Opening image: “We did have a beautiful surf at Livingston Island. It was a long peeling longboard wave.” Rachel Gordon glides down a sweet Antarctic left on her 9 foot log, which she brought all the way from Alaska. Photo Laura Wilson

Ok. Tonight Is Disco: Laura And Ben Go To Antarctica, Part 2



Laura Wilson and Ben Herrgott are a pair of adventurous surf rats with a predilection for all things remote, rugged and raw as possible. In the middle of the pandemic, they made a decision – to depart their sweet home-time situation in Jan Juc, just down the road from Bells, and set out on an epic expedition to all the far-flung corners of the earth they hadn’t yet explored. A couple of modern-day wayfarers, they packed up their lives late last year and set off.


They assembled a motley crew of eccentrics and sailed from Argentina to the Antarctic Peninsula. On the way, they encountered mammoth icebergs, a few hundred penguins and some very fickle waves. The surf forecast fails when you head that far south.

“The waves that we found in Antarctica weren’t amazing, but we’ll never forget our surfs.” Ben considers all the missing adjectives on a long paddle through the raw southern seas. Photo Pili Sundblad

Ben. It was very difficult. A lot of the places exposed to the swell are not charted so there’s no point going there. It's just too dangerous.

We did actually go to uncharted waters at one point and we ran aground. The boat ran into a reef. There was 1.8 metres of water and we were lying on the side and basically grinding against the reef. That was pretty horrible. The noises were out of this world and the intensity on the boat was as high as it gets. It was really touch and go.

It was uncharted, shallow and we were trying to squeeze in between a narrowish passage with rocks everywhere. We had to reverse and lift the keel, which you can do from the inside, but that's a big job in itself. We made it though.

Ben regards the Perunika Glacier on Livingston – the black ash layers originate from volcanic activity on Deception Island. Photo Laura Wilson

Laura. From there we made our way to the continent, via Trinity Island where we saw a colony of gentoo penguins. That's the first time we were literally pushing through ice chunks. It was a sea of ice. The sun was shining for the first time and the day was calm. We were all sitting out the back and I think Rachel had her shorts on soaking up the rays. Penguins were jumping behind the boat. Whales everywhere. Sometimes we can't find the words.

Ben. Yeah, we're missing a few adjectives.

We went to Primavera Base and we anchored out the front. We were all looking at each other – the scientists looking at us, us looking at them, but we couldn’t go to land because they were worried about avian flu. So we just waved at each other. It’s wild to see humans just working there, at the very end of the world.

A solitary king penguin monitors the progress of the Ypake II crew and a gigantic swag of marine debris, collected on the shore of Snow Island. Photo Laura Wilson

Laura. We stayed on the water and went for a paddle on the surfboards and kayaks, ate dinner with marine life galore all around us. Huge noises of glaciers cracking and falling all around. It's thunderous. Leopard seals laying on the ice next to us.

We set off for Snow Island, which is now a very special place for us. We did actually find a few fun waves and did a beach cleanup, but the reason it is really special is because Ben proposed to me. It was actually mid beach cleanup. Ben got down on one knee and gave me this beautiful pebble. It's really funny because we read only just recently that’s what gentoo penguins do when they find their mate for life.

Ben. The beach cleanup was pretty crazy. It was a lot of marine debris, fishing debris but also plastic bottles, all the things you usually find, which is crazy. We were wondering how bad it would be in all these other islands where it's really exposed on that side and harder to access. It was a bit sad to see but we got it all. We found the remnants of a raft and used that to drag it all back over the other side of the island.

(Left) Chinstrap penguin promenade on Deception Island. Photo by Laura Wilson (Right) Love wins, and if all else fails, just throw the whole bowl. Laura and Ben celebrate the most farflung wedding of 2024 on deck. Photo Pili Sundblad

Laura. We got back to the boat and Zeek said, “I’m a captain so I can marry people on the boat.” So we did. We used things from our beach cleanup for the wedding party. Ben's bow-tie was cut out from a plastic jerry can. They made a veil for me out of a dirty laundry bag and a bouquet out of some paper. They threw rice over us on the deck and we said our vows. It was a wonderful night. At the end, the captain said, “You made us all cry, you bastards.”

Ben. We named the breaks on Snow Island - the first one, Wedding Party. It broke left and the right, like a little A-frame. They were all knee to waist-high. There might be one that was chest high every now and then. Really only Joe made them look good because he's such a beautiful surfer. The backdrop was huge mountains covered in snow and ice and glaciers, and some closer mountains that were just really jagged granite. The front of the wave you had to walk through a full-on elephant seal colony with some hitting and biting each other.

