Sunday, 10 July 2011

Midwinter 2011

The Midwinter Celebration has a noble history dating back to the earliest days of Antarctic exploration. Shackleton’s men celebrated midwinter on the ill-fated Endurance, despite the fact that their ship was trapped in the sea ice and being slowly crushed. The following description comes from various sources:

'They held a special celebration on Midwinter’s Day, June 22. The Ritz was decked out with bunting and flags and Hurley built a stage of sorts that was lighted by a row of acetylene gas footlights. After the best dinner the cook could provide, all hands gathered in the Ritz, where the men staged a four hour "smoking concert" during which they all dressed in outlandish costumes and recited silly songs and verses. McIlroy, dressed up as a Spanish girl and a very wicked looking one at that, with a very low evening dress and slit skirt showing a bare leg above her stocking tops, gave the Danse Espagnol. After supper at midnight they sang ‘God Save the King’ and wished each other all success in the days of sunshine and effort that lay ahead.'*

Midwinter dinner, The Endurance, 22nd June 1915.

Midwinter dinner, Bird Island, 21st June 2011.

The traditions of eating, drinking and dressing in outlandish costumes remain to this day, though every Antarctic base has its own particular set of Midwinter customs. Hopefully the following will give you a flavour of Midwinter, Bird Island style.

Midwinter dip

One of the more demented traditions of Midwinter is the Midwinter dip, a chance for everyone to strip down to their flimsiest undergarments and hurl themselves into the icy Southern Ocean, thus proving how manly they are. When it comes to cold water I am a complete wimp, as anyone who has been swimming with me in the outdoors will tell you, so I had been dreading the Midwinter dip from the first moment I heard about it. The thought of it made me feel physically sick, in fact. However, after much mutual encouragement / goading, those of us partaking in the dip somehow found ourselves standing on the jetty on Midwinters morning in our swimsuits. Paul and Jenn went for the spectacular ‘jumping off the jetty’ approach whereas I chose the more sedate, but still pretty heroic in my opinion, ‘running down the beach’ approach. Mick bravely volunteered to stay on the jetty and take photos. The water temperature was a brisk 1°C and the air temperature an even brisker -0.4°C, but nevertheless when Mick shouted ‘go!’ we all plunged in and then plunged straight back out again, shrieking and gasping. The cold didn’t really hit me until I was halfway back up the beach, at which point I think my brain shut down and stopped receiving any nerve impulses, so it wasn’t as painful as I had expected. We scampered back up to the building and jumped straight into our pre-prepared hot tub (actually an old water storage tank) for a post-dip recovery session which involved quite a lot of brandy. In summary, jumping into icy cold water: not as bad as you might think.

Midwinter presents

Midwinter’s Day is the moment for the unveiling and handing over of the Midwinter presents, which have been in preparation for the previous three months. At the start of winter everyone on base draws the name of one other base member out of a hat, and then has to make a present for that person. The whole process is shrouded in secrecy – nobody knows who is making presents for whom, or what anyone else is making, until Midwinter’s Day itself. People tend to go all out when making the MWP and will spend long hours in the workshop shaping, carving and whittling pieces of wood and metal into elaborate and spectacular creations. Examples of presents from previous years and other bases include a whale carved out of driftwood, a scale model of a Nansen sledge inside a glass bottle and a sculpture of an albatross in flight made out of scrap metal. So no pressure then.

Since my woodworking skills are close to non-existant I tried to think of something that would be relatively straightforward, and therefore difficult for me to mess up. After weeks of indecision I finally hit on the idea of making a wine rack out of an old man-food box (a wooden crate which originally contained rations for field expeditions). This way most of the structure was already built and I would merely have to add some internal shelves to the box. But, like many things in life, it turned out to be more complicated than I had originally thought, and on Midwinter’s Eve I was still working on it, cursing it, and at one stage hitting it with a hammer to try and get it all to fit together. In the end it was more ‘barely presentable’ than ‘spectacular’, but Mick seemed quite pleased with it anyway, which was a huge relief.

The box, in it's original state.

Working on the present.

The finished wine rack.

The present I received was definately at the ‘spectacular’ end of the spectrum – a poker set in a beautiful wooden box, made by Paul our technical services guy. The box is made from a staggering 76 individual pieces of wood, glued together with perfect precision and polished to a high shine. It contains 160 poker chips, also made out of wood, each one with a smaller plastic disk inlaid into the centre of it. The chips, cards and ‘blind’ and ‘dealer’ tokens all sit in special compartments inside the box, and the whole thing is lined with green baize. The time and effort that went into making the present is incredible, and I was quite overwhelmed by it.

My poker set from Paul.

The inside of the poker set.

Jenn's present for Paul, a corkscrew and bottle opener.

Mick's present for Jenn (a work in progress!), a metal fishing buoy that washed ashore.

Bird Island Highland Games

I think all the BAS bases hold some version of the ‘games’ during Midwinter week, but at some stage in the pre-history of Bird Island it was decided that the games should be conducted wearing full Scottish dress, which as everyone knows means a kilt and a jimmy-wig. Thus the games became the Highland Games. This year’s games were a mix of the traditional and whatever else we could think of with stuff that was lying around, so included Archery, Tossing the caber, Welly whanging, Swingball, Throwing-a-ball-into-a-bucket, and the ancient Scottish game known as Beach Frisbee.

Mick McMackey.

Archery was the first event, with play delayed slightly while we constructed our own target. Then Mick gave us a lesson in the correct and safe use of a crossbow, and then the games began! Since archery is a sport that requires co-ordination and good spacial awareness I was naturally hopeless at it, and trailed at least 50 points behind everyone else throughout the event. However, by sheer chance in the last round I hit the smallest animal on the board (South Georgia pipit, 100 points) and sailed into the lead. Incidentally, if you are wondering why we have a crossbow lying around, it is for taking skin biopsy samples from fur seals, or in case the Argentinians ever invade again.

Preparing the target.

Some scarily life-like representations of the animals of Bird Island.

Crossbow training.

The games commence!

A macaroni penguin meets his end.

Ruth revels in her victory.

Jenn’s talents shone through in the welly whanging event, with her superior whanging technique keeping her in the lead throughout. Paul brought brute force to bear in tossing the caber and won the event easily. The swingball event was cancelled due to technical difficulties, whilst ball-in-a-bucket was dominated, quite to everyone’s surprise, by me. We’re not sure who won the beach frisbee, but everyone had tremendous fun playing it.

Jenn whangs.

Paul tosses.

Match point.

This never happens to Andy Murray.

More staggering feats of physical prowess.

Dr. Ruth's Science Lab

This is a new tradition for Bird Island, and one which may not survive until next year. I am a firm believer that learning science can be fun, and so decided to conduct an evening of interesting and diverting experiments involving alcoholic drinks (experiments can be found in the book ‘How To Fossilise Your Hamster’ by Mick O’Hare). During the course of the evening we learned about terpenes, esters, Henry’s law, Marangoni convection and that a vodka martini, whether shaken or stirred, tastes disgusting.

Before starting any experiment it is important to assemble the correct equipment.

Class of 2011.

*from ‘South’ by Ernest Shackleton, ‘Endurance’ by Alfred Lansing and the National Maritime Museum website.

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