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27 Oct - Ice at Signy station

RRS James Clark Ross Diary

Noon Position: 60.25.7 Deg S, 46.39.2 Deg W
Distance Travelled since Grimsby: 9977.0 Nautical Miles
Days since leaving Grimsby: 47
Air temperature @ Noon today: -0.3°C
Sea temperature @ Noon today : 0.8°C
Weather: Good, variable, light airs. 1005.5 mb


Snowy Signy

Welcome to this weeks update on life aboard RRS James Clark Ross. Well, we were all expecting ice this week and the South Orkneys didn't let us down. The JCR has certainly proved her ice breaking capabilities that I mentioned last week and made it round Signy Island to open up the BAS summer base situated there. We dropped supplies of men, food, equipment and helped to drag the base out of the deep freeze it has been in for the last 6 months. Once the base was independent and functional we waved our goodbyes and left John Blunn and his team to several weeks of unpacking boxes! Sorry I'm racing ahead already.

You left us last week dodging icebergs the size of the Isle of Wight in the Scotia Sea on the way from South Georgia to the South Orkney Islands. We encountered some stormy seas on the way and had a pleasant day rolling around in a stiff Westerly. Everyone seems to have got their sea legs by now but it does tend to be a little difficult sleeping whilst rolling around in your bunk (just a little warm up for the Drake Passage later in the season - Ed). It is spectacular to watch waves breaking over the bow of the ship. For a video clip click here.

Fortunately, by Tuesday, we were out of the worst of the weather and penetrated the pack to the North west of Coronation Island. Ice floating on the surface, calms the sea and so we could enjoy the ice without rolling around anymore. We edged past a small chain of rocky outcrops appropriately called 'Inaccessible Islands' which are vertical rock pillars rising straight out of the sea and very few people have landed there. The JCR made good progress slipping between the loose ice for the rest of the day until by late afternoon we arrived at the edge of the fast sea ice where we found our route blocked by a continuous ice sheet. The true ice breaking capabilities of the ship now swung into action and we merrily rammed our way into the ice.

The ship has many design features to allow ice breaking, some of which are very sophisticated but the actual technique is very simple - drive the ship with full power into the ice and watch what happens! I'm sure the Captain would like to tell you it is a highly skilled operation and I'm sure it is, but at the heart of it is a simple brutal style. To stand inside the bow of the ship as it hits the ice is an amazing experience. Initially everything is quiet and smooth as the hull cuts easily through the still open water building into a gentle rustling as it moves through the slush of previously broken ice. Suddenly the bow contacts the edge of the solid ice and the air is full of bangs, crashes, scratching, screaming, tearing, scraping and cracking. The floor shakes, moves and vibrates with each crack and the whole ship is rocked from side to side by the ice heeling system. The ship will veer suddenly when it bounces off areas of hard ice, and the solid blue ice is to be avoided! One can feel the power of the collision coming up through your feet as the hull rises up above the ice and uses it's weight to push down and crack the ice below. The hull is very thick but seems to transmit the sound effortlessly into a long cacophony of screeching that gently tapers to an end as the ship slows to a complete stop. A still silence returns as all forward motion is lost and the ship rests in the ice. For a video clip of ice breaking, click here. The ship will gently move astern several hundred meters down the narrow channel it has already cut before commencing another attack against the ice. Standing on deck is equally impressive. Huge slabs of ice crack down the side of the ship and turn over. The ice has snow on the top which is pure white but the ice is coloured by various algae and organisms that live there to pale yellow colour. It reminds me of Christmas cake icing with marzipan below. Large chunks of ice are spat out by the propeller behind the ship and bob in our wake. After several hours of ice breaking we stopped for the night still 7 miles from Signy station.

We were set to start ice breaking again the following morning but the weather intervened. During the night the barograph sank like a stone and finally dipped at 959 mmHg, the wind picked up and snow totally obliterated all visibility. Ice breaking in white-out conditions is not an option so we were forced to sit it out. The temperature reached -18°C (with wind chill -42°C -Ed). Venturing outside was cold but it was nice to play in the snow drifts on the aft deck and feel like a true Antarctic hero trapped in the ice etc etc...........The bow area was a mixture of frozen sea spray and snow drifts.

The bridge's barograph falling - Click to enlarge Icicles on the bits - Click to enlarge Icicles underneath the crane - Click to enlarge

Above: The baragraph plummets (L) and icicles form in a variety of places - including underneath the crane (R). Click on the images to enlarge them.

