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A Terrible Tempest in an Unforgiving Sea

February 27, 2011

A Terrible Tempest in an Unforgiving Sea

Commentary by Captain Paul Watson

"The worst has happened, all the day dreams must go, Great God! This is an awful place."
-British Antarctic Explorer Robert Falcon Scott

The Steve Irwin takes a beating from the fierce Antarctic seas. The Steve Irwin takes a beating from the fierce Antarctic seas.

The Steve Irwin takes a beating from the fierce Antarctic seas.
photos: Barbara Veiga

The storm that claimed the Norwegian yacht Berserk was an awesome display of nature’s power. Three vessels experienced that tempest with three different outcomes. The 14-meter yacht Berserk with her three crewmembers most likely did not stand a chance when the fury of the winds funneling down from Mount Erebus slammed into them with what Lieutenant Commander Simon Griffith of the New Zealand Naval ship Wellington described as 182 km/h winds that "exploded off the Ross Ice Shelf." A good choice of words considering that the storm literally went off like a bomb, without notice and without much chance for avoidance or preparations.

The Berserk and her small crew were at the epicenter of the very white squall, but when their distress signal went off, two other ships were drawn into the witches brew in and around McMurdo Sound. The Wellington and her crew of 55 sailors were the closest, and the Sea Shepherd ship Steve Irwin and her crew of 38 was the next closest vessel. In total, 96 people experienced that storm of which three did not survive.

In response to the Mayday signal, the newly commissioned ice-strengthened New Zealand naval patrol vessel HMNZS Wellington turned towards McMurdo Sound as did the Sea Shepherd ship Steve Irwin, conducting a survey of the Ross Ice Shelf some 200 miles to the east.

"As we responded, we were stuck in the most intense storm I have ever encountered in 19 years in the navy," skipper Lieutenant Commander Simon Griffith told the New Zealand media. “The intense winds built up 8 meter swells as spray turned to thick ice on the decks. Aerials, lighting, and speakers were swept away.” Griffith reported they even lost their stern light.

Three of their life rafts were ripped off and thrown into the sea, one of which was discovered the next morning by the crew of the Steve Irwin. "We still have enough on board to keep us safe," he says. In the midst of it, Griffith got word of the Christchurch earthquake; he kept it to himself for 12 hours so as not to stress members of his crew any further.

The Wellington struggled into the lee of Mount Erebus but once they entered McMurdo Sound, they got slammed again. "They were the biggest seas I have ever come across,” said Griffith.

The previous Monday, the crew of the Wellington had met the three crew of the Berserk at Back Door Bay, where Shackleton's Hut stands. "They gave us a call and asked us for a packet of cigarettes. We did not have any, but we gave them a cigar," says Griffith. The yacht was warned severe weather was coming. Severe weather however, is normal for this area and even the Wellington was surprised at just how severe the storm actually became. "The yacht seemed a very sturdy, oceangoing yacht and they were three cheerful Norwegians."

Berserk leader Jarle Andhoy, 34, and Samuel Massie Ulvolden, 18, were attempting to reach the South Pole to mark the centenary of Norwegian Roald Amundsen's South Pole expedition. The three left on the yacht were Robert Skaane, 34, Tom Gisle Bellika, 36, and South African Leonard Banks, 32.

Berserk needed to get permission from the Norwegian Polar Institute to sail below 60 degrees south. Official Jan-Gunnar Winther confirmed they did not have permission. This was not unusual for Andhoy, who has a reputation in Norway as a maverick adventurer.
Scott Base manager Troy Beaumont said the storm which hit the Berserk and Wellington was "a bit of a dozy."

The Steve Irwin was only hours behind the Wellington and moving at 14 knots towards McMurdo. It was not the worst storm that I have encountered but I only remember two that were more formidable, the first a typhoon in the South China Sea in 1969, and the second, a hurricane force storm off of Labrador in 1998.

It was frightening to many of my crew, although I assured them that our ship was more than equal to the challenge. However, the decks and the port side of the ship were coated in thickening layers of brine ice as the spray frozen in the super chilled air and plastered itself against the steel sides and on the decks adding tons of extra weight that had to be compensated for.

Our bow dove into the seas and plowed into the swells with a force that sent shuddering vibrations throughout the ship. Waves crashed against the port side as if we were being kicked by an enraged titan. The temperatures in the food storage area were so low that the cook had to put produce into the refrigerator to prevent it from freezing. Water pipes burst, and everything, including crew, not tied down flew about the inside making every step hazardous. Two of the crew’s bunks were flooded with freezing water from ruptured water pipes. One of our crew dislocated her shoulder, and another suffered a severe bruise to her arm. It was not a pleasant ride and heading into a storm like that was not practical – but because of the missing Berserk, we had no choice – as mariners we had a duty to respond, and we did.

The Wellington was forced to retreat back to New Zealand. We took over as the primary search vessel and although we were hopeful, those hopes were dashed when we discovered the unoccupied life raft of the Berserk. The Berserk was lost, the Wellington damaged, but fortunately the Steve Irwin suffered no damage at all.

