Tall Ship Bark Europa Sails 10,000 Miles From the End of the World During COVID-19

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the historical tall ship Bark Europa found itself stuck in Ushuaia, Argentina at the end of March. Ushuaia, a quaint city at the southernmost tip of Tierra del Fuego in Argentina, proudly describes itself as "the end of the world, the beginning of everything."

Ushuaia is normally the starting point for the Bark Europa to go over the end of the world and on to Antarctica—as it is for other vessels that take travelers south to explore the majestic wilderness of the Great White Continent. Normal, however, is a rather vague concept since the outbreak of the global COVID-19 pandemic. And thus, due to safety measures, the crew of the square-rigged three-master found itself locked in at the port of Ushuaia.

Bark Europa Antarctica Sail
Bark Europa peeks out from a glacier on an Antarctica expedition. Frits Meyst / WideOyster.com

Since there was no way on how to know when this world crisis would be finished, Dutch Captain Eric Kesteloo and his international sailing crew of 11 women and 8 men refused to sit and wait, and so they decided to sail back to Bark Europa's home harbor in Scheveningen, the Netherlands.

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A journey of more than 10,000 miles over the ocean, without any stopovers, powered by nothing more than Europa's 24 sails. A direct journey from Ushuaia to the Netherlands, without stopping at any port for fresh provisions has not been done since the introduction of the machine steam engines in the beginning of the 19th century.

Ship's log, 26th of March 2020
"Extraordinary situations demand extraordinary measures and sacrifices. We are leaving. We are sailing back to the Netherlands. The Europa embarks on what will be its most unique journey. From Ushuaia, we will cross the Southern Ocean, temperatures will rise until we reach the tropics and we will continue north until we reach Europe." —Maria Intxaustegi (30), crew, Spain.

Bark Europa sails during Covid-19
Bark Europa prepares for a 10,000-mile journey home to the Netherlands during the COVID-19 pandemic. Courtesy of Bark Europa

Since the year 2000, the Bark Europa has been crossing oceans and seas on a regular basis and has the reputation of being a ship that really sails. Their voyages bring them to remote islands and cities all over the world. It gives travelers the possibility to step on board halfway through a long ocean crossing.

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Bark Europa, built in 1911, follows the favorable winds of traditional sailing routes. This has brought her to all continents, sailing the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, thus earning her nickname Ocean Wanderer. From December to March in the Southern Hemisphere summer Europa conducts expeditions to the Antarctic Peninsula, with Ushuaia in Argentina as their starting harbor. In this remote harbor town at the end of the world, the Europa finds itself stuck due to a pandemic that is holding the world in its grip for who knows how long.

I have been sailing the Seven Seas on historical tall ships on a regular basis as a working reporter for sailing magazines around the globe. It's hard work. Decisions about the sail configuration and course must be continuously taken, maintenance projects are a never-ending cycle. Sails must be set and trimmed, or taken down and furled, yards need to be braced, ropes must be pulled or tied. The rig has to be checked and replacements must be continuously put aloft.

Bark Europa crew at work at night
Bark Europa crew at work at night Jordi Plana Morales

Also, there are projects like seizing blocks, the making of grommets, gaskets and greasing masts. There are also countless maintenance undertakings. Door frames to scrape, wooden panels and bunks to sand, rust busting, grinding, chipping and you can forget about long nights in your bunk as four-hour shifts are the norm. Imagine sleeping just four hours for weeks at an end. It's tough, even for seasoned sailors like Kesteloo's crew.

A while back, I sailed with the Bark Europa from Ushuaia over the Drake Passage, considered to be one of the world's most dangerous bodies of water, to Antarctica, as did photographer Frits Meyst. This is an excerpt of the story I wrote on that already-epic journey:

"The ship moans as wave after wave hits the deck. The wind is raging through the rigging at 60 knots and I clutch to the helm. 60 knots, or an 11 on the scale of Beaufort. It's what Beaufort calls a Violent Storm. In the Drake Passage, however, this is called nice sailing weather. I am holding the wooden helm of the Europa, a tall ship with three masts and a whopping 24 sails. Today only a few sails are set, but we are still cutting across the raging ocean at a top speed of 11 knots."

Bark Europa Tall Ship
The Bark Europa sails on the high seas during COVID-19. Jordi Plana Morales

I have seen the foamy anger that can rage on the oceans. With winds whipping up waves and turning them into walls of water. Neptune is a whimsical god. A sea, flat as a mirror, glistering in gold and silver hues, can turn into churning black watery mountains in minutes. The journey that Kesteloo and his crew are undertaking is not a bob in the lake in the park. Moreso, it might never have been done before.

Ship's log, 26th of March 2020
"500 years ago, the sailors of the Modern Age traveled with carrying winds, always maneuvering under sail, looking for the breezes that could take them back home and so will we. Sailing, without motor and without stopovers, because nowadays there is no open port that allows us to enter." —Maria Intxaustegi

A Continuous Game of Arm-Wrestling With Neptune

That's why this nonstop sailing saga of over 10,000 miles is unique. Normally, sailing ships that undertake the journey from Europe to the tip of Argentina stop in harbors along the way for repairs, rest and replenishing. The Europa and its crew do not have that luxury.

It will be a nonstop give-and-take, a continuous game of arm-wrestling with Neptune. The sailors are experienced. They are backed by excellent equipment. But still, danger will sail along.

And still, knowing well what would and could lie ahead, they decide to sail.

