Boating in the Windmill Islands
Navigation and Routes
Navigation around the Windmill Islands can be very difficult. From the water entrances to channels disappear, islands blend in with the coast, everything is white and grey. One approach centers on Ardery Island. Ardery has such a distinctive shape, instantly recognisable from almost all directions that it can help locate you from almost 50% of the Windmill Islands. Rounding Shirley one day in still overcast conditions it started snowing very heavily. With visibility less than 50m we were navigating with a compass through the islands only getting glimpses of land. We were feeling very nervous until a huge shadow in the shape of Ardery appeared out of the white.
Early in the season the ice will be in Robertson Channel and all around the islands off Mitchell Peninsula. The only choice is to head out of Newcomb Bay and stay seaward of the ice and Hollin/Midgley Islands. Stay well clear of these islands because of the reefs near them. The main thing to watch is to avoid being trapped by the long bands of ice (bergy bits and mush) pushed together by the wind. At this time of year they can be thick enough to be impenetrable to IRB's.
The best way to Ardery Island is Casey - outside Shirley - between Midgley and Pidgeon - Ardery. I prefered to head out from the wharf and go to the right of Kilby (but between Kilby and McMullin seems to be fine even if the chart shows it as a tad shallow) and after passing Shirley I keep much to the same heading to make sure I cleared Beall Reefs. There is a very large distinct rock on the ridge of Pidgeon Island. Once it lies between Denison and Blunn Island (the island between Cronk and Denison on the Windmill Islands map) I would change my heading for this rock until I could see the passage between Midgley and Pidgeon and then head down that. Soon Ardery will stand out and it is just straight to the landing at the western end. With a chop and large load it is sometimes best to head SE and then turn into the chop to Ardery.
If the chop is bad, or you want a change, Robertson Channel might be a better option. Head for the big rock on the ridge of Pidgeon but after clearing Denison head for the channel. The entrance is very hard to spot and it is best to look for the north knob of Pidgeon Island which drops sharply into the sea. Stay close to the Pidgeon side of the channel to miss the VERY DANGEROUS submerged rock between Mitchell and Pidgeon. Follow your nose from here to Ardery. The channel between Pidgeon and Warrington is deep and worth a look when free of ice.
Looking north from Ardery Island. The arrow point to the distinctive ice cliff.
Heading back to Casey from Ardery the best feature to look for is a large scallop shaped ice cliff on the left (looking from Ardery) side of Pidgeon Island. This gives the entrance between Midgley and Pidgeon/Warrington. the best way to find the entrance to Robertson Channel is to look along the ice cliffs of Mitchell Peninsula until it merges with rocks of Warrington Island. If lost look for the antenna masts of Casey.
The best way to Robinson Ridge (or Robo's) is via Robertson Channel. Go on the outside of the islands at the southern tip of Mitchell as its a bit shallow between, and then head into Parkes Bay.
After Ardery-Odbert is the row of islands Holl - Ford - Cloyd - Herring. A very useful and distinctive feature is the pinkish/red colour of the rock of Ford and Cloyd Islands. Ford Island is also important as it has a cache for emergencies both when boating and ice travelling in winter.
Looking out of Elephant Seal Inlet (Peterson Island). The arrow points to the edge of O'Conner Island, with Ardery Island to the right. The prominent feature to the left is Probosces Point.
To go to the Peterson Island apple the easiest and most reliable route (especially in average conditions) is to head for Mast Point on Ardery. Once rounding Mast Point the cliffs along Ardery roughly line up to the gap between O'Conner and Ford Islands. A good landmark is the dark cliffs at the edge of O'Conner which line up almost perfectly with the apple hut. However the apple isn't visible until almost at the landing spot so head for to right of Motherway Island. The entrance to Peterson Channel is reached by heading to the left of Motherway Island. It is usually only open for a couple of months a year.
To get to the Browning landing spot head for Peterson apple or Channel and follow the edge of Peterson and Browning. I don't know of any major obstacles but the bay is hard to distinguish. But it is the last main bay surrounded by rock before reaching the very corner of Eyers Bay. The landings for Ellie seal counting in Peterson Channel aren't very flash so try not to trash the prop.
All of the routes south from Casey can be shortened a bit by heading between Ardery and Odbert. The main thing to look for is the pinkish colour of Ford and Cloyd. All the routes are easily reversed to get back. A small pair on binoculars can be useful for looking for the Casey antennas.
