antarctic report 8 – bashing sea ice



This is the eighth in our series of reports from David Goulden working for The British Antarctic Survey. In this report Dave gives us an account of his departure from Antarctica aboard the Ernest Shackleton.

The Ernest Shackleton (ES) arrived approximately a week earlier than scheduled and surprised us all. It seems that they had finished their science and thought that they would make their way to our section of the Brunt Ice Shelf.

Arriving early meant there was yet more pressure on us to shut the base down and leave for the winter. We started working on a “job and knock” basis where finishing our tasks meant we could actually go home! As part of the building tech services team it meant that the rest of base was waiting on us for the last two scheduled days of the season. The Base commander asked us every hour or so when we would be finished.

We had a quite a few helpers that weekend and we completed the programme of works by 1630hrs on Saturday afternoon fully expected to leave the base that evening. The James Clarke Ross (JCR) was moored up next to the ES down at the creek and ready and waiting to take her passengers on board, however the storm that had been threatening to come in did and, before we knew it, both ships had slipped there lines and pulled off to deep water to ride the storm out.

We became effectively base bound for the next 3 days waiting for the wind to drop. We fnally got the nod on Tuesday night that the construction teams would be leaving and we would depart the following day.

Our trip down to the coast took 40 minutes in terrible conditions, snow storms and very poor visibility which served as a reminder of why the continent empties of research staff at this time of year.

As we pulled up at the creek we were greeted by the ES and JCR. The JCR had stayed behind to offer wind cover for the ES as she loaded – the JCR had rammed herself into the ice 100 metres beyond the bows of the ES and at 90 degrees to her effectively shielding her from the weather.

We boarded quickly and the lines were cast off by the four solitary Winterers who stood at the edge of the sea ice with a skidoo. They waved as we reversed off and steamed north at 15kns into open water and, through the mist, we watched the continent fade into the sea and sky.

It was evening before we came across solid ice. We had been “bashing” small lumps of ice all afternoon but now there was solid islands of ice blocking our path. The ship did little to avoid such floes, the officer on watch made a visual assessment of the age of the ice. If it was less than 1 year old then no action was taken. If it was deemed several years old then the ship sped up and used its 4inch thick bow to crack through the ice floes.

As night approached the ship slowed slightly and spot lights were used to illuminate the floes through thick falling snow. The Captain took up residence in the crows nest with a set of binoculars and directed the officer on watch.

During the next two days the ship hit the floes with such impact that it we were almost thrown off our feet and a couple of times it stopped us dead. The sound as the floe passed the hull seemed like someone trying to open the hull with a can opener! During one of my visits to the bridge I heard the Captain order full speed on both engines and watched in trepidation and no little fear as we closed the gap on a large floe. The impact had the officers swearing and me trying to step backwards in an attempt to avoid the blow. My confidence wavered when I noticed the deck officer who appeared too young to shave!

We encountered much wildlife in these few days in the ice floes; seal, penguins (scurrying from bergs as we bore down on them), various birds and minke whales.

At night we lay in our cabins with the porthole open watching the floes glide by and the ship shuddered as it met resistance. After drifting off to sleep we would wake in the small hours and look out over a vast tumultuous sheet of ice. Unfortunately it wasn’t long before we came across open ocean, surprised at what good time we had made.

The ES is shaped like a spoon under the water and has no discernible relative draft. This means she is particularly unstable in anything more than ice floes and pitches and rolls like a bar of soap in a bath.

The weather was OK for the first few days with the Wedell Sea staying relatively calm as we crossed protected by the Antarctic peninsular for most of it. The sea has a gyratory current that traps bergs and spins them around. It is also pretty deep with the abyssal plain being over 4000m deep.

During the afternoons the ship practices sea trails and tests it’s dynamic position system which effectively holds the ship above a certain point over the sea bed using a complex array of thrusters and satellite navigation. When the ES is not in the Southern Ocean she spends her days in the North Sea as an oil support vessel running ROVs etc.

As we neared Signy, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands the sea became more shallow and less sheltered. We started picking up some weather that made the trip a little more unpleasant: Two days of force eight gales that trapped most of the team in bunks with even the hardiest of us mooching around nursing our stomachs and sleeping. The most comfortable place I could find turned out to be the running machine – holding on with one had at all times as I mnemonically trudged through km after km. I tried the rowing machine but this made me decidedly unwell; so much so that I had to stop.

We then had a few days of calmer water as we reach the ocean convergence zones where the Antarctic meets the Southern Ocean and the sea temperature rises creating sea mist. This is prime whaling territory and is ringed by an arc of islands with historic whaling stations.

We are making good time to Stanley and may arrive early – this will do us little good as our birth is not booked until the 19th and currently Stanley is very busy with oil rig support vessels and (hopefully) the odd destroyer.

A number of us are hoping to compete in the FI marathon which is deemed to be the toughest on the circuit. I have never run a marathon before and somehow doubt 12 weeks of running in snow followed by two weeks at sea will improve my chances but it will be good fun trying!

The wind has increased again to over 40knts as we head towards the Falklands shelf. The sea is staring to build and we have two or three wandering albatrosses gliding in our wake and alongside.

– David Goulden, Aboard the Ernest Shackleton, The Southern Ocean, Antarctica

31/01 Antarctic Report 7 – baffin boots and polished copper pipes
12/01 Antarctic Report 6 – deadmen timbers and russian catering
30/12 Antarctic Report 5 – prime movers, melt tank and cricket
22/12 Antarctic Report 4 – quiet week at 75 degrees south
15/12 Antarctic Report 3 – Mech boys, adventuring and the flow
08/12 Antarctic Report 2 – Penguins, balloons, stuffing and apple sauce
06/12 Antarctic Report 1 – Nunatacs, Blue Ice and 4 beers on Saturday night

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s