antarctic report 6 – Deadmen timbers and Russian catering


This is the sixth in our series of reports from David Goulden working for The British Antarctic Survey. Last time Dave had just heard of the arrival of the Russian supply ship Igarka. This time we hear of the unloading.

After taking a leisurely breakfast over at the Drury annexe kitchen we had met at the garage at 0745 where I read the instructions from a white board pinched from the kitchen in the Laws building.

We were then given 15 minutes notice to get packed and be ready for the Relief party heading down to the coast. I jumped on my skidoo and raced back to my bunk room where I threw everything in a bag and went to the pick up point where I was assigned a snow cat for the 40min journey to the coast.

We arrived as the Russian supply ship Igarka was steaming over the horizon trailing a plume of black smoke from its funnel. It arrived an hour later and spent the rest of the day charging at the ice in an attempt to break off the jagged ice so that it could moor square to the edge.The 3no 100t cranes only have a lift reach of 12m and so it could not afford to be anything but snug against the sea ice.

A stubborn lump of ice refused to break away from the shelf so we ended up with 6 Jiffy ice drills with 2 men a piece stitch drilling a line of holes in an attempt to assist in breaking off a section of ice. Each man was roped up as they were standing in sea water whilst drilling.

Eventually at 1900hrs after a final successful charge at the ice, the ship was able to moor up and we accepted her bow lines, dug holes for deadmen timbers and wire strops and secured her bow. We handed over to the night shift at 2100 hrs and headed home to base for dinner and bed.

The Relief rotation started that night. We were the first point of contact for the cargo with sea ice drivers delivering sledges to us at the ship side where we loaded and stropped all the material. We had a small caboose with a paraffin heater and 4 beds in with us on the sea ice edge – this acted as our refuge throughout the day.

As one sledge departed another pulled in from its waiting point at the mooring lines and made its way to us. The loaded sledge travelled off the ice and up the ramp to the Shelf ice where the full cargo sledges were lined up so that they could be collected by the Prime Movers 3 or 4 at a time and delivered to base.

As the Prime Mover left the Shelf ice depot it radioed Halley Comms and gave a description of the cargo which was logged.The cargo was then deposited on the Cargo lines at base from where it would be distributed.

The first shift went amazingly well and we moved 40 sledges. We had 6 holds to empty each with its own crane. The holds had “‘tween” decks. This meant that you emptied the top half and then opened the hatches below (the floor) and started work on the lower hold below. My job was banking and slinging loads and strapping the cargo. We got to recognise the Russian vocab for “up” and “down” and developed a rapport with each shift. They worked extremely hard for us considering they were on a day rate (20,000k a day for the ship and crew not inc fuel)

We were bunked on the Igarka and had a hot bed rota with the night shift. The cabins were OK but reminded me of travelling in China and the hostels common to the country. Each cabin had its own WC/shower room. One of the best things was the fact that you could open the windows!
The russian catering was, as expected peas and spam for breakfast, but the crew were very friendly and perfect hosts. In the evenings we explored the ship and its holds. They had a swimming pool and gym on board but the pool was empty and covered in oil and the Gym had parts of cargo hold bolts as dumbbells!

Because the unloading was non-stop we had a couple of days of cargo moving where we ate on the run and were fed with coffee and chocolate by the sea ice driver’s mate. The shelf ice kitchen caboose (our canteen staffed by one of the chefs) opened at 1300hrs. If we managed to get back we would be served much welcome soup or sandwiches. More often than not we were sent flasks of soup down and ate between loads. The Russians were on an 8hr shift.

Loading a Challenger cat onto the Ernest Shackleton for return to Cape Town
Loading a Challenger cat onto the Ernest Shackleton for return to Cape Town
The Ernest Shackleton (ES) turned up 2 days into the Igarka relief. She moored to the bow of the Igarka and was dwarfed by the bulk carrier. The Shackleton is much more manoeuvrable, having bow and stern thrusters, and she was able to shave off sections of the sea ice.

Our access to the Igarka was via a Wor Geordie which was dropped at 1930 hrs with the n/s crew and not dropped again until 0700 hrs the next morning with us hanging on. It was a great way to get to work as but you had to hang on!

Some friendly penguins joined in the Relief. They would sit in the middle of the operation squawking and franticly moulting trying to rid there down feathers in favour of their mature and waterproof coats. They could not leave the ice for the sea until they had moulted.

We were moved over to the ES half way through the week.The accommodation aboard made the Igarka look like a prison ship. I have never been on a cruise ship but if I had I would expect her to look like the Shackleton. We had en suite facilities and our own lounge and TV room. The food was fantastic. We could dine on 5 course meals and I took the opportunity to eat my weight in fresh fruit and soft cheese. We even had real milk (well UHT).

The Igarka was unloaded in 4.5 shifts and departed playing the Russian national anthem on its deck speakers and the crew waving as she steamed away. She was on charter to BAS until she left the sea ice zone.

We then moved to emptying the ES. For this section of work I was to be a sea ice drivers mate which meant riding a skidoo shadowing the snow cat driver in case the cat fell through the ice. We all carried/wore life jackets and throw lines which are mandatory when on sea ice.

The ES relief was run by the ES bridge officers. Protocol was such that you had to call them up to request permission to come along side or depart with the loads. Each wagon would be held at the mooring lines until its predecessor was ready to depart. It was a much more formal arrangement and slowed the process down somewhat. We were also back on BAS work schedules so stopped for smoko and lunch for an hour each day.

As far as I was concerned I was quite happy to dawdle the days away as it meant we had more time eating and sleeping on the ES – we very nearly had the ship to ourselves for the period and there were a few days when I was actually bunking on my own for the first time since leaving the UK.

Once the ship was unloaded we began backloading waste from base. This took a couple of days and we then started wrapping up our makeshift shanty town. On the last day the remaining 5 of us had our last meal on the ES (we were treated to lobster and prawns) before being assigned a snow cat for the journey home. As we loaded up the sledges in preparation for the convoy journey we were handed a can of beer for the hour trip. It was a very satisfying trip home. We had completed the largest relief in the shortest time. We’d moved over 250 wagons and travelling over 4000km over the sea ice. We arrived back at base at 2200hrs and were given the next 2 days off.

Saturday night was the Relief barbecue night with a free bar supplied by Morrisons (Gallifords) and the RSA teams supplied and cooked the meat. It was a great night but most of us were more than a little tired after 10 days of non stop working and shift changes.

Our next task will be unloading and categorising the cargo and carrying out repairs and logistics work before the end of the season – we are half way through today……

– David Goulden, Halley Research Station, Antarctica

30/12 Antarctic Report 5 – prime movers, melt tank and cricket
22/12 Antarctic Report 4 – quiet week at 75 degrees south
15/12 Antarctic Report 3 – Mech boys, adventuring and the flow
08/12 Antarctic Report 2 – Penguins, balloons, stuffing and apple sauce
06/12 Antarctic Report 1 – Nunatacs, Blue Ice and 4 beers on Saturday night


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