“The Albatross That Waits”
A Coming of (old) Age Adventure
My decision to sail across the notoriously treacherous Drake Passage to Antarctica on a 56’ sloop with seven people (two of them children who lived on the boat) was as turbulent and exciting as a dare. It was not until David and I were saying goodbye to friends and family that we learned many of them thought the journey was ridiculously dangerous. I suspect they also thought we were in denial about growing old. Maybe this was true, but to me it had more to do with staying fully alive. At seventy-one, I was eager to make peace with my aging body, not to mention my unruly spirit during these final decades of my life.
Still, I felt guilty about worrying people who cared about us, and, after saying goodbye to my tearful daughter, Mandy, I even toyed with the idea of not going—for about three minutes. By the time we flew past Cape Horn, sails wide and pulling, any doubts or fears about the journey had been swept away by the circumpolar winds.
Adrenalin-charged moments were a fact of life during our five weeks on Seal: an attack on our inflatable dinghy by a huge leopard seal with teeth like icicles, a towering night wave that tried to carry my watch mate and me overboard in the Drake Passage, a large earthquake in Chile that stole the water out from underneath us. We were electrified by the howl of polar winds, by galloping pods of killer whales, by hair-raising Arctic skua attacks when we neared their hidden nests, by sublime encounters with the ice, by polar sunsets and dawns.
The astral summer is a time of high magic with its achingly long twilights and a silence so deep you can hear whales breathing all around you. At sea, it is the time for the fabled wandering albatross to emerge out of the violet light, “pure white except for a touch of black on each wingtip, and it is at least twelve feet across…Like a sailplane, the bird drifts on the wind above Seal, more specter than flesh.”
Although my story is an ode to the elemental world of high latitudes, it is also an account of the dramatic signs of global warming in progress there. For this reason, this book, as it must, reflects on the uncertain future of our planet and the future of all species, including our own.