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14 Apr - Stormy weather around South Georgia

RRS Ernest Shackleton Diary

Position at 1200 (UTC - 3 hours): At Anchor in Elsehul Bay, East of Bird Island, South Georgia
Next destination: King Edward Point, South Georgia
ETA: Upon completion of work at Bird Island - totally weather dependent
Distance to go: 133.0 nm
Total Distance Sailed this Season: 22730.4 nm

Current weather: Overcast, with occasional outbreaks of sunshine or snow flurries
Wind: Calm in the Sheltered Bay of Elsehul
Barometric pressure: 989.4 mb
Sea state: Calm in sheltered waters - slight swell
Air temperature: 0.8°C.
Sea temperature: 2.0°C.

Current, frequent weather observations reported back to BAS Headquarters in Cambridge is used to plot the ship's current position and recent track. Meteorological data are also available from this page. The callsign of RRS Ernest Shackleton is ZDLS1.

Captain Lawrence ponders the situation - Click to enlarge

by 'Will Shakeshackleton'

The ERNEST SHACKLETON departed Borge Bay, Signy a little after midnight of Sunday 07th and spent all day Monday 08th and Tuesday 09th fighting the wobbly waters of the South Scotia Sea. Luckily the prevailing winds were coming out of the Southwest so they were 'astern' and not directly ahead. This meant that we were wobbling side to side rather than the uncomfortable pitching associated with the head-on seas.

Intended and actual route of the ship

A result of these seas, was the tendency to be 'pushed' off course and over to the east. The Captain decided that due to some particularly heavy rolling, that a slight alteration of course to starboard would ease the motion of the vessel and give everybody a more comfortable voyage. Many a cup and file or chair still managed an 'escape attempt' across cabin and corridor as the ship still rolled on the occasional heavy swell. As we progressed, the distance between the more northerly desired course and that of our actual course grew daily greater. By the end of day 2, we were well east of South Georgia and although the seas were starting to abate as the 'glass' started to rise, we now had to steer 290° and pitch almost directly into the residual swell. Luckily, this only lasted for the duration of Wednesday morning as we closed to South Georgia and the island started to provide a degree of protection from the persistent pounding. In the lee of the land, the swell moderated and on Wednesday afternoon, many of the FIDs appeared on the bridge for a first glance at the snow-covered peaks of South Georgia and even an occasional beam of sunlight.

Note from the Captain's Chair.

'The Wiles of Antarctic Weather Systems'.

Having been 'blown out' of the anchorage off Signy Station late last Sunday night we were blown about in 60 knot Sou'westerly winds towards South Georgia on Monday and Tuesday of this week, only to our way towards South Georgia in head winds on Wednesday, and on arrival that night, drag anchor in the anchorage off King Edward Point in strong Northerly winds, as the barometric pressure started it's downward track. Thursday found us able to berth and work the essential cargo alongside the King Edward Point Jetty in 'beautiful' pouring rain then as we completed the cargo work - the sun came out in time for us to leave and proceed towards Bird Island.

What does the sun indicate ? - yes, Sou'westerly winds again, such that this weekend finds us off Bird Island once again unable to work cargo.

What is the moral of this short story ? It must surely be that despite the best made plans of mice and men it will always be the Antarctic Weather System that will finally dictate what we do, or don't do, and when we can and cannot do it !!

The type of weather we have had this week

Above: The wild, windy weather of this week.

As you can imagine, the weather has been foremost on everybody's mind this week. Firstly on the 3 day trip from Signy station to King Edward Point, and latterly in the 3 days waiting-on-weather conditions at Bird Island. There was a wonderful photo opportunity missed when the following seas were washing up on the back deck and turning our after deck into an onboard swimming pool. We promise to catch the moment on digi-camera next time it happens, and meanwhile we can appease you with a view from the uppermost point on the ship - the conning tower - looking forward at the waves breaking over the bridge as we pitched our way across the South Scotia Sea.

Waves reach the Monkey Island Stormy seas

Above: Waves reaching the height of the Monkey Island and leaving a residual spray in it's wake.

Once we were at South Georgia, the ship found a safe haven in Cumberland Bay at the entrance to Grytviken and King Edward Point. Wednesday night was spent at anchor and on Thursday morning we went alongside. The pressing schedule meant that shore leave was not initially granted, and so all the FIDs were found milling around the ship on the slight off chance that the situation would change. The urgency to get ashore at KEP was not so pressing, with the promise of a return here to work further cargo after a 2-day visit to Bird Island first. As it happened, the timetable changed as the ship took the opportunity to pass 60 metric tonnes of Winter Grade fuel to the base. On completion and with no further tasks achievable, we extended our stay on Thursday, but even this short stay gave some intrepid explorers a chance to run ashore. Peter Milner was one such opportunist. :o)

