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21 Apr - Final Call at South Georgia

RRS Ernest Shackleton Diary

Position at 1200 (UTC - 3 hours): 52° 43'4 South 048° 56' 6 West
Next destination: Mare Harbour, Falkland Islands
ETA: Monday 22 April
Distance to go: 359.9 nm
Total Distance Sailed this Season: 23680.4 nm

Current weather: Overcast, with occasional patches of blue sky
Wind: Sou-sou'westerly Force 7 - 8
Barometric pressure: 997.7 mb
Sea state: Long swell on the beam, causing heavy rolling
Air temperature: 2.2°C.
Sea temperature: 3.7°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.


Address Letter writing

I hope the weather with you is nice. After last week, I don't even want to mention the weather we have been having, but Uncle Bert would have a fine time growing his watermelons down here ! I had better not say any more or you will get the idea that our horrible sub-Antarctic weather is all that I have to tell you about.

Do you remember the last time I wrote last week, we were stuck off Elsehul near to Bird Island and we were all getting pretty bored of just hanging around doing nothing in-particular ? Due to the nature of our operations - or should I say 'lack of operations due to nature' - we needed for it to get better before we could launch our boats and work the station on the Island. Would you believe that it was not until Wednesday morning that I at last woke up to find that the wind and the swell had died down significantly and we could start to do something ? Monday and Tuesday were just awful and we had to go back to sea because the anchorage where we were staying got too rough, but on Wednesday, we went right around the Island so that we could start to work cargo with the base on the South Side.

Not working cargo at the start of the week, did not mean that I had any more time to write to you. I was still very busy onboard. Some of my colleagues decided that we should break the monotony and have a 'games' evening. So we were all busy 'making' a twister game ready for Tuesday night. It was a really fun night, mum.

First, the 'board' was drawn and it was the back of some table covering which had the coloured spots drawn onto it. Then we made a 'flipper wheel' from the old roulette wheel we found onboard. (see previous diary). This made a sizeable and very clever Twister board that up to 6 of us could play, climb, sprawl and fall all over at once.

Twister in action - Click to enlarge Twister in action - Click to enlarge Twister in action - Click to enlarge

Above: Right Foot to Yellow and Left Hand to Crimson !!! Click on the images for a larger version.

There were other games too. The 'bottle game' had Steve Radio Officer stretching with all his strength to push the bottle out as far as possible. And conversely, the 'box game' had Chris the Electrician going as low as his form would allow to pick up the ever-shrinking box with only his teeth !

The bottle game

Top: Steve the Radio Officer shows his strength in the Bottle Game.
Bottom: Chris the Electrician shows how supple he is in the Box Game!!

The box game

This is what happens when a bunch of FID's get to fathom the depths of boredom on the Ernest Shackleton. It was an enjoyable distraction for the evening and there were many champions and many more 'chumpions' too!!

However, Wednesday morning we started to work. At first, our Chief Officer, Antonio would only put our Fast Rescue Craft (FRC) in the water, but after a trial run into the shore and past the big iceberg in the mouth of Jordan Cove, it was decided to launch the Tula workboat. Tula made easy work of the short distance from the ship to shore and in 3 runs had uplifted all the Bird Island cargo and waste, and landed all the Bird Island cargo and stores and collected 6 personnel who were going home after completing their time on the station. Mark Jessop is notable in having completed 2½ years in the place. Alcatraz in the USA is probably a comparable size to Bird Island, but I believe you could get 'time off' for 'good behaviour' at Alcatraz. Not so, Bird Island! It was all over so quickly though, that I believe Mark didn't even get the time to regret leaving his home of the past 2 years. He has since had time to ruminate on it as he sits quietly reading in the Red Room.


Our two calls at South Georgia were both places of renown, though for different reasons. Grytviken has a whaling history all of it's own, and Bird Island on the other hand is home to at least 24 species of birds. Toni, Murdo and I went in the FRC to take some fresh provisions and check out the swell in Bird Sound.

