Wednesday 29th February 2012

All I want to say today has been said by someone else already:

“Thou glorious mirror,

Where the Almighty’s form

Glasses itself in tempests.

Dark-heaving – boundless, endless, and sublime, the image of eternity, the throne

Of the Invisible.

 

And I have loved thee, Ocean! And my joy

Of youthful sports was on thy breast to be

Borne, like thy bubbles, onward: from a boy

I wantoned with thy breakers.”

(Lord Byron)

Tuesday 28th February 2012

The ship is bucking wildly. Much of our stuff is still lying on the floor in the cabin (I am sharing with two others) and will just have to remain there until after the storm.  At dinner tonight, my chair slid to the right and so did I, until I landed on the lap of the diner next to me. It is quite a thrill to see the huge waves hit the dining room portholes as well as the portholes on the level above.  

(Lurching into the swell, water, water, everywhere!)

I have just been to the poop deck, at the back of the ship, one level below the heli-deck.  When the ship dips down, one looks straight into a 10-metre (30 feet) wall of almost black water. It is both terrifying and exciting at the same time. We shrieked when it looked as if the water was going to crash over the deck, smashing us in the process…Luckily, it didn’t! According to an experienced sailor, the waves will indeed crash over the deck before the night is over. Suddenly it started to hail, but due to the strong wind, it came at us horizontally!

(A great big wall of black water rises ominously above the poop deck)

We have been forced a little off course to cope with the swell and to make life on the ship a bit more comfortable. That means the ‘corkscrewing’ motion is lessened, much, to my relief!

(An albatross, as grand as ever, not perturbed by the storm)

Monday 27th February 2012

Early this morning, the intensity of the storm increased severly. That was apparent to us all. Most of our stuff fell off the shelves and I almost fell out of bed. The chairs have been lying upside for two days already, and there really is no point in trying to keep them upright. Our speed has been reduced to about 4 knots, severely slowing down our progress. Hopefully, the storm will be over by tomorrow, but I hear that there is another on the way that we might just hit or just miss…

(Wild, but pretty exciting! The Little Red Boat is about 110m (330 feet) long  – and is being tossed about by the ocean as if she were a cork in a bathtub)

It is really difficult to do anything when the ship is bucking around like this. Even staying awake is a challenge. I spoke to the doctor and asked why so many of us were feeling so tired. The response was that it is hard work for the brain to maintain the body's balance and its proper, upright position when everything around it is moving unpredictably, especially when one is indoors and unable to see the ocean and the horizon and thereby, anticipate the movement. Makes sense to me. Many passengers spend much of the day in their bunks, emerging only at mealtimes.

(I got soaked taking this photo as the water was splashing onto the deck with great force)

I got up early, had breakfast and was fully intending to be constructive. I sat down and started reading then woke up an hour later, still sitting but just emerging from a gentle coma. I tried reading again. Then woke up another hour later, still sitting up…

Sadly, the Northwesterly wind has transformed into a Southwesterly, which means we get hit by the swell from the side. Thus, instead of a rhythmic up-and-down swaying motion, the ship perfoms an uncomfortable corkscrew motion. My ‘favourite’. Ha, ha! But all that was forgotten for a while when the heavens provided a dramatic and astonishingly beautiful sunset…

(Charcoal clouds barely allow the sunlight to shine through onto the wild ocean)

The weather is not improving and we already lost time yesterday from having to slow down to about 4 knots. The front that was predicted to have passed over us still has not finished passing by. I am not sure that I still have patience for this. I feel so much closer to home and yet still so far away. It certainly looks like this darn storm is following us around!  At midnight tonight, we will set our clocks forward by one hour.

“Time writes no wrinkle on thine azure brow: Such as creation’s dawn beheld, thou rollest now.”  (Lord Byron)

 

 

 

Saturday 25th February 2012

The swell is increasing. Part of the sky is overcast and it is snowing, while in another part of the sky, the sun is shining! The swell is already about 4 to 6m (12 to 18 feet). 

