Thursday, 27 October 2011

Iron Bark in Antarctica, summer

Iron Bark's route 1999

After a rough passage of 48 days from New Zealand I arrived in the Antarctic Peninsula on 3 January 1999 and moored between rocks in Andersen Harbour in the Melchior Islands. I stayed there 13 days, recuperating, working on boat and gear and exploring the surrounding area by dinghy. I rebuilt the self-steering gear, stowed the deck gear to make it easier to run long mooring lines ashore and generally cleaned and scrubbed as much as my limited supply of water allowed. Water was in short supply as my attempts to melt snow or ice by putting it in black containers in the sun were ineffective, I had not found any melt water nearby and my kerosene was too precious to be used for melting ice for cleaning.

Fending off ice at midnight, Melchior Anchorage

Visibility was often poor with very low cloud and flat, grey light but one sunny day I rowed down the channel to the east of the anchorage and there was Brabant Island ten miles away with its mountains and glaciers glistening, majestic and austere. This was the scenery I had imagined when I planned the trip. On a more human scale were Weddell seals, small groups of gentoo and chinstrap penguins on the ice around the boat with minke whales and a couple of leopard seals swimming around.

 Anvers Island

Leopard seals lounging

The west side of the Antarctic Peninsula is protected from severe ice pressure by the Antarctic mainland on one side and by a line of islands on the other. Between the two are channels where the ice is generally open enough for navigation by small vessels for a few months in summer. Most of the harbours described in the Antarctica Pilot are deep with poor holding and only suitable for large ships. What I needed was local knowledge of the small anchorages not shown on charts, anchorages suitable for small craft. Late on 14 January the charter boat Sarah W Vorwerk owned by Henk Boersma anchored nearby.  Henk had been chartering in the area for years and he generously shared his extensive knowledge and marked the best havens on my charts.

 Bryde Island, Paradise Harbour

On 16 January Sarah and Iron Bark headed south to Dallmann Bay, across Gerlache Strait to Paradise Harbour and moored off Waterboat Point in front of the Chilean base Videla. We lay to bow anchors with stern lines to rocks ashore in water shallow enough to be safe from the bigger bergs and bergy bits but if the wind shifted we would have to move quickly. I hardly had my line ashore and secured when the Chileans invited me in. It was about 2000hrs and they had already eaten but I was plied with drinks, the cook produced a meal for me and gave me a huge hamper of food to take back to Iron Bark. There were 19 people on the base, all military except two female biologists. The base is occupied for about three months each summer and its primary function appeared to be to assert Chile’s territorial claims to the Antarctic Peninsula.
Sarah W Vorwerk and Iron Bark at Videla Base

The base is built on a gentoo rookery, to the detriment of the penguins, but that the sort of thing has been the case for most of the bases of all nationalities in Antarctica. The environmental impact of the of the various national bases in Antarctica has been generally adverse and it has only been due to the bad publicity following the advent of tourism that any cleaning up has been done. Ship-based tourism on the other hand has little impact. There is no discharge from the ships south of 60°S, passengers are well briefed on protocol for keeping their impact to near zero and are tightly supervised when ashore. Most studies show little or no effects from well-managed tourism, unlike mess created by the numerous national psuedo-scientific bases. I am a scientist by training (a geologist) who generally has little time for mass tourism, but think the effects of tourism have been almost entirely positive and much of the psuedo-science negative. There is much very good science done in a responsible way in Antarctica, but much very poor work done as well, often within the same organization and until recently their bases were surrounded by rubbish tips. Another problem is that the official Antarctic organizations attract people with large egos. They do little to advance science and feel very threatened when a small scale, low budget venture intrudes into what they perceive as their domain. I kept clear of this type whenever possible.

For the next six weeks I explored the area sightseeing and looking for somewhere to spend the winter. The scenery is on a grand scale. Mountains rising straight from the sea, ice cliffs, glaciers ending in icefalls and on clear days visibility of more than 50 miles in the dust-free, cold, dry air. Wild life is abundant and unafraid of humans either ignoring them or inspecting them with interest.

