All posts by alexandicity


Today is the summer solstice, which means it is midday on the 3-month day we find ourselves in. Because it’s the solstice, and because the favourite date for our arrival to our landing point is the 24th, and because it’s a Sunday, we are celebrating Christmas today! The cooks on board made us a 5-course meal, excellent as always and we got all the trappings of Christmas (including some I didn’t know about!). Also, the crackers on board contain tube balloons designed to be inflated and let go which zoom across the room with a prrrrrrrrrrrrrrtttttttttttt sound – the most entertaining thing to come from a cracker ever. I hope these become standard issue.  After, we enjoyed wine, port, Cards Against Humanity, Life of Brian and, my German friends will be happy to hear, Dinner for One. stuck1

Yesterday, our very energetic and enthusiastic radio operator officer, Binky, organized carol singing on the forecastle (the bit at the front of the ship). That was also highly Christmasy, with gluhwein and mince pies and snow and looking out over an endless sea of ice. Certainly, we cannot say we haven’t had a white Christmas…

The scene outside today is identical to that scene when we went out to sing. This is because we are beset, which is a fancy nautical term meaning “stuck”, in the ice. We have been now for 36 hours – completely jammed in by closing ice flows. The ice around us on all sides piles up against the hull, in some places up to several metres thick. This sounds alarming, but is actually quite common for ships out here. We are now sitting, waiting for the wind to start blowing Northwards and break up the ice – sea ice flows are like clouds, blown around by the wind and the speed at which it can change can be very fast. The crew have a number of techniques to release us from the tight hold of the ice, my favourite of which is to grab a 30t fuel tank with our crane, stretch it way overboard and swing it back and forth to induce rocking in the hull. We haven’t done this as there’s no where for us to go once free – it’s endless ice to the horizon. A taster of the scenery at Halley, perhaps?stuck2


Spirits remain high. For us passengers, there’s not a lot of difference between sailing in a moving ship and sailing in a beset ship – life goes on as usual. Food is served and DVDs are watched. There are some pros and cons of being stuck in the ice, though:

  • PRO: The ship has stopped rocking so we now can shower safely without water going everywhere. Similarly, we can use the treadmill without the fear of being thrown off when we hit a chunk of ice.
  • CON: The sewage treatment gas exhaust is being sucked into the ventilation air intake, giving a wonderful smell of rotten eggs throughout the cabins.
  • PRO: The helmsman can take it easy after a few tough days of ice navigation.
  • CON: We’re not making good progress to Halley. In fact, the ice has turned us around and we’re now facing away from where we want to go.
  • PRO: The ice is drifting naturally West, which means we’re making 0.2kts (360m/hour) in the right direction. Our engines remain off, so our fuel efficiency is great.
  • CON: At 0.2kts, our navigational software is predicting an arrival into the landing site on the 26th of February 2015….

We expect the wind will change and we’ll be out of the ice soon and on our way to Halley, which now is only 300km or so away. A few days ago we passed the German Neumeyer station, although I was asleep at the time (11:00) and so didn’t see it. We have been planning our activities for our arrival, which makes the end of our trip seem more real (even if it is some days off yet at best!). Looks like we’ll be hitting the work hard as soon as we arrive – which no doubt will be a shock after the last few weeks of leisurely cruising…

We stopped to take a ship selfie two days ago.  The Captain found a nice iceberg and ploughed the ship into some sea ice next to it. We all assembled on deck and took this photo, in varying levels of festive clothing…stuck3

We had more Breathing Apparatus (BA) training. For Commander Tom and me, it was a refresher of the stuff we did at the firefighting training, but for the other three wintering team aboard it was their first time in the kit. Good fun – we’re getting quicker at putting it on! Down from about 10 minutes to a more urgent 3 minutes. The BA is the most important part of our fire response; we haven’t the facilities at Halley to fight a large blaze but we do want to save people who may be stuck in smoke-filled modules. Here, Tom and I pose in our full kit.


