Sunday, 30 October 2011

Iron Bark in Antarctica, winter

Iron Bark and I sailed from New Zealand in November 1998 and arrived in Antarctica in January 1999 with the intention of spending the winter somewhere on the Antarctic Peninsula. I spent the summer exploring the west coast of peninsula and decided on Alice Creek in Port Lockroy for my winter site. Alice Creek is a well-protected nook within an already safe harbour on Wiencke Island in latitude 64°50’S 063°32’W. I moored Iron Bark there in early March 1999.

Moored for the winter in Alice Creek

Iron Bark was moored with ropes and chain slings from her bows to a small skerry and from her stern to the rocks of Jougla Point to the west. Jougla Point is a rocky promontory in an otherwise ice-covered area has a large gentoo penguin rookery. In the early part of the twentieth century there was a semi-pelagic whaling operation based in Port Lockroy, which left heaps of whalebones on Jougla Point. The penguin now nest among them.

Piles of whale bones left by whalers early in the twentieth century

Port Lockroy. Alice Creek with Iron Bark in it is on the left edge of the photo

There is an abandoned British base, now a museum, on Goudier Island in Port Lockroy. This base, established in 1944 and abandoned in 1962, was the first permanent British presence in Antarctica. The museum, which is manned each summer from mid November to mid March, was shuttered up for the winter. Most of Port Lockroy is surrounded by ice cliffs that calved constantly through March, April and the first half of May, filling Port Lockroy with brash ice. The pieces of ice were not big enough to be a danger to Iron Bark but the brash was often thick enough to make using a dinghy difficult.
Gentoos moulting

By mid March 1999 there were plenty of signs of the approach of winter. The penguins were moulting and the last vessels had headed north to South America leaving me alone until navigation resumed in eight months. I had come to Antarctica to see it and its wild life through the full cycle of the year, not to see how much hardship I could endure. However it is a harsh environment and the amount of supplies and equipment I could carry to Antarctica was limited so there was going to be some elements of endurance required. Iron Bark is only 35 ft long and I needed to keep her light to rise to the great breaking seas of the Southern Ocean on her approach voyage of 5000 miles from New Zealand so could not carry enough fuel for heating in addition to everything else I needed to survive for more than a year in Antarctica. Winter promised to be a cold, dark time in an unheated boat.

As winter neared I prepared Iron Bark by double glazing the portholes and the hatches using perspex and plastic sheeting and bulkheaded the living area in the saloon and galley off from the fore cabin and aft lazarette using sheets of foam brought for the purpose. Most of the hull was insulated with 32mm of polyurethane foam in sheets pressed between the hull frames, but some lockers were not insulated and soon froze. I emptied the water tanks before they froze as I did not want a 100kg iceblock crashing about in them when they thawed out the following summer.

Cooking and my body heat kept the cabin significantly warmer than the outside air temperature but it could never be called warm inside. When my thermometer stopped working in early April the cabin temperature was around 0°C and it got a lot colder in the following months. Since early in the planning stages of the venture I knew I could not carry enough kerosene to heat the boat but there were times when the temptation to light the heater for a few hours was strong but I needed to keep all my limited fuel for the cooker. The cooker, a Primus pressure kerosene stove, was crucial to my survival. I had plenty of spare parts for it and tended it with loving care because without it I could not melt drinking water and cook or even thaw my food. Lighting the cooker required pre-heating the kerosene with alcohol and the alcohol often needed preheating over the candle before it would light.  

Seasmoke over open water in Neumeyer Channel

The days got rapidly shorter and the weather colder through March and April and I settled down to my winter routine. In the morning I dressed very quickly, lit a candle and then the stove and melted ice for a breakfast of hot muesli with lots of powdered milk and coffee. After cleaning up, I went ashore for a walk and to do my daily species check list.  Then back for lunch, usually pancakes or damper made with milk and powdered egg which had lots of calories and required little fuel to cook. In the afternoon I did the routine chores and maintenance and if the weather permitted I went ashore again in the afternoon. The evening meal was a one-pot stew of rice, corned beef, beans and dried onion. Unfortunately the repeated freeze-thaw cycles in March had turned my potatoes and onions to inedible mush. Once a week I lit the heater for about eight hours, melted six or seven litres of water and washed myself and my clothes and dried them around the heater.

