of foam running over the rocks. Moving on we came to a sheltered bay called, imaginatively, Shelter Bay, which offered a safe anchorage for vessels caught by storms. The water in Shelter Bay was blue and benign, but the pilot announced that we would shortly be ‘turning the corner’, heading out beyond the headland to where the Tasman Sea meets the vast Southern Ocean. “Might get a bit windy,” he said with a grin. We set off once more, the ranks at the back of the boat filling up with the seasick – including the Chinese lady, who clung miserably to the handrail with eyes tightly shut. “Keep your eyes open,” she was told, and shook her head in refusal. Ah well. Live and learn.

The wind rose until it was a shrill whistle, and gobbets of spray began firing across the bows every few seconds. The water began to change, growing darker, from icy green to a deep navy blue and then, suddenly, inky black, glittering in the watery light, but unfathomably deep. The swell changed and became huge – we had gone from crossing a fairly flat sea to an undulating series of peaks and troughs that rose and fell like a mountain road. Whitecaps shredded the crests, winking for a few seconds, white on black, then gone, appearing again further away. This was the Southern Ocean alright – and it felt like a very serious place indeed. In the distance, between the clouds of spray thrown up across the bows which sparkled prismatically in the sunlight, incisors of rock were occasionally visible – The Friars, the last landfall before Antarctica, 2200km away. It was an unreal thought that we were closer to Antarctica than we were to, say, Ayers Rock in central Australia, but it certainly felt like it. Enormous creatures lay somewhere beneath us in the depths – giant squid, humpback whales, great white sharks… They would have dwarfed our boat at 12 metres. The horizon was smoked with spray, but we made our way incrementally towards the stacks, the horizon veering crazily, tipping from left to right, right to left, and making a mockery of our attempts to photograph. Then, suddenly, a huge wave loomed ahead of us, down in the very belly of the black, anthracite, jet, obsidian… I was reaching for the words as I watched it build and knew it was going to hit us. Some people screamed, and you could hear their fright in the harshness of the note, but moments later it turned to laughter and whoops of relief as we emerged dazzled and wet but alive and afloat. The next wave came and we were ready for it; I found myself laughing manically, and turned to face my neighbour – an Australian from Queensland – to find he was grinning broadly too. We cheered like people on a roller coaster as we climbed the next toppling hill of dark water, rising to a roar as it broke and we careened down the other side. Taking us in a short arc that tacked across the face of the mounting waves, we rounded a stack and the wind dropped. On the near vertical rock were a series of platforms like steps, and upon these basked half a dozen seals – New Zealand fur seals. Why they should choose to live in this utterly inhospitable location is hard to fathom, but they do. They peered at us curiously, one raising a flipper lazily in half salute, acknowledged in the click and chirp of a dozen camera shutters.

Heading back towards Bruny with the wind at our backs the going was easier. I thought, with a new-found admiration, of the sailors on this ocean – the first explorers, the fishermen, the round-the-world yachters. And then I remembered Andrew McAuley, who was determined to be the first person to kayak solo across the Tasman, 1600 km from Tasmania to New Zealand. He had constructed a specially adapted kayak with a watertight cover which he could close in bad weather or at night, and he set off in January 2007, leaving his wife and young son waving goodbye on a Tasmanian beach. He had a video camera mounted on the lip of the kayak and his sobs and crumpled face as he paddled away from the departing cries of his son – “Goodbye Daddy, goodbye!” – are heart-rending. What drives a man to leave his family and head out into the unknown like that? Into the terror and the vastness of the Southern Ocean? In bad weather you can get 30 metre waves out here. That’s like a skyscraper of water. To be lying in the dark in a kayak, hundreds of kilometres from land, carried up the slope of a building wave as if on a conveyor belt, and then dropped off the other side of it, crashing down a cliff of black water, spinning over and over, hour after hour… it’s an appalling thought.

A memory stick was recovered from Andrew McAuley’s empty kayak by New Zealand’s rescue services, which contained the footage of his voyage. The documentary Solo: Lost At Sea shows what he went through – the mountainous waves; the visit of a bedraggled migratory bird that landed, exhausted, in the kayak; the determination that he had to make it, and to see his family again. The documentary ends with a haunting recording picked up by Milford Sound Rescue:

do you copy? this is kayak one. do you copy, over?
I’ve got an emergency situation

I’m in a kayak about 30 kilometres from Milford Sound
I need a rescue
my kayak’s sinking
fell off into the sea
and I’m going down

Andrew McAuley’s body was never recovered. He was within 50 km of the coast of New Zealand when somehow – perhaps by being struck by a freak wave – he came out of his kayak, and became separated from it in the dark. I imagined what it must feel like, to be floating alone at night in the Southern Ocean, the stars wheeling overhead in cold indifference, the coast just a short distance away, perhaps even the distant winking of a lighthouse, and beneath him the dark water, down to the black abyssal depths. So near and yet so far.