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Icebound in Antarctica
By David Lewis, Mimi George
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 1987 David Lewis and Mimi George
All rights reserved.
Baptism of Fire: The ORF's First Two Expeditions, 1977–82
The Solo Expedition, December 1977–March 1978
The Oceanic Research Foundation's first true 'baptism of fire' was an expedition to the Antarctic Balleny Islands, Cape Adare and Macquarie Island during 1977–8. The crew were Lars Larsen, deputy leader, engineer and radio operator (Greenland sledge dog patrol and Antarctic veteran); Dr Peter Donaldson, biologist; Dr Pieter Arriens (Antarctic veteran), geologist; Jack Pittar, electronics; Fritz Schaumberg, Himalayan mountaineer; Dorothy Smith, mountaineer; Ted Rayment, yachtsman and TV director-cameraman; and myself as skipper.
The 55-foot, 25-year-old steel ex-racing yacht Solo had only six bunks for the eight people aboard and her cockpit was open. She was low in the water and very wet, so comfort was minimal.
We sailed from Sydney on 15 December 1977. Three weeks later the hull was holed by pack ice and was repaired with Neoprene and cement, a frightening incident 1,300 miles from the nearest repair facility. We managed to reach the remote Balleny Islands through the pack, and were the first ship ever to anchor at any of them – at Sturge Island, largest of the group, where we spent twenty hours in an anchorage now officially known as 'Solo Harbour'. We were only the second party to set foot on this island and the first to arrive by sea. Bottom samples were dredged up and oriented rock samples collected, as well as soil samples from a penguin rookery on a neighbouring island.
Cape Adare on the Antarctic mainland was subsequently visited and two long-neglected historic huts filmed – Borchgrevink's, where the first men wintered in Antarctica in 1899–1900, and the hut of Scott's 1911 Northern Party.
Iceberg measurements were made at sea and the yacht called at sub-Antarctic Macquarie Island on the way back to Sydney, which we reached on 4 March 1978.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation made 'Voyage to the Ice', a TV special that was first shown throughout Australia in September 1978, I wrote a book of the same name about the expedition, which was published by the ABC in association with William Collins of Sydney in 1979.
The scientific results of the expedition are recorded in appendices to that book, except for Dr Arriens' meteorological observations, which were sent to the Meteorological Bureau, Melbourne:
Appendix 1. Observations by Dr Donaldson on marine samples, bird log, whale log, and his own hazardous studies of sea temperatures and salinity around three free-drifting icebergs.
Appendix 2. Dr Elizabeth Kerry studied soil samples collected under sterile conditions in the vicinity of a penguin rookery and found namatode worms, bacteria, yeasts and thirteen species of fungi.
Appendix 3. Dr Pat Quilty examined and reported on foraminiferida and diatomaceae in the dredged-up samples.
Appendix 4. Dr B. Embleton reported on the magnetic properties of the rock samples collected by Dr Arriens.
All in all, these were encouraging results from such a modest, low-cost venture.
The Mawson Anniversary Expedition, December 1981–March 1982
The place was Cape Denison, Commonwealth Bay, in George V Land, far south of Tasmania, involving a 2,000-mile voyage each way in Explorer. The main aim was to compare the current state of affairs with that found by the great Australian explorer Sir Douglas Mawson seventy years earlier, particularly the abundance of wildlife, and the position of the margin of the continental ice sheet. New photographs placed alongside the legendary photographer Hurley's old pictures would show whether the ice was advancing or retreating, a key factor in Antarctica's and the world's future climate.
Dr Harry Keys, assisted by his wife Karen, was to study iceberg melt rates, essential data if bergs are ever to be used as a source of fresh water. The Adélie penguin population of the cape and nearby Mackellar Islets had never been counted. A penguin census was one of the jobs of biologists Jeni Bassett and Paul Ensor. Their counts would contribute to the international programme, Biomass, which seeks to increase our knowledge of the food web of the Southern Ocean, by assessing the mass of living things dependent ultimately on the lowly but ubiquitous plankton.
I was President of the Oceanic Research Foundation during this period, but much of the time was fully occupied in the field. We on the ship parties were merely the 'tip of an iceberg', whose main bulk was the ORF. No radio appeal for extra gear or funds from Explorer was ever disregarded. Our expeditions were thus made up of an advance guard in the field and a main body, the main body being the members of the Oceanic Research Foundation.
Plans for the Mawson Anniversary Expedition were well in train by early 1981 and were locked into an immutable timetable, the need to use the summer weather slot, for the only time the pack ice melts enough to allow a ship to approach the Antarctic coastline is in December, January and February. We must therefore set out by mid-December. There was just one snag. We had no ship to sail in.
The specifications for an ideal vessel had been drawn up by a volunteer team of naval architects in the anticipation that the cost of construction would be within our means. But when we put the plans out to tender, construction estimates were staggering: she would cost three-quarters of a million dollars at least, far and away beyond our each. So we had no ship in prospect and the scheduled departure date was less than a year away.