The weatherman predicts that we will be rocking and rolling in the next days, as there are a few storm fronts moving through this area. He showed me that if we had been two days later in departing, we would have been caught in a huge storm with winds in excess of 50 knots. We will however, still get caught by the 40 knot winds once or twice.

(This large ice berg reminds me of lemon meringue pie!)

(Snowstorm at sea)

Thursday 23rd February 2012

And so it was that last night, the day that we were supposed to arrive back in Cape Town, we turned around to leave Antarctica. It should take us 8 to 10 days to sail to Cape Town.

We had waited 14 days for the weather to clear so that we could fly the other passengers and some cargo on board. Weeks of cruising east-west-east-west in the open sea, going nowhere, took their toll on my emotions. I was beginning to feel as though I was never going to see my family again! The weather was often so bad that it was thoroughly unpleasant to go outside. My body clock got all muddled up and I ended up being tired when I should be alert and awake when I should be sleepy .

Despite my intense longing to be reunited with my family, yesterday was a tough day for me. I had looked forward to an unhurried, gentle exit from here, slowly making our way out through the pack ice. But it did not happen that way. One moment we were in the ice and the next it was like someone had cut a line and we were gone, out. Open water. At least there were still some icebergs floating around.

(The very weathered remains of a blue iceberg)

The night was dark and cold. It was the first pitch darkness I had seen in a while, as during the last 14 nights that we spent waiting beyond the pack ice, the nights were merely twilight. The Little Red Boat swayed heartily as she built up to about 11 knots  -  the fastest we had cruised in a while.

We have just been given the official estimated time of arrival: 3 March at 08h00. However, we were warned that there are often storms in the lower latitudes that can blow us off course for a day or two…

Although it is not really storming outside, the ship is rolling about. The ocean currents move from West to East and we are going North-ish, aiming straight for Cape Town,  so the swell is hitting us from the side. Earlier, it snowed while the sun shone brightly above. Hey guys, ‘min dae’ (an Afrikaans expression for 'only a few days to go") !

(Interesting shape, I wonder how far this one has travelled with the currents?)

("If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee…" (PB Shelley))

(I just love the clouds and the silver highlights on the ice berg and ocean)

 

Wednesday 22nd February 2012 – Home we go!

(Again, for this post, all photos are courtesy of the webcam at the Neumayer base)

I think it is about 17h00. The chopper has just landed after dropping its last load on the front deck of the Little Red Boat. The crew rushes past me, where I am standing outside on the walkway, port side. They are animated and excitedly slapping each other on the back.

(An animation of the loading seen from Neumayer – the cargo sled is bottom left (photos from 07:00-18:00)

I ask: "Hey guys, what's up? "

They reply: "The Captain has given the order: prepare the ship for seafaring."

That's it: we are on our way home.

One of the young crew members says to me: "Soon, I will be home, I'll see Table Mountain, my house, my bed and my girlfriend in it."

The ice is dense. Pancake ice surrounded by smallish floes. One lone, beautiful blue iceberg on the horizon.  The ship is moving past it, seemingly faster and faster. Perhaps that is just my imagination. I check the heading on the pc inside the lounge:  we are going North. Within minutes the ice starts thinning out. We will be in the open water soon.

Northward, homeward.

Wednesday 22nd February 2012 – Morning loading

Wonders never cease! The weather is still good enough to fly! Our one chopper is flying cargo from the ice shelf to the ship. It's a long haul for the pilots, Tjaart and Bees and the engineer, John. Their dedicated support crew stands by on the heli deck and in the hangar, ready to perform whatever needs to be done at each touchdown. It's freeeezzzzing out there. A cargo flight takes about an hour round trip, as the load is heavy and the ship is far from the ice shelf. The pack ice is too thick for the ship to get closer to the ice shelf, and I am guessing that the captain does not want to risk getting stuck in the ice at any cost!

