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3rd S. Georgia Island Team


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A while back Suzanne posted about 2 teams, and a rumored 3rd, planning to attempt the first S. Georgia Island circumnavigation by kayak. Today's Gloucester Daily Times has an article on that 3rd team: Tom Mailhot, Bob Powell and Leiv Ponset.

Here is the article:

Keeping his cool

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By Steve Landwehr

Staff writer

Four years ago, Tom Mailhot and a buddy rowed a boat across the Atlantic Ocean, 3,000 miles from the Canary Islands to Barbados. For most people, that would be challenge enough for a lifetime.

But consider just one of the dangers Mailhot faces on his next expedition.

His welcoming committee will be nearly every male fur seal in the world, more than a million of them, quarrelsome by nature and armed with sharp fangs. The boys will be particularly keen on brawling when Mailhot shows up on the shores of South Georgia Island, off the Antarctic peninsula.

It will be mating season, and they won't have anything better to do than battle for their hard-won turf as they wait for the lady seals to arrive.

"Any place we can land they will have already taken over — they will tear the flesh right off your bones," Mailhot, 46, says with a smile that tells you something about his adventurous spirit.

From mid-November to mid-January, Mailhot, an Ipswich resident and organizer of Gloucester's annual Howard Blackburn rowing challenge, and two friends will be one of a number of teams conducting a census of the petrel bird population South Georgia for the British Antarctic Survey. South Georgia is a United Kingdom overseas territory, also claimed by Argentina, and one of the most beautiful yet forbidding places on earth.

Mailhot and his friends will attempt to paddle around the 250-mile perimeter of the island in kayaks, marking petrel nesting sites by GPS, the global positioning system. They'll also be counting the petrels at locations specified in their agreement with the British government, some at the peaks of mountainous cliffs that rise straight out of the Southern Ocean.

Mailhot has been here before, in 2003. Despite the inherent dangers, he's anxious to get back.

"It's one of the wildest places on the planet," he says. It's inhabited by millions of penguins and other birds as well as enormous herds of fur and elephant seals.

"It sounds as if you're in a jungle — you have no idea what it sounds and smells like until you're there."

The purpose of the trip is research, but if weather and the seas cooperate, Mailhot and friends could be the first team to successfully circumnavigate South Georgia, though others have tried.

"It's a trip not for the light-hearted," Mailhot says.


About the size of Rhode Island, South Georgia is more than 700 miles from anything that could remotely be considered civilization. Mailhot will fly first to Chile and then the Falkland Islands. From there, the team faces an 800-mile sail through the Southern Ocean, where brutal storms are common. They'll be aboard the Golden Fleece, one of the few sailboats that braves these waters where icebergs are a year-round hazard.

They'll be put ashore in Grytviken Harbor, the only access to South Georgia Island, and from there, they and their kayaks will be taken to Bird Island to begin their survey.

South Georgia is about the only piece of real estate at 54 degrees, 30 minutes south latitude in the world. The weather circling the globe has plenty of time to gather strength before lashing into the island's southwest coast, which in many areas is nothing but sheer cliff.

Mailhot says the entire island was engulfed by a hurricane in 1997.

"Storms can just drop down out of the sky," he says. "It's the most dangerous paddling in the world. Once we take off from some places, we're committed to a landing site that might be 20 or more miles away."

Lust for adventure, challenge

Mailhot may know more about dangerous kayak passages than just about anyone in the world. He's paddled around Africa's Cape Horn and the coast of Siberia in the Bering Strait. He explored the east coast of South Georgia in 2003, and he's crossed the English Channel and the Bay of Fundy.

He was drawn to the sport after moving to West Gloucester several years ago. His career as a semi-pro hockey player ended in 1990 when an eye injury left him with a detached retina and no peripheral vision on his right side, but his competitive nature yearned for a challenge.

He got his hands on a kayak and paddled out to Hog Island, entered a race two weeks later and won. He has bested the field in the annual Blackburn Challenge row around Cape Ann nine times since then.

"I found out swinging a paddle over my head wasn't that different than swinging a hockey stick over my head," he says.

Mailhot even turned his new love to a profit. One of the ways he supports his hobby is guiding other kayakers, a job he intends to make a full-time business in a year or so.

The kayaks the trio will likely use are folding models, made of sections of aluminum framing that are stuffed inside a waterproof skin that is abrasion-resistant. The whole thing fits in a backpack when disassembled.

It sounds flimsy, but Mailhot says the craft is remarkably rugged.

As for supplies, water won't be a problem. Ninety percent of the island is snow-covered year-round, although the dense animal population means the expeditionaries will have to be cautious about where they gather their supply.

The team members will be entirely on their own, so they will need to bring all their food. There will be plenty of chocolate bars and sticks of salami packed into the kayaks.

"Anything with lots of fat — you're burning so many calories," Mailhot says.

Fires aren't allowed on the island, and it wouldn't make much difference if they were — there's nothing to burn. Temperatures from November to January run between 20 and 40 degrees, Mailhot says, but can drop below zero at any time.

The team will be shooting a documentary of its trip, which Mailhot plans to present at schools around the country. One of Mailhot's partners is Bob Powell, a professor at Clemson University, while the other, Leiv Poncet, has the rare distinction of being a South Georgia native, having been born on a boat in Grytviken harbor.

Asked why he would eagerly risk life and limb in a landscape most people would shun, Mailhot's eyes light up when he talks about the beauty of the island and its creatures.

"And you couldn't have two better people to be with in those conditions than Bob Powell and Leiv Poncet," he says.

Even if Mailhot's team manages to circle the island, they may not be the first to do so. A team of British rowers and another from New Zealand recently announced their intentions to circumnavigate South Georgia. Mailhot says his team is downplaying the competition.

"We're disappointed the Kiwis have turned it into a race," Mailhot says.

Mailhot, who is not married, says lots of people tell him he's crazy, but one in particular has understandable concerns.

"My mom always worries," he says.

South Georgia history

Tom Mailhot was drawn to the island of South Georgia by the exploits of Sir Ernest Shackleton, the English polar explorer whose ship, the Endurance, became trapped in the Antarctic ice in 1914. With no other hope of survival, Shackleton and five of his men set sail from Elephant Island in a lifeboat, bound for a South Georgia whaling station. Their only navigational equipment was a sextant, used to gauge the position of the sun, and a water-logged Nautical Almanac. Frank Worsley, the Endurance's skipper, was able to take only four sightings with the sexant, but nonetheless steered the boat to a safe landing on South Georgia.

The 17-day, 800-mile journey is considered one of the most amazing examples of navigation in maritime history. Shackleton returned to Elephant Island to rescue the rest of his party and did not lose a single man, despite some of the most treacherous conditions in the world. Shackleton's body is buried on South Georgia.

"I spritzed it with an ale in 2003," Mailhot says.

But if Shackleton was the original inspiration, "now it's the wildlife," Mailhot says.

Liz N.

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