Mayday in Antarctica
A heritage team’s routine trip to Antarctica for some maintenance on the historic Mawson’s Hut became a matter of survival when the ice turned rogue. John and Barbara Tucker tell the story in words and pictures.
Our voyage to Antarctica – in December 2013 – was aboard the 72m ex-Soviet spyship, the Akademik Shokalskiy. Although not a true spoon-bowed icebreaker, Shokalskiy is ice-strengthened and has spent many years in high latitudes.
For this voyage she was chartered by a scientific party from a Sydney university. In addition to her 22 Russian crew members, she carried six staff and 46 passengers, 22 science academics and our heritage team (Barbara Tucker, Ian Godfrey and me). The balance was made up by science-minded paying passengers who were there to fund the $500,000 shortfall in the $2 million budget.
Our destination was Cape Denison. With 284 days of Force 9 winds or stronger – regularly exceeding 100 knots – it’s statistically the windiest location on the planet.
I had visited here in 2005 as part of a heritage team working on Mawson’s Hut. But in 2010 an environmental catastrophe blocked any sea access. A massive iceberg, 140km long, broke away from the Ross Sea ice shelf (1,500km to the east) as a result of global warming. It slowly drifted west, bulldozing off the 60km tongue of the Mertz glacier, before breaking in half and running aground near Cape Denison.
This beast, named B09B, effectively became a dam, collecting several hundred square kilometres of pack ice, as well as a metre-thick layer of refrozen fresh meltwater. By 2013 there was a permanent barrier of fast ice 70km from the coast.
Our instructions were to use two of Shokalskiy’s Argo vehicles (amphibious, eight-wheeled beach-buggies) to drive across the sea ice on an unprecedented 140km round-trip.
All was well while the ship was stationed at the ice-edge to the west of the grounded megaberg, in its lee. All significant wind in this area is from the southeast quadrant, and the polar countercurrent also flows from the east. Our over-ice expedition was successful and we were lucky to miss any violent katabatic
But things became unstuck after the university expedition-leaders suddenly announced their intention to
move Shokalskiy to the east side of B09B, where we would be vulnerable to any ice drifting or blowing from the Ross Sea.
It took two days to steam clockwise around the megaberg through thick pack ice and down its eastern flank. No one was clear why we were being taken to this location, but the sailors among us were uneasy.
We were all briefed about how this location could provide everyone an opportunity to set foot on solid Antarctic rock if the ship could be worked to a location within Argo-ride distance from Stilwell Island.
On the morning of 23 December we awoke to find the ship at the ice-edge in a ‘blind corridor’ lead which had been entered from the west. The forecast was for a 25-knot sou’easterly rising to 40 knots ESE blizzard later in the day, and 50 knots SSE the next day.
It was already too windy for the ship to lie alongside the ice-edge, so the captain’s only option was to hold the bow into a notch in the ice, with one engine idling in gear during the day. This enabled the two quad-bikes to be craned onto the ice from the foredeck hold.
The three Argo vehicles were to be floated ashore, while the university team and interested passengers were to be ferried ashore by Zodiac. They could then be transported by quadbikes and Argos across 10km of fast ice to the embedded rocky Hodgeman islets. We were assured the weather would not be an issue!
We watched the Argo unloading with interest. The first two were lowered into the water and reached the ice-edge using their wheels like a paddle-steamer. The third was not so lucky. Having tracked wheels it was not self-propelling, so it was towed at speed by a waiting Zodiac – rapidly filling with sub-zero water.
By the time it was recovered, blowing snow had compromised visibility. Still, the university expedition leaders would be driven over the ice to the Hodgeman Islets in the two surviving Argos and two quad bikes – nine kilometres SSW. The Russian crew was clearly not impressed.
The first group left at around 13h00. Snowdrifts slowed the progress and each round trip took over 45 minutes. Our heritage team chose to stay on the bridge, where Igor, our captain, was fixated on the radar screen. At around 14h30 he made an abrupt VHF request for an immediate recall of all shore parties. Huge quantities of pack ice were closing in rapidly from the southeast.
Pack ice is made up of thousands of chunks of ice, ranging in size from kitchen tables to double-decker buses. It is as dangerous as a river full of logs during flood, and will fuse together under pressure.
On the bridge we waited tensely for the Argos to return. Half an hour later we saw an Argo discharge four passengers – and then, to our astonishment, load six more and disappear back into the blowing snow towards the islets.