It is unfortunately true that privately funded projects have one grave disadvantage. You must mount a media campaign to obtain funds; if you fail to publicize, nobody knows anything about you. But by announcing your plans beforehand you are under the distasteful necessity of stating in advance all the 'clever' things you are going to do. A certain momentum builds up if you are lucky. Should you once falter, however, this momentum is lost and you are done.
So it came about that members of the Oceanic Research Foundation and as many friends as we could rake together were scouring waterfronts from Perth to Darwin and round to Sydney in a desperate effort to find a strong, roomy auxiliary sailing vessel fit for the polar seas, and at a price we could afford.
Ironically, when we found the right ship it was where we least expected, at our own back door as it were, in Lavender Bay in the shadow of Sydney Harbour Bridge.
'That fishing boat over there was built to sail and has a deep ballasted keel,' a friend remarked casually. I had already noted the slim lines of the motor fishing vessel but had not suspected she was so deep in the water and able to carry sail, a necessity for our purposes if we were to cross the 2,000-mile-wide Southern Ocean with capacity to spare for anything other than fuel.
She proved to be just what we wanted. Tunny, as she was then, was a 65-foot long-liner superbly constructed in quarter-inch steel by a magnificent craftsman of the old school. She was very narrow, her beam a shade under thirteen feet, and her six-foot unladen draught was not enough for good windward performance in the open ocean but would be a boon for entering shallow uncharted bays. Her cross-section was steeply V-ed, so that ice pressure would squeeze her upwards rather than pinch and crush her hull. The engine was a fifteen-year-old 120 hp Mercedes diesel and the fuel capacity an ample 2,000 gallons. The ship was an enlarged version of the famous American designer Francis Herreschoff's Marco Polo. Tunny would need many modifications and additions, but the essentials were there.
Money was the problem. By dint of selling tee shirts and postcards, running film shows and barbecues, screening a TV appeal, and so on, the Oceanic Research Foundation had amassed funds over the years. One large school had raised more than $1,000; a golf club secretary in an inland town had organized community activities bringing in no less than $1,800. Donations had come in from people who had overflown Antarctica, from aged pensioners, from business houses and men and women in every walk of life. But in all it came to $40,000 or so. This was not nearly enough. I was brooding one day over these matters, sitting at the surgery desk of a doctor I was relieving. The phone rang.
'Dick Smith here. Have you been able to raise enough to buy your boat?'
'Well, is this Tunny I hear about what you want?'
'All right, then. I will loan the ORF up to $100,000 and charge you the going rate of interest. Can you buy her for that?'
I was speechless. This was precisely the lift we needed. I knew Dick well. He was a 35-year-old electronics genius and self-made millionaire, an adventurer besides, and a sponsor of adventures. A daring rock climber and pilot, he was currently preparing for the solo helicopter flight round the world that has deservedly made him famous. He is a monumental egoist too and not always easy to work with. But no matter. We would have our ship after all.
Good fortune never comes singly. Ted Thomas, the manager of Channel 7 TV in Sydney, agreed to purchase all the media rights to our two proposed expeditions (Mawson Anniversary and Frozen Sea) for the generous sum of $100,000 each. The Channel would film both expeditions. The magazine rights were subsequently sold by them to National Geographic Magazine. Apart from these major sponsors, a philatelic organization printed special covers for us which ultimately netted a goodly sum. A great many firms donated their products – a marine radar, most of our food, all our fuel, an inflatable boat, outboard motors. The seemingly endless list is given in the acknowledgements; how very well these gifts served us will become apparent as the story unfolds.
Tunny, subsequently renamed Dick Smith Explorer, had naturally to pass survey and go through acceptance trials before we bought her. Mimi (of whom more later), who had come to stay with me in Woy Woy, sixty miles north of Sydney, where I was recouping my scanty finances by relieving another doctor, was on board for the final trial. The owner, a brawny fisherman with arms thicker than my thighs, claimed to revel in storms, an attitude considered by Mimi and me to smack of masochism if not downright weakness of mind. Casting off from the mooring buoy, he negligently pulled up the rusty gear lever one-handed (it took two of us to even budge it a fraction) and spun the wheel to head down the sunny harbour to the open Pacific. When, some hours later, we returned, Mimi stared round, perplexed.
'I can't see the mooring buoy anywhere. Where is it?' she asked.
We came upon it five hundred yards away, bobbing around, drifting free. In the absence of appreciable wind and tide, much less the drag of a moored vessel, it was hard to see how the heavy chain could have parted. Not unless the massive steel links had rusted right away, an eventuality only conceivable if the mooring had been neglected for years. We would soon know. A tackle was rigged and the truant buoy with an attached length of weed-grown mooring chain was brought aboard. A six-inch link had indeed rusted right through. The owner regarded it pensively.
'Well, there was only one weak link!' he remarked defensively.
So Dick Smith Explorer was purchased early in 1981. The list of modifications demanded by the Antarctic was daunting. The well deck had to be raised to bring the deck flush (the same height all over) to increase buoyancy amidships and to give added space below, both at a premium, for Explorer is as long and narrow as a canoe.