By early May the skuas, terns, giant petrels and most of the sheathbills had gone north for the winter and there were groups of up to 30 fur seals on the rocks. The young gentoos, which had long since fledged and were independent and their parents had finished moulting. The gentoos stayed in the area all winter but when the sea ice was extensive they tried to avoid walking far across it. Gentoos do not like thin or broken sea ice and groups were trapped ashore for up to a week until hunger forced them to brave the broken ice. I saw the first snow petrels, the most ethereal of birds, in early May. Many of the sheathbills and Dominican gulls left for South America but a few stayed all winter. The Weddell seal became very vocal underwater in May, probably while mating. They make a series of three descending whistles followed by three or four barks, which boomed loudly through the boat’s hull.

Every evening I made an entry in the log so that I did not lose track of the date then read for a couple of hours by candlelight. Condensation had soaked all my books while the hatches were battened down in the Southern Ocean and as the cabin got colder the pages froze together. Reading meant taking off my right hand glove and pressing the bare hand on the right page to thaw it while reading the left page very slowly, then lifting my hand off the right page and speed reading it so I could turn the page before it froze down again. Not many books in the 50 cents section of the second hand bookshops are good enough to read this way.

Thin ice like was blown out by the next gale
Though April, May and much of June the surface of the bay froze whenever it was calm but the next gale blew the ice out. Gales were frequent, averaging two or three per week, and I looked forward to being firmly frozen in when I could stop worrying about drifting ice. The moving ice was noisy and took off a lot of paint as it blew in and out. The ice was sometimes thick enough to make getting ashore in the dinghy difficult but it was usually possible break a path by pulling the dinghy along one of the mooring lines.

The sun lighting up the summit of Mt Luigi at noon in June

The sun disappeared behind the mountains to the north in early May but as we were 100 miles north of the Antarctic circle the sun was rose above the nominal horizon for a few minutes at noon and even in midwinter lit up the mountain tops in clear weather. In mid-winter there was about four hours of twilight around noon when it was possible to work outside without using a head torch. The colder weather made the now empty penguin rookery much tidier as the morass of mud and penguin shit was frozen solid and discretely mantled with snow.
Frost in the lazarette. This photo was taken in Greenland but it looked much the same in Antarctica

Ice crept into the boat, the bilges froze as did the fore cabin and lazarette.  The cabin lockers froze solid which meant thinking ahead if I was going to need anything from them. The ceiling and deckhead inside the boat were covered with a rime of frost and the cabin sole was slippery with ice. The cabin resembled a cold, dank ice cave and I found it difficult to get to sleep if my feet and hand were particularly cold.

Finally on 19 June the ice in the bay froze solid and looked as if it would stay that way. The ice between Iron Bark and the shore was about 90mm thick, marginal for walking on but too thick to break a dinghy path so I used bunk boards as a sledge to spread my weight as I pulled to shore down one of the mooring lines. Two days later I walked ashore on the thickening ice and from the ridge saw a ship coming down Neumeyer Strait. It launched a boat off Port Lockroy and a party came ashore. The vessel was the Lawrence M Gould, the supply ship for the American Palmer base on Anvers Island. They were doing a resupply and crew change for Palmer Station and had a couple of days to wait while the handover took place so, as the ice in Neumeyer Strait was unusually light, they took the opportunity to visit Port Lockroy. They were not expecting so see anyone there and I was not expecting visitors. We had a slightly garbled conversation on the rocky beach. Ice threatened to cut them off from the ship so they only stayed about 20 minutes, promising to return on 13 July, ice permitting. They in fact visited me twice more, once for and hour or so on 19 July and again in 13 September, when they launched a boat but did not get ashore due to thick ice. They made at least two other attempts to get to Port Lockroy but were stopped by heavy ice. It was kind of them to take an interest in my welfare but their visits were far enough apart that they were unlikely to be able to help me if I had a problem.

Now that Iron Bark was safely frozen in my life was much more pleasant. The lines ashore no longer held her in place and all I had to do was keep them from being frozen in. The lines were necessary to hold Barky if the ice broke up in a storm and blew out of the bay. If the lines were frozen in they would drag her out with the ice so every day I walked down the lines lifting them about the snow and used an ice axe to carefully chip them free from the ice. We did not have an anchor down as the chain would be frozen in and would drag Iron Bark if the ice broke up.

