Sailing to Antartica—and Beyond

Lady Mary sails a Russian family around the world to destinations from fire to ice—like, Southern Ocean iceberg-y ice—and chases a world record along the way.

By Marina Klochkova


When we were young, it was inconceivable to think that we could sail around the world. After all, we lived in the Soviet Union. Traveling outside of the Soviet bloc seemed as likely as flying to Mars. Nonetheless, my husband Andrey and I were both fascinated by adventure books, and most of all, Jules Verne’s epic In Search of the Castaways: The Children of Captain Grant. And so the dream grew with us. 

We became adults, built a career, got married, and gave birth to two children. It seemed that our childhood dreams were abandoned.

One day during a holiday in Thailand, we saw a note on a palm tree that read, “Looking for four people for the yacht crew to travel by the ocean.”

My husband and I stared at each other and said, “Can it be this easy?”

Five years later, we bought a yacht. That was seven years ago. Our eldest daughter was 12-years-old and the youngest 2 years at the time. The adjustment to boat life was hard: Anastasia and I really missed our home and friends, and we suffered from seasickness. 

Those two yacht winters in the Mediterranean still loom as the most difficult in our sailing story. It became easier in the Atlantic—the yacht rolled less and it was warmer. And so we decided to sail around the world. 

I think I agreed only because of some kind of internal obstinacy. I thought, “So you’ve dreamt about this for 20 years, and now you’re giving up?”

In the open ocean, Anastasia and I started to feel better. You just need more than three days without landing to get used to it the pitch and roll. After it became clear that traveling would be ongoing for us, we took care of education for the girls by enrolling them in an online school. 


On to Africa

We left the Canary Islands for West Africa in March 2016 after a long preparation of the yacht for a round-the-world voyage. We went west to warm latitudes—and there were some deviations from our expected route. 

We went 100 kilometers up the Saloum River in Senegal. And then on to the Gambia. Our boat, Lady Mary, traveled over 350 kilometers up the Gambia River. It was a hot summer among kind people, hippos, chimpanzees and, … tsetse flies! Cape Verde was next, and we thought we were almost back in Europe. There were even sidewalks here!

After crossing the Atlantic Ocean, we ended up in French Guiana. Passing along the perimeter of the Caribbean Sea via Cuba, we finally entered the Pacific through the Panama Canal.

Most yachts head to the Marquesas after the Galapagos Islands, but once again we chose a road less traveled, sailing against the wind to Easter Island. Only about 25 yachts per year travel there. Together with Pitcairn, Easter Island delivered some of our most vivid memories. We then hit the Marquesas Islands, where we walked the footsteps of Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl to the forgotten villages. 

Toward the end of our stay in the Marquesas, my husband and I fell ill with ciguatera, a sickness caused by eating contaminated reef fish. Our kids became our primary caretakers on board for almost a month. They cooked, cared for us, procured fruit onshore, and socialized with our few neighbors anchored nearby. But soon it was time to move. We decided to spend the cyclone season in New Zealand—and this is where the real fun began.

What about Jules Verne?

The expedition through the great capes and Antarctica with kids began in November 2018. No families with kids from the Russian-speaking world had done anything like this before. Perhaps no one in the world had!

At first, there was an expedition to the Phantom Islands in the Pacific Ocean. It came about almost by chance on our way to Samoa. Light winds blew us south instead of northwest, and everything converged so that we didn’t have enough time to get to New Zealand before the cyclones hit. We had a Plan B, however: Spend the cyclone season on one of atolls in the Kiribati archipelago. It may sound romantic to take shelter on an island near the equator for the whole summer. But for us it just meant unbearable heat after 5 a.m., rain, humidity, and … boredom. 

Here’s a sample log entry from November 22, 2018: We are still being blown south off our course to Samoa. While Anastasia is sleeping after a night watch, Andrey and I continue to talk:

“Have we done anything monumental lately? After Easter and Pitcairn, nothing. And, look, we could go through the 37th Parallel to Cape Horn …” 

“Andrey, what is our longitude?” 

