Monday 21 October 2019

From here to Antarctica: Meet the Kerry-born veteran sailor and his scientist wife who are swapping sea spray for a snowy expedition

Veteran sailor Damian Foxall is swapping sea spray for snow as he and his scientist wife Lucy Hunt join a team leading Antarctic expeditions that will balance scientific research with adventure. He spoke to Lorna Siggins

Before the voyage: Damian Foxall and Lucy Hunt on Ballinskelligs Bay in Co Kerry. Photo by Don MacMonagle
Before the voyage: Damian Foxall and Lucy Hunt on Ballinskelligs Bay in Co Kerry. Photo by Don MacMonagle
A whale spotted from Ocean Tramp

Lorna Siggins

'Darkness everywhere - night-time, submerged under deck and gear, in cold water - and all the while trying to survive, feeling around, trying to find my bearings and figure where to swim free of the threatening mess. The concept of time changed and my thoughts were clear, but as my brain started to ask for oxygen... panic started to build. It was crucial to control it.

"Automatically, I turned face up and tried to swim and crawl to the back of the boat, where clinging on to the trampoline netting allowed one brief gasp of air as the hull rose up on the swells and clear of the waves before submerging me once more..."

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Damian Foxall knows more than most how fragile and arbitrary and exhilarating life is, and how that unique combination of preparation, training and luck can count in the most extreme situations. In his biography, Ocean Fever, he gives little quarter to drama or valour when recounting how he and his fellow crew, Armel Le Cléac'h, survived a trimaran capsize during the 2005 Transat Jacque-Vabre transatlantic yacht race.

Foxall was taken to hospital with a dislocated shoulder after rescue by a French naval helicopter. Afterwards, he wrote of an abiding feeling of disappointment at having to abandon ship.

A whale spotted from Ocean Tramp
A whale spotted from Ocean Tramp

"The next race was beckoning," he wrote. He was back on the water in three weeks.

The Kerry-born international yachtsman has survived other harrowing "incidents" on four oceans linking five continents. He has sailed more than half a million miles since he and his younger brother Rupert set off from Derrynane pier to catch crayfish and lobsters in Ballinskelligs Bay.

He has changed watches and shared sunrises with global sailors such as Ellen MacArthur, Tracy Edwards, Alain Gautier and the late Steve Fossett, and he enjoys the status of an Eric Tabarly or Jacques Cousteau in his second home of France.

Last February, he traded salt and spray for snow and ice when he recorded a descent from Carrauntoohil on skis. However, he just smiles when asked how many times he has circumnavigated the world, winning the prestigious Volvo Ocean Race among many titles.

"I'm heading into my 11th round-world event, but I just tell my two kids I have sailed further than the Moon and back."

In all that deck-time, weathering ice blizzards and enduring clammy equatorial heatwaves, and snatching sleep below in spin-cycle swells, Foxall has never seen the "last continent", as in Antarctica.

The 'big white': Ocean Tramp will be heading off to Antarctica again in December
The 'big white': Ocean Tramp will be heading off to Antarctica again in December

"Yes, I've sailed many times through the Southern Ocean, navigated icebergs, spotted many an albatross," he says - but on 21-metre carbon fibre hulls with canting keels, where crew have been so obsessed with speed that even toothbrushes had to be cut in half to save on weight.

Minimal footprint

Now he is pressing a pause button, as he and his partner, wife and scientist, Lucy Hunt, join up with fellow marine biologist Niall McAllister to lead expeditions to the Antarctic peninsula. Foxall will skipper a 65ft (19m) ketch, Ocean Tramp, which combines adventure with scientific research in the Southern Ocean, ranging from work on microplastics to phytoplankton.

The ketch is owned by Quixote Expeditions, an Antarctic company with an ethos of "community collaboration, education, scientific research and minimal footprint". The company was founded by master mariner Federico Guerrero and his partner and US geologist Laura Smith.

The couple, who spent their honeymoon sailing to Antarctica, have both pursued careers at sea. Guerrero has worked on supply and cargo ships and fishing vessels, and both he and Smith have been employed on seismic research.

Niall McAllister: heading for 'the last great wildernerss'
Niall McAllister: heading for 'the last great wildernerss'

A series of fortunate events led to the invitation from Quixote, Foxall says. Like Ellen MacArthur, who founded a trust which aims to nurture a circular economy, he has become increasingly aware of the environment.

He worked as education manager for the Canadian Wildlife Federation for five years before being appointed sustainability manager for the Vestas 11th Hour Racing team in the Volvo Ocean Race.

"Coming from Kerry - county of Tom Crean, who participated with both Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton on three major Antarctic expeditions - there is a natural draw south," he explains.

Quixote is part of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators and the Leave No Trace partnerships. This means that expeditions are carefully planned to comply with an environmental code that is "even so detailed that it dictates what mooring or anchorage you take," Foxall says.

"So the Ocean Tramp will be one of just 15 sailing vessels in the area, along with a fleet of small cruise ships, in a very dynamic environment," he says.

A gentoo penguin
A gentoo penguin

This time, he will be able to observe at close hand the icebergs he has spent many sailing seasons trying to avoid. With Hunt and McAllister, he will navigate a series of two-week voyages, starting out from Ushuaia in Patagonia from December 1, and finishing in the Falkland Islands three months later.

Photographers and film crews are among early bookings. The trio hope to attract interest among equally curious citizen scientists and adventurous types, who won't need much sailing experience. A free berth (it otherwise costs €9,000) is awarded each trip to a research scientist throughout the southern summer season which runs from November to March.

