Manuel Pardi and crew travel to Antarctica and back without fossil fuels on a 28ft steel-hulled yacht – a poignant trip that honoured the voyage and life of history-making Argentine Hernán Alvarez Forn
Antarctic sailing: cruising amongst the ice with an electric drive
Back in 1987, Pequod was the first privately owned Argentine sailboat to reach Antarctica, writes Manuel Pardi.
Her owner-skipper, Hernán Alvarez Forn, wrote Antarktikos, in which he recounted the nautical feat.
As a journalist and a sailor he was better known as Hormiga Negra (Black Ant). A well-known columnist and editor of yachting magazines, writer of nautical books and with copious nautical miles, he circumnavigated the globe more than eight times.
In 2018 I was looking to buy my first sailboat.
Around the same time I was reading Antarktikos, which stoked my dreams of sailing to remote and pristine places like Antarctica.
It seemed like fate, therefore, when I saw an ad for Pequod on the internet.
I didn’t hesitate for a second and started on the adventure of restoring her to her former splendour as a first-class ocean-sailing vessel.
I made plans to return to Antarctica from Buenos Aires, but this time on a self-sustaining sailboat with zero carbon emissions.
Pequod was my first sailing boat. I had sailed as child on the Rio de la Plata river in Buenos Aires, and at the age of 20, I went on a four-month Pacific Ocean cruise between California and Cartagena, Colombia, across the Panama Channel.
Since then I have only been attracted to longer, offshore sailing journeys.
I also started another adventure around this time, qualifying as a lawyer, then getting married and raising my daughters.
As a consequence, I didn’t step on the deck of a yacht for almost 25 years.
Instead, I read a lot of nautical books, dreaming of long sea journeys. The kids grew up, the mortgage was paid and I began looking for something else to do with my life.
Antarctic sailing: Project boat
When I bought her, Pequod had holes in the hull and several water leaks on the deck.
It required a lot of equipment to bring her back to her first-class ocean sailing past.
The process of restoring her required a detailed list of the things she needed done.
The tasks I could handle myself, I did, and friends and crew members helped me with others out of my reach.
For the jobs that required specific technical knowledge, such as replacing sea intakes, plumbing or replacing rigging, I hired different professionals, including Pequod’s original builder, Francisco Gigena, a skilled boatbuilder.
The decision to remove the old marine diesel engine and install an electric drive powerful enough for a long blue-water passage was a complete success and actually made it even more exciting and fun to set sail on a small 28-foot steel-hulled sailboat – now a fully electric yacht.
The variables that a sailor must always keep in mind to plan a safe voyage are increased with a fully electric boat in which planning for the use and generation of energy is key.
You have to change your way of thinking when it comes to fuelling the boat.
You no longer have to calculate how many gallons of diesel fuel you need to do a certain amount of miles.
Instead, you have to learn and understand that the propulsion capacity of your batteries is good for a certain amount of time; that you are going to use them depending on what you encounter on passage; that the sun and the wind that you expect, according to weather forecasts, are the only source of recharging your batteries; they also have to provide enough energy on board for electric propulsion, navigation and communications systems.
The connection with nature is one of the biggest reasons why I sail, so it feels good to utilise the sun and wind in order to get the energy I need.
During the restoration process, the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown set by the Argentine Government throughout 2020 imposed a huge threat to the project.
I had to change plans many times. For more than seven months I wasn’t able to do any work on board or to sea test anything.
When the lockdown was finally eased, I had only two months left, from November to December 2020, to remove the old diesel engine and replace it with a new electric drive, plus installing new sets of batteries, communications equipment, solar and wind generators, charge regulators and so forth.
It was crazy having to finish all these changes in order to sail out in the Southern Hemisphere summer of 2021.
Then, the next challenge was to test and learn how to use all the new tech on the way south.
Sailing wasn’t easy either. I had big storms, calms, and a lot of things broke. It was simply overwhelming.
The most challenging situation was just six days after our departure, when the forestay failed.
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A clevis pin was hit by the anchor in a storm. It fell out and the toggle that holds the forestay was released, then both the headsail and forestay were flapping all over, hanging from the mast.
That was my worst nightmare, and if I hadn’t changed the original sloop rig to cutter during the restoration, it could have meant the end of the trip.