“Wait, you bring the pilot book. And I’ll bring The Children of Captain Grant from the bookshelf.” 

“Jules Verne’s reef Maria Theresa is at 153 longitude. It is only 1,200 miles due south! Shall we go check it out?” 

We jokingly discuss how then we will go through to Cape Horn and how we will then go to Antarctica … and the yacht starts steering itself south. 

Cape Horn in the Drake Passage is said to be the stormiest place on the planet. Here the waters of two great oceans meet. Wind and waves circle all the way around the globe, uninterrupted by any obstacles, and accelerate to great strengths, meeting with power and fury here. From the moment Captain Drake sailed his ship here, more than 800 ships have sunk in the storms of the Drake Passage. It is impossible not to think about those shipwrecks as you traverse Cape Horn for the first time.

Our younger daughter, Lada, easily took up our crazy idea of Antartica. Anastasia, on the other hand, thought with horror about the upcoming 60 days of travel without even spying land. Our personal best up to that point was 23 days at sea. She was only convinced when we mentioned that we’d be leaving the tropical heat behind us. 

Our sails carried Lady Mary south to the 37th Parallel (known for UFO sightings, especially near Roswell, New Mexico) of the southern hemisphere. Two months of nonstop passage and 6,200 nautical miles were still ahead of us. We wanted to check whether the legendary “phantom island” of Maria Theresa truly exists. Or if the Internet is right that the island was simply a product of Verne’s imagination. 

Along the way, between 32 and 37 degrees south, we passed by other phantom Pacific reefs. In the end, we did not encounter the reefs of Wachusett, 1957, Ernest-Legouve, or Maria Theresa at the locations specified in the charts and books. 

The wind grew stronger as we moved south. We watched the weather and avoided violent storms by climbing north or slowing down. We waited out one severe storm (a 9 to 10 on the Beaufort scale) by heaving to the 40th. Once we got to the 50th latitude, we sailed the next three weeks under only a small staysail.


The Everest of the ocean

On January 19, 2019, we rounded Cape Horn with winds of 35 knots gusting to 45, and waves of about 6 meters. The Drake Passage met us with a frown, but without aggression. We even caught a glimpse of the Great Cape through the shroud of fog so common here. Lady Mary then went on to the Beagle Channel and stopped in Puerto Williams in Chile, the southernmost village in the world.

After a couple of weeks, we moved on to Ushuaia on the Argentinian side of Tierra del Fuego. Boat expeditions to Antarctica usually start from here. We were the only vessel with kids in Ushuaia, which was surrounded by a record number of salty expedition captains who bring small groups of explorers south to Antarctica. A three-week cruise embarking from here costs upward of $6,000.

Here we found the sailing yachts Mon Cour and RusArc Aurora, helmed by experienced Russian captains Nikolai Litau and Daniel Gavrilov. Both captains hold several world-sailing records. Nikolai Litau was the first captain to sail the northeast sea route under sail, and he made the first two meridional round-the-world voyages, which went down in history under the name of “Eight Litau.” Daniel Gavrilov was the captain of the first yacht that sailed the northwest and northeast sea routes in a single passage. Our kids were thrilled to make friends with the first Russian-speaking crews they’d met in a long time, as well as visit their yachts and go for walks together.

Looking at how the teams were preparing to enter Antarctica, we were getting more and more excited about the idea. We bought food, did necessary repairs, and found rubber boots and warm clothes. And most important, we acquired two 120-meter floating ropes to tie to shore at Antarctic anchorage sites. Even the girls were no longer afraid. Since we were here in Tierra del Fuego, where else would we go? And it’s the 200-year anniversary of the sailing of the first successful expedition to Antarctica. Two hundred years ago, the first Russian Antarctic expedition of Fabian Gottlief von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev left St. Petersburg. And in January 1820, they discovered the lost continent of Terra-Australis-Incognita, otherwise known as Antarktida.