 Anvers Island

Ice and sketchy charts make navigation difficult and berthing required getting line run ashore before the vessel drifted ashore, a particularly difficult problem when alone. Safe berths for a small vessel are few. Anchors don’t hold on the ice-scoured rock bottom and drifting ice is a constant problem. The solution is to find a cove small enough to run long lines ashore in all directions. These are not common and I usually shared such a berth with a charter yacht. In the summer the Antarctic Peninsula is a surprisingly busy place. There are cruise ships, charter yachts, navies strutting their territorial claims and two or three or so summer-only occupancy stations in addition to three permanently manned bases. North of the Argentine Island, which is the southern limit for most vessels, I saw another vessel most days.

Sharing a berth was common

 Between playing tourist I kept looking for a place to spend the winter. The ideal cove would have an entrance only a little deeper than Iron Bark’s 1.5m draft to keep out the bigger bits of drift ice, be surrounded by rocks to keep the fast ice when it formed in place and small enough to tie lines to shore in all directions. Ideally the cove should also have interesting wildlife and scenery.

Prior to 1999 I believe a total of six yachts had wintered in Antarctica, five on the Antarctic Peninsula and one in East Antarctica. Jerome and Sally Poncet on Damien II in 1978-79 were the first, followed by the French yacht  Kim with four Breton crew in the mid 1980’s. Two men, Amyr Klink and Hugh Delignieres had wintered alone, both in 1990-91 and in so doing became the first people to have spent a winter alone in Antarctica. The Brazilian Amyr Klink wintered in Dorian Cove in a large purpose-built boat with a fanfare of publicity and sponsorship while the Frenchman Hugh Delignieres on Oviri wintered without fuss in a lagoon in Pleneau Island. Rolf Bjelke and Deborah Shapiro on Northern Light wintered in the Pleneau Island area in1991-92.  The only yacht to have wintered anywhere except the Antarctic Peninsula is the Dick Smith Explorer with David Lewis with a party of 6 who wintered in East Antarctica on in the mid 1980’s.

After a day in Paradise Harbour I motored to Wiencke Island and moored in Dorian Cove. This is a well-protected bay with a large gentoo colony and a refuge hut on the shore.  A few days later I moved 5 or 6 miles around from Dorian Cove to Port Lockroy and moored in Alice Creek. There is a former British base on Goudier Island in Port Lockroy that is now cleaned up and opened each summer by the British Antarctic Heritage Trust as a museum. That summer it was manned by Dave Burkett, formerly of the British Antarctic Survey and one of the last people to drive dogs in Antarctica as a serious mode of transport, and Nigel, a keen and very knowledgeable birder. I got to know both well later in the summer and enjoyed their company.

On 22 January, in overcast but calm conditions, I motored south down Peltier Channel into Lemaire Channel, a place famous for its beauty but all I saw was rocky cliffs disappearing into low cloud, however I did see the mountains in all their glory on later trips through the channel. I passed Sarah W Vorwerk moored in Port Circumcision on Petermann Island. Charcot wintered there in 1909 in Pourquoi Pas as did the French yacht Kim in the 1980’s. I cannot imagine what attracted either to the spot. It is a narrow slot pestered by every stray bit of ice in Lemaire Channel and completely open to the west. I took one look at it and  motored on the Argentine Islands and moored in Stella Creek. Later Henk was forced out of Port Circumcision by drifting ice and had to abandon an anchor to escape.

Lemaire and Penola Straits

Stella Creek is a particularly well-sheltered spot and I tied up with three lines ashore. The British Graham Land Expedition with their converted French fishing boat the Penola wintered here in 1836-37. The organiser and leader of the expedition, John Rymill, was from Penola in South Australia, hence the vessel’s name. The British Antarctic Survey built Faraday Base in the Argentine Islands in 1954, which expanded and moved a few hundred metres over the years until it was declared surplus and sold to the Ukrainians in the early 1990’s and renamed Vernadsky.

Vernadsky is one of three permanently occupied bases on the Antarctic Peninsula, the others being Palmer, the American Base on Anvers Island, and Rothera, the British Base on Adelaide Island. In 1999-2000 there were 11 people manning Vernadsky, five of whom were scientists, which is undoubtedly the highest ration of scientists to technicians for any base in Antarctica. They were very hospitable I quickly became part of their little society, despite the language problem. I ate with them most evenings, gave a hand with the washing up and had a few home-distilled vodkas afterwards. One person can integrate into a small group like that where even a couple could not. I liked the Ukrainians and admired their sense of adventure and scientific dedication.

