The Navy’s Antarctic patrol ship HMS Protector this week ventured further south than ever before on her maiden deployment as she delivered vital supplies to polar scientists.
The Portsmouth-based survey ship sailed to Rothera research base, the largest of the British Antarctic Survey’s (BAS) and the centre of its research effort on the frozen continent, to deliver vital supplies.
In doing so, the Portsmouth-based icebreaker ventured to her most southerly point yet – 67˚34’S, or nearly 800 miles from Cape Horn, the southernmost tip of the Americas.
Protector was asked to deliver aviation fuel – always a potentially-hazardous task, but one made more challenging given the conditions so far south.
The ship had to pump 168 cubic metres of fuel ashore at a rate of 15 cubic metres an hour – that’s 15,000 litres / 3,300 gallons every 60 minutes, or enough fuel to fill up more than 270 Ford Focuses.
That had to be done in temperatures of -15˚C – and with Protector herself rolling heavily. Though she was berthed at a jetty at the research station, the swell on the ocean was so heavy that she rolled seven degrees to port and starboard enough to keep her ship’s company in watches in case there was an emergency.
Once completed the task, sailors and marines explored Rothera Station and the wider Adelaide Island, 12 times the size of the Isle of Wight. For this three of the all-terrain tracked vehicles were craned ashore – first to provide an impressive backdrop for a ship’s company photograph, then to allow some roaming.
Two dozen of the crew took part in a ‘winter Olympics’ with the BAS team – and promptly beat the scientists and support staff on their own ‘turf’.
The event, whose highlight was the cross-country ski race, was played out against the stunning backdrop of the Adelaide Mountains.
On the final day of the Rothera Station visit the Royal Marines, aboard the survey ship as cold weather experts, took part in some crevassing supervised by the BAS polar guides and Sgt Ian Freeman, the ship’s mountain leader.
“Once we were down in the crevasse it was a truly mind-blowing experience,” said Marine Thomas Lemar. “It was like being in Superman’s secret lair with huge ice crystals shooting out in every direction, reflecting light in deep vibrant blues.”
“Every time we overcame an obstacle we were rewarded with a new breath-taking sight. One of the most memorable chambers we entered was through the smallest hole you have ever seen”.
The visit, which was a resounding success, culminated in an awards ceremony on board the ship with a rather optimistic – given the sub-zero temperatures – but well- received barbecue.
But festivities were cut short by the weather and the decision was taken to move Protector away from the jetty –far enough to prevent damage to the ship’s side, but it also meant the BAS staff had to leave early.
With the visit to Rothera done, Protector sailed north to begin the long journey back to the UK. It took her first through particularly narrow and poorly-surveyed waters, known as The Gullet; the charts in use – the only ones available – were woefully out of date.
It meant that at times Protector was forced to navigate on what had been charted as land 150 years before to avoid the large ice cliffs at the waters edge.
The ship, however, is used to this and the bridge team coolly executed a very demanding navigation serial safety and soon guided her to her next tasking at the US Palmer Station, Arthur Harbour, Antarctica.