The waves that we found in Antarctica weren’t amazing, but we’ll never forget our surfs. We did have a beautiful surf at Livingston Island. It was a long peeling longboard wave, and Rachel brought her a nine-foot longboard from Alaska, which is a serious mission in itself. This break had a backdrop of ice in the front of the wave. There were huge elephant seals and a few penguins too. There was a big glacier that was sliding into the water towards the end of the wave.

It was all quiet on the Antarctic front as the Ypake II crew sailed past this mighty iceberg – 90 per cent of its mass is hidden below sea level. Photo Laura Wilson

Laura. We also visited the Spanish scientific base at Livingston, where we learned a lot from the few scientists we met. Then we went around the corner to have a look at this beautiful glacier and there was a Bulgarian base there. We got on the radio, to mention our presence. They invited us immediately. We jumped in the zodiac and headed to land, and next thing we see this guy flying down towards the shore in a digger.

Ben. We get closer and he jumps off and says, very seriously, “My name is Carmen. I'm the best commander in the world.” He gave us all a big hearty handshake, but no smile, and he said, “Come. Follow me, we are having a barbecue. Come.”

Laura and Ben met with Bob Brown Foundation’s marine campaigner Alistair Allan before they left. Alistair and his team are trying to stop the destructive krilling industry in Antarctic waters. Photo Pili Sundblad

Laura. So we walk up the hill and we see a group of about 25 Bulgarian scientists and crew. It was their first day off in ten days, working from 5am to midnight building a new lab. So they were celebrating. There was beers in hand. They were pouring big jugs of homemade red wine and enjoying a big cook up of meat. We are vegetarian, but not on that day. They offered us a hot shower, which was the best. Then when they heard we’d just got married, they got really excited and said, “OK. Tonight is disco.”

They were the most classic Eastern European characters. That night we had a full disco in their workshop, with lights and everything. It was literally the most unexpected party in the most far-flung place in the world. It was loose and weird and wonderful.

(Left) How the Ypake II crew and team Bulgaria may have been feeling post disco. Elephant seals at Snow Island. Photo Laura Wilson (Right) “OK. Tonight is disco.” The crew of the Ypake II prepare to get their party on with some wild Bulgarian research scientists at the end of the world. Photo Alex Nedyalkov

Ben. Finally, after 22 days, we headed north up through the Drake. It was all going beautifully until roughly halfway across, where some pretty bad headwinds hit us and the engine carked it.

Laura. We were two days into the passage, and it took us another seven days to make it. The people on cruise ships do it in two days, but it took us nine. We drifted a few days because the wind was in the wrong direction for us to just use the sails. We fixed the engine seven times over the course. The teeth had worn out on the shaft that connects the propeller to the gear box, so Zeek and Javier constantly worked – drilling, welding and everything else to get us going each time.

Charted waters are always more fun. Setting a clear course through the South Shetland Islands of the Antarctic Peninsula. Photo Ben Herrgott

Ben. A lot went through our heads during these long uncomfortable days. We did talk about mayday and that sort of thing. It was kind of serious and disheartening every time the engine carked it again.

Laura. The second last time it broke down, we were right near the end, like 12 hours away. It was calm, but we could see a big front of black clouds coming. We were pretty cheerful because we were close enough to be rescued if needed, ha ha.

How’s the serenity? Laura, Joe and Alex contemplate the land of eternal ice during a long lull at Snow Island. Photo Pili Sundblad

Ben. But then that front hit the boat and the sail was up and the boat was suddenly on a 45 degree angle. The mast was almost in the water. It all happened in slow motion. Everyone just suddenly started holding on for dear life and falling on top of each other. There were bags falling on everyone's heads. There was a little panic for me. I didn't know if it was the time to hold onto everything or actually let go and evacuate. But it passed.

We made it back to Ushuaia. We’d run out of water, and we were exhausted. 300 metres out from the dock, the engine broke again. But we had the perfect momentum to glide our way to the dock. It was amazing. We lost our momentum exactly when we hit the dock. We threw the rope to our friends on the dock and we were just high-fiving.

We made it – all the way to Antarctica and back.

There's worse places to pull out the guitar. Alex takes in the welcome sights of Ushuaia and the Martial Mountains, as Ypake II charts a course north after nine days of engine failure. Photo Laura Wilson

Opening image: “We did have a beautiful surf at Livingston Island. It was a long peeling longboard wave.” Rachel Gordon glides down a sweet Antarctic left on her 9 foot log, which she brought all the way from Alaska. Photo Laura Wilson


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