Lastly, it has been have noted that our ship’s namesake, Ernest Shackleton, was, with his crew, celebrating mid-summer exactly 100 years ago today about 200km away from our current location. At that time, his ship, the Endurance, was also stuck in ice in the opening stages of a remarkable story of human perseverance against the odds that would end two years and many trials later. I am not expecting we will suffer, as they did, a winter stuck in the ice (at least, not on this ship!), but it does feel like so far we are retracing the footsteps of arguably the greatest Antarctic expedition ever on its centenary.

I wish you all safe journeys (with less delay and difficulty than Ernest Shackleton) to your various families and friends, and a Merry Christmas!

Unexpected Visitor

Since we left Cape Town, we have been feeling very isolated. Our ship was not seen land or any hint of civilisation for over a week. We are a small speck of people in a metal can on what I am realizing to be a very big sea. There’s no radio signals here, no distant aircraft or contrails, no ships, nothing – just us, the sea, the ice and the occasional animal. The radars show only icebergs and sea backscatter. I think the last two blog posts convey how remote we feel from anything.

So, imagine my surprise yesterday when I was ambling along the midship, minding my own business, when a helicopter flew overhead. A chap on it opened a door and waved at me. I waved back, a little perplexed, and then it flew off.


Helicopters are fun any day, but are particularly so when there’s no obvious place for it to have come from, and when it is basically impossible that it could have stumbled upon us by chance. Helicopters can’t fly far. I rushed up tot the bridge – my favourite place to be when something fun is happening, it seems – and the officers up there seemed equally astonished. They were trying to radio it with no success.

We later found that the helicopter was based on a German ship, the Polar Stern, which was some hundred miles away. Seems they flew out to wave to us. They have since sent us an electronic Christmas card. Nice to know we are not as alone here as it first appears.

In other news, the ice we are breaking through now is a lot thicker and covers more of the surface. It looks a bit like what the area around Halley will look like! A few times we’ve gotten “stopped” by the ice and have needed to reverse to try another way.

Breaking the Ice

Last night was strange. After dinner, we had a wine and cheese night, although at some point the wine was upgraded to port. Pleasant, but not the strange part. No, the strange part was despite the lateness of the wine and port drinking, the light outside never vanished. We won’t see night again for some months now.

Two days ago was strange. On the horizon we saw our first ice. An iceberg some 10km away from us. Despite it being so far away, it was huge. It is hard to describe or get a good scale of it but it wasn’t a classic Titanic berg. No, it was a chunk of the iceshelf, maybe 50m above the water surface and no doubt hundreds of meters below it. It was easily half a kilometer wide. Again, the camera doesn’t do it justice, but it looked like this:

On the radar we could see an even bigger one. Then they just kept appearing all around us, and we soon we seeing a couple at any given point. Silent giants floating by – we’re in their domain now. At night (brief as it was) our searchlights picked them up from a huge distance – they are very bright and reflective, like a sensible cyclist at night. Quite a sight.

Yesterday morning was strange. I woke up at 0600 to a loud crash and a violent shaking of the ship. In my pijamas I jumped out of bed and up to the bridge. Some of of the other passengers had had the same reaction. In front of us lay sea ice as far as we could see – thin white and flat chunks ahead of us for miles and miles, white lilies on a black pond. It is confusing to see such an endless bunch of surfaces that you could walk on and jump between so far from any true land. The crunch – which had continued since I woke – was the sound us us crushing our way through them. Through the way the crunching continued, intermittently as we entered and exited areas with more or less thin ice. The crew seem completely unfazed by the fairly dramatic sounds, reminiscent of distant thunder, and shaking of the ship. After 24 hours and a sleep through it, neither am I. The shaking, in fact, adds a degree of immersion when we’re watching action films.
Icebreaking is a fairly brunt force process. We just power forwards and slam into the ice. Sometimes it just cracks and pushes to the side, but a lot of bigger chunks that aren’t easily shoved about end up going under our hull later to pop up in bits alongside the ship over its full length. The amount of energy needed to break up this much ice must be phenomenal. Apparently we use 14000l of fuel a day for usual cruising, but this rises to 22000l when we have ice to smash. The sheet ice we have encountered so far is thin and weak, and usually crumples like paper when we hit it; sometime tonight we will reach a thicker layer that will require more power to crack. Behind us, a trail of destruction:


Yesterday was also strange as we got a wildlife hat-trick (possibly). We saw our first seals – lounging, as seals seem to do perpetually – on the ice sheets until our boat’s presence deigned then to turn their head and (in one case) flee in terror as the ship bore down on their ice chunk. We also saw numerous penguins – chinstraps, I am told – swimming and wadding over the ice. They look quite small from the distance we saw them. It is strange to sea animals walking on ice – making them terrestrial – so far from any land. Lastly, I saw a splash of water and something vanish into the sea. My fellow winterer Hue tells me emphatically that it was a whale, although I am dubious. Still, if it was, we’ve seen all three of the famous Antarctic critters all at once!


To finish, some statistics from a meteorological observation I just did:

  • Latitude: 65 54′
  • Longitude: 0 38′ (directly south!)
  • Sea Temperature: -1
  • Air Temperature: -2
  • Cloud coverage: 8/8 okta Stratus
  • Current iceberg count: 3

And this one highly professional warning on a GPS receiver connected to our ice-monitoring  computer on the bridge:


Unfortunately, this warning is on a lighting boom that stretches over a walkway I like to walk down frequently.

On a Boat

It’s 0400 AM. I am on a ship, the RRS Ernest Shackleton, up at this time for several reasons:

  • The internet is eye-gougingly slow at this time, which is a considerable improvement from the the rest of the time when others are using the tiny little satellite connection we have as well.
  • My internal clock is badly screwed up due to the lack of obvious daily rhythm and disrupted sleep the last few days.
  • We are passing the island of Bouvetøya, which is remarkable because it is a) the only land we’ve seen in over a week and b) it is the most remote island in the world, which feels about right.

We’ve traveled now for almost a week, constantly heading 206 degrees (South!) out of Cape Town, and it does feel like we’re a long way from anything. However, we’re only half way to our landing point near Halley. They’re not sure yet, but the expectation is somewhere between Saturday and Sunday we’ll start to encounter the ice – there’s a lot more of it than expected this year, and further out, so we’ll need to do a lot of icebreaking.

Some photos!

boat1Our ship! The RRS Ernest Shackleton, one of two ships that the British Antarctic Survey has. This one is more of a freighter while the other, the James Clark Ross, is a science vessel. It has accommodation for about 60 people, of which currently 21 are crew and 28 are “supernumerary crew” – what you call passengers if you want them to help with cleaning etc 🙂 It is pretty comfortable aboard: we all have cabins with at most one other person, which is manageable. There’s unlimited excellent food produced – almost more than I can eat, which is a problem. They have a bar with cheap beer (so far not taken full advantage of), lounges, a very extensive DVD collection and a very interesting crew.

boat2Our cargo! In addition to the passengers, of which 5 are from the wintering team while the rest are (much more sensible) summer staff, we are carrying many tonnes of cargo bound for Halley. Most of this by weight is Avtur fuel, stored in those four white tank-tainers (apparently a word) and many barrels held down in the hold below. We also are carrying a years’ supply of food, spare generators, all kinds of other replacement parts and science kit. And, of course, our personal boxes. This photo is looking aft from the bridge, which we can go up and visit freely – which is very cool. That room, in addition to the best views around, also has so many screens and levers and buttons – an engineer’s heaven. We have to careful when it’s dark and rolling that we don’t fall on a button that declutches the engines or something though – this is hard as most of the surfaces are covered in controls of some description.

boat3As ever, a photo fails to capture the beauty of the scene, which was a feast for our eyes. The second day into our cruise we were presented with a stunning sunset. We were sitting on the edge of the ship, beers in hand, thinking life is good. The next few days the ship got a lot more motion. Icebreakers have flat bottoms, the idea being they can ride up on the ice and crush it with their weight, which means that the handling on the high seas is not very good. This ship rolls sided to side as usual, but also strongly pitches forwards-backwards. Slowly but surely, as the seas picked up, people vanished into their cabins. To my great surprise, I have been completely unaffected by seasickness – and I’m very glad. My less fortunate colleagues have had a rough few days…

