Saturday, December 30, 2006

Christmas Dinner and Training

The extra time the chefs had requested was well worth the wait, as Christmas dinner was one of the best I’ve tasted in any restaurant. The mess room was set out in full dress, with table clothes, red and white whine glasses and place names for all diners. Bas senior staff (engineers, base commanders and doctors) acted as waiters, greeting guests and checking their adherence to the strict dress-code (shirt, tie, shoes) before they were allowed to sit down. Once seated, we were treated to a delicious five course meal with three choices for each course ample and more than ample wine. A spectacular effort.

Training on the ice

The day after our ‘Christmas’ it was straight back to work. We landed back on the sea ice and split into small groups to refresh the skills we need to live and work safely on base. Our group started with Suna, the GA, covering the setting of snow anchors and building of Z-pulleys - essential skills to rescue one’s partner should they fall into a crevasse. Sitting on the snow with the ice-shelf towering behind, the ropework we learned in Derbyshire suddenly seemed very worthwhile.

After lunch we moved onto Skidoos. These are the basic mode of transport around base and further into the field. We were learning on a brand new Alpine 3, a nippy little number powered by a two-stroke 500cc engine. Ted the mechanic drummed the importance of the kill-chord into us, then went through the start-up procedure and let us ride. And… They’re great fun! The ‘Doo is very easy to pootle about on, but will require a few weeks to ride with style as they’re quick in a straight line but corner a lot like an old Astra on a wet roundabout.

Last night the ice opened up and we made good progress, steaming another 25 miles though open water between the floes. With about 35 miles to go, we’re back in ice-breaking mode and the Shackleton once again battles a path through the floes like a demented woman in a New-Year clothes shop sale – forcing a vicious path with no obvious direction! We should get there this year…

More training pictures herePosted by Picasa

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

A Fid's Christmas in Antarctica

Many feeling a little worse for wear, the Fids gathered on the monkey island under a cloudless sky to greet our Christmas visitors. At 12:20 the bright red Twin Otter appeared on the horizon and came in low, buzzing the bow to waves and cheers from the crowd. The official purpose of the flight was to inspect the sea ice and look for leads we could navigate towards Halley. We gathered round Dean’s handheld radio and listened to the aircraft captain’s report as he circled above – the wind was still from the wrong direction and we were going nowhere fast. Coming round for the last time, the Otter passed spectacularly low before climbing and heading on to inspect a potential ‘port’ further along the coast.

Although Christmas dinner was postponed to allow the galley more time to prepare, a special treat was arranged in form of a wander on a nearby ice-floe. After the GAs* had confirmed it strong enough, we cambered awkwardly down the rope-ladder to the FRC and took a step closer to real Antarctica. The ice was either rock solid underfoot, or had a crunchy crust with dry powdery crystals beneath. Either way, it worked better for rugby than football and we played about for nearly an hour before heading back to give the others their turn. Back on the bridge for the afternoon’s weather observation, things seemed to be improving with the wind turning to a more favourable direction.

Boxing day was again, bright and still, but the wind had shifted off-shore and the ice begun to open up. The night shift had found a lead through to the fast ice (sea ice bonded to the ice shelf) and moored the Shackleton alongside. Eager for another wander, we peeled the spuds in record time, kitted up in our giant Mukluk snow boots and waited to board the Geordie man-hoist. Crewman Martin kept the brief simple – feet here, arms through here, hold tight – and held a tensioning line as Charlie craned us smoothly onto the ice. This was more like what I’d hoped for: soft, flat powder. A gentle breeze was perfect for Matt’s kite, although as a beginner I decided not to risk my first lesson so close to the sea!

Back on the ship, I bodged together a music round for Izzy’s excellent pub quiz in which our team did spectacularly badly despite conferring with others. Tomorrow is Christmas dinner.

Click here for stunning sea-ice photos.

*GA – General Assistant. Usually a mountain guide with significant glacier experience. Employed to oversee safe travel on the ice. Posted by Picasa

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Sea-ice 1 – Shackleton Nil

We are beset! At the end of a two-day battle with thick ice, the Shackleton was forced to turn back. Ironically, this is due to perfect weather conditions – clear skies and glorious sunshine when what we really need is a big storm to break the ice into navigable chunks. This is more inconvenient than trouble, and the upside is time for a proper Christmas, complete with James Bond movie and roast turkey. There is a rumour flying about that we’ll be in Cape Town to refuel over New Year, but let’s not get too excited.

Merry Christmas readers, especially family and friends. Posted by Picasa

Saturday, December 23, 2006

So close, but yet so far...

With only 60nm to go, we’re following a lead of open water between the Brunt ice shelf and broken sea-ice, aided by satellite images and a clear sky. Our progress varies between flat-out (14knts) to stuck solid, depending on conditions and luck in choosing the right channel between the floes of frozen sea. When we hit a dead-end, we can either back out or break through into the next stretch of open water. In a narrow channel breaking through is the only option, so Captain Harper reverses for 500m then approaches the blockage with the turbos howling and propeller at the most aggressive setting. As she hits the ice, the Shackleton rides up before the kink in her bow below the waterline catches the floe, pulling all her weight down to sharply crack the surface. From within the ship this sounds like an almighty crashing followed by a violent judder from side to side as the pieces separate. Once broken, we slowly edge through until we can continue on our course.