Stella Creek marina

While I was in Stella Creek several charter yachts came in and rafted alongside Iron Bark for a day or two. Sarah W Vorwerk was one of these visitors and Henk took a group of 13 of us, including two Ukrainians from Vernadsky, across the Penola Strait to the mainland to climb Mt Demaria. Mt Demaria is 638m high and the climb is a snow walk steep enough to require kicking steps and although not technically difficult, quite strenuous. The summit had an ice cornice overhanging an impressive vertical cliff several hundred metres high.

On 28 January I motored a few miles north and tied up in a narrow channel between Hovgaard Island and the island to its north. This island is unnamed on the chart but is locally known as Florence or Florette Island. Hovgaard, Pleneau and Florence Island have large breeding colonies of gentoo penguins and blue-eyed shags with the usual scavengers in attendance, notably skuas, giant petrels and sheathbills. There were hundreds of icebergs aground in the shallow water northwest of these islands. The mountainous backdrop of Booth Island provided the final touch to this scenically spectacular place.  
Moored between Hovgaard and Florence Islands

Pleneau Island with Booth Island behind

Pleneau Island and grounded icebergs

On 2 February I set off to see how far south I could get. It was not far. For 5-1/2 hours I  pushed through brash ice that got thicker and the visibility deteriorated. When the appropriately named Grim Rock loomed through the murk much closer than I liked I turned back to Hovgaard Island and was back just before the wind rose to gale force. I could see why few yachts or cruise ships go further south than the Argentine Islands. There is much less protection from wind and ice, anchorages are few and a change in the wind can bring a lot of ice in very quickly. I felt vulnerable in a way I never had further north.

Brash ice in Grandidier Passage. The line of white on the horizon was too thick to penetrate

On 5 February I had another attempt to get south to Crystal Sound. There was little ice in Grandidier Channel as we motored south but the ice was thick in Harrison Channel to the west of Larrouy Island and rapidly got thicker and I turned back and went through Maskalyne Passage to the other side of Larrouy Island where there was a lot of brash but not many bigger pieces. From the chart the first feasible anchorage looked to be in the Mutton Cove in the Biscoe Islands. There appeared to be a narrow slot leading form Mutton Cove into Beer Island, which might have been a possible winter site. As we headed south there was a lot of ice around and the wind was ahead so sailing was not feasible if we were to make any progress at all. The motor was making an odd noise. I could not leave the tiller long enough to investigate it properly so carried on under power to the anchorage in Mutton Cove. The slot in Beer Island I had hoped would provide a safe mooring was untenable because of ice driven in by the southwest wind so I anchored precariously in Mutton Cove in 15m on rock, protected from swell but with strong currents sending ice swirling by or crashing into us.  

The noise from the engine was caused by a broken engine mount which had let the engine sagged alarmingly to one side. It was little short of miraculous that the gearbox had not disintegrated under the strain. I could not repair the mount without welding equipment so wedged the engine up with a couple of bits of wood and hoped it would last long enough to get me out of there.

After a brief nap I turned around and started north towards the Argentine Islands, the nearest safe anchorage where I could attempt repairs. Mutton Cove at 66°00’S 065°42W was our farthest south for the season, and it turned out for the voyage. It took 17 stressful hours in heavy ice and poor visibility to get back to the Argentine Islands and tied up in Stella Creek. I unbolted the broken mount and the ever-helpful Ukrainians dug up an elderly welding machine left over from the British occupancy of the base. The welding rods were of the same vintage and finding a couple with flux intact and getting them to strike an arc took a while. The resulting weld was not of my prettier ones but held for several hundred hours use until I replaced the mounts in Canada two years later.

