Our arrival at the shelf is met with great excitement from both crew and passengers. We managed to cross the southern Atlantic and safely navigate the leads to bring us to the calm waters of the Antarctic. The tall pure white wall of ice dominates the scenery. It truly is magnificent. Antarctica just keeps giving. In some areas it is as high as 60 meters and it is the shelf that provides us access to the SANAE IV base. We will discharge all the equipment and supplies onto it and from there it will be transported overland by heavy vehicles and sleds to the base.
The excitement dissipates as the realisation settles in that the job is not even halfway done. From here our priority is to liaison with the team on land. They travelled to the edge of the shelf a few days earlier to identify a safe and sturdy area that would allow us to carry out the operation. We make radio contact and they direct us to their chosen location. It is a quick steam there and the Captain proceeds to inspect the location. A thorough inspection later and he is convinced of the location’s suitability.
Writing this blog it seems as if events proceed seamlessly from one to the next with little or no time in between. This is not the case. Every movement is done with enormous effort and time. It is as if we are uninvited guests here and mother nature is doing all she can to move us on as quickly as possible. Therefore, we tread cautiously, and each decision is checked and rechecked before proceeding. Even minor mistakes out here can lead to disaster.
Now that we’ve established communications and identified our work location the actual operation needs to commence. The first phase involves getting the vessel into position and keeping her there. This is done by positioning her perpendicular to the shelf and then slowly pushing nose first into it. To remain in position, we always maintain a small amount of forward thrust . No fancy anchorage or attachments required.
Once in position we first discharge the three heavy duty Caterpillar vehicles and their sled trains. This critical operation involves some serious heavy lifting done from an unstable platform onto an ice shelf. Various forces are involved, and each should be noted and compensated for. Also bear in mind that the crew is working outside in temperatures as low as -40°C. The team is super experienced, and I am not surprised that all goes exactly to plan without any incidents.
Once on the shelf, sleds are towed to the edge and loaded one by one with their respective cargo. This repeats itself until all sleds are loaded. The trains are formed up and hooked onto the vehicles. From here they depart to complete the long and tedious return trip to SANAE IV and back.
At this time, we depart the shelf and search for a suitable position to wait for the return of the vehicle train. The chosen location needs to shield us from overnight ice formation and the larger pieces of floating ice. Potentially one of the larger pieces might damage our steering gear or worse pierce the hull. Most of the time is spent rearranging cargo and preparing for the next round of operations. Other days are used to test and maintain equipment a job that never ends for those that work at sea.
On one of those days it was decided that we will test the man overboard system used to recover persons from the side door. It required two volunteers to jump into the freezing Antarctic waters, conduct some drills and then be hoisted back onto the vessel. I do not hesitate to put my hand up and volunteer. When will I ever have another opportunity to take a swim in Antarctica?
I proceed to don the specialist dry suit with boots, gloves and helmet. Safety first. Once everything is set-up we get the go ahead from the Captain and I take the first plunge. The suit does not cover you face, so its quite refreshing 🙂 when your face hits the water. It does not force the air out of your lungs, but you are fully aware that the suit is your only line of defence against instant hypothermia. I shuffle around in the water as the suit makes any conventional form of swimming impossible. Yes, I did scour the internet the previous night for evidence of creatures that inhabit these icy cold waters. And now these images keep popping into my head. I keep calm and carry on.
We conduct a few drills. In and out of the water and after a while even the suit cannot prevent your core temperature from dropping. It is obvious that even with this suit you will not last very long in these waters. My colleague joins me and we conduct a few more drills. Eventually, the Captain is happy and we are called out of the water. I am grateful to be back on the ship and the crew needs to help me to get undressed. I allow my body to warm naturally and then hit a piping hot shower.
On another day a select number of crew members are told to meet at the Officers wardroom (bar and entertainment area). Scrutinising the list, we can foresee what is about to happen. It comprises of everyone that is on their first SANAE voyage and therefore crossed into the Antarctic circle for the first time. Tradition requires that we pay homage to the Emperor Penguin whose domain we now betrodden and present ourselves in the court of king Neptune to argue that we are worthy. In laymen’s terms it is a good old hazing, but maritime tradition has developed over centuries and who am I to offend the king of the oceans. On a more serious note, participation is completely voluntary, you can elect out at anytime and the ships doctor is always on standby.
Our suspicions are confirmed when we arrive at the officer’s wardroom. King Neptune’s guards rough us up a bit and his second in charge reads our charges. We are to assemble on the helicopter deck tomorrow morning, face our charges and pay the penalty.
The morning arrives with much excitement. I choose to face the court in shorts, socks, gloves and a tie. I do not want to offend the king. Once on the helideck the guards take over and lite manhandling begins. Roll call is taken and the ship is searched for those that did not present themselves voluntarily. They will face extra charges. We are all forced faced down on the deck and “washed” with fresh ice and sea water.
One by one our charges are read, found guilty and sentenced. The sentence is served immediately by being dipped for a number of times in a large container filled with sea water. The more severe your charges, the later you are called and the longer you remain face down on the deck. I am towards the end and get up quickly as my name is read. A string of charges, but the main one is for serving as an Officer in a navy that never sailed. How astute 🙂 I get dipped several times in freezing cold Antarctic sea water. I am presented to the king and queen. I kneel in front of the royals and beg forgiveness. I am found worthy and can join the Order of the Red Nose.
So, the days pass one by one. A monotonous routine develops. Move to the shelf, unload and load cargo, move away from the shelf. Maintenance of equipment. Until one sunny day, all days are sunny as the sun only sets for a few minutes this time of the year, the Captain announces that we will have a day off. It’s not only a day off, we will get to spend time on the ice exploring Antarctica.
To do this we steam to an area where the ice shelf is significantly lower. We parallel park the ship, as you would a car, against the ice and use thrust to keep us in position. Once the Captain is happy, we open the side door and lower the gangway directly onto the ice. Voila!
We all head in different directions happy to have some land beneath our feet. My first observation is that the animals here have no fear of humans. Penguins a quarter your size will present a challenge should you decide to enter their territory. The same goes for the sea lions we encounter. They simply stare with a smile on their face not bothered in the least by our presence. I deduce that man’s destructive nature is not known in this isolated part of the world and therefore no fear exists? Or possibly these animals have no natural predators out here and therefore no reason to flee?
The highlight of the day is a soccer match in the late afternoon. One would not imagine it possible to play in heavy ice gear and boots, but where there is a will there is a way. Halfway through the match a waddle of penguins decide that they had had enough of these alien human intruders. They launch an attack. I guess it took them the entire day to amass the courage or maybe the numbers. We are all amazed by what we are seeing. Fearlessly, the penguins are attempting to push us off the area of ice we are playing on.
They are persistent and a young scientist from UCT breaks the line and runs. Big mistake, we are all in stitches as a pint-sized penguin chases her all over the ice. You would be amazed how fast they can shuffle on their two short legs. In the end her superior speed allows her to evade the penguin long enough and it ceases the chase. The rest of the waddle realise that their attempts are futile and choose to abandon the attack. We are all safe including the penguins and continue the game. The sounding of the ships horn is our signal to return to the vessel. It was a great day out on the ice and refreshed by the rest we proceed back, ready for the concluding phase of the trip.
We complete our operations at SANAE IV and set sail for Thule island. This break from the monotonous cargo work is welcomed, but also means we are getting closer to sailing home 🙂