New Zealand Team Aims for First Sea Kayak Circumnavigation of South Georgia Island

Three Kiwis are readying to kayak almost 400 miles around the South Atlantic Ocean island made famous by Sir Ernest Shackleton's fated Endurance expedition

Sep 26, 2005
Outside Magazine
South Georgia Island

Click here for a gallery of images of the island.

Little is certain about the South Atlantic Ocean's South Georgia Island, except for the savage weather and ravaging gale-force winds—when Mother Nature decides to brandish her sword, there are scant places to hide. No vessel is safe—not a fishing boat, not a yacht equipped with the most progressive navigational technology, and certainly not a sea kayak. Despite daunting statistics—an average of roughly 13 days per month when the wind is over 39 miles-per-hour and only one day of blue skies—a trio of New Zealanders will attempt one of the last great challenges left on earth, a 373-mile sea kayak circumnavigation of the island.

On October 2, Team Adventure Philosophy, which comprises Graham Charles, 39, a photographer and adventurer, and Marcus Waters, 39, a human resource manager, both from Christchurch; and Mark Jones, 41, an outdoor leadership instructor from Auckland, will attempt the first circumnavigation of South Georgia Island by sea kayak. The stakes for failure—or even death—are high and the team could take as long as six weeks to complete their journey.

Made infamous by Sir Ernest Shackleton's two-year expedition, South Georgia is an icy, barren isle 100 miles long and 20 miles wide, inhabited by ferocious fur seals and located in the "furious fifties," approximately 1,100 miles east of Tierra del Fuego, the hair-raising southern tip of South America. In 1916, Shackleton's ship, Endurance, drifted for ten months in pack ice off Antarctica's Caird Coast before it succumbed to the elements. The crew took refuge on Elephant Island while Shackleton, along with five other crew members, sailed the whaleboat James Caird some 800 miles to King Haakon Bay on South Georgia, where Shackleton, Tom Crean, and Frank Worsely then traversed the island to Stromness Station. The entire crew was eventually rescued.

The biggest challenge in Adventure Philosophy's quest for the unclaimed coast isn't the mileage, it's the weather. "We can paddle in 25 or 35 mile-an-hour winds, but it's rare that the wind in South Georgia gentles on a nice 30 knot (35 mile-an-hour) breeze," says Charles. "It's like creeping up on the enemy. When the weather's facing away, we can go. But as soon as the weather turns around and looks, we have to be twiddling our thumbs and looking innocently like we're not trying to do anything." On a previous visit to South Georgia, Charles had experienced wind gusts over 100 miles per hour.

The three men are no strangers to firsts, merciless conditions, or each other. Waters and Charles have known each other since age 13, when they spent endless hours on the ropes course at New Zealand's Outward Bound School, where Waters' father was deputy director. Jones, Waters, and Charles have all worked for The Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre, the pre-eminent outdoor education center in New Zealand. Aside from highly-refined technical skills, each contributes a unique expertise to an expedition: Charles as the visionary, Waters as the "details freak," and Jones, says Charles, as the "Kiwi bloke who's really good at fixing stuff with a piece of number eight wire and duct tape."

In January and February 2001, the team paddled 500 unsupported miles from Hope Bay at the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula to beyond the Antarctic Circle in the south, the longest stretch ever paddled in Antarctica. In January 2003, they faced 300 miles worth of Tierra del Fuego gales down the Beagle Channel to the Pacific Ocean before pioneering a new route through the Darwin Cordillera into Argentina.

When compared to the Antarctic Peninsula expedition, Graeme Dingle, a noted Kiwi explorer and author of "Dingle: Discovering the Sense in Adventure," (to be released by Craig Potton Publishing in October) says the South Georgia Island attempt is much more dangerous. "The wind, the currents, and the size of the sea are considerable," he said. "You need a mix of very good technical skills, you need a bit of luck on your side, and I also think you need a kind of strength that these guys have together. The bond between them is quite awesome."

The team, however, is quick to dispel the idea that this is just a sea kayaking expedition: it's about a purist's definition of a classic adventure. "This is the romantic exploration-era kind of thing where it's day after day of ugliness, hard work and crucial decisions that could change the course of your life or the expedition," Charles said. "It's not about sea kayaking, it's about rolling the dice with intuition and prudent judgment. A kayak just happens to be our mode of transportation."

Technology has changed since the days of Shackleton, but even Adventure Philosophy's reinforced, custom-designed Kevlar kayaks will not guarantee protection from harm. The team's prepared for the worst. They'll stow a month's worth of fuel and vacuum-packed food, as well as mountaineering equipment in case an emergency evacuation on the island is necessary.

Two teams, one in 1991 and another in 1996, have previously attempted to circle South Georgia. Both failed. Team Adventure Philosophy, though, isn't the only squad out for bragging rights this year. Operation South Georgia, a British-Israeli team under the leadership of veteran sea kayaker Pete Bray, who in 2001 was the first person to paddle solo and unsupported across the North Atlantic, hope to be under way November 12.

Pete and his teammates are inspired by adventure and a "South Georgia circumnavigation is one of the last remaining challenges in the sea kayaking world," said Jim Rowlinson, Operation South Georgia project manager.

Team Adventure Philosophy chose to depart earlier, October 2 to be exact, after their research indicated that the half-ton, carnivorous fur seals that dominate the island come mating season will be on the island's northern end in early November. "Our plan is to go counterclockwise starting from the northeast side," Charles said. "We're hoping to beat the seals rush hour ashore. When they weigh half a ton and are pumped up on hormones, they want to charge everything in their little territory zone." The presence of the seals also poses another problem—fewer places for the team to camp ashore.

Since there are no search and rescue services within 1,000 miles of the island, both teams are required by British law to be accompanied by a support vessel to help in the event of an emergency. Charles' team will have support aboard their emergency vessel to help gather footage for the documentary the team is producing about their attempt.

In the end, it will come down to the unpredictable and more than a little skill. "There are so many unknowns for us," Charles said. "But we don't go out there ignorantly. We research as much as we can, but no matter how much research we do, there are so many unanswered questions. And that's the beauty."

Check in with Outside Online for updates on the Team Adventure Philosophy's progress in the coming weeks. The team will also post daily dispatches of their expedition on their Web site,