"Each scientist will have a different area of expertise, and that gives a particular research focus to each voyage," Hunt explains.

A sea lion in Antarctica
A sea lion in Antarctica

Like Foxall, she is from Kerry, growing up in Waterville where her parents ran the Smugglers Inn guesthouse and restaurant. She graduated in marine science from the University of Wales, and her subsequent work on her MA yielded data which contributed to improving water quality in Ballinskelligs Bay.

Five years ago, she founded a marine education and awareness centre, Sea Synergy, in Waterville, and she subsequently created the Volvo Ocean Race's ocean health education programme in 2017. She is designing a similar programme for the next ocean race in 2021.

"I am super excited," she says. "I have worked in the Arctic, but it has been a lifelong goal of mine to work in Antarctica - so, going now, at such a significant time... is an amazing opportunity to help raise awareness of these important topics. And I'm really looking forward to being amongst the wildlife and seeing icebergs again."

West Cork-based marine biologist Niall McAllister has recently been skippering on the research sailing sloop, Song of the Whale, for a series of marine mammal research programmes in the Mediterranean, Iceland and off the North American east coast. When back at home, he runs marine expeditions and sail training with Wild Atlantic Wildlife.

He has already left Ireland to take the ketch on a delivery run from the Falkland Islands to Ushuaia. He also relishes the opportunity to work in "the last great wilderness", and says it is "all the sweeter" to be working with a company which is "experienced, environmentally aware, and ecologically tuned".

The unseen fourth member of the adventure will be there in spirit - as in the spirit of Edward Bransfield (see panel), the Corkman credited with one of "the most astonishing discoveries" of the 19th century.

"His name has all but been forgotten, yet explorers Scott, Shackleton and Roald Amundsen have all recognised the contribution of a Munster man," says Foxall.

Bransfield never lived to witness the expansion of the industrial revolution and the wide use of oil, and what Hunt and Foxall term the "accelerated anthropogenic effects on the environment", with climate breakdown, melting ice-caps and unprecedented loss of biodiversity.

Ironically, technological development also means that armchair enthusiasts can now take in 360° views of the ice-bound peninsula which Bransfield identified - and Foxall has already used Google Maps to examine an extraordinary volcanic mooring.

His eyes light up as he explains how he came across the flooded cavern with an anchorage "off a black lava beach close to a thermal spa", and not far from the remains of a former whaling station.

However, he and his fellow Antarctic-bound adventurers know that a click of a mouse cannot replicate the actual experience of the "big white", two centuries after a Corkman's discovery.

"We feel so fortunate - so lucky to be reaching across those two centuries," Foxall says.

Just as exciting as that first trip off Derrynane pier, or those many nautical miles to the Moon and back...

The Corkman who made historic Antarctic discovery

Lorna Siggins

Damian Foxall wonders how it must have felt for Cork teenager Edward Bransfield when he was press-ganged into the British navy.

Bransfield, from the seaside village of Ballinacurra, had been out fishing with his father in Youghal when a warship loomed into view. The Napoleonic Wars had broken out and young Irishmen were cannon fodder.

Ornithologist and Antarctic tour guide Jim Wilson recounts how the teenager found himself on HMS Ville de Paris, a 110-gun "ship of the line", heading for Brest in France where the British navy had mounted a blockade.

He rose quickly through the ranks and became a ship's master in 1814. He was awarded a medal for his actions in the port of Algiers, when a Dutch and English fleet attempted a rescue of over 3,000 men who had been taken captive by slave-trading Barbary pirates.

In late 1819, he was appointed master and commander of a brig to sail south of Cape Horn and confirm a claim that new land had been sighted. Whale ships probably knew of Antarctica's existence before that, but were not inclined to broadcast such information.

As Wilson explains, Bransfield and his crew took soundings every two hours, using 120 fathoms (720ft) of line on the now notoriously turbulent Drake Passage from South America. Their sails were torn in heavy weather and their supply of water was dwindling when they spotted a group of islands which they named "New South Britain".

In freezing cold, they navigated through reefs, rocks, icebergs and "growlers that could slice a ship open in seconds", Wilson says. On January 30, 1820, they recorded their surprise and delight when fog lifted briefly to reveal an unknown snow-blanketed mountain range, extending as far as their telescopes could see.

"Two high mountains, covered in snow" was how Bransfield recorded the Trinity Peninsula, the northernmost point of the Antarctic continent. He was not to know that just days before a Russian voyage led by Thaddeus von Bellingshausen had spotted "ice mountains" close to what was subsequently called Queen Maud Land in Antarctica.

Bransfield lost no officers or crew, in spite of the intense hardships. When handing in his paperwork, he asked if he could return the following year. It was not to be. Disillusioned and hit by the death of his second wife, he left the navy and worked the rest of his life on merchant ships.

He died in relative obscurity in Brighton, England, in 1852. Polar enthusiast Eugene Furlong, also from Cork, notes that The Times newspaper carried a brief report about the death of the "first surveyor of the South Shetland Islands... lying to the southward of Cape Horn". There was "no mention of his discovery and charting of the Antarctic mainland", and "we cannot find any obituary to the great man," Furlong says.

It was left to others to mark his achievement. On the Antarctic charts, Bransfield Island, Bransfield Trough, Bransfield Rocks, Mount Bransfield and the Bransfield Strait bear his name.

Britain's Royal Mail published a stamp in Bransfield's honour in 2000, and next January 25, a monument will be unveiled to his memory in his native Ballinacurra. The Irish Antarctic crew of Foxall, Hunt and McAllister may be among the King penguins, minke whales and groaning icebergs by then, but plan to mark the date, and "send something back..."

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