The view from the bridge windows never cleared all day so we didn't try to move except gently rocking from side to side in order to prevent us from becoming stuck. We were all very warm inside if a little frustrated!

The JCR 'parked' in the ice
The JCR "parked" in the ice
Click to enlarge

Thursday dawned calm and clear so we soon were underway, crunching our way towards the base. We arrived at a suitable position in the ice to leave the ship fast whilst the opening up of the base could begin. The ship was slowly pushed into the ice and gentle forward propulsion kept it nestling in the correct position as near to the base as possible without breaking up the good fast ice and ruining prospects for the sea-ice base relief.

The bow resting in the ice

On Friday after John had cleared a safe path across the ice, the excited shore party were disembarked onto the ice by the 'Geordie'. The rope basket carries personnel down safely down onto the ice whilst we cling on. It was great to get off the ship and march the ¼ mile across the sea ice to the base.

Unloading FIDs on the 'Geordie' - Click to enlarge Andy in his cage - Click to enlarge View from Signy sea ice camera - Click to enlarge

Above: Left to right: Unloading FIDs on the 'Geordie', Andy in his 'cage' and a view from the Signy sea ice camera. In this image, you can see the JCR with a trail of slush behind her. Signy base is in bottom left. Click the images to enlarge them.

All hands were needed to help unload the cargo that was towed by skidoo from the ship to the station. Last year the station was opened in slightly different conditions using the boats but this year conditions meant that everything had to be dragged across the ice by a pair of decidedly antique skidoos. Snow conditions on the ice were very soft and the sledges bogged down repeatedly. It was hard work for everyone ashore, digging out doorways and paths, moving boxes, starting generators, opening up communication equipment, dragging oil drums across the snow etc etc. The catering department sent out parcels of fish and chips wrapped in paper to restore the troops at lunch which went down particularly well. It was just like summer holidays at Whitley Bay for a moment or two! (Whitley Bay is colder and has more snow - Ed).

Yummy - Click to enlarge Crates of food with JCR in background - Click to enlarge

Moving boxes with base in background - Click to enlarge Even Doc did some work! - Click to enlarge Everyone gives a hand with 230kg crate! - Click to enlarge

Above: Top left: the fish and chips went down very well at lunchtime. Top right: Skidoo loaded with foodboxes with JCR in the background. Bottom left: moving boxes with station buildings in the background. Bottom middle: even the Doc shifted some snow! Bottom right: everyone lends a hand to move a large crate. Click on the images to enlarge them.

About lunch time on Saturday, the base was running independently and the base commander, John Blunn, was happy that we could turn round and head for Stanley. The generators, reverse osmosis plant, alarms, heating and comms systems were all checked and running so we started cracking our way out towards open water and the bright lights of Stanley once more.

We have spent Sunday cruising through pack ice under cloudless blue skies, watching penguins diving off and climbing on passing floes. Next stop - Stanley.


The South Orkney Islands

The South Orkney Islands lie on the South side of the Scotia Sea and were first charted by Captain George Powell, in the British sealer Dove on 6th December 1821 during a sealing expedition in which he virtually exterminated the entire fur seal population! Originally called the 'Powell group' they were renamed the following year by Weddell. He called them the South Orkney Islands in contrast to the South Shetland Islands as they lie at a slightly lower latitude just as the Orkney Islands in Scotland, lie at a slightly lower latitude than the Shetland Islands. The islands are part of the British Antarctic Territory. The two main islands, Coronation Island and Laurie Island, are mountainous and generally covered in snow down to sea level. The islands are frequently enveloped in fog and mist, surrounded by grounded bergs and receive about 20 days of snow a month for most of the year. The Admiralty warns mariners that satellite imagery indicates that much of the coast line of the islands is 'different in shape to that charted' by up to 7 cables. Incorrect charts, strong currents, ice and below-water rocks explain why names such as 'Despair Rocks' and 'Inaccessible Islands' have been given. There is a Argentinian station, Orcadas, on Laurie Island. This was founded by Dr Bruce of the Scottish Antarctic Survey in 1903 but given to Argentina due to lack of funds in February 1904. The Argentine Government has maintained this station continuously ever since and it has the credit of being the longest continuously manned Antarctic station!

