All photos by Dylan Gordon
Sir Ernest Shackleton was a pioneer in what is now called the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. Underfunded and overambitious, Shackleton set out to cross the entirety of Antarctica via the South Pole by land. In 1914, he assembled a crew of 28 men to tackle the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition aboard the ship, "Endurance", but after six weeks charging through a thousand miles of pack ice on the ship, with a oneday sail left to the starting point for their land crossing, disaster struck. The ice began closing in around the "Endurance", eventually trapping the ship "like an almond in the middle of a chocolate bar," according to one of the men. The men drifted 1,186 miles in the 281 days they were stuck in the ice. "The noise resembles the roar of heavy, distant surf," Shackleton wrote in his log. "Standing on stirring ice, one can imagine it is disturbed by the breathing and tossing of a mighty giant below."
With no hope of rescue, the crew took lifeboats on a five-month journey to Elephant Island. From there, Shackleton took five men and a 22-foot longboat 800 miles across the stormiest stretch of ocean in the world. After 14 days, against all odds, the small crew found South Georgia Island. It took 137 days and several ice-thwarted attempts, but Shackleton eventually returned for his men, and none of the original 28 were lost. "We had reached the naked soul of man," he alleged. "Difficulties are just things to overcome, after all."
Shackelton's story is famous for being an example of the power of strong leadership and the fortitude of the human spirit. For me, however, the story is just as interesting for its allusions to the South Atlantic's raw ocean energy and the surf it surely generates. Shackleton described sailing through waves "50 feet from tip to trough," during his journey to South Georgia Island. I wondered if rideable waves existed along the coasts of these forsaken southern isles, and if there were quality waves, were they even reachable? I wasn't the only one wondering.
June 3, 2018
As so much modern surf exploration begins, this trip started from a blog post. Ben Weiland, acclaimed filmmaker and curator of the visionary Arctic Surf blog, was looking through WannaSurf.com in 2009 when he came across a man who claimed he and his brother were the only surfers in a particular South Atlantic island chain, and, oddly enough, they were looking for company.
The islands had potential, no doubt, but the more Weiland researched, the more he realized this zone was as fickle surf-wise as it was expensive to reach. It took nine years for Weiland to find anyone willing to finance the southern surf expedition, but eventually the surf brand Roark decided to take a chance, and assembled a team to accompany Weiland, and now we're airborne.
There's only one commercial flight from Santiago, Chile, to our destination per week, and we're on it. From the sky, the islands —776 in total—blend together into a sprawling brown landmass, scored by a series of dark blue inlets and waterways. The landscape is somehow both vibrant and stark, like Central California meets Iceland—on Mars.
We deplane onto the British Forces South Atlantic base and are greeted by sunshine and brisk winter winds. Scanning my documents at customs, the agent smiles and says, "Oh, you're the surfer group. I heard about you guys." She hands me a pamphlet that reads, "Minefields remain on the islands."
There was a war over these islands nearly 36 years ago, when Argentina invaded the British overseas territory and both nations entered into a months-long military conflict. The locals tell me that Britain was about to end their occupation of the islands before the war started in 1982. The islands had been part of an old trade route made obsolete by the Panama Canal. But when Argentina showed up unannounced and "started the fight," the British felt they needed to defend their claim. In the wake of the conflict, countless landmines remain on the islands, hopefully far from the regions best surf breaks.
Here on the main island, there are only 2,000 full-time residents, half of which serve for the British Forces South Atlantic Islands, consisting of the British Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force. There are no trees on the island, just mild hills littered with bowling-ball-size stones, sheep, geese, albatross and seagulls. Giant wind turbines spin across the desolate landscape as we drive towards our home for the next few weeks.
The five of us—Weiland, surfers Parker Coffin and LJ O'Leary, photographer Dylan Gordon and I—are dropped off at a bed and breakfast next to a cemetery overlooking a harbor. We drag our board bags up the driveway to find our host, Arlette, waiting to greet us at the front door with fresh-baked sugar cookies. It's 4:30 p.m. and the sun is already setting, so we pile into a pair of Toyota Hilux and jam toward the only nearby wave accessible by car, aptly named Surf Bay.
As we pull up we see fossil-white sand and a punchy, head-high, semi-closeout exploding directly out front. "What the f–k was that?" Coffin hoots at the top of his voice. Gordon puts the emergency brake on and we march through the soft, muddy grass onto the beach for a closer look. With the sun already down and the temperatures plunging quickly, it seems we'll have to wait until morning for our first taste of the surf.