I'm not sure if my favourite island is Holl or Peterson. Holl is a wonderful place with lots of petrels and penguins. It has a couple of nice lakes in the hills and lots of old glacial features. There is even a stream in summer. While the best landing spot is at the east end, from Ardery its nice to head for Churchill Point at the west end and cruise along the coast. Also heading south from Churchill Point the western cliffs have flocks of petrels like Ardery. By the chart the water is very deep off these cliffs and its fun to point out to passengers that the water is 1000 meters deep.
Cruising along the Vanderford Glacier.
Even though I've heard lots about how you shouldn't do it -it's too dangerous - everyone will want to cruise along the front of the Vanderford Glacier. People will go there anyway and if a few precautions are taken then it is very safe and can be a highlight of a visit to Casey. I remember spending a day on Odbert Island with a bio at the height of summer and we heard the crash of ice from the Vanderford (many kms away) echo around the islands at least once an hour! It is dangerous mid-summer. If you have to go up to the very face do it early in the season and avoid overhanging cornices built up during the winter. Once water has started pouring off the face try and stay 100/200m away and always stay in gear with the motor running and keep an eye out as pieces of ice will roll without much noise. Unless you are so close as to be hit by falling ice I think that you should be able to ride over any waves made by falling ice as long as you take it on the bow (thus keep the motor running). The other thing to keep in mind is that its a long way from home down at the Vanderford (a long row) and there is nowhere to land (make sure you have enough fuel).
A castle berg north of Casey.
Ice-berg cruises are a great way to get everyone in the boats. It sort of pays for all the help needed in looking after and running the boats. I usually did a loop heading up the coast past Wilkes until reaching the large bergs and then start heading out amongst them stopping for photos every so often. Stay clear of all the little islands and rocks of the Swain Group. I would head for the Donovan Islands so I'd end up somewhere I knew and not lost amongst huge bergs. From here it's a straight line back to Casey. To locate Casey look for the antenna masts (knowing the moraine line well helps to find the masts).
Every calm blue sky day I headed out from Casey, for a moment I'd start to be drawn towards the Frazier Islands. I finally did it on a not quite perfect day but it was worth it. The route is easy, head for the big pointy rock out to sea from Casey. Visit Fitzpatrick Rock off Shirley Island on the way.
Fitzpatrick Rock with lots of ice on it.
Launching and Landing Locations
Casey warf at the very right edge. Kilby Island in the middle, with Bailey Rocks behind it.
The condition of launching and landing spots at Casey vary dramatically over the summer season. Early in the season the top of the ice will often be over 1 meter above water level. A hazardous situation can arise at the bottom of the tide when the IRB can be pushed under the ice by a swell, risking either the IRB getting jammed or slashed on sharp icicles.
Once all the ice has been melted at the Casey wharf the best launching spot is the deep water to the right of the wharf (when facing the water). The area is large enough that the trailer can be manoeuvred and backed to the water's edge. However, early in the season it is easier for the ramp to the left to be cleared by the dozer. The disadvantage here is the lack of water and at most times it is best to row into deeper water.
The Ardery Island landing spot early in the season. The rocks at the point are still ice covered.
Hauling gear onto Ardery Island.
The landing at the very western end of Ardery Island (Windmill Islands GR 748389) is excellent once the ice has fallen off the rocks. The rocks drop off extremely quickly to deep water. It can sometimes be rough because of a swell coming in from sea that is hardly noticed at the wharf back at Casey. Before the ice has cleared from the rocks one must improvise as the top of the ice will be at head-height at all but high tide. Anchors should be put in to make landings and unloading safer. The anchors will go with the ice if left in, which is usual. I have never seen an advantage in using Cave Landing, however it is worth keeping in mind.
The bay with the Browning landing spot (far side). As usual, full of ice. At the very back is the southern end of Peterson Island.
The arrow points to the landing, viewed from the rocks above the Browning hut.
Once the summer melt has cut inland access to Browning Peninsula, the IRB's are the only way of getting there. There is a small cove (Windmill Islands GR 793264) located a short distance from the hut. The landing is on the west side and ice cliffs surround the rest of the cove. The water is reasonably deep with a few rocks that have to be avoided. the main hazard of this landing is the unstable nature of the ice. The rock under the ice above the water line is steep and once while unloading there a very large amount of ice 10 yards from us slipped into the cove. The ice cliffs also drop ice and the result is the cove is often clogged with crushed ice, making missing the rocks difficult.
