Bobbing about like a dust particle on an Earth-sized canvas, numbing winds howling in from an unbroken horizon, Lisa Blair paused to consider her surrounds.
The endless Southern Ocean, which grips Antarctica like a freezing vice, is as unforgiving a place as a human can experience. In some parts closer to the International Space Station than any recluse manning a lighthouse, little breaks the exhausting fluctuations between awe and peril.
Yet, from time to time, when the sun penetrated the ashen enclosure, a wondrous event would align Blair’s overloaded senses, prompting calm amid the chaos.
“The ocean down there is just this unique shade of blue when you get the sunlight behind it,” Blair says.
“It’s all grey and then the crest of a wave will form, you’ll get the whitewash on the top and then there’s a couple of seconds just before it breaks where there’s this most incredible turquoise. It’s like nothing I’d ever seen in any ocean anywhere in the world.”
That’s saying something, as Blair was already an around-the-world sailor when she decided she wanted to become the first woman to sail solo and unassisted non-stop around Antarctica. She didn’t end up completing her mission - a snapped mast hundreds of nautical miles off the coast of South Africa took care of the non-stop part - but when she returned to Australia on July 21 (and had her first shower in six weeks), she could begin to reflect on having become the first woman to sail solo around the world’s most unwelcoming continent.
“The whole circumnavigation was below 45 degrees south, so it was the Furious 50s, the Screaming 60s, the Southern Ocean,” she says.
“The longest stretch I had at sea was 81 days, completely solo. There was one point where I didn’t even see another human for 74 days, and that was when a container ship gave me fuel.
“The first piece of land I saw was 45 days in, and that was the Chilean coast line as I rounded Cape Horn, and then I didn’t see land again until after I de-masted.”
The repairs after the de-masting set Blair back two months. But, once completed, she set off again, taking on elements to make even the hardiest sailors think twice.
“I had snowstorms down there. It was very cold, so I spent most of my time inside the cabin. But even there the average temperature was only about 4 to 6 degrees.
“I was quite isolated, so isolated that I stopped caring about shipping traffic and movement because there just was no one down there. It’s the 21st Century, so you’re never completely alone. I could pick up the phone and speak to a friend, or send a text message and get responses quickly back. But there were certainly days when I was super bored, depressed almost, because I’d been alone for so long.
“It’s just such a unique experience. You know, when you’re down there, that you’re actually one of the few people on the planet that’s experiencing the wildness of the ocean. To do that solo was just such an incredible adventure.”
Blair’s next quest is to assemble an all-female crew to sail her boat Climate Action Now in the upcoming Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race. She says she has missed opportunities because of her gender and wants to create a pathway program for up-and-coming women sailors.
Contact Lisa through her website: www.lisablairsailstheworld.com
By David Sygall