We are now back in clear water, but with one more ice section to come. Depending on how that goes, we could arrive tomorrow or Christmas Day Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Entering Sea Ice

What a difference a day makes!

As the sun set, the sea settled to a perfect state zero, with not a breath of wind or a ripple on the surface. We entered broken sea ice at about 20:00, steaming easily through it heading due south at a mighty 12 knots.

For a while, as the fog closed in, it looked as if we were about to sail off the edge of the earth.

But we didn't. So I took these photosPosted by Picasa

Monday, December 18, 2006

A Bad Day

As promissed earlier, I said I'd write up 'a bad day'. Well, it goes a little like this:

21:00 Turned into the wind to start making the approach to Halley. The barometer neared the bottom of its scale as the bow hammered into on-coming waves sending the pitch-meter from one extreme to the other.

02:00 Getting thrown arround the cabin. Everything moving and creaking. Put loose objects in draws. Doze a little

04:00 Wake to everything creaking. Tighten screws with Leatherman and put on headphones. Listen to music for an hour.

06:00 Things calm down a bit. Fall asleep.

06:45 Watch alarm goes off as I'm on gash (kitchen duties). Stumble downstairs and force down coffee.

07:30 Tamsin says I look rough, offers to cover and orders me back to bed.

07:31 Sleeping

09:00 Back downstairs for a briefing. Manage to stay awake, just.

10:00 - 12:00 More precious, precious sleep.

12:00 Do the XBT experiment on the back deck. Feeling better now and rejoin the gash-team

13:30 Well earned afternoon nap

17:30 Wake up naturaly and feel human again. Come down to find a flat sea and the Christmas decorations up.

A bad day in the office.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Storms, Ice and Horses

Sitting with cups of tea in the galley, a few of us commented that the voyage was disappointingly smooth and not what we had expected of the southern ocean. As if over-hearing, Mother Nature responded to our taunts with two days of solid force 10, bringing 8m seas and 50knot winds from our stern. The Shackleton ploughed on through without needing to alter course and only a few people felt rough. But had we been heading into or beam-to the weather, we would have really known about it.

Last night the storm eased off and we all enjoyed the annual ‘race night’ in the bar, loosing vast amounts of money to charity. I awoke this morning to what sounded like oil drums being dragged over stones. Broken sea-ice, scattered by the storm, stretched across our course. Up on the bridge, the officer of the watch guided us through the easiest channels, but we were still rattled around. Now we’ve cleared the ice and are running on both engines to make time. I’m due on deck at 12:00 to run an experiment to monitor sea temperature before setting down to a delicious smelling Sunday lunch.

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Thursday, December 14, 2006

King Edward Point, South Georgia

King Edward Point (KEP) was only one night’s steam from Bird Island, made all the quicker by an excellent cocktail night complete with bar girls, black‑tie waiters and my first stint on the wheels of steel in front of a BAS crowd.

South Georgia has its own governor and is the most southerly point in British Territory (territorial claims on Antarctica were frozen in the 1962 Antarctic Treaty). It is also the only BAS base to have been taken by force in the 1982 war with Argentina, although this was done in a bizarre gentlemanly fashion with the captain of the Argentine warship relaying communications from KEP to London for several days before attacking! The Royal Marines who defended the station and BAS scientists based there were captured and later released in Uruguay. Fascinating reading: Click for more.

A short walk from KEP is the abandoned Norwegian whaling station, Grytviken. Having seen Simon Faithfull’s excellent exhibition of stills and video, Iceblink , I was keen to roam around the decaying buildings, imagining how the industry would have worked. Sadly, this opportunity was spoiled by a needlessly heavy-handed ‘clean up’ of the station in which most of the buildings had been demolished and all artefacts removed. It may be argued this was done for safekeeping, but I believe it was more likely to prevent the South Georgia Government being sued by American cruise-ship tourists, should they trip over something interesting!

This disappointment was soon forgotten as we climbed the glacier and scree slopes of Mt Hudson to be greeted with stunning views over Cumberland Bay. On the descent we also got our last swim for a year, diving into a beautifully clear (if a little chilly) lake. Dropping down from the lake, we paid our respects at the grave of Sir Ernest Shackleton, a hero in the minds of FIDs and sailors alike.

Some really nice photos herePosted by Picasa

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Bird Island

After two days’ bouncing through the Southern Ocean, we sat off Bird Island, BAS’s smallest base. As the sea was too rough to anchor, the Captain used the Dynamic Positioning System – a complex control system which uses GPS to control the ship’s thrusters, to keep us in one place regardless of conditions. The swell also prevented using the rope ladder, so we were loaded into the FRC on deck and lowered into the sea with a sharp bump.