The black arrow is the usual landing spot for the Peterson Island apple (arrow to the right). I prefer to moor the IRB's at the rocks indicated by the red arrow. The islands in the background (yellow arrows) are (left to right) Ford, Odbert, Cloyd, Motherway, and Herring. The green arrow is Proclamation Point.
People have different views on the landing in the cove in front of the Peterson Apple (Windmill Islands GR 778303). I hate it and I'm sure most of the damage to props is done here. It shoals off and only at the top of the tide can rocks be reached easily without touching bottom. Also the ice stays in well into the season and once it has gone there are no large rocks to tie to. I prefer to drop people and gear there and moor the IRB's on the rocks on the left edge of the cove when facing into it (if it is clear of ice). The landing in the bay facing Motherway Island is not as good as this, but worth keeping in mind.
The bay behind the Peterson Island apple.
A few times I have watched the water level rise considerable at the Peterson Apple landing in a few minutes and drop again, once leaving the other IRB dry and a meter from the water edge and me stuck in very shallow water. It may be caused by a wave from ice dropping off the Vanderford. In 1995/96 two unattended IRB's slipped their moorings here and it was only lucky that an IRB back at Casey had been packed for RTA, which was quickly assembled and used to retrieve them a fair distance to sea. It may have been one of these 'waves' that caused their lines to come loose from a rock (which would have been below water at high tide anyway).
Elephant Seal Inlet early in the season. The seal wallows are amongst the rocks on the far side where the ice is still in.
Everyone will want to visit the Ellie seals at Elephant Seal Inlet. Be very careful when landing because of the numerous rocks, and consider rowing in. There is also at least one very large submerged rock in the middle of the channel and around half way along the inlet.
Considering the size of Holl Island there is only a couple of very good landing spots. The best is on the NE side (Windmill Islands GR 746343) which has deep water and no significant hazards, and good big boulders to tie to. The other side, between Werlein and Holl, also provides a good landing but the ice remains in most of the season. A flat rock shelf on Niles Island, facing Holl, is a great spot to stop for lunch with great views of the Vanderford.
Niles Island. The nice landing is at the very right.
A good landing spot for Robo's is at the base of the rock slope to the south of the hut (Windmill Islands GR 813381). It is close to the hut, has deep water, and the rocks are easy to scramble up.
Just across from the tip of Robinson Ridge is a reasonable landing spot for Odbert Island (windmill Islands GR 807379). There are a few rocks and nothing to tie to, so take some snow stakes as the landing is usually surrounded with ice.
Wilkes is a surprisingly bad place to get access because of shallow water, submerged rocks, and steep access to shore. A very good spot is the rocks on the south side of Powell Cove (Windmill Islands GR 787515 with an Astronomical Station marked on the map). While the rocks are a little steep, at the very west edge it is a reasonable spot for unloading gear. Along with the deep water the big plus for this spot is some old eye bolts in the rocks for mooring to. It is a short distance to the Hilton. Be careful of the rocks off Stonehocker Point.
The landing at Nelly Island. The GP's nest on the large flat rocky area below the ridge on the left.
On my one visit to the Frazier Islands I didn't have much time to look around. I wanted to visit the cairn on Nelly Island with the Phil Law note and we landed at the small cove on the east of Nelly (Windmill Islands GR 634541). It has lots of rocks in the entrance and should be approached very carefully. All the GP's are on a flat area below the ridge on the north of Nelly. If you only visit the cairn (68m mark on Windmill Islands map) they shouldn't be disturbed.
HazardsThere are many submerged rocks around Casey, not always close to shore, and not always marked on the map. A lot of care has to be taken at all landings, especially when doing routine work like seal counting and using seldom used landings. Almost all the landings on the western side of Peterson Island are woeful.
A very large rock just breaks water at low right in the middle of the entrance to Robertson Channel. It is slightly out from the narrow section between Pidgeon Island and Mitchell Peninsula (Windmill Islands GR 766446). Because people are usually travelling fairly quickly here it is potentially very bad for IRB's.
Kilby Reef is well known, between the wharf and Kilby Island, but sometimes difficult to spot at high water. It helps if a marker is maintained on it.
A very elaborate marker on Kilby Reef (known to the locals as Albina the mermaid). She was knocked over by ice. The photo was taken at an extremely low tide.
