Caught In The Pack in Antarctica
Position: 64:49.43S 063:29.285W
Still at Port Lockroy
Date: 15 January 2012.
The timing of this expedition to Antarctica was influenced by the fact that 2012 was the centenary of the Scott Expedition and the link that the RCC has with Lawrence Oates. So our presentation of the tribute to Oates to the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust on behalf of the RCC yesterday was the culmination of a few years planning. I had been in touch with the UKAHT for some time and they had not only said that they would be honoured to accept the tribute but that it would be publicly displayed at Port Lockroy. Port Lockroy was the first British scientific base in Antarctica and is now maintained by the UKAHT as an excellent museum. It is the one almost compulsory stop for all the cruise ships (and the few yachts) that visit Antarctica. Last year they had a staggering 17,000 visitors, almost all from cruise ships. (The number of private yachts getting over to Antarctica is probably no more than a dozen a year and we are the only private British boat this year). The charming Ladies of Lockroy (the base is traditionally run by young woman) were well briefed about our arrival and welcomed us warmly. By sheer coincidence, Cat Totty, one of the girls here, is a friend of a very good friend of Venetia which made the whole thing all the more personal. We went through a small presentation ceremony and Ylva, the Station Head, graciously accepted the tribute. A hook and a space were already prepared and within minutes the framed tribute was hanging in pride of place in the entrance to the main building. Quite a moment.
After the ceremony we were given a tour of the base and museum. The rooms are all as they would have been when the team of scientists worked here in the 50’s and 60’s still with the same food on the shelves of the kitchen and the portrait of Marilyn Munroe painted on the bunk room walls as a warm reminder of what they were missing during their icy men-only tour of duty. The buildings lie amongst the reminders that in the 1920’s this was a base for the whalers with enormous jaw bones of whales lying amongst the ruins of whaling boats. It is home, too, to a colony of nesting Gentoo penguins whose chicks are a lot bigger than those we have seen elsewhere on the peninsula. Part of the small island on which the base stands is a restricted area and the base staff are monitoring the difference between the penguins that nest here and those that have thousands of tourists shuffling past them. Their conclusions so far are that, if anything, the tourist disturbed penguins are doing better than their isolated neighbours because the tourists also put off the skuas that turn up for a snack of penguin egg or small chick. The base is also the southernmost British Post Office in the world, complete with red post box. The shop, where our tribute is now displayed, sells a wide range of souvenirs as well as postcards and British Antarctic Territory stamps.
We were rather hoping that we would be asked if we wanted to make use of their steaming hot showers but no luck there. Like us on Mina2, the base has no fresh water facilities other than for drinking and a little light sponging down. But at least the Ladies are invited aboard the numerous cruise ships that come in for showers.
We were delighted that the Ladies of Lockroy accepted our invitation to come over to Mina2 for a glass of champagne in the evening. The bottles came out of the bilges and had to be warmed up in the fridge before drinking!
Because of the abnormally large amount of ice choking up the southern part of the peninsula this year, the few yachts here are congregated in the northern part of which Port Lockroy is the hub, so we have had as many as five yachts at anchor here – three French charter yachts, an Italian superyacht Happy Taurus II (the owner, her friend, and five professional crew including Hamish Laird as ice pilot!) who we met at Enterprise Island, my old friends from Pelagic Australis including Skip Novak, and ourselves.
All the professional charter yachts are in contact with each other and Skip told us that one of the yachts had just managed to work their way through the Lemaire Channel, Kodak Valley, 10 miles to the south (albeit a yacht much bigger and stronger than Mina2). At the entrance to the Lemaire Channel are a pair of iconic pinnacle mountains familiarly known as Una’s Tits (named allegedly after the wife of a previous Governor of the Falkland Islands). To hell with it, we would go and see how far we could get, and at least admire Una’s Tits. So yesterday morning we set out. The plan was to get as far south as we safely could and then tuck round the back of Booth Island which forms one side of the Lemaire Channel to an anchorage at Port Charcot (which is not of course a port in the normal sense, but a bay).
It was bitterly cold and visibility was bad with flurries of snow. We made our way down the Peltier Channel and through some brash ice and out into the wide Gerlache Strait, heading south. There was a momentary cheer of self-congratulation as we passed the 65th degree of latitude. Add that to the 70 degrees north that we reached at the top of the Lofoten Islands in Norway back in 2004 and Mina2 had straddled more than 135 degrees of latitude. Very few private yachts have achieved that.
As we progressed, conditions worsened. This part of the Gerlache Strait is open to the Drake Passage and even though there had been little wind, a metre high swell was rolling in making it more difficult negotiating our way through the increasingly large growlers and bergy bits. Visibility was so bad that, as we passed the two iconic mountains, we could not even see their bases let alone the peaks themselves. The water temperature had fallen to minus 1.7C and sea ice was beginning to form. All of a sudden we found ourselves surrounded by very large growlers and bergy bits all rolling around in the swell and crashing together. We could be in between any of them with potentially disastrous consequences. We were now in a thick snow storm and it was increasingly difficult seeing where the narrow leads between the threatening lumps of ice were. Not a good place to be. The only responsible decision was to abort the exercise, and make our way out of the ice and back to Lockroy. It was a distinctly uncomfortable half hour trying this way and that in the heaving, crashing ice to make our way back to clearer water. We took turns at the wheel each of us quickly turning into snowmen as we tried to see what was ahead in the blinding snow that was now six inches thick on the decks.
At last we saw clearer water ahead. And none too soon as a 20 knot breeze had sprung up which would have exacerbated an already perilous situation. A big cruise ship passed us heading south but she was still in sight when we saw her slowly turn round. The conditions were untenable even for her.
As we headed back north into clear water, we put the sails up and in no time we were batting along, now out of the swell and in flat water, back to the comparative security of Port Lockroy.