It was a dark and stormy night in the northern Antarctic Ocean…
We were two days out of Port Stanley in the Falklands and the freezing wind ripped through the mast rigging. Our 65-foot sailboat, the Golden Fleece, shuddered from the impact with the steep violent seas and we made slow progress on the five-day downwind crossing towards South Georgia. The genoa halyard was stuck on the mainsail spreader and the first mate, Leif, was hoisted high in the mast in the darkness of the night, his harness hooked up to the mainsail halyard and a flashlight in his mouth. It was cold, tough and dangerous work that had to be done. Leif and the captain—his father, Jerome—knew exactly what to do and they worked in quiet unison to solve the task at hand. The rigging was fixed around midnight.
When Jerome finally ducked his wet, mustachioed face back into the warm space of the bridge, he pointed with pride to the rolling deck where his son was finishing up, recoiling the untangled lines. “Very good boy—belongs on a small boat” When I asked what that meant—he shot back with a sarcastic grin and a strong French accent, “Aah, oui—he was born on the chart table!”
This all happened about 15 years ago, when my co-guide Bob, six guests and I had hired Jerome and his ketch-rigged motor-sailing yacht to bring us to South Georgia to act as our expedition support vessel. Our plan was to paddle and camp along the northern shores of this wildest and remote sub-Antarctic island. A commercially guided kayak trip like this had never been attempted, which is why we chose the most experienced Antarctic crew to accompany us.
South Georgia is a 100-mile-long, narrow remote island located in the bullseye of the relentless and ferocious storms funneling through the Drake Passage between Cape Horn and the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. Kayaking along its shores demanded the best from our clients and expedition crew. As my co-guide I had invited Bob Powell, a 6 foot seven, good humored and expert outdoor instructor from North Carolina to come along. He had previously attempted to be the first sea kayaker (with 3 other Aussies) to circumnavigate South Georgia but had to abandon the attempt due to ferocious weather hammering them along the south facing coast. I was lucky to have somebody like Bob along since he was one of the few who had actually done stuff that we were trying to do with our clients.
Just like Bob, Jerome is a true “salty.” This French mariner has plied the Antarctic seas for more than four decades and is a sailing pioneer in the southern latitudes and beyond. In his early twenties, he spent five years circumnavigating the globe in a 30-foot wooden sloop, participated in major oceanic races and became particularly captivated by the spell of Antarctica.
About 30 years ago, he met beautiful Sally in a bar in a French coastal town and they fell head over heels in love. Their love was so tempestuous and uncompromising that when he asked his newly pregnant bride to accompany him for a sailing adventure and be the first to overwinter in their small boat in the frozen Antarctic Ocean, she accepted without hesitation. With the retractable keel pulled up, solid sea ice all around, freezing outside temperatures and no chance of getting outside help, she gave birth to Leif, right there in the cockpit in the glow of a kerosene lamp. When I later prodded Jerome about how he felt about the whole birthing experience—he deadpanned with a deep French accent and a half burned Gauloise cigarette dangling from his mouth: “We threw the afterbirth to the sea gulls!” In my own estimation, Sally was a brave one, indeed.
Apart from being short-witted, weather-worn and cantankerous, Captain Jerome Poncet is the incarnation of Asterix, the heroic Gaelic cartoon character of my childhood. Asterix was a shrewd warrior who would prefer intelligence over strength. Jerome even looked like Asterix, displaying the same walrus mustache, winning and patient fortitude, and acerbic independence.
But for us the most important feature was his amazing sailing. I remember when he steered the vessel straight towards a colossal iceberg at full speed and then turned it around 180 degrees with such a precision that the aft rigging barely touched the ice face of the berg in the turn. He was truly “one with his boat” and he understood the coming and going of front systems—in a place famous for its relentless and violent storms.
His son Leif was no pushover either, and was already an accomplished adventurer in his own right. He was only in his early twenties and had just finished the first solo circumnavigation of the Falkland Archipelago in a kayak—not a small feat, given the same crazy weather and waters that prevails around those islands. Jerome and Sally also had another younger son, Dion, who today skippers small boats in the Antarctic waters.
Being a fun-loving Dane, I had a pleasure to tease Jerome in a somewhat friendly way to loosen him up a little in front of our guests. One day, I prodded his French culinary pride and asked him when we were going to get some of that famous French cuisine. “ No probleme,” was the curt reply, and the next morning, we observed him standing up in our Zodiac tender, cruising close to the coast and shooting a Norwegian reindeer. After the hunt, the meat was then hung under the boom on deck.
To secure homemade gourmet mayonnaise for the meat in Antarctica seemed an impossible feat for us. So Jerome went ashore to get some fresh penguin eggs. With a burlap sack over his shoulder, he climbed the steep rocky shore cliffs and proceeded to lift macaroni penguins off their nest to snatch the smaller of the two eggs. A fertile macaroni penguin will lay two eggs each breeding season, one being smaller than the other and extremely unlikely to survive. It was easy work: lift up the bird swiftly and carefully by the neck, snatch the smaller egg (one is always rejected, anyhow) and set down the surprised bird. Voila! Needless to say, it was a superb reindeer fondue dinner with red egg yolk penguin aoli—all swilled down with a precious bottle of Burgundy Pinot Noir.
We had a blast kayaking along the north shore of South Georgia and had adventures in full. This would not have been possible without an expert skipper like Jerome. In wild polar regions like this, the choice of the captain can make a successful trip much more likely. This trip later encouraged me to organize other epic Antarctic sailing and kayaking adventures and today, Natural Habitat has chartered a similar expert captain, Ben Wallis, and his sailing boat, the S/V Australis, to bring our guests to explore the Antarctic Peninsula. This expedition requires more independence and self-reliance than our other trips do, and, in return, offers even greater rewards.
I have heard that Jerome is still actively plying the southern oceans and that he also spends more time with his family on an island that he owns in the Falklands. He is an inspiration for me in his love for the southern oceans. I tip my cap to competent “salties” like him.