From front to back there is a companionway on the fore deck leading down to a tiny forward cabin, in which we installed four cramped berths with sadly restricted headroom.
At the back of this fore cabin a door in a watertight bulkhead leads into the engine room, where the 120 hp Mercedes diesel is installed. A skylight relieves the gloom of this compartment, an asset rather cancelled out in our case by the sledges, inflatables and so on piled on top at sea, or the styrofoam insulating sheets affixed for the polar winter. We installed a diesel generator in the engine room and built a container for ice chunks round the exhaust pipe so that the hot exhaust could melt ice for drinking and cooking. All electric wiring was replaced (the new electrical equipment provided free of cost by General Electric). The engine room was insulated and a toilet and wash basin were added in an annexe.
The next compartment aft had been the fish hold. It was already well insulated and was to become the most popular cabin on the ship. Six bunks, with lockers for personal effects and a hanging locker, were crafted here. This centre cabin hosted three couples on the 1981–2 expedition. In 1982–4 it was chosen by everyone except Mimi and myself. Access was by way of a newly built companionway, and a skylight was added for visibility.
Aft of the fish hold centre cabin is a small hold, into which was crammed an incredible assortment, including for 1982–4 the better part of two years' food and a dismantled snowmobile.
Next towards the stern comes the wheelhouse with steps leading down into the galley. In the former was installed a Furuno radar, donated by Greenwich Marine, and a satellite navigation system (lent by AWA for the first voyage, and bought at a substantial discount from Brookes and Gatehouse for the second). The galley has a table that seats four comfortably, a kerosene pressure cooking stove and water tanks holding 350 gallons. This area too had to be insulated. Opening out from the front of the galley underneath the wheelhouse is a space, much restricted by food storage bins, which contains two bunks. Don and I shared this 'cave' on the 1981–2 voyage because we needed ready access to the wheelhouse. Mimi and I took it over for the same reason.
Installation of new equipment and alteration of accommodation apart, strong, high, all-round railings had to be made, the steering gear restructured, the rudder enlarged and an auxiliary jury rudder fitted. A whole sailing rig, masts, sails and stays had to be designed, made up and fitted. The masts were finally stepped only three weeks before we sailed for Antarctica. Following Herreschoff's original design, we plumped for a three-masted schooner rig. All this, and much more we have not space to mention, was more than enough to occupy twice the nine months available before the brief Antarctic weather slot would close. Despite the generous assistance of so many firms, the financial cost more than doubled the original purchase price of $90,000.
From the moment we bought Explorer until she sailed, preparations were never-ending. My Woy Woy locum ended in September, soon after Mimi had had to return to the States to complete her MA, and I moved aboard Explorer in a noisy boatyard, disconsolate, but with more than enough to do. Departure was scheduled for mid-December, yet a scant three weeks earlier the ship was still devoid of masts and sails, leaving little enough time in all conscience for sailing trials.
The New Zealand-Australian expedition team (we were 50:50), backed up by a multitude of helpers, were all in Sydney working like beavers a month before sailing date, and a magnificent team they were.
Don Richards, mate and radio operator, is an experienced ocean yacht skipper as well as being a professional engineer. On the radio side he organized an amateur 'ham network', to such effect that we were never out of contact with Australia. Gary Satherley is likewise a long-time cruising yachtsman and served as the very competent engineer on the voyage (a far cry from his civilian profession of newspaper editor).
The scientific group (known as the 'Kiwi Mafia') was led by geochemist and mountaineer Dr Harry Keys, who had five previous Antarctic seasons to his credit. He was partnered by his wife Karen, herself an Antarctic veteran and a most experienced and skilful sailor – unlike her otherwise accomplished husband, who I hope I can say without offence could never be called a born helmsman.
The biologists were Jenni Bassett and Paul Ensor, who had four Antarctic seasons between them. Dick Heffernan, a geophysical assistant, meteorological observer and mountaineer, with seven Antarctic research voyages on the research ship Eltannin and a stint as meteorological recorder on an Arctic ice island behind him, completed the scientific team.
Excerpted from Icebound in Antarctica by David Lewis, Mimi George. Copyright © 1987 David Lewis and Mimi George. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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Table of Contents
ContentsList of Illustrations,
Prologue Winter Ordeal, 1983,
Introduction Antarctica: The Frozen Frontier,
1. Baptism of Fire: The ORF's First Two Expeditions, 1977–82,
2. A Dream becomes Real: The Frozen Sea Expedition,
3. To Ile Amsterdam,
4. Beset in the Polar Pack,
5. Search for a Winter Home,
6. Frozen in for the Winter,
7. A New Beginning,
8. Winter Sledging,
9. The Great Breakthrough Southward – Spring,
10. Breakout and Storm,
11. Whither Antarctica?,
Appendix 1: The High Frontier – Antarctica and Space,
Appendix 2: Rates and Mechanisms of Iceberg Ablation,
Appendix 3: Variations in Underwater Vocalizations of Weddell Seals,