I’ve recently joined the Cable Vessel Maersk Recorder and we are currently carrying out cable repairs in the North Sea at the Egmond wind farm just off of Ijmuiden, Holland 52° 33.0’N 004° 27.9’E. The North Sea this time of year is notorious for being pretty horrific and the prospect of being here in the winter fills most sailors with dread. This year is generally no different, there have been numerous news reports from all over the world saying just how awful the weather has been; Tidal surges in the UK, polar vortex’ in the Atlantic, ships damaged in horrific storms and I must say we’ve been very lucky with weather so far this trip.
One news report in particular really caught my eye, harrowing yet comical at the same time; the research vessel Akademik Shokalsiy becoming stuck fast in Antarctica with several scientists and crew onboard and the Chinese ice breaker Xue Long coming to rescue it and also getting stuck was for a time, a rather funny story but it made me think back to my time ‘down South’ and one of the scarier moments of being so far away from home.
I often fondly recall my time in Antarctica and our trips deep within the pack ice, one particular trip is still my favourite; the time we re-supplied Halley VI. Beginning in the Falkland Islands, loading all manner of things; copious amounts of beer and toilet roll, food, tractors and sno-cats! Only a small number of people remain in the bases over the astral winter as the conditions are too fierce to conduct science work safely, so it was our job to ensure they had enough resources to live on for the coming months when they are on their own.
After setting off from Stanley we sailed straight into horrendous seas and poor visibility, I was fairly new to the ship at this time and everything was exciting and interesting to me. We sailed past South Georgia and around the South Sandwich Islands getting further and further south. Then we started encountering ice, small growlers floated past seemingly harmless and almost dainty (one could easily sink us), huge icebergs could be seen off in the distance like huge white mountains sleeping on the surface of the sea.
As we approached the pack Ice Bergy Bits would often creep upon us hidden in amongst brash and larger growlers, like sentries sent from the mountainous bergs as a warning not to get too close! We pressed on and on, crossing the Antarctic circle, passing king penguins, Adelie penguins and of course the infamous emperor penguins all minding their own business lounging about on the ice. The initial entering of the pack is easy, just gliding full power through first year ice, roughly a metre thick, certainly no match for the reinforced ice knife bow but as we edged closer to our destination the ice got thicker and thicker, harder and harder to break, until, well… We too got stuck, not quite on the grand scale of the Akademik Shokalsiy or the Xue Long but certainly enough to make me sympathise deeply with their situation.
We spent what felt like days trying to get off that floe, using all available power to try and move us off but we had no luck, we were stuck fast! The pack is always moving and the danger was that if we didn’t get off quickly enough the ice could close in around us and leave us nowhere to manoeuvre and become truly beset. We put on the ships ice healing system which is a dedicated pair of tanks that are used to move water extremely quickly from one side of the ship to the other causing the vessel to roll and hopefully eek our way off of the floe. After about 9 hours we eventually broke free and there was a huge sigh of relief from everyone onboard, later that night in the bar we talked of how much worse that situation could have become.
We proceeded to make our way through the pack ice and got to the vicinity of Halley VI, calm seas, ice free water, seemly perfect conditions to make fast alongside the ice shelf, but that’s another story in itself.