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The Southern Ocean officially doesn’t exist anymore: the hydrological authorities redefined it out of existence. But sailors still know the body of water south of New Zealand, the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn, and stretching as far as Antarctica, as the Southern Ocean. And a fearsome place it sounds. The ‘roaring forties’ sounds bad enough, but the ‘screaming sixties’ is something else again. I know that it is supposedly the wind that is screaming, but I’m pretty sure that if I was there, the wind would have competition.
Matt Vance is a sailor who is much more at home in the deep south than most people. He is an expedition guide, and has ferried tourists, bird-watchers, artists and writers to many of the lonely places in this remote area. This book collects the stories he has heard, and the experiences he has enjoyed, and at times endured. Most recently he has guided participants in the Artists to Antarctica programme.
Just the names summon up awe: the Bounty Islands, South Georgia, Auckland Island, and Campbell Island – the list goes on. People will only have heard of most of these places from weather forecasts, disaster reports and reading about the explorers of the ‘heroic age’, like Amundsen, Shackleton and Scott. Cold, barren, wind-swept, dangerous places are challenged by sailors, ornithologists, geologists, climate scientists, artists and writers. Starting on a Russian icebreaker running Southern Ocean expeditions, Vance has spent a great deal of time on the sub-Antarctic islands, and on the ice.
The author gives his own account of this region, and also introduces us to many of the other characters who have made their mark on, and been marked by, this remote and frightening part of the world. Explorers are there of course. So are sailors in small boats, and large ones. The story of the coast watchers during the Second World War (total sighting in 12 months: 2 ships, both ours), and their contributions not only to defence but to science, cast an interesting light on NZ’s attitudes during the war.
Solo sailors feature, as do bird watchers and conservators. What drives a person to spend many months alone, at sea in the worst conditions on earth, in constant danger? Vance tells their story and guides the reader to some understanding of the passions and obsessions that drive these sailors, and graphically describes some of their adventures.
As well as the sub-Antarctic islands Vance has taken expeditions to Antarctica itself, and he tells the stories of the well-known explorers of a hundred or more years ago as if he was there. In doing so he casts new light on them, their motives, and the challenges that they faced. He is able to write as one who has faced similar challenges – albeit with better equipment and much more back-up – and the empathy he has with them shows in the writing.
There are some nice photos to accompany the text, although their reproduction is sometimes a little murky. There are maps too: thank goodness. Vance tells these stories concisely and vividly, and paints a fine word picture of this world that few of us will ever experience.
Reviewed by Gordon Findlay
Ocean Notorious: Journeys to lost and lonely places of the deep south
by Matt Vance
Published by Awa Press