“We hadn’t intended to be at sea last night. But once we knew this was an inevitability, we prepared for it. We could have hove-too, clear of most of the ice to the east and waited until the dawn, but to be in a gale in the Bransfield Strait, at night, in heavy ice conditions, was a very interesting experience for the whole crew.”
– Sir Peter Blake
- Location: Potter Cove, South Shetland Islands
- Latitude: 62.145S
- Longitude: 58.40W
- Wind: 30 knot easterly but easing
- Sea state: Slight
- Air temp: Minus 2 deg C
- Sea temp: 0 deg C
- Barometer: 990 mbs and rising
- Conditions: Abysmal, with driving sleet and snow
- Visibility: Very poor
1730 hrs: A tight squeeze.
When I mentioned yesterday that there were four hours of daylight left and only 35 miles to go, as we hoped for the corner of the ice reef in another 8 miles or so, well this turned out somewhat differently. We didn’t find “the corner” until much later, and even then this proved to be the start of a narrow lane in a much bigger sheet of broken ice than we could ever have imagined. At times it pinched in from both sides so that we had to slow right down and squeeze through a small gap in the ice – not being exactly sure how or if we were going to get through until the last moment.
The wind rose as the evening progressed until it was 35 to 40 knots from the east – driving fine sleet before it that covered everything. Gradually the decks became sheets of ice, the sea water froze on the life lines as it left the now-steep waves as heavy spray, and forward visibility reduced to less than 100 metres or so.
The crew and boat are put to the test.
Trying to find our way through the ice lane, littered with floating ice of all sizes, in a gale, with driving sleet, in the middle of the night, was certainly a testing time for the whole crew. There were generally two on the bow with the searchlight, looking for bergs. Marc, Alistair and Janot share this role. They were harnessed-on and in full survival suits – they were regularly covered with spray from the bow going under. Further aft we had several lookouts, all helping spot ice and direct the helmsman. Ollie and Don worked the radar and navigated, trying to find a way through the pack. It was vital to always have an escape route and not get hemmed in or be unable to return the way we had come.
We hadn’t intended to be at sea last night. But once we knew this was an inevitability, we prepared for it. We could have hove-too, clear of most of the ice to the east and waited until the dawn, but to be in a gale in the Bransfield Strait, at night, in heavy ice conditions, was a very interesting experience for the whole crew.
I have raced through the Southern Oceans a number of times and had near misses with ice as well as seen many bergs. I have never had a night like last night. It will certainly remain as a highlight, but one that I will be pleased if a repeat doesn’t come along too often.
We are very fortunate to be in such a strong, well-found vessel. Last night Seamaster came into her own. Only equivalent icebreakers would have attempted such a passage. We hit one large lump of clear ice, very difficult to see even in the full light of day, let alone at night-time. This thumped under Seamaster, hit the big steel centreboards and then the big propeller guards came into action and no doubt saved the props from damage. The crew checked down below as a matter of course, but this is what our ship was built for. We rarely deviate for small brash ice any more – we just chomp through it.
Chris accessed a very useful web site as the evening wore on, just prior to us finding a lane to squeeze north in – and came up with a satellite photo of our area. It was for the previous day, but showed the northern edge of the massive ice sheet of the northern Weddell Sea breaking up and drifting around into Bransfield Strait.
The current here normally runs to the northeast – but this many hundreds of square kilometres of compacted ice, including large bergs, has headed southwest – in the opposite direction to normal.
Satellite photos don’t usually give you the finer details, such as where there are breaks in the ice that we can fit through, but the ones Chris has presented in the Log today certainly give an appreciation of the overall size, and his ability to access such material from onboard will certainly help us when we prepare to head south again to hopefully better weather in the next few days.
By midnight we finally cleared the last funnel between the 2 sheets of compacted ice, passed behind an enormous berg, only just discernible in the driving sleet even though only a few hundred metres to windward, and motored up Maxwell Bay at the southern end of King George Island.
We entered Potter Cove using radar and our electronic MaxSea charting system that has proved so valuable in all our exploring to date. We could not see the land until we had actually anchored soon after 0100, just off the lights of the Argentine base of Jubany. (See picture)
Luckily this is a very protected anchorage – acknowledged as probably the best in the area – with very good holding for the anchor. But we still ran an anchor watch with me drawing the short straw to start it off.
It took a while for the adrenalin of the previous few hours to wear off. I don’t want too many more nights like that again.
Looking back on the experience, I don’t think we would have handled it differently, apart from to have stayed where we were and not left Trinity Island. To have accessed the satellite photos prior to departure would have alerted us to there being dense ice fields in the area, so we will be using this facility more often until we reach warmer waters north of the Antarctic Convergence in a couple of weeks time.
By this morning Seamaster was iced up on deck with the temperature at minus 5 degrees C, the sleet and snow reducing the visibility to near zero. We have stayed where we are for the day. We have hardly ventured outside, the big diesel heater in the saloon keeping downstairs very warm and cosy, while the wind and sleet have hammered the outside.
Chris has written a piece on the satellite imagery, as follows. The photographs relate to temperature – with white being coldest. The streams of icy katabatic winds flowing off the peninsula further south are very easy to differentiate.
Using satellite photos from the net
The satellite photos were captured off the internet courtesy of the US National Atmospheric and Oceanographic Administration (NOAA). The photos are taken every day of many regions of the world by a NOAA satellite. The purpose of these images is to analyze surface winds using a scatterometer. These same images are also used for detecting ice flows in Antarctica. Image A was taken on March 9th and Image B was taken today. The large mass located between the South Shetland Islands and the mainland of the Peninsula is not wind or land, but brash ice and icebergs that have frozen together to form an ice flow. As the wind and seas grow, this flow breaks up into smaller bits causing the navigational “challenge” we experienced last night. Through close observation of both images you can see that the southern/lower end of the ice flow has separated from the main section and is flowing south down the strait. We will use tomorrow’s images to determine our best path back to the Antarctic Peninsula.
For more information on these images, the JPL Scatterometer used for wind analysis, and other weather resources available online, please visit the following web sites:
www.natice.noaa.gov – U.S. National Ice Center, which monitors ice formation in both polar regions as well as many other glacial formations.
manati.wwb.noaa.gov/quikscat/ – Brigham Young University & NOAA research project in the monitoring of surface winds using a scatterometer.
uwamrc.ssec.wisc.edu/aws – University of Wisconsin Antarctic weather research. Automated Weather System.
1900 hrs: Today has been a catch-up day. We had a late breakfast, tidied ship and I caught up on some lost sleep.
The wind is now easing down and the bright orange buildings of the Argentine base stand out clear amongst the new snow just ahead of us. The cockpit is still full of snow, but the ice is starting to melt off the deck. The sun is weakly showing through an overcast sky.
The forecast is for light southerly winds tonight – turning westerly tomorrow. Tomorrow we plan to move to the head of Maxwell Bay and anchor near the Chilean, Uruguayan, Russian and Chinese bases.
We have some friends flying in to join us from South America, to the only airfield in the region.
I hope they like white!
Best wishes from all onboard.