The ice is thick around here, and getting thicker. All around us there is 'pancake ice', i.e. the new ice that is forming as winter approaches. It is quite beautiful.  Imagine a roundish, semi-translucent piece of floating ice, of which the edges are slightly raised and more solid-looking and white. Some pieces are as small as a saucer and others, the size of a small coffee table. I wish I could film it over a period of days to see how each little molecule actually gets added to the bulk until it grows into a floe. Plenty of seals are floating about on top of the ice floes. Generally, they just ignore us. Penguins? Sadly, I have not seen any in a while. It's cold outside. I love to stand on the deck and watch the sea of ice around me heave and give way as the ocean swell beneath it rises and dips.

Saturday 18th February 2012 – Waiting. Still.

We have been on the ship for about 10 days already. Actually, I have lost count  – I think it is more than that. Sailing East then West, biding time and staying clear of the pack ice while waiting. Sometimes, turning South to see if there is access to the ice shelf so that the back-loading of the ship may commence.

It is a waiting game. Wait for the storm to pass. Wait for the wind to lie down. Wait for the wind to blow harder. Wait for the ice to melt. Wait for the wind to change direction from easterly to southerly. Then we wait for it to blow the pack ice away from the ice shelf . Wait for clear weather so that the choppers can fly.

Down here, you learn to wait. It seems that we have been granted ample waiting time in which to perfect the art of waiting. The difference, I have discovered, is that down here the waiting is not measured in minutes or hours, but in days and weeks. It has taken me quite a shift in mindset to cope with this.

It could be worse, though. Like in 'the old days', when the waiting was counted in years and months. In those days, when a ship got stuck down here, it was a long wait, often 18 months or two years, sometimes even longer, before they would be on their way home again!

Just wait and see, I am sure there will be a few surprises yet!

Thursday 16th February 2012 – Ice

The Captain gets satellite images regularly. However, even the satellite images of the ice conditions don't always help very much. For example, they don't show the vertical thickness of the ice, nor do they show if the ice is what is called 'first year ice' or multiple year ice. First year ice is freshly formed ice from the current season. It is relatively soft and fairly easy to break through. Ice that is a composite of first and second year ice is harder, but can still be attempted, depending. And with extra caution. Ice that is older than 2 years is going to stop the Little Red Boat dead in her tracks. The only way to really know what ice you are dealing with is to sail right up to it and take a look at it. Clearly, this can be risky and can lead you into a dead end, costing time and diesel.

'Polynas' ( I think this is a Russian word) are open leads or patches of blue water between the floes of pack ice. This is what the Captain looks for, and they are not always shown that clearly on satellite images, apart from the fact that they change continuously.

The wind and the tides can and do have a huge effect on the distribution of the ice. I have often stared for hours at the vast expanse of white around the ship. It is easy to be fooled into thinking that it is solid, immovable. However, the heaving swell of the Southern Ocean is merely subdued, and not eliminated by the weight of the seemingly solid cloak of ice floating on top. The wind and tides move these masses of ice around constantly. I have often been amazed at how fast it all can happen.

Another  issue is that we are heading for winter. Thus, the tendency is for the ice to become more and to get thicker and harder. This means that our window of opportunity for back-loading the ship is becoming smaller and smaller. We might just have to leave some things behind, up there on the ice.

This is Antarctica and ANYTHING is possible! You just never know for sure what's going to happen, until it happens. Believe me, I will let you know when IT  happens!

Sunday 12th February 2012 – Plans, changes

We're still biding our time, waiting for the weather to clear.

If necessary, some things will have to stay behind on the ice until next year. Certain scientists are already planning to repack their cargo from one big container into lots of smaller ones, so that they can be airlifted to the ship. It looks like Sunday afternoon will be clear enough for flying and hopefully, the loading will commence then.

Nobody knows.

We have two very competent captains driving this ship and I have full confidence in their ability to make the right decision, when the time presents itself. They don't like to 'get ahead' of themselves. They never commit too far into the future, I saw that on the way here. They like to wait and see a bit, because down here, things change all the time. You never know what might happen. I did hear someone say that one of the captains said 'we float well but we don't crush well', meaning that he does not want to stay here long enough to get crushed by the ice. Winter is approaching, and getting crushed is a reality.

Also, food might get a bit scarce on the ship if we stay down here much longer.