Our site is using cookies to record anonymous visitor statistics and enhance your user experience. OK |  Find out more

Skip navigation

06 Mar - In the dark...

Date: Sunday 06 March 2005
Position @ 1200 Local (GMT): 53°09'1 South, 038°00.0' West. Off Bird Island, South Georgia
Next destination: Mare Habour, East Cove, Falkland Islands
ETA: Thursday 10th March 2005 : Late PM
Distance to go: 754.5 nmiles
Total Distance sailed from UK: 17841.0 nmiles

Current weather: Overcast, with rain. Moderate visibility
Sea State: Rough sea and swell. Pitching and rolling heavily
Wind: SSW, Force 9-10
Barometric pressure:989.4 mmHg
Air temperature: 3.7°C
Sea temperature: 2.9°C

For the most up-to-date chart of the ships position, visit sailwx.info

When we last left you we were steaming from Halley towards South Georgia with a proposed arrival at King Edward Point midweek.  There was little enough on the voyage North to mark the passing of the days as maintenance continued onboard, handover notes continued to be written, and the snow kept falling in flurries.  Not that you folks back home need to know anything about SNOW ! From all accounts you guys have had more snow in Europe than we have down here in Antarctica ? Go figure ?

Back on passage, there were bergs and growlers enough to keep the Navigating officers on their toes and especially at night when the Ice Spotlights were turned on, and the speed reduced to avoid any unsuspecting bergs from crossing our path ! It’s an intense period of ‘looking out the window’ despite a bridge full of technical gismo’s – we still rely on the good old-fashioned eyeball for safe passage through the Southern Oceans. The Mates take it turn and about for 4 hours on the bridge and are accompanied by a ‘watchkeeper’ A/B (Able-bodied Seaman) who keep vigil where two sets of eyes are deemed better than one. It is usually very dark on the bridge at night and it is something that we seafarers have become very blasé about, however, visiting scientist Stephane Bauguitte mentioned how impressed he was by this very strange working environment and is happy to give us his impressions.

In The Dark !

First night-watch on the Ernest Shackleton Bridge, or the christening of a French ‘Marin d’Eau Douce’*

* Fresh Water Mariner

After a winter floating on the Brunt Ice Shelf at Halley, what better way home, but to sail back home on the ES? I am a complete novice seaman, with only a few cross-Channel and Irish Sea ferry crossings in my kit bag. And I find myself discovering the nautical world in possibly the most privileged way: onboard an ocean-going ship sailing around Antarctica!  So far, the highlight of my cruise is my first experience of a night-watch on the Bridge, in the middle of an iceberg strewn Weddell Sea, heading 350 degrees (North, at last!) at 9 knots.  After a rough day feeling sea sick, a (not!) perfectly timed fire/search & rescue drill, and a late dinner, I swerve my way scrambling up three decks up to the Bridge, just to see ‘what’s it’s like up there’. After a good five minutes waiting for my eyes to acclimatise to the near complete darkness, I finally can distinguished three figures in front of the various control screens.  It’s not easy to recognise who’s who, but at least the crew easily guess who I am as soon as I open my mouth.  And no, my anonymity is not given away by my garlic breath, but by my Gaelic accent.

Bridge at night Bridge at night

Above: Click on images to see the Night time Bridge (with flash) and as it really is – without flash !

Apologies for the poor photographs but holding the camera still for 1 second on long exposure whilst the ship is dancing around under your feet – is a task that produces less than perfect results ! 

The atmosphere is a bit tense, everyone is concentrating on the job in hand.  And what a job!  To loosen up the ambience, Tony, the Officer in charge of the Bridge for the 00:00-04:00 watch, jokingly announces that tonight’s job is ‘dodge the bergs’. My already messed up guts tense up a notch: This sounds a bit like a bad joke voiced on the Bridge of the Titanic just before that fatal crash; and I am on the ship!  Soon I realise that the night-watch isn’t a place to joke about.  You may speak to the Watchman, the Officer, the sea cadet, but they won’t look at you.  Everyone’s eyes are focussed towards the front of the ship (the pointy bit), scanning the dark waters swept by the powerful search lights. Being so high above the sea level, the scenery is rather spooky: all around us the Bridge windows are dark, except for few faintly reflected multicoloured control lights.  I had been on the Bridge at daytime before, but this is a different place: no great vistas on the ship’s deck and to the horizon Everything is quiet, except for the gentle purring of the ship’s engines, some equipment ventilation fans, and the whisper of the night watch crew.  Through the front Bridge windows, snow flurries are sweeping across the three forward search light beams which illuminate the cold sea. In the dark swell, white horses reflect our lights in their wind blown spray.  Once in a while, a sea bird, albatross, petrel, flies away in front of the ship bow, a white ghost disappearing into the darkness.