We decide to head to the pub to meet Sean Moffatt, the man whose Internet post first sparked Weiland's imagination nine years ago. Moffatt is an enduro bike racer first and a surfer somewhere further down the line. He brought a printed map of the archipelago and shows us the areas that he knows produce waves, and the zones that he hasn't explored, but look promising. Flying into the island, we had seen what looked like numerous slabs and points reeling underneath us, and we snapped photos on our iPhones to later cross-reference on the map. We pinpoint where we believe we'll find the best waves—an area nobody has ever surfed, not even the locals.
June 4, 2018
At this latitude, it's still dark when we wake up at 7:00 a.m. to prep for the day. The light begins to break over the mountains as we head east towards the Fitzroy farm, the owners of which we've managed to talk into giving us their gate keys to surf a wave that lies on their property.
At the farm, the Fitzroys give us detailed directions to a beach with decent swell exposure frequented by penguins. As we approach the beach, we realize the wind is blowing perfectly offshore and the mood in the car becomes electric. We've traveled an ungodly distance to be here, on this beach, with nothing but storm-addled water between us and Antarctica. Seeing the spray sheer off of perfect A-frames confirms our hopes that it will all be worth it.
On a sand dune perch above the beach, we inch into our 5-millimeter-thick suits while watching idyllic peaks peel up and down the beach. Coffin is out first, whipping his new Channel Islands fish with precision. O'Leary and I paddle out soon after. Before I even catch a wave, a penguin comes swimming through the lineup toward us. Inside, a colony of about 20 more waddle around the beach in synchronized fashion.
After the session, we start making plans to head to a neighboring island rife with wave potential. Weiland had been in contact with a farmer named Chris Poole who owned the island. At the pub the previous night, we'd asked the locals about Poole. "Chris Poole? He doesn't even have a boat!" chirped one man. Apparently Poole was a bit of an outsider, even by the standards of those living in one of the most obscure corners of the world.
The island that Poole bought holds 8 miles of exposed coastline and about 4,600 sheep. He's never brought guests to the island outside of family, especially not a group of surfers from California. When we asked him in advance of our arrival what kind of compensation he wanted in exchange for allowing us on his island, he responded, "Bring a couple slabs [24 packs] of Budweiser and a drum of oil and we're all set. Fuel for the fire and fuel for the men."
June 5, 2018
You won't find much information on the Internet regarding Poole's island other than the fact that it's "rat-free" and home to many species of birds. All we need to know, however, is that it sits right in the swell path.
A half-hour boat ride through ocean inlets and past small islands and we see our destination in the distance. We arrive in the dim evening light and are welcomed by sheep skulls lining the shore. Poole's four sheep dogs grab a jawbone each and chase each other in a frenzy around Poole's 19th century farmhouse. In the dusk, it all begins to feel like a deleted scene from "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre".
"All I see are shotgun shells, shit and bones," Coffin chuckles as he surveys the landscape.
Inside the farmhouse, smoke rises from the freshly-lit wood furnace. Poole is in his mid 30s with long, dark hair and a lit cigarette dangling from his lips. As we unload our gear, Weiland sees Poole's father opening the sheep sheering shed and asks his name. "Steve," the senior Poole says through his three teeth. "But some people call me c–t."
The father-son duo bought the island 6 years ago—14,000 acres for the equivalent of about $265,000. They don't live here full time, but rather visit throughout the year, making sure the "sheep are moving." Around November, the Pooles start riding around on their ATVs, rounding up the sheep to sheer for wool, which they then sell. Who knows how many perfect days of surf the Poole's have ridden past while rounding up sheep, unconcerned with the bounty of waves their beaches hold.
June 6, 2018
We wake up in our sleeping bags in the farmhouse at 7:15 a.m., freezing in the dark room even with five of us sandwiched together. The pastel-blue-and-yellow twilight glows through the frost on the window. After making some instant coffee, we pack our boards into Poole's old Land Rover Defender and yellow Nissan Frontier and start the 8-mile, hour-and-a-half trek to the exposed coast. Our driver, Poole's brother- in-law, Stevey, is driving with one hand on the stick shift, one on the wheel, and, between shifting gears, one on a Budweiser. He takes the Nissan down cliffs onto the beach in four-wheel drive while looking back over his shoulder and talking story to the crew. Charging through riverbeds at low tide to avoid what Stevey calls "Jackass holes" made by nesting penguins, we see schools of mullet fish splashing around, stuck from the outgoing tide, so close we could grab them. Snow crab surround the island, but the Pooles don't eat shellfish—too much work, they say.
