I write this just as Rich has begun rounding the southern tip of Africa at 40 degrees and 27 minutes south and has begun some of the most arduous sailing, highest wind speeds and biggest waves he expects to encounter. He has entered the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, which rings the Antarctic continent and essentially passes through all the major oceans. For racing sailors like Rich, sailing into the strongest current in the world has obvious benefits as it will carry him very quickly. For centuries, however, this current and its extreme conditions proved a formidable barrier for ships sailing south.
During the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries – the age of exploration – theories about a vast southern continent were based in notions that land on the earth’s surface somehow had to be balanced, and since there was so much land in the northern hemisphere, there had to be an equivalent amount of land to the south. Some of this imagined land even appeared ringing the bottom of world maps, labeled Terra Australis Nondum Cognita, Unkown South Land. They had never seen it, but they felt sure it must be there.
Although their theories were wrong, the land at the bottom of the world does, in fact, exist. Captain James Cook encountered a vast field of icebergs during his second voyage in the 1770s and his official on-board artist drew sketches and ultimately an engraving of it to illustrate the voyage account. By 1840, several expeditions claimed to have sighted the Antarctic mainland. A fabulous print by the French expeditionary artist Louis Le Breton shows men climbing excitedly onto rocks from small boats with penguins standing by watching – the whole scene surrounded by towering icebergs. The hazards of floating ice ringing Antarctica inspired traveling artists for many years following, no doubt in part because their size evoked a sublime sense of nature and its dangers, and were more overtly dramatic than the relentlessly barren snowfields inland. Antarctica is a magnet for artists to this day, many of who revel in disproving our notions of it being a barren and colorless environment. Since the 1950s, the Antarctic Artists & Writers Program of the National Science Foundation has sponsored the work of more than 100 artists who desired to visit Antarctica in the course of their work.