‘Spock‘ the watchman, is keeping a sharp eye open for bergs at the very front of the Bridge with his binoculars. He’s mainly concerned by those insidious growlers: large lumps of ice barely sticking over the water surface, and lurking downwind of the larger tabular bergs, from which they’ve been carved out by the constant weathering action of crashing waves.  Although the ship’s hull is ice-strengthened, I am told one large growler could do some serious damage.  Best is to notify the Officer to change the ship’s course at the slightest sign of a growler, to be on the safe side. I couldn’t agree more!  ‘Spock’ explains to me how to spot them. An extra pair of eyes might help I’m thinking: I’m all ears!. Growlers, - what kind of beasty is that?  Despite their darker blue colour blending perfectly with the dark waters, and being mostly underwater, the swell washes over them, and the resulting spray and wave break/surf are a tell-tale sign of danger ahead to a trained watchman eye.

Today’s technology is also helping the night watch. Sea cadet Zoe spares some time, sharing her knowledge of the ship’s radar system.  The Collision Avoidance System radar scans and plots any solid objects floating around the ship.  And sure enough the large bergs, invisible to the naked eye at night, appear on the radar.  They slowly drift, assisted by the strong Sou’Westerly wind and the water currents, and their course is plotted alongside the ship position in the centre of the scanning screen, slowly escorting us about one nautical mile away, like an armada.

Radar screen Click to see picture of radar screen with three bergs escorting us on the starboard side.

Obviously, in busy channels and coastal waters, this radar screen would be littered by bright spots indicating the position of other vessels and buoys’.  But here, in the middle of the desolated Weddell Sea, icebergs don’t carry warning lights or foghorns to broadcast their position, hence the added importance of a Collision Avoidance System.  Zoe explains however that this modern technology can create a false sense of security. Growlers, for instance, escape radar detection with remarkable stealth.  Being mostly immersed with the swell washing over them, the yoyo-like sink/float motion of a growler, render radar detection useless, and a ‘target lost’ message soon appears on the radar control screen. I then recall reading ‘olden days’ accounts of the first Antarctic waters exploration, the Discovery, the Endurance, those famous ships with these brave and daring crew. Surely then, the watchmen must have had a hard time spotting bergs without a radar! Ships have grown bigger, smarter, and yet the job of the watchman has gone through the centuries, and is still as critical, and I now understand what’s it’s like ‘being up there’ for a watch on the bridge.



Says he’s so careful with his money, that when he moves house … he takes the wallpaper with him

Did you hear of the cannibal who wanted to become a Private Detective (see last week’s webpage),… because he wanted to give all the suspects a good grilling ?

There was a time when Wavey Davey was thrown out of the Serious Crime Squad,.. for laughing !

And finally, some definitions according to the gospel of Saint Wavey …

MUSHROOM – A place where Eskimo’s train their dogs.

OCTOPUS – An eight-sided cat !

On departure from Halley our Fast Rescue Craft, pictured below in action in the North Sea, was removed from it’s davits and lowered into the ‘garage’ ! In the Upper Hold, the engineers were to give it a ‘good going over’.  Some electrical problems were needing to be rectified and Mike the 2nd Engineer had the main console off and in bits on the bench to refurbish switches, fuses and plugs.  Considering the age of the FRC and the good service it sees, she does very well to continue to operate in all weather and all climates from tropical to freezing.

Fast Rescue Craft in the North Sea Fast Rescue Craft in the hold

Above: In action near an Oil rig in the North Sea and in the Upper Hold Garage !

Working in the relative warmth and protection of the garage was far preferable to working on it in the ‘falls’, open to the elements.  Having spent the voyage back to South Georgia below decks, we then took the first opportunity to put it back in the water for a thorough test, and to reposition it back in the falls.  This happened when were reached the Island and entered Drygalski Fjord.

And incidentally, just as we hove into sight of South Georgia, we saw a rather unusual but sad sight when a congregation of seabirds on the sea surface highlighted something floating up ahead.  It was on the 8 –12 watch when the watchkeeper (one of those ‘two pairs of eyes’) spotted something floating just ahead and it turned out to be a dead whale.

Dead whale Click to see the bird surrounding the floating ‘object’.