An Antarctic Tourist's Tale

       "I feel a bit like a tourist at the moment. With enthusiasm I bought the T shirt, I have a copy of the book, signed of course and I very nearly bought the tea towel. Plans change when you work for the British Antarctic Survey, usually at short notice and pretty frequently. So it transpired that our brief evening stop at King Edward Point, to land three people, turned into an overnight stop. The three were landed the following morning. Next it was decided that weather conditions at Bird Island were deteriorating, so we can land cargo as well. Will Gilchrist is the boatman here having moved on from his job as winter boatman at Rothera. I hardly recognized him as he has shaved his beard and got a hair cut. Perhaps that's due to the number of cruise ships that pass this way, carrying tourists to one of the rarer ticks on the tourist hit list. Will showed us around the new building here and it would be a great place to live. The accommodation is right by the beach, the windows of the bar look over the bay and you can watch seals swimming past from your arm chair.

As I was saying plans change, worsening weather conditions at Bird Island made the captain decide we had time to refuel the station from the ships tanks. This news meant that we had two hours to walk around the bay. The bay being King Edward Cove, South Georgia. The track is narrow, being squeezed between steep cliffs, avalanche prone in winter and the stoney beach. You pass ambush point, an area of intensely green tussock grass, where the fur seals hide and wriggle out at you as you pass. Today however they are out at sea so we pass unmolested. In the middle of the track a baby fur seal is trying to sleep in a muddy hollow. Poor thing is woken up every time somebody walks past. The fur seals here seem smaller than the familiar Rothera ones. They play in the surf and hide in the clumps of grass trying to sleep.

So where is this walk heading? Why am I off to buy another T shirt? As if I haven got enough. What calls people to travel thousands of miles, often at great expense? It is a place called Grytviken. A small abandoned whaling station, it is famous as the last resting place of one of the world greatest heros. Coming from King Edward Point you first see the manager's house, now home to the museum. Tim and Pauline Carr have put in a huge amount of work to make this a fascinating place to visit. I quietly wandered around rooms full of details about the wildlife of South Georgia, rooms showing how the whalers lived and how they worked at their gristly trade. Outside the museum is a 12 foot, steam powered, bone saw, a gruesome piece of engineering and gives you some idea how nasty this job must have been. The museum just leaks history, it oozes from every corner. Just as soon as I had walked around I did it again, but slower as even the darkest corner has amazing artifacts.

In the room dedicated to preserving items from the 'golden age' of Antarctic exploration I stopped in front of a Burberry wind-proof jacket and fur mitts held together with lamp wick. Exactly as I have seen in photographs in every book about antarctic exploration I have ever read. I have those books in mind as I write, I have been reading about this part of the world almost since I was a child. A primus stove preserved in a glass case, similar to the primus I have used on my expeditions over the last two and a half years. Almost hidden under an exhibit is a sledging box which looks just like mine, only older and more battered. I left mine at Rothera Station, they will be used again on other expeditions.

It's the personal items that make this part of the museum so interesting, the original typed agreement between Ernest Shackleton and Tom Crean. What you would now call a contract of employment. It doesn't have the small print seemly required these days. Letters written to friends and relatives when the expedition finally returned to civilization. Oddly enough today we come here to avoid that civilization.

All around the museum walls are dramatic colour photographs taken during years of exploring the interior of South Georgia. Tim and Pauline's book is on sale in Port Stanley. We have a copy in the Rothera library. As I packed up my possessions, prior to coming south, I found it amazing just how many books I was packing into boxes and also how many of them were Arctic or Antarctic related. So now was the time to buy "Antarctic Oasis", and it's a signed copy too. Plus of course a few T shirts to give to those at home who have supported me over the years.

The day had started with heavy rain. At least I thought it was heavy as I'm not used to rain. Snow and sleet perhaps but not warm rain. Once I finally managed to drag myself away from the museum the skies had cleared and patchy sunshine showed just how beautiful this bay can be. Behind the museum is a small well maintained church. I took out my camera and spent a few minutes composing views of the surroundings. Behind the church, in the far distance, is a high steep sided snowy mountain, a great background to a photo of the church. Just a little further on I took out the wide angle lens for what felt like the best photo I have taken in days. One looking across the bay with two abandoned whaling ships in the foreground and our bright red ship across the water in the distance. Turning around I took a photo of the bubbling, fast flowing stream, snaking between the brightest green grass I think I have ever seen, plus a tall snowy mountain in the distance. I have only just worked out why this shot seems so important. It's the first time I have stopped to really look at clear flowing water and grass. The colours seemed so intense and its still novel to see running water that is not even trying to freeze.

The abandoned whaling station is too dangerous to enter as the structures are near to collapse and in those days asbestos was used in the construction. The wet path heads east around the back of the buildings and you begin to appreciated the sheer scale of the operation here. Sufficient to almost wipe out the whale and seal populations when it was fully operational.