I reflected that it was such a small world. I had met Jarle Andhoy, the skipper of the Berserk years ago when he presented his film Berserk at the Telluride Mountain Film Festival. He had sailed solo down to Antarctica at 17 years of age, capsizing his vessel the Berserk I in the Drake Passage, yet skillfully recovering and completing his voyage. He was a very capable mariner. He had sailed through the Northwest Passage in the Arctic. He was not however, on the Berserk when the storm hit and I have no knowledge of the expertise of the crew that was.

It was also an irony that Andhoy and his crew were commemorating the 100th anniversary of Amundsen’s successful discovery of the South Pole. We had been at the Bay of Whales only two days previous to use the centenary as a means of sending a message to Norway to end whaling.

I have to admit I am at a loss to understand why Andhoy and Ulvolden set out for the pole on quad bikes so late in the season. December is the time to strike for the pole, not February. It was the weather of January and February that took the lives of Robert Scott, Edward Wilson, Henry Bowers, Laurence Oates, and Edgar Evans in 1912. By leaving so late in the season they would have endure to endure the increasing ferocity of the approaching Antarctic winter. The scientists and workers from McMurdo were already being evacuated in anticipation of Ross Island being entrapped in ice. The reason for a late February dash to the pole is mystifying but it is not my place to judge Andhoy and his team. Perhaps that was a part of their challenge.

I do know that through experience that nature is extremely unforgiving, terribly so. Nowhere on earth is nature so dominant and cruel as in Antarctica, where the majestic beauty of this silent land shrouded in frigid whiteness proclaims boldly to all challengers that this continent controls those who visit. We do not control it.

I wrote the following poem during a less intense storm off the Antarctic coast in 2008.

The Tempest


This poem was written in January 2008 as the Steve Irwin sailed south to confront the Japanese whaling fleet. I wrote it during the storm in an attempt to capture the emotions of the crew and the groaning of the ship. 


In confidence my ship sailed South,
Oblivious to danger,
I feared not the coming storm,
To such winds I was no stranger.

But amongst my crew were virgin sailors
Some still sea-sick from just the gentle motions,
For them I knew this would be a test,
And fear would dominate their emotions

The mild sea gave way to rising swells,
Whitecaps spit their salty spray
The swells did begin to rise with the tide,
And upon the dark shroud did flay,

The apprentices on the deck looked towards the rising clouds
Young eyes grew wide with growing apprehension.
Lightning crackled in the sky,
There was growing comprehension.

The tempest burst upon us like a bomb,
The wind plucked the lines in a deadly dearth  
The winds wailed through the rigging,
And from dark clouds the storm gave birth.

With lightning flash the rains did lash,
And scoured the decks completely clean,
The wind rose to a frightening roar,
And howled forth like a fiend.

Like a Banshee’s mournful deadly wail,
The evil winds did taunt
Disturbing every dead sailor’s bones
From the depths they rose to haunt.

Within the gale we heard them chuckle
The aquatic ghouls put on a grisly show
They sought for us to join them,
To share in their pitiful soggy woe

“Ignore the fiends,” the Captain cried.
“Ignore the sultry Sirens too,
We shan’t be joining them tonight,
No, not this gallant crew.”

The ship did rock and it did roll,
Like a toy boat at the mercy of the gale,
Helpless we watched and kept the course,
Hoping the engines would not fail,

To drive into a Cyclone’s maw,
Is to spit into God’s merciless face,
Prayers and pleads are useless words,
When salt is all you taste.

The wind drives salt from your eyes,
It hurls brine into your frozen face,
Your skin it crawls with the crystals sharp,
This hell provides no safe place.

You watch the bow plunge and dive,
The sea assaults the lonely deck,
The hull it groans and the keel does shiver,
Terrified rats get set to jump the wreck,

The pounding increases as the winds rage on,
Glass is shattered, the lifeboats torn away,
The ship rolls and moans like a dying thing,
And the crew curses every minute of the day.

The savage winds rode on our stern,
The monstrous gale kicked us in our ass,
We surfed upon mountainous seas,
Yearning for the storm to pass.

Salted water flogged us like slaves
As we fought to keep the ship on course,
Blind and deaf we bent our backs,
My God what an awesome force!

Soaked and tired and frozen stiff,
Fingers numb and elbows sore,
Striving to stay awake and alert,
Thank God, we’re far offshore.

I shutter to think what a reef would do,
Such winds would dash us to a crushing hell,
No rocks out here to strike a lethal blow,
Each roll does strike the bell.

Sailors tossed like rag dolls across the heaving sea,
She taunts and teases and scoffs at our displeasure.
Our moans and pains mean naught to her,
Her destruction knows no measure.

And as if to illustrate her rage,
She pelts us with hardened balls of hail,
Then slathers us with hoary rotten sleet,
As the gale continues to scream and wail.

And through the wind blown rain I see,
Just how majestic her power emerges,
Admiration removes all fear,
And I hear the poetry in her howling dirges.

I smile and lick the salt from my lips,
Content to ride this storm to hell,
And in that moment the wind did sigh,
And a calm spread out upon the swell,

The sun pierced the dark grey clouds,
A golden ray did stab the deck and mast.
A rainbow struggled across the sky,
The storm was over at last.

Within hours calm was restored,
The recent past was like a dream,
The violence fled without regret,
From the drying deck rose steam.

A sailors first storm is a nightmarish thing,
Driving fear into the heart and soul,
Once over it reveals just how sweet life really is,
The enlightenment achieved is worth the fearful toll.  


 

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