Having seen the Sound from the comfort and safety of the bridge of RRS Ernest Shackleton, on the way to the anchorage, all I could see was a mass of tumbling waves. White water everywhere. Needless to say it had calmed by the time we went - but there was still a short and very steep swell - I was very glad we were in the FRC - but even then, it did make hard work of it. At the crest of a wave, you see close ahead the crest of the next and inbetween this, deep 'U' shaped trough which you more-or-less fell into ! - All good fun!!

Having decided to wait for a further improvement in the sea conditions, I pounced on the opportunity to go gallivanting and had the good fortune to have as a guide, resident ornithologist Richard from Bird Island.

The terrain is really odd - small frozen streams at the foothills and tufts of hardy tussock grasses (like what you'd see on a sand dune) all about the area of a dustbin lid, about 2ft high. So they're like stepping stones all the way up ! And don't slip off - they're surround by soft knee-deep bog. So when you DO slip a hoof off the tussock mound, you tend to immediately put weight on the other hoof ! Which now also gets stuck ! Having extricated oneself, both lower legs (now very aromatic indeed) are now a wholesome shade of brown. The things we do for science !!!

I was amazed how high some of the fur seals manage to get. Infact they're very nimble and don't have to worry about losing a boot in the mire. I also became acquainted with their moods - the young pups are inquisitive and flop over to you for a look-see whereas most of the mothers growl at you - stay at arms length ! The ones that hiss are having a bit of a bad-hair day and you should go no closer !

Any remaining notions I had at the seals being the doe-eyed cuddly mascots dissolved when Richard told me that their mouths are highly infectious. Bites must be treated by antibiotics within 24 hours or you can easily loose a finger, hand, or possibly an arm ! In the sealing days you could die from a bad bite.

Albatross - Click to enlargeAt the top of the hill, I might as well have been in Heathrow Terminal 4 (International Departures). Albatross ! Wing span of 11ft taxiing all around the place ! The 747 of the bird fleet. Ones that were 'parked' generally had a brooding chick beneath them. Very cute and not so little either, though with spring banded beaks that you definitely do not want to get a 'first hand' view of. The adults were remarkably calm with lovely grey/white plumage. In a week long foraging trip they have been known to cross some 8000 nmiles (ie from UK to the Falklands), so they really are expert navigators. That's their limit though scoring less well on maths and general knowledge !!!

Albatross - Click to enlarge

Seeing them at take-off is quite a spectacle - teetering to and fro' with wings fully extended, it's a case of 'cleared for take off' . Brakes off, maximum thrust from 2 'webbed feet', bounce 5 or 6 times, wings giving it maximum effort to get every last little bit of lift and slowly, unsteadily they clear the ground.......and not a Rolls Royce Gas Turbine in sight!! Airbus should really have a look at these guys for efficiency in flight!!

Their nests are mounds of moss and grass with a bowl in the top for the chick. The sides are so smooth that they look like they've been kept by a groundskeeper.

On the other side of the Island we met resident Bird Islander, Daff at the 'hut'. BAS have pioneered a remote monitoring system called a 'nest balance' It basically a nest on a balance(!) When the parent lands it can determine the weight of the catch from a foraging trip. Weight changes as the chick grows and passes through the different phases of growing . It records every 10 minutes or so allowing a detemination of the rate of growth of the chicks.

All the data is collated weekly and downloaded to be analysed. Around the hut were mainly Black-Browed Albatrosses like their cousins all perfectly preened. We also saw some light petrels which tend to 'talk' to one another in a series of squeaks and squawks that is just like a conversation.

Time was running out so we had to retrace our steps across the shingle and boulders that make up the upper hills on Bird Island I had an amazing view of Tonk (the mountainous hill overlooking the station). Time didn't allow an extensive tour but the brief walk I had at least gave me a good idea of how much there is on offer at Bird Island. 