Signy island is 6.5 km long and less than 5 km wide.The name derives from Fru Signy, the wife of Kapt Peter Sorelle who surveyed the island in the steamer Paal in 1911 for a whaling company. It is separated from Coronation Island by the 1 mile wide Normanna Strait. The base has been occupied by BAS since 1947 when it was primarily a meteorological station. It was manned all year until 1995 when it was rebuilt and became a summer only station. The base is situated in 'Factory Cove' and this refers to the ruins of a whaling station that was built in 1920 by a Norwegian whaling company under British licence. Some of the original wooden decking is still used today.

We are privileged to have Doug Bone on the JCR for this cruise. Doug is currently working on the Moorings project (see last weeks science) but first worked with the British Antarctic Survey by over-wintering for two years at Signy as a marine assistant. He is a mine of information on the Antarctic and has kindly written a piece for the diary about his time at Signy and his return this year.


Signy revisited

"I first arrived at Signy Island early in December 1966 at the start of a stay lasting 2 years and 2 months. Now, late in October 2002 I am here again. Although I have visited Signy twice in the intervening time (1982 and 1994), this is my first visit since the base has been operating for the summer only. 1994 was the last season in which the base was occupied over winter and in the past few years all the buildings that were in use during my time ‘wintering’ have been removed. One would expect that the whole place would seem strange and different, but this was not the case. The site which the Signy base has occupied for the past 50 years is very restricted and new buildings have been erected where old ones were removed. The way in which these buildings nestle into the landscape clearly does much to influence the character of the place."

Signy in 1972 - Click to enlarge

"This is a photo of a framed print taken in 1972 (apologies for the poor quality) and now hanging in the present base. The two storey cream building on the left was the ‘Plastic Palace’, built in 1964, the ground floor was devoted to laboratories, and the upper floor to living accommodation. This was home to 11 of us during my first winter and 13 of us during my second. During the summer, numbers were higher than this, peaking at 27 which meant people sleeping on the floor in the ‘Old Hut’, the black building on the left. This had been the main base building, but was then housing the generators, stores, met office radio ‘shack’ and workshops. Up behind the plastic palace the bulk fuel tank can be seen. Down near the shore is the old generator shed, which we used as a boatshed. (The ‘Old Hut’ actually replaced the original 1947 base that was up on the slope beyond the bulk fuel tank.)"


"Here is the base as it now is. The building on the left being the Fuel store, the one on the right the labs, and living accommodation. The lower central building houses the generators and Reverse Osmosis plant and workshop. The upper central one is a food and general store. The maximum base compliment is now 8."

Signy, present day - Click to enlarge

"In spite of all the changes some artefacts from a much earlier occupation of the island do remain. In the 1920’s the present base site was occupied by shore facilities of the Norwegian whaling company Tønesbergs Hvalfangeri. Quite a bit of the original ‘plan’ or flensing platform was still visible on this visit despite the deep snowdrifts. The remains of a water barge, used by the whalers, has been thrown up on the shore at the head of the cove. In 1966 this was lying on the seabed in front of the base and was a hazard to boats coming in to the jetty that being constructed at that time. By employing a bit of ingenuity and a lot of empty oil drums we were able to move this further up the cove. The sea has done the rest."

"My arrival and the subsequent ‘relief’ of the base in 1966 also took place over sea ice; then, as now, it was very labour intensive, the only mechanical help being from the ships crane and two ancient skidoos. In 1966 we had many more tons of cargo to unload, but fortunately we also had a much larger workforce, and the snow surface was much better for travelling over."

"Well what has changed? I suspect that the greatest changes concern day-to-day life, and centre on water, food and communications. In the 1960’s and well on into the 70’s all our water came from ‘natural’ sources, from something like November through to March melt water coming from the moss banks of the ‘Back Slope’ provided a reasonably reliable supply that was apparently perfectly safe. We never boiled it and no one ever suffered any ill effects. From March/April onwards we should have been able to rely on snow blocks cut from drifts and put into the ‘melt tank’, heated by the generator exhausts. Frequently however this was a very difficult time for our water supply and we were forced to rely on gathering glacier ice (which is freshwater) that drifted into the bay from disintegrating icebergs. On more than one occasion we were forced to take a boat out and lasso pieces of floating ice and tow them in to the beach. This activity had a socially cohesive effect because everyone knew that around 4 pm they would be called upon to form a chain to pass the blocks of ice up from the beach to the melt tank. Everyone was aware of the work and difficulty involved in maintaining the water supply so very little was wasted and consumption generally kept down to a minimum."