Bark Europa Antarctica Expedition Crew at Work
Bark Europa Antarctica expedition crew works the ropes. Frits Meyst / WideOyster.com

Europa shrugs and sets sail

Ship's log, 27th of March 2020
"Today Europa shrugs and sets sail. A pandemic viral infection is writing an unexpected chapter in our history. Now, with towns, cities and countries locked down, being able to enjoy the ample ocean seems to be a privilege. The illusion of freedom given by a long sail along the wide Atlantic Ocean, which our group of enthusiastic crew members is about to endure, enjoy, and sure...suffer.

If we achieve a constant speed of 5 knots, we calculate that we will arrive in about two and a half months. We have food, we have diesel for the auxiliary generators and the best of the crews. We do not know how the situation will be in the Netherlands when we will arrive or what will happen in the world during the next 70 days. As seafarers that we are, accustomed to suffering the whims of the god Neptune, we hope for the best but we prepare for the worst. We will succeed. May the winds be favorable to us." —Maria Intxaustegi and Jordi Plana (47), crew, Spain.

Tall ship Bark Europa sails to Antarctica
Ushuaia is normally the starting point for the Bark Europa to go over the end of the world and on to Antarctica—as it is for other vessels that take travelers south to explore the majestic wilderness of the Great White Continent. Frits Meyst / WideOyster.com

The Unknown Southern Land

Europe, the continent, was the known world and everything that was situated beneath was Terra Australis Incognita, the Unknown Southern Land. The Southern Land was mysterious and prohibited; the ground of the mystic man-eating Andophagi and the Monoculi, a weird, one-eyed race that, despite the possession of only one leg, was extremely fast. That leg doubled in bad weather as an umbrella, by the way, according to the myth.

Nowadays, these myths have been debunked. Maps have been made; satellites look down upon us. Soon, mankind will be able to watch Netflix even in the middle of the ocean. The crew of the Europa was witness to a storm of satellites, clearing the way to this inevitable connected future.

Captain's log, 29th of March 2020

"We saw a satellite pass overhead, then another one and another one. Then a train of four satellites and they kept coming, all following a single path. We must have witnessed Mr. Elon Musk's Starlink satellites. Sixty satellites passing single file overhead is an impressive sight, but it also spoils the beautiful starry sky. Let alone 12000 of them.

I can't say I'm looking forward to the possibility of being able to watch Netflix in the middle of the ocean. It clashes with our motto of being more connected without the internet. On the plus side, it won't hurt to provide easy access to communication and knowledge, in areas in the world where that is now difficult or non-existent. Only 8230 nautical miles to go now, 9471 miles, 15242 kilometers." —Captain Eric Kesteloo (57), The Netherlands.

Bark Europa Captain's Command Bridge
Bark Europa captain's command bridge looks out onto rough seas. Courtesy of Bark Europa

Ship's log, 24th of April 2020
"Stillness and calm. Almost for the whole week we are stuck at 21° latitude. We impatiently wait for the wind to pick up so we can get going again.

Half a day later we are on our way. I am on helming duty taking over the wheel from Nat. The night is warm, skies clear, the wind blows decently at about 15 knots, and we are reaching about 5 knots of speed. Nice and easy sailing. Then within a span of 15 minutes the wind picks up to 20 to 25 knots and our speed increases to 9 knots. The ocean is an unpredictable beast." —Richard Simko

Unpredictable, she is, Neptune's playground, with her dark deep waters and the winds that lash them up. But sometimes sailing is also just plain dull. As the Bark Europa approaches the Intertropical Convergence Zone, known by sailors as the doldrums or the calms because of its monotonous, windless weather.

Ship's log, May 15th 2020
"Relying only on the power of the winds for our progress, many days are already at our backs, but many more to come with the broad untamed sea and the unlimited horizon as our only landscape, under sunny days and incredibly starry sky, or braving countless squalls and pouring rains. Some squall clouds in the Doldrums are spectacular.

A wide stream of rain shower is forming what resembles a trunk of a huge tree with a thick layer of clouds on top of it branching out in all directions into the final shape. Usually, the squall comes with a notable change of wind speed and direction but our Doldrum squalls often come with the rain only, while the wind remains rather calm." —Jordi Plana

Bark Europa sails on calmer seas
Bark Europa sails on calmer seas. Frits Meyst / WideOyster.com

At the moment the Europa is sailing in the middle of the Atlantic, at the height of the Strait of Gibraltar. The trade winds are on her side and in her sails. But still a long way to go.

Communications are possible, but slow. Once in a while new ship logs are also published on the Facebook page of the ship. What will the crew encounter in the upcoming 40 days or more? Heavy storms? Waves as high as mountains? Or no wind at all? Time will tell. May Neptune be merciful, and may the odds be forever in favor of the Bark Europa and its heroic crew.

Follow the 'Europa'

You can follow where the ship is at right at this moment; go to Follow the ship.

If you want to read updates and new ship logs follow Bark Europa on Facebook.

The Bark Europa Crew
The Bark Europa crew hails from all over the world. Courtesy of Bark Europa

The Heroic 19

The 18 crew members under the command of Captain Kesteloo, come from very different countries. Ten of them have European nationality, two Canadians and an American crew member. These are all the heroes that face taking the old lady Europa, crossing the Atlantic from south to north without stopovers and sailing.

More information

If you'd like more information about the Bark Europa and the voyages it normally undertakes, check out its website: BarkEuropa.com.

Read more of what it's like sailing to the South Pole on WideOyster and watch video of Bark Europa's Antarctica expedition, courtesy of Proper Films.

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Marco Barneveld is an explorer at heart. When he's not being a superdad or sailing through Arctic waters, he writes regularly for the Dutch edition of National Geographic Traveler and is the founder and editor-in-chief of WideOyster magazine.

Tall Ship Bark Europa Sails 10,000 Miles From the End of the World During COVID-19 | Culture