It was nearly four critical hours before all were aboard. By now there was a crush of pack ice as far as the eye could see, and the ship began labouring to the north-east. Ten hours later, after covering barely 2km, the engines were shut down.
The ice-field was rapidly expanding to our east. During breakfast the ship was strangely silent, despite the shriek of a 50-knot SE blizzard across the icy decks. It was Christmas Eve, and we could only wait.
There were two developments during the day. The ship developed a list to port, and the Russian crew began work on a door-sized hole near the port bow where an ice-tower had ripped the hull open two metres above the waterline.
Christmas morning had us mustered for a briefing by the expedition leaders. First the good news: there would be a Christmas celebration in the bar. The bad news? At least two icebergs were ploughing through the ice towards the ship on a near-collision course.
The Captain had activated a distress call via GMDSS. Three icebreakers had been directed to come to our immediate assistance, but they were days away.
For another two days the easterly blizzard gusted to 60 knots, and Shokalskiy moved slowly sideways like a giant bulldozer, pushing up a jumble of ice while the list to port increased to 4°. There was now 40km of ice between us and open water. On the plus side, the damaged bow now had a door-sized patch welded over the hole, and the first iceberg had safely passed. But there was still a threat from approaching icebergs.
The French and Chinese icebreakers reached the ice-edge to our east on December 27. L’Astrolabe had no helicopter, and had developed engine trouble. She stood by in the safety of light pack ice while the giant Xue Long ploughed on in.
Her 20,000hp was seven times more powerful than our two engines combined, so there was dismay when she ground to a halt 20km away. It didn’t take long to work out that she was now beset too. The crippled L’Astrolabe was then stood down by the Australian Marine Rescue Centre, and we waited a further three days for Australia’s mid-sized Aurora Australis to arrive.
By the time the Australians arrived, several glaciologists were declaring that Shokalskiy (and possibly also Xue Long) was now locked in a field of fast-ice. Both could suffer the fate of Shackleton’s Endurance during the coming winter, incidentally causing the worst environmental disaster in East Antarctica’s
history. Aurora’s captain made two attempts to enter the ice-field, pulling back after less than 3km each time.
New Year’s Eve arrived. Our captain was determined to remain with just a skeleton crew for up to six weeks in the hope of a break-out. The Chinese with their 110 personnel were in a more hopeful position at the shear-line where the icefield was moving northwards, unlike ours.
Negotiations in broken English for a helicopter evacuation were afoot between all three captains. The difficulty was how to implement it, as the only helicopter (the massive Chinese KA37) had too large a blade diameter to land on Aurora Australis’ flight deck, and the Australian captain was not prepared to allow passengers to be landed onto ice.
By now politics had entered the fray. Negotiations were afoot to order the US Polar Star (at 90,000hp the world’s most powerful icebreaker) to our vicinity. That evening our captain fielded two satellite calls from the Russian foreign minister demanding that he avoid the national disgrace of being rescued by Americans, and the Chinese were equally horrified.
Despite being sober on New Year’s Day we were once again weather-bound. But the Australians had located a stable embedded floe that they were prepared to let us land on. When the visibility
cleared late next day, things happened very fast.
A crude landing zone was marked out with soy sauce and powdered drinking chocolate on some flat ice near Shokalskiy, and the Chinese flew in. A dozen orange-clad figures leapt out to lay wide planks under the runners. We formed a human chain to transfer dozens of freeze-dried food containers which had been sent from the Australian ship to help sustain the Russian crew.
It was an emotional time – seeming very wrong to be whisked away in groups of ten, leaving so many Russians and Chinese to an uncertain future, even though the Polar Star was on its way.
There is an irony in the final turn of events. Our 52 evacuees spent a month aboard the Australian icebreaker, diverting back to Casey Station before discharge in Hobart. Meanwhile, Polar Star had not yet reached the stricken vessels when, against all odds, the entire 45km wide ice-field began to
pivot anticlockwise. Both ships were lucky enough to work their way out through the crack before the next SE gale slammed it shut permanently. The Russian crew were back in civilisation before we were.
Jon and Barbara Tucker lived and voyaged aboard their traditional ketch New Zealand Maid for over two decades, bringing up five sons in the process. Jon’s first book, Snow Petrel, has become a high latitude sailing classic.