Sea Kayak Circumnavigation of South Georgia Island

   Sea Kayaking / Touring
South Georgia Island
Wild rugged and remote, South Georgia Island is a beautiful and unrivalled destination for adventure expeditioning. Located 1,300km South East of the Falkland Islands deep in the South Atlantic Ocean, Ernest Shackleton called this heavily glaciated mountainous island the Gateway to Antarctica. In February 2015, a group of Australian paddlers and expeditioners set out on an

   Sea Kayaking / Touring

South Georgia Island

Wild rugged and remote, South Georgia Island is a beautiful and unrivalled destination for adventure expeditioning. Located 1,300km South East of the Falkland Islands deep in the South Atlantic Ocean, Ernest Shackleton called this heavily glaciated mountainous island the Gateway to Antarctica. In February 2015, a group of Australian paddlers and expeditioners set out on an

We were three quarters of the way through our attempt to be the fourth team to circumnavigate South Georgia Island by sea kayak (and the first Australian team), and I was starting to think we might have bitten off more than we could chew. - Andrew Maffett"


We were three quarters of the way through our attempt to be the fourth team to circumnavigate South Georgia Island by sea kayak (and the first Australian team), and I was starting to think we might have bitten off more than we could chew.

As we hit the water early on day nine, we headed into gloomy conditions towards what we knew to be the crux of our 310-mile journey around this remote South Atlantic Island. The jagged peaks and dramatic cliffs of Cape Disappointment loomed large ahead of us as a brisk 15-20 knot tailwind and moderate seas set us on our way. We swung our sails up in near perfect kayak sailing conditions, and I glanced around to catch the faces of my fellow trip mates — John, Chris and Jim — grinning as we flew down waves and runners that sent spray flying up the sides of the kayaks. But as we reached the Cape the wind lifted and the swells steepened and we knew that this would be our expedition’s biggest test.

Lying 1,100 miles east of Cape Horn, South Georgia is an adventurers’ paradise abounding in natural beauty and opportunity for exploration. Mountains rise sharply from the sea for all of its 105-mile length, dripping with glaciers like a wax castle. Its rocky beaches teem with penguins, seals and sea birds, all vying for space to live out their lives on this isolated oasis in a stormy sea.

Lashed by frequent storms and pounded by massive swells rolling unhindered from Antarctica and beyond, it is wild and remote but enticing and exciting for anyone with a thirst for adventure.

Two years ago, with the daunting prospect of our 50th birthdays coming up my good mate John Jacoby and I (Andrew Maffett) decided to embark on the adventure of a lifetime to celebrate our final coming of age, and to show that “old blokes can still do good stuff!”

We knew of the New Zealand team led by Graham Charles who completed the first successful sea kayak trip around the island in 2005, and immediately thought of repeating this epic achievement. Drawn by its wildness and isolation, and the fundamental attraction of going around something, this seemed the perfect challenge.

An undertaking of this magnitude was always going to take a lot to organize, but once we locked in the decision to go, the stars began to line up. Longtime paddling buddy Chris Porter quickly joined the team, and while we had quite a few candidates for the fourth position, another good friend Jim Bucirde completed the team at the last minute.

With an average of 52 we would be the oldest team to attempt the circumnavigation, but we reckoned that this also gave us the advantage of experience! All of us have been paddling whitewater and sea kayaks since our teens, including previous sea kayaking trips to Antarctica, Fjordland and Stewart Island in New Zealand, and multiple crossings of Bass Strait (separating mainland Australia from Tasmania), but we also knew that South Georgia would challenge at a whole new level.

Although it has a permanently manned research base with 10 scientists and government officials, South Georgia doesn’t have enough flat land for an airport and no regular shipping service. To get there, we’d need to arrange our own transport and all support for the trip — including our own means of rescue if anything went wrong.

There aren’t many suitable vessels for such a mission, but after some research we arranged to charter the 54-foot steel sailing yacht Pelagic. It was purpose-built for polar exploration and had supported a Norwegian team of paddlers who completed the third successful circumnavigation in 2010. Pelagic sails out of the Falkland Islands and would be ideally suited to our objective.

