Sunday, 28 December 2008

Smashing ice, taking excursions, and launching probes

Yep, another day on the Shack.

As mentioned previously, our days of waves are over, and it's now eerie icebergs floating by, like this one:

And then there's sea ice. We've been cruising along quite nicely, our steady pace occasionally punctuated by a crash and a shake as we hit sea ice. But a crash and a shake is far better than rolling waves. You can even sleep through it. Just now, we ground to a halt briefly, as we hit some thick stuff. Here's a shot along the side of the ship:

But by the time I took this picture, and came in to convert it for the blog, we had reversed engines, backed up, and smashed it again. Now, we're back cruising through open waters again. Dramatic changes in scenery, over the course of minutes.

Anyway! Yesterday, as part of our delayed Christmas holiday, we took a "vacation" from the Shack to....a location 75 m off the bow of the Shack. In a dinghy. It was cold, and wet...but pretty neat.

We got there, looked around, said "hm.", and then came back. Still, it was nice to have a subtle change of scenery. (Or at least a change of vantage point.)

On board, I have a certain responsibility: I am an XBT man. There are two of us, and we're responsible for dropping temperature probes off the aft deck. These probes are lead weights with a long thin copper wire attached, that sink down to at least 500m, sending back temperature information. The devices are launched by a "gun" that unceremoniously "plops" the cylindrical object over the railing of the poop deck, a couple times a day. (yes, there's an obvious joke's too obvious for me to include.)

Although, actually, we aren't allowed to launch the object, because it involves leaning on a railing. Apparently, we need a certification to do this, so we need to bring a crew member to actually do the dirty deed, while we collect data.

Ah, regulations. Next they'll be telling us where and when we can...well, you know.

Thursday, 25 December 2008

Merry Christmas!

And, just like last year, I bid you Merry Christmas from the Shackleton. Last year, I was busy unloading aviation fuel. This year, I am cruising through the south Atlantic. And although I would prefer to be back in Canada on this day in particular, all is well.

But all is freakin’ rough. We’ve been dealing with hurricane force winds for the last few days, and 20-30 foot swells which are making our ship rock and roll.

Or our fishing boat, apparently. We were told that the Shackleton is officially too small to be a ship, weighing in just under the official demarcation point. Apparently, fishing boats pay less in insurance. Nonetheless, the Shackleton appears to be holding up well, even if some of its passengers aren’t.

Personally, I’ve been on the margin of seasickness - never throwing up, or anything embarrassing, but not quite in full form. After the initial adjustment, all was well; but when the gale force winds came, it was back to “marginal”. Better than I could say for some of my fellow passengers, though. Some haven’t left their cabins since getting on board.

Since leaving South Africa, sightseeing has been pretty slim. However, three things have presented themselves. First, on Saturday night, we were having a barbeque on deck (pictured below) when somebody shouted “Dolphins on the starboard side!” Sure enough, there were at least 50 dolphins – I think a lot more – that were jumping into the air, clearly having fun and keeping pace with the ship. I’m guessing they were excited to have company in this particularly empty part of the world. I took a few pictures, but they never turn out very well.

Second, on the next day, word passed around that there were some whales off the port side. There were three, and they seemed indifferent to our presence. One did show some tail, though.

And finally, today we saw our first iceberg. We’re currently around 55 degrees south – about as far south as Britain is north – and there will be many, many more to come. But, as I have not seen this much ice since my last trip, it has reminded me of the things to come.

In the meantime, I remain hovering on the margin of nausea. Very soon, we’ll hit sea ice, which will smooth out these waves and give us more things to look at.

Friday, 19 December 2008

And suddenly...I'm in Cape Town again!

Okay! Well, I’ve been negligent on blog entries, but that ends today. For my second journey south has begun.

Well on its way, in fact. I am sitting in the Red Room on the RRS Ernest Shackleton, and the Cape of Good Hope is passing by on the starboard side.

In the last month, I have waited, been delayed, and been subject to rumours and dark portents about budget cutbacks. The British Antarctic Survey is somewhat immune to recession effects – however, by coincidence, we happen to be having a terrible budget year, with overruns, cutbacks, layoffs, trip cancellations, and so on. I was worried that my own trip would be cancelled, but no. On Wednesday at 11:30AM, I officially became homeless again as I handed my house keys to my hosts, muled my belongings back into work, and boarded a shuttle bus to Heathrow.

My journey south this year is completely different than last year’s, with one exception: an unpleasant long-haul overnight flight in a tiny seat with no sleep. But the movie selection was decent, and we got through it. On Thursday morning, we arrived into Cape Town with bloodshot eyes, breezed through customs, and went down to our ship.

Cape Town is a fantastic city. There are several different areas within, each with their own unique charms. The V&A waterfront is a completely Western enclave – shopping, seaside bars, fancy hotels, and so on. We knew that our ship would be moored within walking distance of this area. What I -didn’t- know is that we would be the centrepiece of it:

We were 20 steps from the nearest restaurant, and the glitzy shopping mall attached to it. And the tourists! All the tourists came to admire our ship, get their picture taken in front of it, and ask us questions about the voyage. Martin, our vehicles manager, was supposed to do an hour of security at the gangplank, but enjoyed talking to the admiring throng so much that he just stayed there for the afternoon, spreading the Shackleton love among the people.

The rest of us mainly stuck to the waterfront, visiting favourite haunts and stocking up on last-minute supplies. For me, that included flip-flops, biltong, long-life milk (luxury compared to powdered milk), magazines (the current winterers are starved for them), and a few computer supplies.

And then, this morning at 11:00 AM, our port leave officially ended, and we did a lifeboat drill. This included a roll call – the easiest way to make sure we were all back on board – and an orderly rush to the lifeboats in full winter gear. In the hot African sun in the middle of summer, -that- wasn’t too pleasant.

And then, that was that. We raised the gangplank, and glided out to sea. We had a few folk bidding fond-farewells, included one young lady who seemed particularly keen to bid us farewell:

I don’t think any of us knew her, but it was still a nice gesture.

And now, Cape Town is disappearing and seasickness is beginning to rear its ugly head. Several people are beginning to get nauseous. I’m doing okay, but have to look away from this blog entry every few minutes to keep myself in check.

And now, I shall lie down for a bit.