A less pleasant job that needed doing every four days was breaking the ice away from the bow and stern. Contrary to popular belief a vessel in a protected bay is dragged down by the ice, not pushed up by pressure. Most new ice is formed on top of the older ice by freezing of seawater-soaked snow. As snow falls it weighs down the ice until seawater soaks the snow, which freezes to form new ice. The cycle repeats and the oldest ice is on the bottom. Any projections on the vessel’s hull are held fast by the first-formed ice, which drags her down. Iron Bark’s rudder and bobstay (the chain from the bow at the waterline up to the end of the bowsprit) could catch in the ice so I kept them clear. I used a pick and crowbar to break up the ice around the bow and stern then scoped the chunks of ice out of the newly opened pool. I usually got splashed in the process which left my clothes frozen as solid as suite of armour. Towards the end of winter I got a bit lax and let the bobstay fitting freeze in and was unable to free it and the bow was pulled down about 0.3m, which was inconvenient but not serious.
Moving around in the mid-winter twilight was difficult because there were no shadows and the snow-covered landscape had little contrast. I fell down invisible gullies several times. It was much easier to travel by moonlight when the sky was clear as obstacles threw a shadow. I looked forward to the return of the sun in a way that can probably only be understood by someone who has spent a winter in polar darkness. As July progress the sunlight lit up more and more of the sides of the nearby mountains. On 21 July, a glorious, clear, calm day the sun showed briefly over the glacier to the north.

The return of the sun, 21 July

By mid August the sun was up for several hours a day, the weather was not getting any colder and I reckoned I was going to survive, barring accidents. I had hoped to do a bit of over-ice or over-land travel in the spring as the days grew longer, but Antarctica is a windy place and the sea-ice in the Neumeyer Strait outside my bay was generally broken up and impassable.  Travel on land means travel on glaciers and the smooth snowfield on Home Glacier behind Port Lockroy was particularly tempting. However after twice breaking through snow-bridged crevasses I decided there were enough ways of killing myself without looking for more and made no further expeditions in that direction.

Near miss in a crevasse

In late August and early September the sea ice in the outer part of Port Lockroy was thick enough for me to cross it and cut steps up a low section of the ice cliff and walk over a short section of glacier to Dorian Cove. It was marvellous to expand my horizons beyond Port Lockroy and I walked over to Dorian Cove most days between 31 August and 10 September when ice conditions again became dangerous. I found Dorian Cove partly covered with thin ice, which looked as if it would break up in the next storm. Amyr Klink, who is one of the first two people to have spent a winter alone in Antarctica, wintered in Dorian Cove in 1990-1991. In the same year Hugh Delignieres wintered alone on Pleneau Island. I do not know why Amyr Klink chose Dorian Cove instead of Alice Creek, which was has much better protection.

The first Weddell pup with attendant sheathbill

The birth of the first Weddell seal pup on 9 September marked the arrival of spring. The pup plopped out on the ice near Iron Bark and its mother watched without helping as it wriggled across the snow looking for her teat. The pup did a complete circuit of her before finding it. A sheathbill attended the birth and cleaned up the placenta. Six Weddell seal pups were born on the ice around Iron Bark, most of them in the last week of September. I could identify individual Weddell seals by their blotchy coats so could track the progress of each mother and pup until they were weaned at the age of five or six weeks. The pups were given their first swimming lesson shortly before they were weaned and were reluctant to leave the security of the ice and slide into the water through a breathing hole. One mother gave up on enticement and pushed her pup unceremoniously into the water. I think five pups survived to weaning. A leopard seal probably got the sixth one while it was learning to swim.

Gentoos trapped ashore by sea ice and unable to go fishing

Early in September there were more gentoos around but thick pack ice across much of Neumeyer Channel made it difficult for the gentoos to get ashore at Lecuyer Point so they congregated around Dorian Cove. On 13 September the gentoos returned to Jougla Point, crossing 1.1 km of sea ice marching in four columns, each having between 500 and 1000 birds. A leopard seal rushed in behind the last column but could not catch up with it and threw itself on the ice and thrashed about in a comical display of frustration and anger. Gentoos distrust grey or broken ice and there were many lengthy delays while they decided which way to go around them. The next day they travelled the same distance to get back to sea to feed but during the day the ice broke up and drifted out and by evening they could swim all the way to the shore. The penguins staked out their claims to nest sites although the nests, which are mounds of pebbles, were invisible under the snow cover. Over the next few weeks they melted their way down to the nests.
Melting down to last year's nest

Kelp gulls were hanging around their nesting cliff, the first terns appeared and snow petrels were leaving for places further south. Blue-eyed shags returned and tried to rebuild last year’s nests but as the nests were snow covered and frozen their efforts were largely wasted. Warmer weather and spring tides broke up the ice in Peltier and Neumeyer Channels and there was open water all around which the penguins appreciated.