With the support vessel confirmed, our next big challenge was getting a permit for the expedition from the Government of South Georgia. They are rightly concerned about regulating who they let loose on the island and want to ensure that expedition teams are experienced and well prepared for the hostile conditions they will face, and capable of rescuing themselves from any trouble.

After submitting a 70-page expedition plan, and many months of liaison and review by the authorities we got our permit. The trip was becoming a reality.

All we needed now were the kayaks and some cold weather paddling equipment. Paddling in Australia doesn’t require much in the way warm clothing so it was fantastic when Kokatat agreed to support us with a range of products. Dry suits would be essential, and the Kokatat range provided us with lots of other essential paddling clothing and accessories.

We decided on plastic kayaks for their durability and fortunately found an Antarctic cruise company to drop them on the island for us. But first we had to get the kayaks to the cruise ship’s re-supply stop, in Poland.

After packing the kayaks with all our kit and arranging freight to Poland disaster struck! The kayaks missed the Polish connection and had to be rerouted to Uruguay, the Falkland Islands, and then onto South Georgia. A total journey of over 25,000 miles!

After being re united with our kayaks, we’d added 250 more miles under our own power. We’d dealt with 60 knot Katabatic winds that screamed down from the islands icy spine, whipping spray into smoking spumes, and jostled with seals and penguins for space on the beaches. Now over 3 days of near perfect conditions we’d paddled more than 125 miles down the treacherous south coast. Our blistered palms and overworked arms ached as we made our final push to Cape Disappointment.

The Cape began living up to its name as I found myself back-paddling to stop my kayak plummeting down the wave faces and burying its nose up to and over the sail. Periodically swinging wildly from side to side, the sail threatened to capsize the kayak with its momentum.

I yelled to the others that it was time to put the sails away, but to no avail. I wasn’t sure if they couldn’t hear me as the worsening conditions pushed us farther apart, or if they were having too much fun and simply ignoring me.

We charged further on with reflected swell coming back at us from the cliffs making the sea conditions even more confused and threatening. I was starting to wonder if I would be able to get the sail down at all, as there was no way I could see myself taking a hand off my paddle (let alone both hands!) to complete the procedure without being knocked over by the wild seas and madly rocking sail.

In the last half mile before the end of the Cape the wind picked up to more than 30 knots and it was all I could to control my kayak as it steamed down the swells madly trying to broach at the base of every wave. Although I could hardly consider anything beyond my own 6 foot bubble, I noted the cliffs towering above us clinging with glaciers that threatened to slide off their nooks and plummet down onto us.

Jim was about 300 yards ahead and seemed to be having the same problems. If we couldn’t do anything with our sails we were both headed for Antarctica. I noticed that John, who was a lot closer to the cliffs, had got his sail down and brought things much more under control. I steered toward him, yelling and whistling for him to wait. When I reached him we rafted up and quickly pulled my sail down. My whole world changed!

I pulled out my camera for some photos of Chris, behind us with no sail loving the runs and drama of the setting. Jim finally fought his sail down with one hand and his teeth, and we steered towards the narrow gap between the Cape and Green Island that Google Earth said was there, but for now all I could see was a wave lashed wall of rock.

Icebergs prowled nearby and the wind increased even more. It whipped up a maelstrom of chop that drove me towards the surf zone. And then miraculously the gap in the cliffs appeared and I crossed from a wild ocean to a sheltered sanctum.

Waves of relief flooded over me as I glided over to the others. We’d made it! Not only had we completed the crux of our trip down the forbidding south coast, but we had also survived the wildest ride imaginable. This was as exciting as sea kayaking gets!

On the 15th of February 2015 we completed the 310 mile circumnavigation, taking a total of 13 days to smash the previous record set by the Kiwis by 6 days! We’d had only 1 non paddling day, were all safe and all still friends. All of our equipment had performed amazingly well in the most testing conditions possible. Our custom made Kokatat dry suits were superb, keeping us warm and comfortable throughout the trip with no rashes or abrasion areas at all. We had shared some amazing experiences and incredible landscapes and shown that ‘old guys can still do good stuff!’

We were three quarters of the way through our attempt to be the fourth team to circumnavigate South Georgia Island by sea kayak (and the first Australian team), and I was starting to think we might have bitten off more than we could chew. - Andrew Maffett"


The Gear that Made This Possible