It is not a sight you normally see and I suspect it has not been seen so often since the days of the old whaling ships.  It was a sad sight to see the single, deceased, gentle giant of the deep motionless, how much more macabre to have witnessed the days of whaling when many dead whales would be towed back to the Stations for processing ?

DRYGALSKI FJORD is situated on the southern tip of the Island of South Georgia, and conveniently on route to King Edward Point. Finding the relative ‘safe haven’ of the sheltered fjord, the Captain took the vessel in to view some really awesome glaciers.  The weather could have been better for the photography, but despite the heavy overcast obscuring the tips of the vertical wall cliffs, there were still snaps enough to fill an album.  By virtue of the camerawork of Dave Rees in the FRC and accompanying Rigid Inflatable, here are a very few examples of what we saw !

Drygalski Fjord Drygalski Fjord

Above: Part of the Gisting Glacier in Drygalski, and the Rigid Inflatable dwarfed in comparison.

Drygalski Fjord Drygalski Fjord

Above: Excellent shots from the small boats to show the Shackleton at rest in the secluded natural harbour.  After a good look around the absolutely awesome vistas of Drygalski, the Captain repositioned to another small bay named Gold Harbour, thus filling in the remainder of the daylight hours.  The FRC was successfully tested, recovered to decks and then we resumed our overnight passage plan to Grytviken and King Edward Point.

Then morning broke on Thursday 03rd. But don’t worry,… Mike the 2nd Engineer was on hand to fix it !

The 12 – 4 watch saw the most stunning of sunrises over the seas to the East which lit up the approaches to Cumberland Bay and allowed the most marvellous display of Lenticular Clouds.

Lenticular clouds Click on an impressive image.

A/B Mike Brown stayed up after his watch to click away on the display of clouds that are ‘moulded’ by the topography of the Island mountains and again there were far too many shots to choose from.  I’m not even sure I chose the very best of them ?

Clouds over South Georgia And another...

The Technical Bit.

For approximately 1 year now, RRS Ernest Shackleton has been fitted out with our new Satellite System – the Vsat.

It’s an impressive piece of engineering involving a stabilized dish housed in our very own white ‘mushroom’ radome atop of the Funnel area.  The below deck rack involves an array of flashing lights, modems, routers, computer dish controller and more flashing lights !

What this allows us to do on the vessel, is to now send and receive emails above the old ‘1 megabyte allowance’ per month.  We can now stream the internet which includes radio stations from back home via the world wide web.  We can even investigate, shop and buy for Mother’s Day presents direct over the internet or even catch that elusive bargain on Ebay®.   We can even use our 24 / 7 connection to stay in contact with telephone too. 

Of course all this is subject to two limitations !

  1. We don’t get a signal in certain extreme weather conditions – like when it is snowing – in space !
  2. When the signal gets obscured by some obstruction in the view of the dish to the satellite.

This week was one such circumstance when our fantastic communications system failed us. No, it wasn’t snowing in space this week, but our view of the satellite was obscured … by US !

VSAT diagram Click to see the explanation

– a picture is worth a thousand words. 

We were maintaining a course of 345 degrees on direct track from Halley to South Georgia. However, the conning tower was directly in the line of sight of the satellite out in space and our blind sector was on a heading of about 340 to 355 degrees !  The only way to have a successful email sched or that all-important telephone call was to turn the entire ship onto a new heading of 360 degrees or 335 degrees in order for the satellite to ‘pop out’ from behind our conning tower !  Thus it was that if you could follow the track of the vessel across the Weddell, you would find the occasional ‘snake’ appearing in what would otherwise be a straight line… and not necessarily when ‘Heff’ was at the helm !!! (see below).

Therefore, if you wondered why you weren’t getting any mails from your loved ones on the Shackleton this week, it was because we were in ‘stealth mode’ !!!

Author : Communications Officer


We arrived at KEP early on the morning of Thursday March 03rd, and were fast alongside the KEP Jetty by 0730am. 

The Fisheries Officer Ken, and Base Commander Alison were onboard directly to inform all the ex-Halley FIDs about the required conduct at Grytviken and the restrictions on where you could go.  After breakfast, the FIDs were all at liberty to go and stretch their legs and explore and the crew got to work on the loading of cargo and waste from the Base. Due to the small amounts, this was all finished shortly after lunch and then it was the turn of the crew to get ashore and do some exploring too, even if it was just another walk to Grytviken to inspect the t-shirts and postcards, or chat to Pauline Carr, the resident proprietor there. 