On 22 September we had the first drips of melt water from Iron Bark’s rub strake. They immediately froze into icicles, but it was undoubtedly getting warmer. The brighter days showed how grubby Bark was inside. The deckhead was covered with what looked like freezer frost mixed with soot from candles and the counter surfaces and floor were sheathed with a mixture of ice and spilt food. The higher temperatures let me scrub and clean without the washcloth immediately freezing to every surface but we still had cold spells when everything froze solid again. The lockers were still frozen solid and extracting a can from the food locker was still slow.

On 4 October it was briefly warm enough to for the familiar smell of penguin shit to waft across from the rookery but the sea ice in Port Lockroy was still solid and the penguins on Goudier Island had quite a long walk to get to the sea. Snow often drifted over Iron Bark but it was too powdery to give her a permanent snow cover. My later experience Greenland showed that I should have built an igloo over Iron Bark to insulate her from the cold air. There was little snow of suitable consistency nearby so I would have had to cut ice to make an igloo and I did not have a proper ice saw. It may not have been possible but I should have tried.
Looking across Neumeyer Strait to Mt William. There is no open water for the gentoos to go fishing
October was a windy month with a lot of snow blowing around. The stormy weather kept the ice outside Port Lockroy in turmoil and the gentoos would not travel on broken ice and were often trapped ashore for several days at a time unable to get to sea to feed. At other times they waddled two or three kilometres across firmer ice to get to open water. It was still cold enough to freeze my facemask to my beard when working outside.

Genoos with eggs

Gentoo chicks growing, feeding and fledging

By the early November the shags were nest building in earnest and the gentoo nests on the higher ground were snow free and being refurbished. The shags laid the first eggs about 4 November and on 7 November the first skuas appeared. The first gentoo egg of the season was laid on 9 November, but there were no more for several weeks. The peak of the gentoo-laying season was not until early December. Gentoos lay two eggs, the second one being significantly smaller than the first. In an average to bad year only the first-hatched chick from the larger egg survives, in a good year both do. The previous summer was a poor one for gentoos in Port Lockroy so no second chicks survived and only about half the first chick made it to fledging age. This year was a good one and nearly every first chick survived and about half the second chicks.

Explorer in an ice dock with passengers walking across the ice to Goudier Island

On 14 November 1999 the first ship of the season arrived. It was the James Clark Ross which stopped to drop off Dave Burkett and Norm Cobley to open up the museum on Goudier Island. Dave I knew from last summer. He had worked in for the British Antarctic Survery and was one of the last people in Antarctica to drive dogs as a serious method of travel. Norm was a bird ecologist and a mine of interesting information. The next day the first cruise ship arrived, drove into the ice edge to make a dock, lowered its gangplank and the passengers walked ashore to Goudier Island and a few walked across to Iron Bark. The ship was the Molcharnov, a small Russian vessel charted by a company run by Greg Mortimer, one of Australia’s best-known mountaineers. I had met Greg the previous season and he invited me aboard for dinner and a shower and to sing for my supper by giving the passengers a short talk. This set the pattern for the next seven weeks. Iron Bark was still firmly frozen in and a steady procession of cruise called in to Port Lockroy. Dave and Norm were always invited to the ships for a meal and to give a talk and I was generally included. The transition from complete solitude to a very social existence was instant. I had no trouble adapting mentally but my immune system objected to being expose to all these germs after an eight-month holiday and I caught a bad dose of flu. 

The snow ashore was melting rapidly and I retrieved the sails from where I had stashed them ashore and hoisted them to check they were undamaged. There was 100mm or more of frost on the inside of much of the hull and it started to melt. As the bilge pump was still frozen I bailed it out with a tin can. On 2 December the first yacht of the season, Jerome Poncet’s motor sailor Golden Fleece docked against the ice in Port Lockroy. By this time there was a cruise ship most days and sometimes two. Norm Cobley was due to leave on 9 December but ice prevented Orlova, which was carrying his relief, reaching Port Lockroy and the changeover was postponed until the Orlova’s next voyage. On 16 December Norm left and was replace by Rod Downey, a British Antarctic Survey environmental officer and another very interesting man. It was a short walk across the sea ice from Iron Bark to Goudier Island and the museum and I had a lot to do with Dave, Norm and later Rod. The Antarctic Heritage Trust funds much of its activity by running a post office from Port Lockroy and I spent many evenings over at the museum yarning and helping frank the pile of mail from the latest cruise ship.