It's snowing lightly as we cut across the island to the beach. The elder Steve, who is ahead in the Defender, stops and pulls out his 22-caliber rifle, points it toward a flock of geese and shoots a few rounds into it, killing four birds to feed his four dogs. He chucks the bloodied fowl in the back of the truck and we keep on toward the right in the distance.
Stevey takes a wide route around the backside of a long point and ends up stumbling across a shoulder-high, spitting A-frame slab. Eight seconds later, another one explodes in the same spot. Coffin and I are immediately hysterical. We can't believe that we're looking at waves this good on what was forecast as the smallest day of the trip. But this is the southeast corner of the island, the next landmass to the south being Antarctica—there's no shortage of energy in these waters.
During the lengthy process of climbing into full-body neoprene, it begins to sink in that this will be, undoubtedly, the first time this wave has ever been surfed.
In the lineup, we trade powerful wedges with just the three of us for hours, high-fiving with uncontainable excitement between sets. Halfway through the session, Coffin looks at me and we just started laughing. "Where the fuck are we right now?" He screams before spinning around on a double-up breaking onto no more than 8 inches of water. It's a short wave, but as action-packed as they come.
As the tide drops and we make our way in over the kelp-covered reef, we all agree that the many days of grueling travel to get here were beyond worth it.
June 7, 2018
There are countless setups on Poole's island and nobody has ever surfed any of them—bays, beach breaks, points, slabs. On the way to one spot, we pass the site of an Argentinian plane crash from the war—a stark reminder that our new aquatic playground has a grim past.
Storm winds are forecasted for the next few days, so we head back to the main island to regroup. On the boat ride back, we drink a few of the Budweisers through ski masks as we slice through the water. As we approach a Royal Navy battleship, we stop to grab a crab pot we planted two days ago and discover that it's full to the brim. Even though cracking into the fresh crabmeat seemed well worth the work to us, Poole insists we give it over to the Royal Navy as a token of thanks.
We arrive to a beautiful sunset on the main island and find an amazing homecooked meal waiting for us at the bed and breakfast thanks to Arlette—slow braised leg of lamb, veggies, Yorkshire pudding and mint sauce, gravy and wine. During dinner, Jamie, an artist who works with Arlette, tells us that he once went to go look for a missing person on Poole's island. They found him on the coast,\ sitting with a bottle in between his legs, dead. Turns out it was exactly where we'd found the perfect slab.
Liberation Day, June 14, 2018
Today, 36 years ago, the war for these islands ended. We're told that there is going to be a parade later this morning, but we'll be far from it, taking one last shot at that elusive high-tide tube. The weather has finally cleared and black sky is turning blue as we head south toward the beach on one of the island's few highways. Snow coats the mountains to our right and the ocean becomes visible on our left.
Today is the coldest day of the trip, but it also just so happens to be the day with the most perfect wind and swell. We'd spent the past 12 days mapping out new spots, taking notes on how wind, swell and tide affected each bend in the coast, often pulling our hair out trying to forecast the mercurial stretch of ocean. Now, with the wind at our backs, we find ourselves in the right place at the right time. As painful as it is to even crack open the door of the car, no amount of cold is going to keep us from that lineup.
During this trip, conversations in the water have consistently returned to the subject of just how cold we were. We'd paddle in circles, slapping the water with our arms and legs, trying as best we could to keep our blood circulating and to trick ourselves into believing we weren't flirting with hypothermia. I couldn't help but think about Shackelton's men and the relentless, bone-chilling cold they had to endure in desperation for survival. In comparison, it seemed almost silly to subject ourselves to these elements for a few waves.
But today will be the real test of what those waves are worth. I only have one wetsuit with me, and it's sitting in the back of the truck like a neoprene icicle.
My teeth chatter as I stand on my board bag in the howling wind. I shuffle my legs into the sandy, almost-frozen suit before jumping back into the car for a last blast of air from the heater. At a certain point I realize I have to stop stalling, and I spring out of the car, grab my board and run as fast as I can toward the reef. Without a doubt, these are the best waves we've seen the entire trip. We knew we were in for an adventure, but only dared to hope for fun waves in this region. This spot, however, was on the brink of world-class in terms of its predictability and consistent tube sections. The waves get better and better through the evening and into the frigid twilight. Looking back from the water toward the beach at the snow-covered caps in the distance, the scale and raw beauty of the place is hard to comprehend, as if we're somehow surfing the base of the Sierra Nevada.
For a moment, I don't even think of the cold.
[This article was originally published in the November, 2018 issue of SURFER Magazine, Subscribe here.]