The life of a deckhand

We left from the Falkland Islands. As a deckhand, I would be sailing on the Tecla for the next voyage. I knew this journey would be special, but beyond that, I was completely blank. What to expect? I had never been anywhere remotely close to South Georgia or Antarctica, so it was going to be a completely new experience.

"As I read that, I shortly held my breath"

South Georgia welcomed us with open arms. With Welcome Island visible in the distance, suddenly everything came to life. Seals were jumping in front of the bow, seabirds were flying with us, and whales were swimming along the sides of the ship. In the back, a couple of whales were jumping and falling back onto the water surface. It was almost like a choreographed welcome act by South Georgia.

The island was special in a different way; indescribable. The first landing is something I will never forget. Hidde, the other deckhand, and I were dropped off on the beach. We would wait there until the dinghy returned with the rest of the people. We stepped out, the dinghy sailed away, and there we stood; face to face with a few hundred seals. Right in front of me sat a big, blood-covered male. He didn’t exactly attack us, but he was not afraid to growl and show his teeth. Every now and then, I would take a step back, until I found myself knee-deep in the water. ‘You know they’re also in the water’, Hidde remarked. I knew he was right.

The immense machines of the abandoned whaling stations and the hundreds of seals on the beaches created a special contrast. It was impressive to walk in between and think about how things went about here decades ago. ‘On a good day they were able to process 24 whales’, said one of the signs. As I read that, I shortly held my breath.


On the way from South Georgia to Antarctica, the world around us changed. The seawater became even colder, it became misty more often and the few hours of darkness we still had were replaced by a constant ‘day’. Sailing brought a lot of emotions with it. I was impressed by the sea. I was proud of the Tecla. The turns we took as bow watches, where we kept a lookout for icebergs, were cold. But besides being cold, it was a moment in which I could let my thoughts wander. It gave me a realization of the journey we were making. We were sailing to Antarctica…!


Under the enjoyment of a bright sunrise against the dark snow clouds, we reached Antarctica. With the staysail, the mizzen, and the engine on, we sailed between the islands. The staysail was the first to go down. During sail handling I took off my gloves to have a better feeling of the ropes in my hand. So, without gloves, I pulled the downhaul along with two others. The cold wind cut into my hands. After the staysail was folded, I looked at my hands; they were completely white, and I only felt tingling. The mizzen still had to be lowered. By the time the mizzen was folded, my hands were fire red and no longer usable. However, the anchor was down, and we had reached Antarctica.


Antarctica was big, white, and beautiful. We went from bay to bay. Dinghy in the water, dinghy out of the water, dinghy in the water… We were fully trained by now. I heard Gijs say: ‘It’s my fifth season on Antarctica and I can’t get enough of it.’ I now understand why. The tall white mountains, the many whales, the countless penguins and even orcas; I found myself in a dream world.


After a lunch, Hidde and I were washing dishes when we heard the engine turn off. We sprinted outside. We drifted among the sea ice. In between the drifting pancakes something black and bobbly rose above the water’s surface. It moved slowly. It was a sleeping or sunbathing whale. As we passed it started to move faster. You could see the white fins through the smooth water. In the silence that prevailed between the white mountains, you could hear it blow and then breathe again. It dived from behind under the ship.


But besides whale spotting, on sunny days it was also possible to work on the rigging without your hands turning into ice cubes. While we were on our way to the next bay, I was working on the toppinglift of the main sail. I always like working on the rigging, but with a backdrop of white mountains it was even more fun.

On the way to Chile, the Drake Passage, I was seasick for the first time on board of the Tecla. I felt helpless when I found out that I was not able to do some cleaning inside without getting sick. I also had to take a break outside during dinner. It took only three days and the feeling I had when the seasickness had disappeared was unbeatable. I was so happy to clean the floors again.


Our little world was given a makeover again. It became dark and there was a moon. There were those nights again where I could drown in the countless stars above my head.


After five days, a warm sunrise showed us the outlines of islands on the horizon. That must be Chile. The closer we got, the more I appreciated the landscape. It was much greener than I expected. We left the Drake Passage behind us.


Not only the landscape of Chile surprised me; Puerto Williams looked different than I was expecting. I was going to leave the ship and while the Tecla was doing another trip to Antarctica, I had to do an application assignment for my studies. I estimated that it would take me about a week and a half. Then after I’ve finished, I would have another week and a half before the Tecla would return. ‘What on earth am I going to do here,’ I thought…

Indeed, the assignment took me a week and a half. The manager of the city’s research building allowed me to work there. Because it was quiet there, I could concentrate well. Although I spent a lot of time in the research building, still got to know a lot of people.

When my assignment was completed, I set out to explore. I wanted to see the nature, so I went for walks, and I did horse-riding through the forests. I took a Spanish cooking class even though I don’t speak Spanish. I took a pottery class somewhere in town. I watched the ferry coming in from Punta Arenas and I saw the way of living in Puerto Williams. I drove to Puerto Navarino and took the boat to Puerto Toro. I searched for the woodpecker with the red head, and I ate wild calafate berries by the side of the road. There was so much more to do then I had expected. But most of all, I met a lot of nice people. Local people and travelers, there are always people up for a chat.

In the last days before the Tecla was due to come back, I felt butterflies in my stomach. I wasn’t nervous, but I was excited to see everyone again and hear all the stories. I checked the website twice a day to see if they were already nearby. It felt like it took forever, but then when I looked out the window this morning, I suddenly saw two masts above the houses that looked suspiciously familiar to me.

I wouldn’t say my time in Puerto Williams was too short, but if I had stayed here longer, I wouldn’t be bored. I said goodbye to all my new friends, and I’m ready to get back on board!

Tinke Visser

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