Sailing South to Antarctica Part I of III

In December 2017 I was afforded the opportunity to visit Antarctica as part of the crew of the SA Agulhas II. Annually, at the end of the year the Agulhas sails to the Antarctica to replenish the South African Artic base (SANAE IV) with personnel and supplies. Of course, I did not hesitate to confirm my spot to embark on this once in a lifetime opportunity. 

I arrived at Cape Town International airport and after a short ride to the V&A Waterfront was ready to set foot onboard this 134m ice breaking beauty.  I can confidently deduce that most South Africans did not know that their government owns this vessel nor operates such a capability. In fact SA was one of the original 12 founding members and signatories to the Antarctica Treaty System in 1959 and has been sending vessels there ever since. This specific vessel was commissioned in 2012 to replace the ageing Agulhas I.

I march up the gangway suitcases in hand and is stopped by a sentry at the top. I state my business and after a few phone calls I am greeted by the friendly Officer of the Day. The 2nd mate makes a few more calls and informs me that they are expecting me the next day, my cabin is not ready. No problem. I am an avid traveller and will not decline the opportunity to spend an extra night in beautiful Cape Town. Within a few minutes I have accommodation sorted and my Uber is en route.

The next morning, I report to the vessel bright and early. First impressions matter. Paperwork ensues and I am allocated my cabin which is a few feet away from the Captains. I am excited to find out I’ll be given a tour shortly. I am amazed and overawed by the ship. Officially she is classified as a polar supply and research vessel, but in reality, is so much more. Starting from the top she has several accommodation decks similar to those on a cruise ship which houses her 145 crew and passengers. In support there is a full restaurant, three bar and entertainment areas and two gyms including a sauna. It also has a full hospital with a surgery and dental practise and a massive seminar centre.

The SA Agulhas II, my ride to Antarctica

For marine and environmental research there are eight permanent and six containerised laboratories situated on the aft lower decks of the vessel. There is a side sliding door as well as a moon pool (a hole in the centre of the ship that opens into the ocean) to launch probes and unmanned underwater vehicles and a drop keel housing transducers which measures ocean currents and sea densities. Probes can be towed from an A frame on the stern of the vessel.

In the forward section of the vessel there are several cargo holds with a capacity of about 4000m³ for freight and equipment required to replenish the SANAE base. It also holds the vehicles and fuel required to transport the supplies from the vessel across the ice to the base. To handle all the cargo, it has a 35 ton heavy lift crane and three 10 ton general purpose cranes. In addition, there is a helicopter hangar at the rear that can house two large military helicopters. We carried a smaller civilian one on our trip. The helicopter is used to ferry passengers and transport cargo to more remote locations.

Cargo operations during our visit

You can understand why I am so overawed by all of it. I was not expecting all of this, but in hindsight one can understand that such an enormous operation requires a dedicated platform. The personnel and operations at SANAE IV are 100% dependent on this annual replenishment voyage and there is no margin for errors.

Departing Cape Town

After several days of painstaking cargo operations, we managed to get all the equipment, fuel and stores required for SANAE IV onboard. It was the most diverse operation I’ve ever been part of. Heavy duty Caterpillar vehicles, light vehicles, fuel oil for the ship, hundreds of drums of JET A2 fuel for helicopter flights, large containers, small containers, research submarines, researchers, all kinds and shapes of scientific equipment, passengers and a helicopter were all part of the ships manifest. But eventually it was done and we could shift our focus to sailing South.

Following a few days of delays, not unheard of when governments are involved, we let loose our ropes, blasted our ships horn for the well wishers on the quay and left Cape Town harbour. We passed Robben island, Signal hill, around Sea point and made our course 180°. Very soon Table Mountain and Cape point faded behind us and we were all excited to finally be underway.

The route Cape Town, Buvet, Antarctica, Thule & South Georgia

Sailing at about 15 knots the distance of 4500km to Antarctica took roughly 10 days to complete. The journey there was not uneventful. Before you reach the 60° South latitude which serves as the official northern border of Antarctica you have to cross the roaring forties and the furious fifties. Appropriately named by sailors of past for the pounding their ships took over the years when crossing them.

These latitudes are characterised by gale force winds and heavy seas which results from warm air moving from the equator to the poles. This is mother earths attempt to rectify the vast temperature difference between the two locations. We were fortunate, I can only recall one comical evening when the seas got severely rough. Comical as the Captain and I was chasing, but mostly dodging, furniture flying rhythmically to the motion of the ocean from the one side to the other of the bridge. It was like a scene from a badly produced comedy movie.

The SA Agulhas II; image courtesy of SAWS SEAmester IV team (from another voyage)

Eventually the ocean settles and soon the first signs off ice appear. Grease ice ahead! It appears as a thick clear oily sludge floating on the water. I can imagine it is an effect like that of a lake starting to freeze over. This is followed by the appearance of small rounded pieces of glacier ice called growlers and then the larger bergy bit pieces. Hereon we navigate with extreme caution, but we are getting closer and everyone is excited.

Bouvet Island

Our first stop en route is Bouvet island. It is a relatively small Norwegian “owned” island which due to its location holds significant research value. It remains unmanned during the year but for a few weeks over December and January. Our objective was to land six scientists and their equipment via helicopter and then uplift them on our return. We arrived with gloomy grey skies overhead and it was clear that flying conditions will be difficult. We persist and after a few days and a couple of attempts we successfully land the team. It becomes obvious that every operation in Antarctica will demand significantly more effort and patience than the norm.

Bouvet Island, with bergy bits floating in the water
We used a helicopter to recover personnel from Buvet island

A course is set South again and soon we’ll be arriving at the shelf to commence our replenishment operation. Signs that we are nearing the Artic are more evident as ice becomes more prominent and eventually the bergy bits turn into icebergs. These splendours of nature need to be seen to be fully appreciated. The massive table topped blocks of pure white ice float graciously undeterred by the ocean or weather around them. Where edges are broken off the most beautiful spectrums of blue are exposed allowing one to determine the age of the ice. The darker the blue, the older the iceberg.  Next to the beloved Namib desert from my home country this is the most beautiful gift from nature I have ever observed.

A massive Iceberg, the darker the blue, the older the berg

As we get closer to the shelf the vast blue ocean vanishes and only slithers of its presence remain. The ice becomes thicker and we now need to hunt for a lead that will allow us safe passage through. Leads are large fractures within the sea ice that can be used for safe navigation but be wary as taking the wrong one can get you stuck. There is no turning around. I am not sure how this was achieved in the olden days, but modern technology allows us to launch a drone and voila full steam ahead. Or so we thought. We are stuck.

Breaking ice
Stuck in the ice

This is a chilling situation. There is no one nearby to come to our aid. All you can do is keep the engines running and props turning to prevent them from freezing over. Then you continuously order the ship ahead and astern, until something gives, hopefully not the ship. Nothing gave for more than a day, but eventually the sun melted the ice just enough for us to create a crack and power through. What a relief.

White all around
More white

And then finally, without warning the Antarctica ice shelf appeared on the horizon. We called it the wall as it is so reminiscent of the one in the Game of Thrones tv series. Again, you have to see it to fully grasp it presence.  We were all excited, crew and passengers line the sides of the ship to witness our arrival and of course get the best IG moments J We were just relieved that we safely navigated the southern seas, avoided any Titanic moments and could now complete our objective of replenishing the SANAE IV base. 

Antarctica ice shelf, aka The Wall
The ice shelf, where we conducted our operations

❤️Nick fr Namibia


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