Aug – Wind and Snow… and more wind

30 August, 2007

Hello and welcome to the August diary of Rothera Research Station, I’m Jim the Boating Officer, or JimBoat to the locals, and I excitedly volunteered to indulge readers with the daily activities and adventures for this last month. But first, what is the Boating Officer and how can there be boating during winter in the Antarctic?

(I asked myself that same question when I first heard about the British Antarctic Survey whilst sat around a campfire in the Bahamas on a diving expedition back in 2001. That was a while ago and I’ve since fulfilled that dream.)

The answer: Rothera is based on Adelaide Island and naturally islands are surrounded by sea (though the further south you go, islands become ‘nunataks’ and are surrounded by ice). We are one of the most southerly locations providing continuous marine biological and environmental data year round, and these activities (diving, biological data acquisition and terrestrial surveys) require boats for transportation, safety and deployment.

The Boating Officer is responsible for the deployment of small boat activities within the Ryder Bay area and close proximity to Rothera station. ‘Small boat’ generally defines a 5 to 12 metre length engine-powered watercraft. At Rothera, we have 3 ‘Humber’ RIBs (Rigid Inflatable Boats) and 2 ‘Avon’ inflatables of average length 5m. They are stored on trailers, deployed by slipway during the summer and crane during winter. The boats are powered by 40 HP 2-stroke ‘Mariner’ engines, which are easy to maintain and store. All of this is run from the boatshed at the southern point of base overlooking the wharf. Coxswains (boat drivers) are trained prior to leaving the UK and familiarised on arrival, and base personnel can volunteer and be trained as Competent Crew (boat assistants). The Boatman (as he is traditionally called) has to train and organise these personnel, as well as maintain the boats, and ensure diving, recreational boat trips, Search and Rescue cover, and island transportation are provided. I shan’t repeat Kelvin, Birgit and Alison (other diary entrants) on the exact activities of the Marine Team of which I am a member, but all in all, its an exciting and stimulating position!

So, August and the progress of isolation for the 22 winterers continues with a full month of winter trips. Winter trips are a seven-day break for each winterer, during which they get the opportunity to develop their skills in polar activities, and these will be useful when deployed in the field during the summer season. The first rounds of trips were in April and May, and everyone was raring to go for their second trip. The sun is increasing its day length, the views are different with all the snowfall and wind scooping, and everyone feels buoyant by the return of the sun. These trips are an excellent chance to learn new skills, hone experience or relax before the rush of the summer whilst see some different aspects of Adelaide Island. Each winterer is asked for a plan, given a FGA (Field General Assistant, or field guide) and a couple of groups head out each week over August and September. With the guidance of the FGA’s, there are a wealth of gradients to ski down, ridges to walk along and mountains to climb. You set your own standard, draw your kit from stores, and refresh some skills with the FGA, then when your weather window opens, head out into the heart of Adelaide Island.

Some choose to relax and take day trips, others go for the extremes, such as Alistair the doctor, who having walked across Greenland, wished to stretch his legs down south. His plan was ‘to pulk’ (tow a low, small sled) to a range of hills NW of Rothera. He carefully calculated weights, trained in the local area and set off with Drew the FGA to cover areas that only they could access. Alas, the weather dampened their plans but they had a very enjoyable time.

The weather proved particularly frustrating for many as one might expect in the coldest, windiest continent on Earth. Certain weather conditions prevent travel for safety reasons, and one might then have to enjoy the close company of your FGA in a pyramid tent for a week, instead of climbing some gnarly hills. It is however a unique experience to stay in a tent while the snow whirls around and the wind blows.

My personal intentions were relaxed as I had a successful trip to the southern tip of the island in April with Mark. Drew and I had discussed many options and we were ready for all kinds of weather. The plan to snowboard a mountain, climb some ridges and learn some ice-climbing skills. On the Sunday, we sat down in the Library with a delicious cup of coffee and stared out over a windy, cloudy view of Reptile Ridge. With that, we rustled up a group of folk and headed to the Ramp (the access to the rest of the island) for skiing and snowboarding. The days progressed through the week and the wind prevailed, however we sneaked in ice climbing training on the cliffs behind the Hangar, which I greatly relished. It seemed that my excesses of maintenance in the boatshed and diving with the Marine Team had exhausted my body and by the end of the week, I was confined to bed. This might seem demoralising given the holiday opportunity but the support of the team is humbling and I was duly woken when the shout went out that an Emperor penguin was walking through base.

Winter generally leads to a decline in wildlife around base. With the sea freezing, many animals migrate north, others become more prevalent. We had sea ice around the area at the start of August and occasionally would see Weddell seals in the occasional hole. The Marine Team being the most active team, get out onto the ice to dive and we’ll often observe snow petrels whilst on the ice. August weather has proven very diverse with minimum temps of -23oC on day 11 that rose to a maximum of +3oC on the 16th. Mixed with winds as high as 64 knots (74mph), the sea ice had soon blown away. With clear water, seals (Weddell, Crabeater and Elephant) were soon hauling out nearby and more birds were spotted, such as Arctic terns, shags and gulls.

When the weather is windy and snowy, efforts to get outdoors can become frustrated. However, there is still much on base to occupy us. We have badminton in the hangar (with promise of a competition in September), table tennis in the Admirals accommodation block and board games in Bransfield House. For the creative, there is an Arts room with paints, paper, card and all forms of colours. The joiner’s workshop is often very busy as people carve, stick and tack various creations; Scott the chippy is very patient and generous with his time and has helped produce some amazing pieces. Individually, some are budding photographers (with a photo competition in Sept) and we have a wealth of gifted musicians and budding singers. Parties always go down well and fancy dress makes the affair particularly colourful, notable this month was Casino night. The gym was reorganised with a roulette wheel and card table, and cocktails were served along with a fine buffet by Cyril the chef. Additionally, Cyril has Sundays off so one can volunteer to cook and even develop your culinary skills. Where else do you have a captive audience to test new dishes on!

Soon the planes will be returning to Rothera, the field parties will be deployed about the Antarctic and biologists will be swelling the Bonner Lab with research activities. This is additional to re-supply and base development. Winter seems to be flown by so fast, and hence I have extended my contract for another year to enjoy the wonder of living in the Antarctic and indulging in such a diverse range of activities.

I bid you adieu and hope this has given a taster of life on base in August. Hello to my family (Mum, Dad, Kate and Granny) and relatives, as well as all my friends who have supported me with news and gossip from home, plus those from further a field.

Take care,

Jim Elliott