Iron Bark  just before breaking out with the topsail schooner Oosterschelder anchored behind

The ice in Port Lockroy was melting quickly and after Christmas I had to use a dinghy to get the final few metres across to Goudier Island. Iron Bark was now floating with a few centimetres of water all around her. The bilge pump worked, the sink drained and the water tanks were unfrozen. On 4 January 2000 a floe astern drifted out and we could wriggle out of Alice Creek and anchor in Port Lockroy proper, free from the ice for the first time in six months.

The gentoos were beginning to hatch an on 6 January Rod Downey, three volunteers from the charter yacht Tooluka and I took Iron Bark to Dorian Cove to count penguins. My mooring lines in Alice Creek were still frozen into thick ice ashore and I did not want to leave until I had retrieved them and made certain there was no sign I had ever been there. In addition my Aries self steering gear was ashore buried somewhere under a large snow drift and I had not yet found it despite extensive trenching so I stayed in Port Lockroy. I made a couple of short day trips including one around Dormier Island with Dave and Rod during which we got ashore on Shag Island. This was probably the first landing there since the British Antarctic Survey left Port Lockroy in 1962. There were only two or three nests on the island and one chick.

A leopard seal playing with Iron Bark's mooring lines while waiting for an unsuspecting penguin

On 2 February I dug out the last of my shore lines and the self-steering gear. There was a really nasty gale on 3 February during which the British yacht The Alderman arrived in Port Lockroy. I spent a day or two socializing with them then set off for the Argentine Islands on 6 February and was entertained by a large pod of killer whales near Lemaire Channel. There were two yachts in Stella Creek, which had only been free of ice for four days. I met the new Ukrainian crew at Vernadsky and two days later made an attempt to get further south down Grandidier Channel. There was a lot of ice, visibility was poor and I soon gave up and turned north to Hovgaard Island and moored in my old spot in the creek between Florence and Hovgaard Islands. The area was as lovely as I remembered it but I had promised to help Rod Downey do his second penguin counts for the season so motored back to Port Lockroy on 10 February. Two days later Rod and I with the help on three passengers from the topsail schooner Oosterschelder counted the penguins on Jougla Point and on 15 and 16 February helped by the crew of The Alderman counted the Dorian Cove colony.

Orca near Lemaire Strait
New ice was beginning to form and although it did not persist, I thought it was a time to go. On 18 February I left Port Lockroy but met heavy ice in Neumeyer Channel. An Argentine ice breaker coming the other way and reported the ice was so thick that they were reduced to three knots using all six engines so I turned around and moored in Dorian Cove for the night. It was now dark for several hours around midnight. The next day the ice was much more open and I only had to barge my way through a short section of bergy bits on the way to Andersen Harbour in the Melchior Islands. On 20 February, after spending several hours extracting my mooring lines from under bergy bits that had grounded at high tide, I got underway and headed north for the Falkland Islands.

For five glorious days we reached before a light to moderate breeze across Drake Passage and up to the latitude of Cape Horn. A short-lived southeast gale was unpleasant but never dangerous, then a strong south wind gave us a grand shove around Staten Island and north to Port Stanley in the Falklands where I tied up to the public jetty at 1830 on 29 February 2000.

I needed fuel and provision but need to arrange a telegraphic transfer to the local bank to buy them. That took three weeks during which time I did some sightseeing, fitted a new self-steering gear, which I had previously arranged to be shipped out to the Falkland Islands, gave away 20 now empty jerry cans and generally tidied up Iron Bark. There were several other yachts in Stanley, all interesting. I had met two of them in Antarctica, The Alderman and Express Crusader. Another, Mirabelle, was a lovely varnished hull sloop of about 35 ft with a British crew whose average age was well over 70. There was a steel Canadian sloop from Newfoundland that later spent the winter in the Falkland Islands and the next winter in South Georgia and another Canadian vessel, this one aluminium, called Toanui. Despite its kiwi name, the owner was originally from Tasmania. The only production fibreglass yacht was a Tayana that had sailed down the Pacific Ocean from Japan and around Cape Horn and looked pretty ragged.

I left the Falkland Islands on 24 March and sailed up the Atlantic to Trinidad, when I hoped there was a job waiting for me. The passage took 55 days including a two-day stop in Fernando da Naronha, an island off the bulge of Brazil.


  1. Hi Trevor,

    I have followed all your blog posts with great interest and admiration. I am involved in a Wylo based project that has Nick Skeates blessing called Voyaging Yachts. I would like to send you a private e-mail and would appreciate it if you could let me have your e-mail address. I can be contacted at

    Fair winds.


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