Antarctica beyond all expectations

We were preparing for a very serious test, thinking it would be so cold that everyone would have to sleep in felt boots under one blanket—and in the morning knock icicles off our noses. But in fact, nothing was so dramatic, except for the unrealistic beauty of Antarctica. Every time our daughter Nastya stepped out on deck, she would exclaim, “Wow! Oh dear! Wow!” The environment was so beautiful, beyond any expectations.

The first Antarctic lands, the South Shetland Islands, are about 600 miles away from Ushuaia. On our first night passing Cape Horn (again), we sailed into a squall. Gusts of 60-knot winds tossed the yacht. At night, we left only a small staysail up and tried to reach the south winds to make landfall before the next cyclone. On the sixth day of travel, the first islands appeared on our port side—black rocks and snow domes. One of them, King George Island, has a record number of polar stations, nine of them in all.

The Russian station Bellingshausen is the southernmost polar station in the world occupied year-round. The Russian polar explorers immediately took us into their fold. We drank herbal tea in the mess hall, went to dinner in the dining room, sang songs accompanied by guitar, and took readings with their meteorological instruments. The Chilean station, which includes an airport, post office, and even a school, is just over the creek from the Russians. Before the school closed, children of Chilean polar explorers, who came for two years with their families, studied here. 

The children were delighted by Antarctica. Penguins, seals, and elephant seals quietly roamed the shore. Several icebergs floated around the huge bay. Andrey was amazed—we all were. “This is some kind of dream! Could you imagine that we would come, by ourselves, to Antarctica and walk among the penguins, and build towers out of agate and colored jasper while Lada walks hand-in-hand with a veteran polar explorer? I still can’t believe that we are here in Antarctica, on our plastic Lady Mary, the ‘icebreaker.’”

After four days anchored, having waited out a storm, we moved to the Melchior Islands. This passage was the most stressful for us: The polar day was over, and we needed to be especially careful not to bump into icebergs during the night. We sailed with the radar on and we had to tie to shore for the first time, spiderwebbing ourselves between steep banks. The bays here are very narrow, and if a boat turns, it can hit the shore. The width of the narrow fjord at the seasonal Argentinian station is about 50 meters. Our eldest daughter fed the line from the yacht, the captain steered the wheel, and I took the dinghy to shore to secure the line.

There are almost no sea animals here, only snow-white birds and three houses. The closed house of the polar explorers has a sign: “If you are in distress, go through the orange door.” And behind this door there is everything from food to beds, all provided for emergency situations. We walked with the kids, threw snowballs, and slid down the mountain, which seemed very high. 

The southern continent

Paradise Bay, where we spent two nights, features bright blue waters and gets visits from cruise ships. This time it was the cruise ship Fram. Zodiac inflatables from the ship send passengers to gaze up at the huge blue glaciers and the icebergs covered with lazy seals. We glided on in our brave dinghy, and the girls were delighted with the Kingdom of the Snow Queen. But this kingdom demands alertness. 

Glaciers crack, and avalanches roar high in the mountains. You need to be ready to cut the ropes and leave the anchor in case of trouble, in case a large iceberg suddenly breaks away from the glacier. 

Captain Andrey was worried, so we kept a lookout overnight. Anastasia and I were on duty, pushing the ice floes away from the yacht. But one night, I didn’t have enough strength to dodge an iceberg the size of our yacht. Captain started the engine and pushed the heavy ice with the lines that ran to shore. 

Our ultimate task was to get to the Ukrainian station Vernadsky. It is located near the Antarctic Circle. The last stop in front of Vernadsky station is England’s Port Lockroy. Scientists had already mothballed the station for the winter, and only talkative penguins crowded the stony islands. We saw a Russian expeditionary ship, Polar Pioneer, in the bay, chartered by an Australian company.