Submerged rocks off Stonehocker Point are very difficult to locate when travelling to the landing in Powell Bay.
If heading south through Shirley Channel, thee is a reef on a line just seaward of Hollin Island. While the rocks are usually above water they are difficult to spot and easily forgotten. They are not marked on the Windmill Islands map (approximate GR 763476).
Also when travelling south through the Shirley Channel it is best to stay to the mainland side as at one spot it is shallow almost to the middle of the Channel (Windmill Islands GR 774485).
All of the cove in front of the Peterson Apple and Elephant Seal Inlet is a hazard. However, the large well submerged rock in the middle of Ellie Seal Inlet is especially bad. It is always submerged and can be cleared at the top of the tide. It is difficult to spot and the water around it appears reasonably deep.
It is good fun to look at the areas around Cronk, Borrello, and Ommundsen Islands at a very low tide as there is an amazing amount of reefs visible, some quite long and in places one wouldn't think twice about travelling at high tide if unaware of them.
Snow plumes off the moraine line.
Since the weather at Casey is variable, it must be considered carefully before each trip. There are two predominant winds in the local area, an easterly off Law Dome, and a southerly from the Glaciers. Another hazard is a very even and complete cover of stratus cloud causing poor surface definition, and difficult visual navigation.
Snow plumes off the plateau.
Low pressure systems moving to the north of Casey cause the most common wind, an easterly. At the station all the blizz tails are on the western side, an indicator of its predominance. It is common for the easterly to blow 50 knots average for days on end, and wind events with gusts to 90 knots are possible during the summer. A good indicator of an approaching easterlies is whether the moraine line is visible or there are snow plumes off the plateau. A roll cloud to the west is a possible indicator of high level easterly which may drop to ground level.
A katabatic blowing over Browning. The island on the left is Herring Island. Teigan et al are just visible to the right of it. Taken late in the summer.
On clear days when there is a lot of heat loss off the inland ice during the night a temperature gradient can develop. The resulting cold air will pour down as a katabatic off the glaciers. The boundary to the resulting southerly can be very pronounced (especially during the winter) with no wind at Robo's while 40 knots at Ardery Island. Moving toward Browning the wind swings around to the south-east. On calm days at Casey it is often visible as a low line of moving low grey cloud to the south. This is blowing snow and moisture being picked up off the water by the very dry cold air. It sometimes can be heard as a low grumble, like a jet in the distance (best heard from Robo's). A very interesting event is when a easterly and southerly compete. The result is not a south-east wind but sudden jumps between the two directions. Looking at the graphs from met there are sharp changes in air temperature with the southerly being the colder of the two.
Clouds showing signs of strong wind.
A good rule for boating is no go if the wind is above 15 knots average (the trend also needs to be considered). The direction of the wind is very important as heading back to Casey into a 15 knot easterly is very wet and uncomfortable. One should be confident that the wind will not worsen if leaving Casey in these conditions. 15 knots from the south is far better as the difficulty is in heading out from Casey and if the conditions worsen then it is easier to turn around and run with the chop with conditions becoming more sheltered on the return. I would never go out in wind changing between the east and south and would look closely at the plateau and clouds with a 10+ knot easterly.
FinallyI spent a lot of time on the water among the Windmill Islands during 95/96 and 96/97 seasons. While there were cold and wet days and very good days - one day sums it up. We dropped a couple of bios at Robo's and some supplies at Ardery. It was a calm blue sky day and I had a few people that hadn't got out much in the boats so we took them on a jolly. We went around Holl Island, ate lunch on the rock platform on Niles Island, cruised along the Vanderford, and visited the Ellie seals at Peterson on the way back. One of the passengers is someone I have a lot of respect for. He has spent a lot of time in Antarctica and been many places. When we got back he told me he thought Casey was a bit boring until today and now he knew what the big attraction was. He'd obviously had a great day. I hope many more people get to cruise around the Windmill Islands in the future.
And you can always row!
Disclaimer: I have written these notes since leaving the employment
of The Australian Antarctic Division. They are not an official document
or guide. My motivation for writing it was to pass on information I thought
might be useful rather than having people always start from scratch. I
don't mind it being FREELY distributed or reproduced by members of ANARE
and The Australian Antarctic Division. I assert my moral rights as author,
and as the owner of the images.
Darryn A. Schneider, August 1997.