Author Alan'Jolly-merchant'Newman.

After waiting 5 days to get into Bird Island, we completed the work in only 5 hours. Then we departed and headed back for King Edward Point. It was fun to 'play chicken' with 2 minke whales on the way back. I figured they would 'swerve' first and so they did. One moment they were right in front of the ship's bow and then next, they veered off to the left ( port ). Wish you could have seen it mum!

Back in King Edward Point, the new base, we only had a little more cargo to load including the big containers. But first, Electrician Bob, was able to land ashore his pride and joy - the Tom Lamont.

Tom Lamont arrives back home in Grytviken after World Tour!

Tom Lamont!No - not an ageing rock star but the twin cylinder vertical steam pump (manufactured by Thomas Lamont Engineers of Paisley - Scotland) that was taken from the base back in January 2001 for restoration. Avid readers of our web site may remember - from the Jan 4th 2001 edition - that we had taken a steam pump from the Grytviken whaling station with the intention of restoring it to working condition for display in the whaling museum at South Georgia. It had been discovered in the whaling station engineering workshop's coal shed before being ignominiously dragged from it's resting place of many years by a dumper truck. Once back on board it was stripped of the many layers of rust and coal dust to reveal that it was seized solid - so much so that the initial survey showed that it would be better employed as an addition anchor for the ship!

Many hours of stripping the unit down - cleaning everything off and where necessary - manufacturing new parts followed. The only real saving grace was that someone had coated the main steam cylinders with some awful smelling thick black glue (perhaps whale oil?) which had preserved the steam cylinders and pistons. The same cannot be said of the water valve chest and cylinders where over 3 full buckets of rust were removed before the valves could even be seen! Slowly the parts came back together and eventually we had enough assembled to try and turn the whole thing over on compressed air. The air line was connect and there was a big sigh of relief all round when the valve was open and "Tom" wheezed back into life once again. Initially the up and down pumping action was a little on the jerky side but several hours of running to "ease things in" gave us that wonderful sewing machine action that these pumps are renowned for. Eventually the air pressure could be reduced as low as 15 pounds per square inch (around 1 bar) and the pump would happily run all day with rhythmic steam engine sounds emitting from the exhaust port. Ah - the sweet sounds of success!!!

Getting it going again was only part of the brief - the next hurdle to overcome was to make it look presentable enough to be displayed in the museum. To achieve this - many of the parts had to be dismantled again so that the internals could be painted. A chance encounter on the internet with a previous employee of the pump manufacturer revealed that the factory original paint was a shade of green. This was described as "lighter than the green on lawn mowers but darker than the green on Land Rovers" - not a lot to go on there! A paint company was contacted in the UK who came up with a colour used on early Land Rovers - so two cans of paint were purchased. Unfortunately it has proven impossible to get the paint to the ship due to crew changes all being carried out by air flights. I don't think that the airlines would be very happy with 2 litres of highly inflammable cellulose paint being carried as hand baggage! With the external painting attempts thwarted for the present - parts were manufactured to allow the pump to be displayed in the best manner. Perspex covers were made to replace all the cover plates on the pump end so the valve assemblies could be displayed and a handsome new plinth manufactured on which to mount the whole assembly.

On April 11th 2002 the pump was finally swung ashore to the base at King Edward Point ready to be transported around the bay to the museum for eventual display. There wasn't a limo available for such an important journey so the base fork lift truck was deemed a suitable alternative. During the 14 month rebuild period it has travelled some 40,577,3 nmiles (plus those not allowed for during the North Sea Summer 2001), and has visited South America, England, Scotland (the country of it's birth) and even Norway (home of the whalers who used it) - all in all quite a World Tour for such a humble steam pump. We now wish it a long and happy retirement in the care of Pauline and Tim Carr who run the museum for the South Georgia Government.