Almost opposite King Edward Point is a small area enclosed by clean, well maintained, white wooden fencing. Visible for miles on a good day this is what we have all come for. Nowhere else in the world is there so much time and trouble expended just to visit a remote cemetery. Not anywhere near of course the time and trouble spent to end up resting here. Fur seals play hide and seek in the tussock grass between where I am stood and the shore. But behind them in neat lines are graves of the Whalers who worked in Grytviken. I am glad that I shared this visit with friends. Those who I spent the Antarctic winter with, this visit is kind of personal, not one to be overly commercialized. One grave at the rear of the cemetery has a tall headstone of granite. This is what the pilgrimage has been for. I managed to get there before the others, just. Just enough time for a quiet couple of minutes of contemplation as I read the words inscribed on the stone."

"To the Dear Memory of Sir Ernest Shackleton,
Born 15 February 1874,
Entered Life Eternal 5 January 1922"

Author : Peter Milner - Rothera G.A

Around to the North, the ship attempted to get into Bird Island. We have 6 people to retrieve from the Base before it is left alone for the 6 month winter period with only a four resident scientists to keep the birds company. There is also a multitude of bundles and boxes that need to be removed from the Base jetty before we can depart and head back to King Edward Point. For these cargo operations, we estimate the need for 3 rotations of the Tula workboat and for that we need - ( you guessed it ) - good weather. Upon arrival, we found there was pretty much of the same heavy swell and howling gales that we had experienced all week. Is this getting a bit repetitive, or what ?

I think the sorry looking state of our windsock says it all really......

The sorry-looking wind sock

Suffice it to say that cargo work was put on hold after our arrival on Friday morning, and after investigating the possibilities of accessing Bird Island from East or West, it was decided to retreat to the relative shelter of the North side of South Georgia to await some improvement. All day Friday it remained the same. A low out to their east was giving our sister ship RRS James Clark Ross a hard time as she did a scientific cruise at sea, and we were feeling the force of it as it whipped around the islands. We had high hopes for an improvement the following morning.

So on Saturday morning, the ship went once again around the North of Bird Island and through Stewart Strait to find the base on the south side. You did not need to be a Master Mariner nor a Meteorologist to determine that the conditions remained totally unworkable. When beam-on to the wind and the swell, the Ernest Shackleton would roll heavily in complaint at being removed from the shelter in the North. It would not even be possible to launch the Fast Rescue Craft let alone the Tula workboat. So the Captain navigated the ship back to the relative calm of the North side and Elsehul Bay where we spent the rest of Saturday anchored in relative calm - enough even to allow some necessary small craft training, and the ribs and FRC were finally given their legs and ran into the nearby bay.

The FRC/Humber fun-runs gave the FID's on the Ernest Shackleton the opportunity to stretch their legs at last. Having been onboard since Signy with only a brief morning in KEP, the Captain agreed to let them take to the boats and go to the nearby shore at Elsehul. Many FID's took the opportunity, the cold-weather clothing and even the web-camera and went ashore for a brief hour or two whilst the vessel lay at anchor nearby. It was amazing how still the waters were in the Bay whilst it was so wild just around the corner at Bird Island. Equally changeable was the sky which was a cloudy, snowy, minimal visibility, blizzard one minute to perfect sunshine, white clouds, blue sky and clear the next ! And this cycled around at regular intervals throughout the afternoon. By 1600 hours the 'jolly boats' were recovered back on deck and the Chief Officer took the FRC on a expedition to test the seas around the corner in Bird Sound. Antonio soon returned to report that it was indeed still unworkable.

Despite my best entreaties to all the jolly-merchants who got shoreside that day, none of them have been able to come up with the narrative to match the multitude of pictures that they took in the short space of time allowed them. And so, I shall let the pictures speak for themselves. This was a quiet Saturday afternoon in Elsehul.

Enjoying the view - Click to enlarge Some locals - Click to enlarge Local Housing! - Click to enlarge Returning to the ship at sunset - Click to enlarge

Above:Cameraman/woman Penny 'click click' Granger snaps a few key moments ashore. With the party enjoying the vistas, the local residents, the local residents low-price housing, all in Elsehul, and a brilliant sunset return to their Shackleton home. Click on the images for a larger version.

Forthcoming events: Depart. Pray to the Gods of the Weather to allow us to complete our task at Bird Island in the very near future and return to KEP. After a little more cargo work in South Georgia, head for the Falkland Islands, for Stanley and for several homeward flights for our FID's onboard. Time is of the essence.

Contributors this week : Many thanks to Captain Stuart Lawrence, G.A Peter Milner and Camerawoman Penny Granger for assisting in putting together this weeks very weather-beaten pages !

Diary 27 will be written on 21st April 2002 and should be published on 22nd April 2002

Steve B