On Thursday evening after everyone had come back fresh and wind-blown from their walks, the Base threw us another of their infamous BBQ’s near the boatshed. The bill of fayre included burgers, sausages, chicken, fish, more sausages, and the T-Bone steaks were so large that they draped over the sides of the paper plates that were supposed to accommodate them ?!!! Although I stayed only long enough to help deplete the burger pile, apparently the congregation went well into the small hours as they huddled around the dying embers of the BBQ Grill and gazed at the stars in an exceedingly clear and beautiful sky. Did you know that you can see Orion from the Southern Hemisphere, except that he is ‘upside down’ ??

The weather was being kind to us for our stay in KEP.  Besides the spectacular cloud display on our arrival and bright blue skies throughout for the walks during the Thursday, we also had good weather on the Friday for the return football match of Shackleton All Stars with South Georgia United Vs Halley Academicals !.  Apparently it was a foregone conclusion with the current champions holding onto their undefeated crown, but at 7-6.   I believe the South George team gave a very good account of themselves and Shackleton’s team had to work every step of the way to retain their title.  More walks (and even Runs = Ben the Dentist) were had during the course of the afternoon apart from the few crew who were working on projects and taking advantage of a solid platform whilst the vessel was tied securely alongside. There are some planned maintenance jobs that cannot be attempted while the vessel is bouncing around at sea, and while vital plant and machinery are churning away doing what they are supposed to do.

By 1700 hours it was all over. Shore leave had ended and it was a final ‘Goodbye’ to King Edward Point for the last time this season. RRS Ernest Shackleton will not be making a return to these waters until next season, so hearty farewells ensued and for the Shackleton crew, we were truly on our way home.

Overnight Friday, the vessel slow-steamed around to the North of the Island to our final call of Bird Island.  With 1 person to transport to Bird Island from King Edward Point, and a ship full of Halley FID’s, the vessel was near to full capacity at 70 compliment. But we could do even better than that ! We dropped of Mr. Davies on Bird Island and took on an additional 3 scientists who were returning to the Falkland Islands in time for flights home.  72 persons in all.  The vessel has a berth capacity of 72 persons, so it really is a full ship, with every bed taken and room for no more. Some of the smaller cabins are now very cramped but it is only for the 4 day transit to Mare Harbour when the majority of our ‘passengers’ will disembark directly to those North-bound flights. It is not often that the Shackleton gets to full capacity, but somehow, there is always enough food to go around in the mess at mealtimes and the Catering department continue to produce the very best eating despite the additional workload.  Well done guys.


Before departing Halley and heading back north, there was an evening or two of ‘stoogying’ around waiting on weather and waiting for the last of our passengers to embark at the Creeks.  Stoogying is what we do when the vessel heads up and down the same bit of water in the most comfortable direction, avoiding ice and those courses that make the ship wobble around too much.  One particular evening during the 4-8 watch, Mr Heffernan was at the helm and there was much wonderment about the number and types of turns the ship was making whilst stoogying ?  I went along to Heff to ask ‘what’s going on then’ ?  In reply he simply pointed me in the direction of the Seamaps navigation screen which draws the ‘ships track’ upon the display and the answer was plain to see…

Click on the image to enlarge our ‘track’

Two things spring to mind.  Firstly, how thankful are we that Ian’s short-form name is ‘Heff’ and not ‘Rumplestiltskin’ ??? Secondly, it is a good thing that he didn’t run out of ‘page’ on which to write. Luckily the Weddell Sea is rather sizable and easily accommodates the adventurous sky-writer (or sea-writer) as the case may be. The ‘wobbly start’ to this project was possibly not so much a shaky hand on the tiller, as opposed to evasive manoeuvres to avoid brash and ice.

Author : Unknown ???

Forthcoming Events: Depart Bird Island and track direct to East Cove.  At East Cove we offload the waste we have collected, offload the FID’s and finish off the Handover notes for the on-coming team.  In East Cove, the Graham Chapman crew will hand over to the John Marshall crew and prepare to fly home to Europe.  During this time, the vessel will reposition to FIPASS at Stanley to embark one supernummary and prepare for the onward voyage down the Antarctic Peninsula and Rothera.

Contributors this week:  Thanks to Stephane for his evening account of a night on the Bridge !  Once more Dave Rees, Mick Brown, Stevie B, and the occasional ‘unknown’ photographer have provided adequate pictures to back-up another fulfilled week’s events. Thanks to one and all.

The next diary, number 14 should be written on Sunday 12th March and published on the Monday 13th March 2005, handovers and operations permitting.

Stevie B
Comms Officer.