Yesterday were the heaviest seas yet. We have been able to avoid entering a storm we thought we may have to pass though but crossing in its wake still gave 10m swells and very dramatic ship movements. Enough, certainly, to make walking hard, make anything in your cabin that’s not secured fall to the floor, showering hazardous and interesting sitting in the lounge as your chair slides back and forth across the room.

boat4Another view from the bridge, this time looking forward, from last night. Although we’re not expected to hit real ice for some days, we’re in the ice danger zone and icebergs may exist as far North as here (45deg S). The big ones we’ll see on radar long before we see the visually, but the smaller ones that don’t have a radar reflection are still a risk to the ship, so the crew are watching our path like hawks that eat ice. At night, they turn on two bright searchlights to illuminate the sea, and last night there was also heavy snowfall resulting in a pair of beautiful snow shafts. The outside temperature has dropped to about 3 degrees, with the water temperature slightly below. Too cold to loiter outside long, as we haven’t yet cracked open our cold-weather gear. Strange to think just a few days ago it was hot, shorts weather… it’s starting to feel a bit like where I’m going…

By the way, I have no comments enabled here as it’s not really possible for me to view them (frustratingly the internet out here is so poor I cannot view my own blog). I do want to hear from you though, even if it’s one-line witty comments or questions about anything I write! Send them via email, though, at alexander at


Training with BAS

It’s been almost exactly two months now since I started with the British Antarctic Survey. In this time, I’ve done a lot of strange training I wouldn’t have anticipated had you asked me two months ago what training we needed for Antarctica. For example, we haven’t yet sat in a freezer for hours on end or learnt how to grill penguin medium-rare.

Our first part part of training was at BAS’s offices in Cambridge. This was mostly lectures and tutorials to learn about the various science and experiments we have out at Halley. Very Powerpoint. This was the minor concern though; most of this time was spent packing – both our personal kit and the experiments we’re taking down with us – as the deadline for shipping was only three weeks after I arrived into the UK. We had a few days learning about all the different types of clouds. This was further busied by being the time I meet lots of new people, discover BAS’s rules and culture and get settled back into the UK. It’s a bit of a blur.

The second part was Conference. This was a particularly interesting time where almost everyone going to Antarctica goes to Girton College, one of the old, historic collages of Cambridge Uni just outside of town. So old and historic, in fact, that it didn’t have drinkable water, wifi or card payment in their bar. But very nice. This was a few days more of Powerpoint, science and more people to meet. I also met my whole wintering team for the first time and quickly started the first of many highly unsubstantiated, vaguely worrying and hilarious rumours that BAS loves so much. We finished with a lively first aid course. In a typical first aid course, you learn how to stabilise someone until someone arguably more professional comes along. In Antarctica that isn’t something you can depend on, but we kind of glossed over that part. We’ll work it out when we come to it. Improvisation is king in Antarctica, and that applies to medicine too. This course also starred the Casualty Union (a group of actors who tour the country to play the roles of the dramatically injured), Entenox (oxygen and laughing gas) sampling and the presentation of our painkiller options in the field (Paracetamol, Ibuprofen, Tremadol and Morphine)…

The Conference was followed immediately by a field course. This was a few days living as if we were in the polar emptiness and for this they chose the location in the UK that BAS feel best mirrors the barrenness, desolation and remoteness of Antarctica. So, of course, Derbyshire. We were in a campsite just South of the Peak District but in fact that didn’t much matter since the only time we left the campsite was to explore the local pub in the evenings. All our field training – including the navigation – was taught on the campsite grounds.

The training here was a mix of things:
* Ropework – abseiling, learning to jumar (which is like abseiling but upwards and therefore much less sensible), crevassed area crossing, crevasse rescue (for when the crossing doesn’t work out so well..)
* Cooking and lighting burners (apparently it’s too cold to cook outside so we discard classic safe campcraft and cook inside). Our stoves and lights seem old enough to be the same ones used by Scott et al and have a tendency to explode flaming petrol everywhere. I’m sure it’ll be OK.
* Navigating in whiteouts – how to walk around a white snowy terrain when the sky is equally white and there is fog. We simulate this by wearing buckets on our heads so we can only see our feet and a compass we’re holding. That makes for an interesting show for curious bystanders.

