Thursday, 16 February 2012

A warm breeze

A warm breeze

The Astrolabe, IPEV's workhorse ship that shuttles between Hobart and DDU, is relatively small for these waters -
65metres long by about 13 - and when moored up in Hobart alongside the big ex-soviet icebreakers that also lie up
there, she is absolutely dwarfed. It was originally designed as a supply vessel for the oil industry and its sister
ship operates in the north sea. It is flat bottomed, and that's why IPEV use it as the sea around DDU is shallow and
difficult to manoeuvre. A lot of the open deck has had accommodation built onto it, but it has kept the heli-pad. She
carries about ten crew, and forty passengers. Having seen and heard of this ship for so long, it seemed very familiar
when I saw it moored at DDU the day we visited. The pack ice had been broken back just enough at the quayside, and
the ship's bow was only a couple of metres away from the ice. There was a steady procession of Adelie penguins
walking past her bow as they toiled between sea and nests. They didn't take much notice of her but eight emperor
penguins in a tight huddle at the water's edge stared and stared at the ship, clearly fascinated by it.

After two more very pleasant days at Prud'homme we got taken by the helicopter to board the ship, just a couple of
hours before her departure. Myself and three others from the Prudhomme station. The pilot knew the others well so he
pulled a couple of fun moves as he flew up, I had my heart in my mouth for a moment.

The ship was ready to depart a couple of hours early so the decision was made to use it to break the pack towards a
meteo station on one of the small islands between DDU and Cap Prud'homme. With all cargo and passengers embarked – at
least half of the passengers worked at Concordia this summer, so I know them very well - it sailed round into the bay
and as close to the station as possible. It took runs at the ice, the nose riding up onto the pack and then sinking
down, breaking the ice underneath it. It only made about 30 metres each time as the metre thick ice was about the
ship's limit. But this time it got the job done. Then, turning its nose out of the bay, we left Antarctica.

That evening sailing away from DDU the whole sea, as far as I could see, was completely white covered, white with
fragments of pack ice from very small up to tens of metres across. And the horizon was completely hidden from view in
all directions by icebergs, some near, some very distant, some relatively small but formed into fantastical shapes,
the really large ones - tabular and regular shaped - further off usually. We did pass close to one that was 10km long
and therefore as long as my home town and the next village, and the 5 km of road between them all taken together.
I stood on the heli-pad at the back of the boat, but I found I couldn't stay there. The boat was rolling and pitching
quite hard, not because of ocean swell. The sea was flat calm, there was no breeze at all. The boat's strong lurches
movements were because she was making frequent hard turns as she negotiated the ice. The ship can bash lumps of pack
ice out of the way but we get slowed down by the impact, often from her cruising speed to almost a standstill. So to
keep speed up it's better to steer a weaving course through the broken pack and keep the impacts to a minimum. But
impacts are frequent, and on that first evening I got several bruises from bumping into cabins' forward walls when the
ship got slowed by heavy pieces of pack. Deep rumbling impacts would vibrate through the ship's hull.

The continent disappeared from view too quickly, hidden by this towering icy seascape of bergs. But Antarctica still
had one last little surprise for me, which I'm quite sure I'll never forget. As the sky greyed over and the wind
rose, it started to snow, just as I was thinking about getting inside. And each snowflake landing on my jacket was a
perfectly sharp, unique, six pointed symmetrical shape. Just like I've heard described all my life, but I've never,
ever seen before. Farewell to you too, Antarctica.

The sea was calm, as usual, until the ship cleared the ice and there we ran into a pretty large swell. The twenty
four hours after that almost all the passengers were confined to their bunks by sea sickness and even three of the
ship's crew were incapacitated. Both Yves-Marie, the official ship's doctor and I have been given bunks in the ship's
medical room. Boxes and bags of hospital material were throwing themselves around and several times one or other of us
got up in the night to put it all back again and resecure the restraints. I took a look out the door leading to the
rear deck just to see waves which I knew would be enormous. It was quite something to see the stern of the boat
pitched far back down, squirming in the trough of a very big wave then rising on the face of a cross-wave, rolling
heavily to one side. I shut the door, don't want to watch too much of that, that's for sure. They flung our not-
so-light boat around with such ease. Over the following days the weather and the sea state gradually settled but me,
I was hardly able to get off my bunk for two days.

Finally, today, I have my sea legs, the nystagmus is gone, and I've been able to see, eat and drink normally. I can
sit quite comfortably in the hospital writing as the ship continues to roll around. As I type this my chair
periodically slides two feet backwards leaving my fingers momentarily typing thin air. Then a moment later it slides
considerately back to where I started. Our hospital door is two metres away from the exit out to the rear deck. It's
kept open all day to get some fresh air in, and today there is a warm breeze flowing in from outside. I went outside
to take a look and some water poured off the deck above and over my legs and shoes. It was warm. Warm, flowing
water. The swell has eased off quite a bit. The sea is blue, reflecting a clear sky and our progress toward
Australia. We should make it to Hobart tomorrow night. There are three or four albatrosses following us.

It's warm, at last. At long last.

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