Diary of a Rothera Boatman

June Diary: Midwinter at Rothera


June 1997

Dear All

I'm sorry that I haven't written for so long. Please let me explain ! June is quite a busy month down here. It's the month of Midwinter and for all us who are over wintering in the Antarctic it is a time of celebration. We celebrate in a style similar to Christmas back at home, everyone taking a week off in the build up to the day itself. As you'll know, this year Midwinter's Day - June 21 - fell on a Saturday. The following Sunday was a day to rest and now the base is back to its normal routine. I'm on nights this week so I have the place to myself between midnight and eight o'clock in the morning. Being nightwatchman is a good opportunity to catch up with outstanding tasks and projects between doing rounds of the base, but I'm glad that it only lasts for a week as you don't tend to see many people.

So Midwinter's Week. Our week of celebration started the Saturday before midwinter. We'd got the base ready and the bar was done up with all the Christmas decorations. Throughout the week we all took it in turns to complete the base tasks that have to continue, holiday or not. So people volunteered to cook and do the nightwatch on a day by day basis. That way no one was stuck with it for the whole week and Nige our cook had a break too, although he was busy Midwinter's Day itself cooking the main meal. To entertain us people came up with different ideas - quizzes, films that we'd saved especially for midwinter, a Monopoly board adapted so that the London street names were replaced by the names of Rothera and its surrounding areas and all sorts of ideas for party themes. During the days we got out skiing when we could, we had darts matches over the radio with other bases or people just took the time to relax. Messages and greetings arrived either directly from the senders or through the British Antarctic Survey's offices in Cambridge. They were from other people overwintering in the Antarctic, other countries Antarctic research programmes, old friends and colleagues who had overwintered previously or who had been on base last southern summer and from our friends and colleagues at BAS headquarters in Cambridge. For example we heard from our colleagues overwintering at the BAS research stations at Halley and Bird Island, as well as from the New Zealand base on the other side of the Antarctic Continent, the Ukrainian base a few hundred miles to the north of us, the Germans at Neumayer base, along with the Prime Minister of India, the head of the Russian Antarctic Research Institute and the head of the South African Antarctic Research Institute amongst many others. Of course through the week many personal greetings arrived as well.

Midwinter's Day started for most people at 1030 with the Base Commander's wake up call. We were all severed a drink of our choice in bed ! By 1100 the breakfast was sorted out and most of us were in the dining room eating too much. At this point disaster struck in the form of a rather nasty plumbing problem. There couldn't have been a worse day for it. It didn't seem to blight the day too much but Mark our Plumber, ably assisted by Steve the Electrician and Dave the Generator Mechanic and Base Commander (who had just finished cooking breakfast) put a good few hours work in sorting the problem out for us all. Breakfast was accompanied by a good amount of laughing. Lucy, Si A. and myself had spent time over the last few weeks putting together a midwinter magazine and Midwinter's Day was the day it appeared. Only 21 copies were printed - one each - and hopefully the circulation will not spread beyond that !!! The magazine is just a way of documenting the winter so far, by poking fun at all those daft things people get up to. We managed to get a piece on everyone, which, with the antics down here, isn't too difficult. Of course editorial discretion ensured that the three of us didn't suffer too much.

After breakfast many of us took advantage of the good weather and the couple of hours of daylight to head out for a ski. At last the temperature is down to what we might be expecting for an Antarctic midwinter, -20 degrees. The skiing was good and while heading out we heard our closest neighbours - the Argentines at San Martin base about 40 miles to the south of us - on the Sno-Cat's VHF radio. Conditions were good and communications clear so we took the chance to wish each other Happy Midwinter, have a chat and invite each other over to our respective bases. For as far as we can see the seawater has frozen into sea ice. We'll have to wait a while and watch how it develops before a decision can be made about how safe it is to travel on, but both ourselves and those at San Martin are hoping that the journey from one base to the other will be possible at some stage.

Returning to base after we had a film followed by the Midwinter's broadcast. This is a half- hour radio programme broadcast by the BBC World Service. It's especially for us at Rothera, Halley and Bird Island. Everyone who is overwintering hears a message read out for them from their family and friends. Each base also has a piece of music played for it and we heard greetings from people at BAS who are directly connected with us on the bases.

There then followed a bit of a gap in the busy proceedings that gave us all the chance to get cleaned up and ready for dinner. Nigel, as ever, did us proud and we all enjoyed a magnificent meal. The final part of the day ended up in ...... the bar. After dinner we were all together for the present giving. It is a tradition that everyone makes a Midwinter's present and tries to keep what it is a secret from the others on base. We then wrap them up in plain paper and write a number on the front. There's no way of knowing who will receive it or whose will be received. The numbers are drawn from a hat. Lucy, being the youngest, took a number first and opened up that present to find that she had won a very impressive brass map of the Antarctic made by Steve L. Steve them got to draw the next number and so on. We had a few hiccoughs with people drawing their own number or drawing the number of the person who had just drawn theirs. In the end though I don't think that any one was disappointed. The standard was superb and it was obvious that a great deal of effort had been put in by all. There were framed photographs, boxes for keeping slides in, models and wood carvings amongst others. I was really pleased to pick the present that Nigel had made. It was a series of pictures collaged together to show the panoramic view from the highest point of Rothera Point. On the back he had printed the same series of pictures in a small size and given the details of who or what all the peaks and islands were named after. I'd made a knot board, tying a variety of knots, some used when boating and diving, some used when climbing and travelling and others purely decorative. I'd arranged them around a nautical chart showing Rothera and placed them in a frame. It was Ian who chose my present and I hope that he is as pleased with it as I am with Nigel's ! We finished off the present giving with a special final present for Rob T. our Carpenter. Almost everyone's present involved wood at some point. Rob has been very patient and helpful over the last couple of months guiding us round the Carpenters Shop and giving us access to the tools we need.

Well I think I'll close it there.

Take care, best wishes


Stuart Wallace, Rothera Research Station, Rothera Point, Adelaide Island, Antarctica