After the field course, we returned to Cambridge and resumed a more normal 9-5 routine, peppered with other training courses of various kinds. We learnt to be operators of cherry pickers or, as operators of cherry pickers like to call them, MEWPs. This is so we can pick any cherry trees we encounter on the ice shelf safely. Continuing this theme of working on high up stuff despite our perfectly flat destination, we trained to climb up masts. At Halley we have a number of masts that we use to -receive radio 4- elevate our science packages off the surface. One experiment I will be deploying shortly after arrival will need to be mounted at various points on a 32m mast, so we need to climb up, haul up the experiment and attach it. This course was good fun but I imagine climbing the mast in the cold and wind will be less pleasant…

Because Halley is technically an airfield, we have a legal obligation to have a firefighting capability there. Five of us were sent to RAF Duxford to learn how to deal with aircraft fires and rescues over three days. Conveniently, many of the principles when dealing with aircraft also apply to our base – after all, we will be living in long, confined metal and plastic tube filled with fuel and other elaborate substances. This training was exceptionally fun – rushing around in fire engines, wearing all the protective fireman kit and blasting fires with copious amounts of water definitely appealed to my 10 year old self. There is one slight issue with this part of the training – all the firefighting we learnt did involve thousands upon thousands of litres of water and foam. At Halley, due to the energy expense of melting water, we have only a small amount of water available in the base, and none available at our snow runway . Instead of a fire engine with a large water tank and pumping systems, we have a snowmobile sledge with an oversized fire extinguisher. This is just a limitation of where we are, and since we’re just accommodating very small and well-piloted aircraft, it should be fine. But still amusing. And a lot of what we learnt wasn’t about putting out fires but how to safely enter smoky areas to find missing people, which was very eye-opening.

Another perk of the fire course was that it was held in the grounds of RAF Duxford, which is also the home of an Imperial War Museum campus. During the breaks we were free to wander the exhibits which were very interesting. Highlights included a walk through an early Concorde, not seeing a stealth fighter (very impressive), and seeing a Mark X Lancaster, which is of personal importance to me as it was the craft my grandfather flew in the War.

Training has largely come to a close now with no more formal courses to do. From here until departure, it’s just a matter of reading, designing and preparing anything else we might consider useful. On arrival on the ice, we go through another round of in-situ training.


One of the sessions at Girton – in this case a group exercise in putting a rod on the floor. Turns out the participants found this very hard to do…


Here, we are being taught the art of oil spill response. Since some of our bases are on the waterside of some very fragile marine areas, we all needs to know how to contain and clear an oil spill should it happen. Since we have no sea near us in Halley, it’s not quite so critical for our team, but nonetheless interesting!


Part of the training involved simulating a ship evacuation at sea. Here, we are all having way too much fun in a liferaft…


Not all fun and games – one night we all put in some exhausting hours at the Girton Conference Ceilidh!


During the ropes course. Here, Hue is trying to work our the correct process to switch from an ascending position (jumarring) to a descending one (abseiling), without letting herself off the rope. A wee bit tricky…


The last day of the field course coincided with my birthday.  Someone picked up on this and at midnight icecream with candles on appeared! Very fun! The people here are a mix of winterers going to bases at Halley, Bird Island and Rothera.


Mast climbing training. We have a mast in Cambridge to practise on. Here: me at 16m.


More mast training: in this case, Celine and I are replacing a ladder segment.

Packing for Antarctica

When I leave Cape Town, I won’t be near a shop again until well into 2016. We need to bring everything we need to survive and enjoy life for the next 15 months with us. If we forget something, we have to do without in most cases. So, what did I bring? We get two items of personal belongings shipped down with us – a 65l duffel bag of clothes and a small plastic crate we can fill with anything we want to entertain ourselves for those months. We can also bring a few more things with us when we fly to Capetown.