Tom Lamont arrives at King Edward Point - Click to enlarge Tom Lamont arrives at King Edward Point - Click to enlarge Tom Lamont arrives at King Edward Point - Click to enlarge

Above: Tom's 'fanclub' mob him at his 'hotel', the executive flight ashore, and his own personal 'limo' awaits him shoreside. Click on the images to enlarge them.

Many thanks to the engineering staff of the Shackleton for their sterling support , the various FIDs who gave their time, the deck department for transport and stowage and of course to Tim and Pauline, the Museum curators, who gave us the opportunity to carry out such a task. Watch this space for a future full colour supplement showing Tom in his new surroundings!!!!!

Bob Roullier ETO.

So Mum, you remember me telling you that King Edward Base was the best Base in the world ? This visit I actually got to look around the new Base now that it is being 'lived in' and has all the comforts of home. I haven't changed my mind at all. As the South Georgia Fisheries Protection Officer, Pat Lurcock says ; he pities those who visit KEP on the way down to work for 2½ years in Halley, or Rothera. !! They really are 'spoilt' at KEP and anything else might be considered second best. Fantastic accommodation, great views AND they continue to get ship-visit's throughout the winter which can mean fresh fruit and vegetables and mail !

But don't take my word for it, mum, look at the photos.

King Edward Point on a dismal day - Click to enlarge King Edward Point in the sunshine - Click to enlarge

On arrival Thursday, everybody that could, took advantage to go walk-about across to Grytviken and beyond. Of course it was raining, miserable, chilly and dull. But it did not stop everybody going out and getting wet. The deck crew were busy in the hold and finished work late that day with still a little more to load in the early morning, so they had time only to wash up, eat a bite of supper before going over to the KEP boatshed where the 'winterers' were having a 'farewell to arms' disco. We congregated around the dance floor and had drinks and conversation before the dancing really took off around 11.00pm I believe the last hardy soul crawled to bed about 3.00am whilst I was good and turned in before midnight. Honestly mum, I did !

I even visited the Dentist this week. Penny the Dentist was very, very busy seeing people's teeth before departing the Bases, but not too busy to see me too. She was drilling away all day alongside in KEP and I don't think she got ashore once apart from the farewell disco in the evening. Poor girl. She's very good, - but I still had to have 2 fillings! I know, I know, I should cut down on the chocolate !!!

Would you believe that on the day of departure - Friday, the sun came out for us. The wind was freshening and probably blew away the drizzle that we had all the previous day, but Friday was delightful. In the sunshine, the new base looked squeaky clean and bright and afforded us a great view as we left Cumberland Bay. Of course, the wind brought more swell and for the rest of the week the Ernest Shackleton has been pitching and rolling away and making us all feel pretty ill again.

There were plenty of whales to be seen on the way out to sea leaving South Georgia way behind. Minke whales, Fin whales and even some bottle-nosed whales (orca's ??) were reportedly seen from the bridge.

And now we head back to the Falkland Islands, to Mare Harbour and even to Port Stanley later in the week. The Falkland Islands put their clocks back this weekend, so the ship has done the same and we got an extra hour in our beds last night. That's great. It's not so good when you 'lose' an hour of sleep as you cross the Atlantic back towards England and have to make up the 5 hour difference between Stanley time and London time. But that is about all the news I have for you for this letter. I hope to see you again real soon, and pass my love to Auntie Flo'.

Much love and kisses,
Bertie XXX

Forthcoming events: Arrive Mare Harbour, on Monday 22nd and offload all waste and cargo not destined for the UK. After approximately 2 days, transit around the East Falklands to Port Stanley for a brief stay and then depart for the Transatlantic crossing.

Contributors this week: Many thanks to Bob Roullier and Tom Lamont for the Pump Story, to Alan the Nav's for his Bird Island report and to Bertie Brittlethwaite for his letter to his mum.

Diary 28 will be written on 28th April 2002 and should be published on 29th April 2002

Steve B