Sunday, 5 December 2010

The journey south - James Clark Ross

The final stage of my journey to Bird Island was aboard the RRS James Clark Ross, a massive research vessel owned and operated by BAS. For passengers such as myself the JCR feels more like a luxury hotel than a working ship; with private ensuite rooms, three course dinners with full table service and the Officer’s and Scientist’s Lounge featuring a fully stocked bar. Rumours that the ladies have to wear cocktail dresses to dinner every night turned out to be unfounded, however.

The RRS James Clark Ross at dock in Stanley.

It's massive! Here's a photo with me in for scale.

The JCR was launched by HM The Queen on the 1st December 1990 and is equipped to conduct a wide range of scientific survey work. She can steam at a steady two knots through level sea ice one metre thick (the ship that is, not The Queen). To assist passage through heavy pack ice a compressed air system rolls the ship from side to side freeing the passage. The ship is named after Admiral Sir James Clark Ross (1800-1862) who conducted early explorations of Antarctica and also discovered the magnetic North Pole in 1831. These achievements were enough not only to get a BAS ship named after him but also a sea (The Ross Sea), an island (Ross Island) and an ice shelf (The Ross Ice Shelf).

The JCR also transports equipment to bases. This is a snow blowing machine headed for Rothera.

Here's a close up of the warning sign on that snow blower.

On a tour of the engine rooms with Duncan, the Chief Engineer.

This is the drive shaft that turns the propeller, with me for scale.

On Wednesday 27th October the engines were fired up and the ship pulled out of Stanley Harbour and set a course for South Georgia. Not immediately though, first we parked up just outside the harbour to allow the crew to raise and lower the lifeboats a few times. There was also a lifeboat drill for us. The drill begins with the emergency alarm going off, whereupon we have to grab an immersion suit and life jacket from the wardrobe in our cabin and proceed with all due haste to our muster station. For us scientists this happens to be the bar. Not, sadly, so we can soften the prospect of our imminent demise with a few stiff gins & tonic, but simply because it is a nice big room close to the cabins. The captain may then give the order to abandon ship, in which case we must don our immersion suit, which is basically a baggy, bright orange dry suit that covers every part of you except your face. The bits where your hands go are thick neoprene mittens, so once inside the suit all manual dexterity is lost. This makes the next step – donning your life jacket – rather tricky. The life jackets on the JCR are of a design that has changed little since the sinking of the Titanic, consisting of two enormous pieces of foam strapped to your torso with white fabric tapes. The combined effect of the immersion suit and life jacket is to almost completely restrict movement of any part of your body whatsoever, and thus attired you are expected to make your way to the lifeboat – and remember in a real emergency it might be completely dark with the ship pitching and rolling in heavy seas – and climb in through the narrow door. The lifeboat is fully enclosed and can hold 80 people, strapped to narrow wooden benches along the walls and central aisles. Before it is launched you are given a sea-sickness tablet, since even the most hardened sailor can get sick inside an enclosed lifeboat. Once one person is sick this tends to set off a chain reaction and everyone else also starts being sick. At this point, inside an enclosed space that is quickly filling up with sick, you will be wishing they had given you a cyanide tablet instead of a sea-sickness tablet. Finally the lifeboat is launched, or launches automatically if the ship sinks first, and you then drift at sea, sloshing around in the sick, trapped inside your immersion suit and eating a teaspoonful of marmite a day until you are rescued. I sincerely hoped we did not have to abandon ship.

The lifeboat / sick factory.

After the lifeboat drill we all went and stood on the monkey island (not as entertaining as it sounds, it’s just the open bit at the top of the ship) and watched as the Falklands receded into the distance. As we headed out to the open ocean Commerson’s dolphins frolicked around the bow of the ship and albatrosses, giant petrels and cape petrels glided through the air around us. There had been much speculation about who would be sick and who wouldn’t, and I was a little intrepid as we set off, having never experienced really violent seas myself. I was kind of looking forward to the challenge as well though, and to being able to say ‘I sailed the Southern Ocean and didn’t throw up at all’ or ‘I sailed the Southern Ocean and puked non-stop for three days until nothing was coming up but stomach lining’. The Southern Ocean is, after all, reputed to be one of the most unpredictable and tempestuous oceans of them all, and after three days on it I can confidently say ‘I sailed the Southern Ocean and it was calm and sunny and the worst thing that happened was I felt a little bit sleepy’.

A cape petrel.

Launching the cargo tender that transfers people and supplies to Bird Island.

Unloading some cargo at Bird Island.

Fuel for the summer months - 120 barrels have to be moved by hand to the fuel store.

Bird Island, home for the next 30 months.

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