The journey to Bird Island was a wet one, with spray soaking our Goretex survival suits as Dewi the chief engineer expertly piloted his craft through the waves. It was shocking to think that Shackleton and his men sailed for 16 days in a boat of the same size (The James Caird) after the wrecking of Endurance.

Moored up at the jetty, we were greeted by Bird Island staff and handed large sticks. The fur seals which covered the shore were breeding and fiercely defending their territory. Unlike the docile elephant seals of Signy, these were savage beasts needing a smart whack to keep them at bay. The gauntlet run, Tamsin and I set about replacing faulty parts on the Automatic Weather Station and checking the instruments set on a thirty foot tower, where we got marooned by a grumpy male until rescued by a colleague with handy matador skills.

Once our work was completed, we joined Fabrice, a biologist, on his daily check of nesting Macaroni Penguins and Wandering Albatross. The penguins were amusing and the albatross simply huge, with at least a three metre windspan. Sitting and watching them swoop over the cliff tops, our thoughts turned to Christmas for the first time as we joked about how many minutes a 10 kilogram bird would need in the oven.

Click here for more penguin and seal action! Posted by Picasa

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Signy Island

Drake’s passage was kind to the Shackleton this year. We steamed through a steady long-period 4-6m swell, rolling gently about 12 degrees from side to side. The occasional larger wave threw her over to 20 degrees, bringing the sound of crashing of pans and profanities from the galley. The crew were grateful, last year was much heavier.

We woke early on Thursday morning to the sound of ice scraping the hull as the Captain edged us slowly through ‘growlers’ and ‘bergy bits’ to find a clear anchorage. The freight tender Tula was lowered into the water and we climbed in by rope-ladder. The run into Signy base, a couple of miles away took about half an hour, passing icebergs of incredible shapes and colours. Once on land, the base was a hive of activity with everyone working flat-out on their allocated tasks. We all got our first taste of ‘The A-Factor’ – the unexpected problems one has to face in Antarctica. These ranged from the steelies having to remove elephant seals from their work area, to Tamsin and I trying to erect a weather station in a 40knt wind! Once up and running, the station showed a temperature of +1C with a windchill factor of -20C, but the thick BAS-issue clothes kept me snug and warm.

Friday was a HND day – humping and dumping. Ten of us spent the best part of a day man-handling materials for a new hut up to a penguin colony on a westerly point of the island. After securing the dump, Mike, the biologist took us for a guided tour of the nesting Adeile and Chinstrap penguins he was studying. There were hundreds of birds spread out across the headland, all completely un-phased by our presence. It was great to see them so close up and to hear about their habits from an expert. Before long we saw Ralph approaching to collected us in the Fast Rescue Craft (FHC). We pulled on survival suits and jumped aboard, grinning like kids at Christmas as the bow rose and he powered back across the glassy bay. Fast boats are fun.

Right now we are crossing the Scotia Sea bound for Bird Island. A force 8 gale has struck up and things are starting to fly around again. Somehow, my roommate is totally oblivious to this and has now been asleep for 15 hours!

Click for photos.
 Posted by Picasa

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Arriving at Signy

Arrived at Signy Island just under an hour ago after pushing through blue and white broken sea ice. The crew are preparing the Shackleton's tender boats, the Fast Rescue Craft (FRC) and the supply tender, Tula. I'm due to go ashore after making the 09:00 met observation to install a new automatic weather station somewhere on the island. It's cold and we're all excited.

Monday, December 04, 2006

The Falklands

With the ship crammed with Fids, it was a relief to arrive in the Falklands after only 4 days steam. The Shackleton would usually dock in Port Stanley, the islands’ capitol, but this year she is fully loaded and sitting too low for the narrow natural harbour. Instead we used Mount Pleasant military base, an hour’s drive to the north by dirt road.

While the crew were unloading cargo for Bas’ sister ship, James Clark Ross, we Fids were free to explore. We took the bus into Port Stanley each day and went walking, first to Mount Tumbledown overlooking the town, the scene of one of the key battles in the liberation of the Falklands in 1982. A memorial stands at the summit, with shell holes and abandoned Argentine military hardware providing further clues to the Islands’ history.

The rugged, bleak landscape reminded me of upland Wales. As did Stanley, the World’s smallest capitol, population ~2000. To call it a one-horse town would be generous, as ATMs, credit-cards and other trappings of the 20th century were noticeably absent. However, the place was spotlessly clean and the atmosphere friendly to us strangers.

Our second walk took us to the opposite side of the natural harbour, to a Gentoo penguin colony in Gypsy Cove. Many of the Islands’ stunning white beaches are out of bounds due to landmines, but the cove was safe so we sunbathed with the inquisitive penguins walking right up to investigate us. Inspired by the birds’ grace underwater, we dived into the sea to join them. Brief as it was, we all reckon swimming with dolphins is sooo last year.

Click Here for penguins... Posted by Picasa