When Ian MacRae and his partner Carol Cook booked a holiday to Antarctica they expected an adventure but what eventuated was beyond all expectations and created news headlines around the world for many days.
This is their story:
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On December 8th 2013 the Russian ice hardened research vessel, the Akademik Shokalski, set out from the Port of Bluff on the far Southern tip of New Zealand’s South Island. About 3 weeks later, after making her way through heavy pack ice to the vicinity of the Stillwell Islands around 68 degrees south, the wind changed and thick multi-year pack ice surrounded our ship. This resulted from the break up of the last ice which had covered Commonwealth Bay, following the creation of a huge iceberg, (R09B9) from the Murtz Glacier ice tongue some 3 years ago. The 3-4 metre thick ice piled up around the ship pushing it towards the lee shore. A bigger danger emerged as 2 large icebergs began to drift towards us, being propelled by deeper currents. The captain made the decision to push the mayday button and after that everything was in the hands of the International Rescue System. All suitable ships in the area were alerted and several began steaming towards us. The closest was the Astrolabe from the French Dumont du’Urville base but she did not have enough ice breaking capacity and so went back home. The Aurora then had a try but found the ice too thick and withdrew to wait for the Chinese icebreaker, the Xie Long on her way from Fremantle . She approached and then slowed down and finally stopped. She too was stuck in the ice. The next possibility was an American coast guard ship called the Polar Star, about 10 – 14 days away and behind that was a Russian ship just in case she was needed. As it happened, the Aurora made another attempt and got to within a couple of kilometres of the Chinese ship. The Aurora had no helicopters on board but the Chinese did. After considerable discussion and consideration of the variables, it was decided to airlift the 52 scientists and passengers from the ice alongside the Shokalski to an ice floe next to the Aurora and from there they would be lifted on board.
The Aurora had interrupted it’s re-supply of Casey Station to go to the rescue and after backing up and ramming forward breaking the thick ice pack for a day and a half, she made open water and headed for Casey to continue the re-supply. The anchors went down in Newcomb Bay about 2 kilometres from the shore but after less than a day we were back at sea going around in circles for 3 days while we waited for the high Katabatic winds, which can reach over 200km per hour to die down. Back to Casey to continue the re-supply. Nearly 2 million litres of special Antarctic blend diesel oil was pumped through a floating hose to shore and a hundred tonnes of supplies was ferried to shore on the ship’s barge. Almost as much RTA (return to Australia) waste was brought back to the ship. While this was going on, the Navy’s Hydrographical team was charting the bottom of the bay with side imaging sonar in their bright red cutter, the Whyte Earp. After 4 days they rolled up the fuel hose and hoisted the barge and boats on board and we got underway heading for Hobart. The Aurora Australis is a dry ship! but the master, Murray Doyle , sometimes declares a special occasion and we had a barbeque on the rear (trawl) deck with an allowance of 2 cans each.The experience of eating BBQ steaks on an icebreaker floating in an ice covered sea surrounded by icebergs with penguins and seals watching from the icefloes is truly unique.
We arrived safely back in Hobart on January 22nd having had the honour of spending nearly 3 weeks as guests of the captain and crew of the Aurora.
The ship is well built and sturdy and the way she bursts through the ice is impressive. The cabins are small but very comfortable. In spite of our awareness of being refugees from the Shokalski and the disruption we had caused not only to the Aurora, her crew and expeditioners and also to the other ships who came to our rescue, we were treated like part of the crew. The atmosphere on board is very casual. Everyone from the master down help themselves at meal times and take their dirty dishes to the galley where they clean up after themselves. There is no cabin service. Everyone gets clean sheets once a week and keeps their own cabin clean and tidy, or part of it since there are mostly 3 or 4 bunks.
It was great adventure and although we would not want to repeat it, the trip on the “Orange Ruffy” (the nickname for The Aurora Australis) was an experience money could not buy and we feel very privileged.
Celebrating the rescue: Photograph courtesy of Footloose Photography