I had to lower the genoa sail as far as I could, because it was stuck, then lash it to a shroud and went straight to the nearest port (Quequén, harbour city for Necochea).
My crew were Hugo Luis Velázquez and Juan Manuel Etchehun, both friends and colleagues from the sailing course given by the Argentine Coast Guard Corps.
Together we had to face harsh sea conditions.
We discovered that the windvane’s rudder and tiller were damaged, forcing us to hand steer all the way to reach Deception Island, without any help from the autopilot.
Despite replacing the bushings of the rudder and the pin of the tiller during restoration, the tiller kept waggling and didn’t work properly, preventing the windvane and the autopilot from working.
We had to reinforce the pin with a small metal flange, but we still hand steered across the Drake Passage in the cockpit without any protection from the elements.
Furthermore, during our journey through the Drake Passage, the wind generator was not charging the batteries properly.
The wind in the Drake Passage was so intense that the batteries overcharged and dissipated the energy via heat; so much so, that upon our arrival at Deception Island we had only 25% charge on the batteries.
Once we picked up a mooring, I discovered that the charge regulator’s button had accidentally been pressed, preventing the full charging of the batteries.
Reading the user manual is always a good idea! Even the heaters didn’t work as I expected, and when we left Deception Island, they were not working at all.
At that time the wind was from the south and it was freezing and snowing. I don’t remember ever feeling so cold.
We looked like larvae inside our sleeping bags – the only warm place to be on the boat.
We were able to put together a great team, but only our strong will and resilience brought us back home.
On our way back, we came across the ‘floating cities’ – hundreds of Chinese shrimp fishing boats lighting up the ocean’s night sky like huge cities lighting up the horizon.
One night, a dense fog covered the sea to the extent that it shrouded Pequod’s bow when looking out of the cockpit.
Suddenly, the AIS collision alarm sounded and indicated that four Chinese fishing boats were sailing towards us at more than 10 knots.
I tried to contact them by VHF radio in Spanish and English but with no response.
The light and sound signals we used didn’t work either; the alarm kept on sounding and we couldn’t see anything.
We could only hear the noise of the engines approaching from the starboard side, which was disconcerting.
The AIS showed us that one of the fishing boats passed less than two cables in front of our bow.
It wasn’t until we began to hear the noise of the engines on the port side of our boat that we could breathe a sigh of relief…
On our way north towards home, we experienced a severe gale with northerly winds.
As we couldn’t sail due north, we set our smallest sails and tried to at least remain on the same latitude.
During Hugo’s watch, he heard an approaching breaking wave.
He only had time enough to grab the handrail inside the cabin when the wave exploded against our starboard side, capsizing the boat.
Thankfully, she popped back upright quickly, but everything inside was thrown around.
There was nothing left on the starboard side.
We scooped as much water out as we could, put things in order again and continued north. There were a lot of troubles but we didn’t ever consider giving in.
Happily, we were able to successfully solve each and every problem that befell us during this journey of a lifetime.
Unfortunately, Hormiga Negra (Hernán Álvarez Forn) passed away in November of 2020 at the age of 94 – just months before I was set to make the journey.
Forn’s family asked me to let Forn make the journey to Antarctica one more time so I could scatter his ashes in the place he loved more than anywhere else in the world. It was a
huge honour to do so.
It also helped boost our determination to carry on as we had no option but to honour the great sailor’s memory by completing the route aboard Pequod.
Pequod’s journey is being turned into a documentary by Fede Peretti. You can find out more by visiting: http://pequod.com.ar/#antartida
Antarctic sailing: lessons learned
- Secure your clevis pins: Always tape them with duct tape and be sure that they are not being hit or touched by anything.
- Service your heaters: Never venture to Antarctica without checking your heaters work properly.
- Learn Chinese: If you are planning to sail the South Atlantic waters close to Argentina, learn a few words of Chinese.
- Sailing upwind in a gale: If you are struggling to make progress to windward, you risk losing steerage way and are exposed to a knockdown. If you have the sea room, consider running off to leeward as you’ll be more able to avoid breaking waves.
- Study your manuals: It is not enough to simply carry them on board. You should study them all closely in order to understand your boat.
- Check electrical systems: Understand your battery-charging system before you head off. You could end up getting into a ‘zero charge, no motor’ situation at mooring time.
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