"Now, the freshwater supply is derived from seawater, which has had the salt squeezed out in a box called a Reverse Osmosis plant and is readily available."

"In the 1960’s the majority of the food supplied was either canned or dried. Signy, like most of the British bases did not have a climate that could be relied upon to keep food safely frozen and we did not have much deep freeze capacity. Signy was in fact better off than most bases in this respect, some deep freeze capacity was required for the biological research being carried out at the time. Some of this could always (officially or otherwise!) be hived off to store fresh meat. Thus the base members commissioned one of the supply ships to purchase meat (normally fillet steak) on their behalf in Montevideo (Uruguay) where they always called on the way South. This together with sundry other supplies allowed us to have fresh meat twice a week. But as to fresh vegetables and fruit: virtually unheard of! Limited to small quantities bartered from the Chief Stewards of the supply ships. So I was interested to see the large quantity of frozen goods and fresh produce that were carried ashore at Signy on Saturday."

"The biggest change of all concerns communications. In the 60’s the only ‘in-depth communication’, was by ‘snail mail’, and it really was snail! Virtually all the mail went through the Falkland Islands and at that time there was no air link at all to the Islands. Both them and us received their mail via the monthly supply ship Darwin which plied between Port Stanley and Montevideo; augmented by occasional visits there by the BAS ships. Official radio communication was all by Morse Code, between the bases and a BAS radio station in the Falklands. This was largely sent and received by hand, ‘high tech’ was a ‘Creed machine’ and two speed tape recorder. The messages were typed on the Creed machine that produced punched paper tape that was fed through a ‘key’ that operated at a higher speed than was possible by hand. Incoming messages were recorded on a tape recorder at high speed then played back at low speed and written down by the radio operator. Throughout the year we were allowed a Personal Message Facility of 200 words per month in from our families back home and 100 per month out! You can imagine how much we looked forward to the arrival of a ship carrying mail!"

"Now, there are several forms of satellite communication, including email and telephone. So Yes, the base now is more up to date, has more modern facilities and the occupants will not need to spend as much of their time simply keeping things running, but in terms of comfort we were not that badly off back in 1966. The occupants of the 1947 base would have had a far tougher time. Some would probably say that the privations that we ‘suffered’ were ‘character forming’, that is for others to judge. However we really did learn what was important to us and that lots of material goods are not necessary for enjoyment or contentment."

Doug Bone
October 2002


Horse Racing

With the relief of Signy finished by Saturday afternoon we were all in need of some relaxation. Geordie and Nick laid on a 'race night' in the Officers bar. Everyone bought a horse (or donkey! - Ed) and had to jockey it along the course with moves decided by the roll of dice. The winning horse of each race received prizes. The Bank of JCR provided money for a wager and 'Honest Geordie' calculated the odds. The images below show specimens of Bank of JCR money. Click the images for a larger version.

One JCR pound - Click to enlarge Five JCR pounds - Click to enlarge

Needless to say there were some winners and losers but everyone had a good time and things got very exciting!

Some horses were very poor and some literally fell to bits! The image below left captures some of the "close racing" action and on the right, Carli's veterinary skills are tested to the limit. Click the images to enlarge them.

Close racing - Click to enlarge Carli's vetinary skill are tested to the limit - Click to enlarge

Needless to say my horse, Hippocratic Oats, drowned at the water jump and was never seen again. The last race consisted of all the winners from the previous six races. In a frenzy of excitement (comparable to Aintree on Grand National day) the Champions race galloped off (or hobbled - Ed).........

The Line up

  • Flippers Bitch - 16/1
  • The Lovely Joanna - 4/1
  • Islander - 2/1
  • Taggart - 5/1
  • Cuddy - 9/1
  • Dogs Kahuna - 8/1

With a late run on the blind side, the dark horse Cuddy, romped over the line to record a great win for proud owner and trainer, Hamish. Despite several official and non-official inquiries, doping scandals and stable whispers, Hamish had won the Championship and his prize was the choice of any bottle out of the ships bond!

The winners were all chuffed and most of the gathered crowds tasted the sweet smell of success at some stage. We were left to count our winnings or ponder what might have been!

The winners enclosure - Click to enlarge That's the gamble.....Click to enlarge

Above: The Winners Enclosure. Click the images to enlarge them.


Thank-yous this week: Geordie and Nick for organizing a great night and also to Doug for his historical insight.

Coming up next week: Stanley and the start of a new cruise