We communicated over the VHF and were invited on board the ship. We were then escorted to the bridge and the captain’s quarters, and then the girls were treated to cake and fruit. Andrey got to descend to the very heart of the ship—the three-story engine room. 

The next morning we sailed to the beautiful Strait of Lemaire. The strait is blue with fragments of ice, where whales sigh heavily near the sheer walls. Funny penguins are like flocks of torpedoes flying above water. And curious sea lions stare from icebergs. In the middle of the strait, we passed two large ice floes. Captain Andrey climbed up the mast once, and then once more. After careful observation, he declared: “We shall not go farther. There is a big iceberg in the narrow neck of the strait. And the ice field around it consists of very large ice floes, too large for us.”

We did not reach the Ukrainian polar explorers just 12 miles away. The ice floes closed right behind the stern. On the way back, pushing small icebergs was especially hard. The ice floes bumped our sides, and we realized that it was the right decision to not go any farther.

Disheartened, we turned back to Port Lockroy and went out into the Drake Strait the next morning. We had to go through the strait before the next heavy storm. In the autumn, cyclones travel one after another and weather windows are barely long enough to cross the most dangerous strait on the planet.


Winter on Terra del Fuego

Along the harsh narrow fjords, compressed by rocks in snow caps, under the crackle of shining blue glaciers and the grumbling of sea lions, Lady Mary made her way over three weeks to the most romantic strait in the world. After restocking our supplies in the Chilean city of Punta Arenas on the last day of winter, Lady Mary emerged from the Strait of Magellan for her passage across the South Atlantic Ocean. Exactly 500 years prior, on November 1, 1520, Ferdinand Magellan’s flotilla entered this narrow strait looking for an outlet to the Pacific, the largest ocean on the planet. 

We spent the winter in Tierra del Fuego and sailed through fantastic Patagonian fiords and the Magellan Passage to South Africa and our second great cape, the Cape of Good Hope. 

Five days after leaving the Strait of Magellan, we were unable to enter the Falkland Islands due to a strong storm from Antarctica. Wind gusts up to 65 knots drove our yacht directly into the islands. So we changed the tack and flew northwest. The violent storm ended a week later. But for the whole month of our journey to the island of Tristan da Cunha, storms continued to shake us. Only in the second month did the sea calm down, and we were able to anchor off the inaccessible shore of Tristan da Cunha. The depths here are unmarked on the map, so it was impossible to land, but we were happy to just stay near the shore for three days. And then it was on to the Cape of Good Hope.

After three months of repairs and travels in South Africa, we passed the Cape of Good Hope and crossed the southern Indian Ocean. The first storm we encountered damaged several electrical systems, including the heater and starter. So for the main part of the 53-day voyage we sailed without an engine or heater, forcing us to bypass Kerguelen Island and cross the entire ocean nonstop. 

On March 18, 2020, Lady Mary docked safely at the Fremantle Sailing Club in western Australia. Because of the closed borders along the route to French Polynesia, we could not go any farther. Due to Covid restrictions, we spent one year in western Australia. 

The true path often hides

On the 1st of June, 2021, Lady Mary arrived in southern Tasmania, almost ready to sail to Sydney. We hope to reach Tahiti in November 2021. After our expedition is completed, it will become a world record as the southernmost around-the-world voyage by a family with kids. 

Almost everyone has their childhood dreams, but only a few take the first step to turn that big dream into reality. Each of us is born with a higher purpose. And very often the true path is hidden in your childhood dreams. If something inspires you very much, follow your inspiration. It took me 20 years to realize that, and I am very glad that I finally did. Any fear can be overcome, when a dream comes to you with the strength to bring it to life.


Marina Klochkova – June 2021

ROAM Contributor

The Klochkovas became the first Russian family to sail a southern route around the world! Read more about their voyage, their stops, and their latest adventures at Travely-Family.com.

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