Una's Tits, more formally called Mt Reynard

 I spent a sociable week in Stella Creek, with visits to Vernadsky most evenings and to the charter yachts Pelagic and Croix St Paul and the mini-cruise ship Molcharnov on the remainder. The crew of Vernadsky were due to be relieved in March so I was unlikely to see them again and I said goodbye to them with real regret. I wended my way north to Pleneau Island where I spent a few days then had a brisk sail with a fair wind on to Dorian Cove on Wiencke Island.

Two views of Dorian Cove. It was the rope to the reef extending towards the right side of the photo that came adrift letting Iron Bark swing into the shore below the snow slope in the foreground

Iron Bark had been moored in Dorian Cove for a week when, on 22 February, the weather deteriorated. As well as an anchor ahead, I had four lines to rocks ashore, one from each quarter. The two starboard lines were tied around solid outcrop, the port stern line was tied to a very large moraine boulder and the fourth was tied from the port bow to a low rock on the reef to seaward. This last tie-point was not ideal but was  the best available. Early in the morning the wind increased to 60+knots and at 0800 the line to the reef let go, probably because a piece of ice driven in by the wind hooked the line and lifted the chain sling off the rock. I was on deck and had the engine running when this happened and immediately put the engine full ahead but the wind was too strong for the motor and we were blown backwards on to the now slack stern lines. They would have fouled the propeller if I left the engine in gear so I shut it down. Iron Bark immediately swung pendulum-fashion on the starboard bow line onto the rocky shore. The tide was falling and Iron Bark was soon well aground and lying heeled far over with ice driving up the exposed bilge.

Two Australian climbers, Duncan Thomas and Dave Adams, had been camped on the glacier above Dorian Cove waiting on good weather to climb Mt Luigi and I guessed they would have retreated to the refuge hut on the cove’s shores when the storm struck. I scrambled ashore and up to the hut and roused them out of their warm sleeping bags. It was blowing far too hard for to use a dinghy so we dragged a 400-metre rope from Iron Bark  around the head to the cove and re-attached it to the reef so we could pull her off at high tide. The line had to be flicked or lifted over numerous bergy bits grounded at the head of the bay. This meant wading in freezing water and scrambling over some very slippery ice, which Duncan and Dave did with verve and panache. Near high tide Iron Bark floated and the wind eased to about 40 knots, which allowed me to use the motor with some positive effect, but was still too windy for dinghy work . Dave and I winched Barky off using the newly reset line and moored her in the middle of the cove. A lull in the wind allowed me to reset the anchor from the dinghy and get Dave ashore. Apart from dents to the bilge plates Iron Bark was undamaged but I had been very lucky, particularly that there were two tough, willing blokes nearby to help.

The time had come to make a decision on the winter site and I chose Alice Creek, Port Lockroy, on Wiencke Island in about 64 °50’S.  It was well protected and small enough to run line ashore but was largely surrounded by actively calving ice cliffs and often filled with brash ice.  Apart from being noisy this did not seem likely to be a problem and I thought the amount of ice calving from the cliffs should decrease as the temperature fell with the approach of winter. Alice Creek is close to the Port Lockroy museum/base but as that would be unoccupied during the winter I did not feel I was intruding on anyone.

After I moved around to Port Lockroy, moored in Alice Creek in late February  and  renewed my friendship with Dave and Nigel at the Museum. In summer Port Lockroy is the busiest place in the Antarctic Peninsula with four or five cruise ships per week calling in. These ships were now all on their final voyage for the season, which ends in mid March.  Dave and Nigel closed the museum and left on the RSS Bransfield on 13 March and the last vessel on the Antarctic Peninsula, a British charter yacht called The Dove, sailed from Port Lockroy on 16 March. That marked the end of the navigation season and I was left alone for the winter.

Iron Bark moored in Alice Creek in her winter berth


  1. Hello Trevor,
    I watched your Green Interview on YouTube with Silver Donald Cameron and thought it very interesting and thought provoking. I have often wondered about Iron Bark and it was very interesting to be invited aboard and look around down below. What a wonderfully spacious saloon, but very sensibly laid out for the open ocean. I really liked your dinghy and its lovely blue fender.
    Following your blog with interest.

  2. Antarctica is nice to watch in summer. The rock mountain covered with the ice which is amazing. The ocean looking nice in this time.
    Cruise Ships Antarctica


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