Storms Pound the Southern Ocean, SD 1020 Soldiers On

60+ knot gusts and massive breaking waves? That’s just a typical day in the Southern Ocean.

Storms have pummeled the Saildrone fleet in the Southern Ocean since leaving the dock in New Zealand in late January. The first storm rolled through just 24 hours after launch with winds gusting over 50 knots and massive breaking waves. While part of the fleet has suffered some storm damage and has returned to New Zealand for repairs, SD 1020, is soldiering on—surfing giant waves and achieving new speed records.

saildrone selfie southern ocean
A "saildrone selfie" taken in the Southern Ocean with SD 1020's onboard camera during a recent storm.

Saildrones typically sail at two to three knots; previous speed records were around eight knots (nine miles per hour). The most recent storm—the source of the images in this article—brought winds over 60 knots (69 mph). SD 1020 set a saildrone speed record of 14.86 knots (17.1 mph)!

Saildrone speed record graph
Graphs showing real-time conditions in the Southern Ocean, as generated by SD 1020's onboard sensors.

Waves are most commonly caused by the friction between the wind and the surface of the water; so, the higher the wind speed, the larger the waves. It is evident from images sent from SD 1020 that it’s also facing exceptionally large waves.

“The performance of SD 1020 has exceeded all of our expectations, battling the most extreme environments on the planet and breaking speed record after speed record, all while collecting critical scientific data about this remote environment,” said Saildrone founder Richard Jenkins.

This is the second time a saildrone has faced the Southern Ocean. SD 1003 launched from Hobart, Tasmania, in March 2018 as part of Saildrone’s extreme testing program. SD 1003 was in the vicinity of the Campbell Buoy when MetService New Zealand recorded the highest wave ever in the Southern Ocean—23.4 meters (76.8 feet).

A look at a Southern Ocean storm with 69-knot (80 mph) winds and 20-meter (65-foot) swells from the HMNZS Otago.

The saildrones have faced multiple storms in the Southern Ocean since the launch in January and will likely face many more during this 270-day mission.

The 2019 Saildrone Antarctic Circumnavigation is the first autonomous circumnavigation of the Southern Ocean. The goal of the mission, sponsored by the Li Ka Shing Foundation, is to provide students with an unprecedented opportunity to learn about distant marine environments. Saildrone has partnered with scientists around the globe to study the Southern Ocean’s diverse ecosystem on a variety of topics from carbon uptake to marine mammals.

Read science-focused blog posts at or download STEM-oriented lesson plans free for teachers at


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