For my clothes bag, I went on the biggest clothes shopping spree I’ve ever done. I spent close to £400 on new tshirts, underwear, tops,trousers and anything else. Apologies to Kim, Tessa and Michelle, as the sense of style they have patiently tried to imbue me with over the years crumbled and reverted to my original level (“if something I wear is fashionable, that’s purely by chance”). We only get to do laundry out there every other week so, with some spares, I needed to pack a good 20 pairs of socks and pants. Otherwise, it is hard to say how much we need. Some people down there apparently maintain a very normal and varied style of clothing, while others just wear the same things for days on end hoping their colleagues won’t notice. I will adopt a strategy somewhere in between.

For my crate, I took a bunch of stuff I thought would be useful to pass the time. Parts for my computer, fancy dress, a frisbee, running gear, microscope slides, model-building kits – a strange mix. A few items I can’t reveal here as they are surprises for my colleagues (Halley team: these are nice ones, honest! Do not be afraid!). I also emptied some Tesco shelves to bring a silly amount of shower gel and antiperspirant, 5 bottles of E45, toothbrushes and no Vaseline at all. Finally, and most importantly, I packed 61 letters sent to me from friends and family all over the world. These will be my most tangible and real connection with the outside while I’m there. Thank you all for sending me them.

Everything I’m taking is a “bonus”. I could take nothing at all and still be able to survive out there. The Survey provide everything a polar explorer needs to live. All our food and basic hygiene requirements, all our booze, all our cold weather gear is provided for us. Left in the base from previous years are games and other fun stuff. I could go down with nothing at all in my bag, and the worst that would happen is that I would be very smelly from not having any changes of indoor clothes.  This is reassuring, as I have that familiar fear that I left something important behind…

The sum total of the stuff I’m taking to Halley with me. Most of the non-clothing stuff is already in the crate at the back, with the large white liner bag (this is for waterproofing). These are all the clothes I will have for the next 16 months…

Bags packed! The top crate and red bag go on the boat now, while the left bag is the things I want in the UK between now and departure day.  I will take this down with me on the flight.


In addition to my packing, there are many people packing many other things for the Ernest Shackleton to carry to Halley. Here, for example, are four new snowmobiles. Our logistics team is also arranging for tonnes of food, fuel, spare parts, generators and science gear to be shipped – there’s a small warehouse full of boxes to go to Antarctica…


Arrival into Cambridge

I am in Cambridge, UK now. I moved here from Leiden, where I previously lived, three days ago arriving Monday morning. It is now Wednesday evening and it’s been very busy since arrival.

The Monday wasn’t really a good day to write about. Shortly after I got off my ferry at 0700 I was greeted by a number of British stereotypes: light rain, cancelled trains and bank problems. Nonetheless, I made it to Cambridge and moved into a room. The rain stopped for just long enough for me to venture out but started again as soon as I was just far enough away that I couldn’t run back to the dry sanctuary of home without getting wet. I tried to buy a bike with no success due to me losing a big wad of money somewhere and the aforementioned bank issues. So I went home and unpacked instead, grumbling. Achievements that evening include eating M&S pizza and, erm, actually that’s about it.

The room is near Girton College that will be my home for the next three weeks.  It’s a nice place, new build, about 4km from Cambridge centre and 2km from the BAS offices – so not central, but in theory close to work and it was somewhere I could go on arrival with reasonable confidence that it would be there for me when I turned up. It was. My two housemates, Emily and Shelly, are very pleasant and welcoming. The house is 43.6% white paint by mass.

Yesterday was the first day on the job! I arrived at 08:30, which I very soon discovered is not the time most BAS staff arrive. I sat and talked with another well-dressed early arrival, David, who it turns out is one my Halley team. The first one I meet in person.

We spent much of the day walking around the complex (which is big and complex), meeting all kinds of people of various importances and doing critical things like claiming the best desk spaces in our office. David and I, doing basically the same role on the team, did everything together. We also met two other members of our Halley team, Celine and Hue, who started some weeks ago..

Today was sunny and bright! We continued to meet people and started having lectures. We learnt a little about the experiments and the operations at Halley, much already known but the immersion was good. We got to speak on the phone to our counterparts currently at Halley. Even so, despite the call and the endless photos and descriptions and deadlines, I can’t say the fact I’m going to live there has really ingrained itself in me yet. Or perhaps it has but I’ve been too relaxed/busy to notice…