Go with the floe

Davis departure (12 Dec), turning in our tracks (if only it were that easy)

Davis departure (12 Dec), turning in our tracks (if only it were that easy)

Once captive on the ship we were briefed that it would be a slow journey home. Following the broken refrozen chunks to the fast ice edge a few miles away was easy enough. The journey through the open polynya was very pleasant, with stretches of open water, pancake ice bobbing up and down in the breeze, and young grey sea ice rippling in the wake of the ship as we weaved through majestic icebergs, on the trawl deck drinking our first beers since before resupply.

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The following morning at around 6:30am we reached the pack ice band at the northern reaches of the polynya. This was to become our purgatory for the next two weeks. As the incoming crew discovered the pack ice is very heavy this year. Unfortunately for us, this time we did not have the luxury of extra fuel to burn to probe for leads and bash our way through the pack.

Weather observations station – my office for the month

Weather observations station – my office for the month

I took three hour weather observations and complained that the forecasts were “awful”, and “way too accurate”. It was generally completely overcast with snow and light winds adding to the gloom. The heaped up snow absorbs the impact of the ice breaker making progress painfully slow, the thick cloud cover obscures satellite images and reduces visibility and surface definition, and the light winds offer no hope of breaking up the pack.

Heavy pack ice

Heavy pack ice

I removed 14 alarms from my Davis schedule, opened and sorted my mail, magazines, and DVDs that I’d bought a year ago, sent some emails, sent a few more, updated my blog, hung around with the winterers including a few new recruits from Mawson, talked to Mike about mountaineering guiding and thought about career and lifestyle choices. Being involved in the Antarctic program sometimes provokes deep thoughts of civilisation and the importance of education, helping one another, and having good social skills. Lloyd’s blog made interesting reading and was at times touching – talking of stepping outside yourself in a time of crisis. It also reminds you to live knowing that you won’t live forever. Adding to my restlessness I got psyched watching the paragliding DVDs and then had to endure the bad news – described in an email I sent on 19 November, a year after departing Hobart:

Bit of a sad day today. It looks like we will be stuck in this stupid pack ice a while yet, jeopardising my week flying sailplanes in early Dec. So I tried to avoid looking at maps, and thought I’d do some spanish instead. Since my iPod has been broken I’ve just got Manu Chao (music, rather than audio lessons), and the lyrics are damn depressing. I can’t find an atlas or even a travel related book on board (bar Antarctica) – just a few magazines. They say with sailing when it’s windy you yearn for calm and vice versa.

Circumzenithal arc

Circumzenithal arc

Sending emails and socialising is great but I need to do something physical and I detest the gym. I think a quick dip in the water with the penguins, seals and minke whales should do the trick – maybe even get me flown home on medical grounds? A few days ago I saw my first circumzenithal arc (inverted rainbow above a halo in cirrostratus), the guys on the bridge appreciated it. Nothing much else to report – lots of medium continuous snow and misty at the moment.

Minke whale

Minke whale

My iPod may be broken but thank God my phone still has music – pearl jam’s Long Road came up on shuffle, singing it on the top deck “and the wind keeps roaring and the sky keeps turning grey” “and the sun is set, the sun will rise another day”.

Sunset on the Aurora Australis

Sunset on the Aurora Australis

Ten days after departing, on 22 November, I wrote: Outlook for the ship is bleak indeed. We are stuck in the middle of the pack ice with limited fuel.

There is a chance we will go back to Davis and fly home but we won’t go anywhere until the ice conditions change (weather event, nothing forecast).

The following day the Basler flew out to do a route reconnaissance flight for us, and this boosted our morale greatly. Shortly after the flight we started the engines for the first time in several days, and set through following leads for over an hour without having to reverse.

Basler reconnaissance 23 November

Basler reconnaissance 23 November

This high point was short lived though and the following day, after giving up on bashing through a pressure ridge to a open lead only one or two hundred metres away, we spent literally three hours just turning around. By the time we’d knocked off ice fragments all along our broadside we were sitting ducks in a soupy quagmire of ice rubble. Sometimes I wonder if our French captain wishes he was the only one on the ship? We retired for the night, yet again, and the next day the AAD formally requested assistance from the Japanese who were leaving Fremantle for their resupply program in two days time.

With the Japanese Shirase potentially coming to help we joked about the abundance of Minke whales, but our captain wasn’t laughing – he seemed to have found a new resolve to get us out of there. Soon after 4am on 26 November we commenced bashing an enormous sheet of ice, gradually opening up long cracks.

Cracking the "keystone"

Cracking the “keystone”

Nine hours later we finally prevailed over this “keystone” ice chunk and spent the next hours merrily connecting leads.

Emperor penguins

Emperor penguins

Ice conditions were still heavy but finally we were making a steady 2-4 knots progress as large ice chunks were slowly persuaded to let us pass.

I noted that our ground track looks a bit like the barograph – jagged and bumpy where we are ice bashing, and a smooth line where we rest and drift.

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The mood on the ship picked up and I started thinking about salvaging my plans on my return. With relatively poor visibility and surface definition we parked up that night but on the 27th I remember being excited as I lay down to bed – it was the first night since the polynya that we were motoring along all night.

More heavy pack ice

More heavy pack ice

On the 28th of November, our seventeenth day on the ship, we finally passed through the last of the heavy ice. It abruptly changed to thinly dispersed rotting ice with a noticeable increase in water temperature. I stayed up in a mood of elation as we cruised along in glassy conditions, headed for blue sky and the open southern ocean. After being asked all year if I can’t wait to go home, now I can finally say that I am no longer waiting – we are cruising at 14 knots for a Saturday night in Hobart.

Reaching open water

Reaching open water

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