December 24, 2008
Blog from Andy - High Seas Encounters
Andy (Leading Seaman, Deck Crew)
SOMEWHERE OFF ANTARCTICA
I awoke to stormy, choppy conditions; I can feel in my cabin that the Steve Irwin is pitching and rolling more than she has the last few days though not nearly as much as she did steaming here from Hobart.
I get up for breakfast. There is sleet squalling horizontally across our decks, which are covered in ice and snow. The conditions on deck are very slippery, so the deck crew resigns itself to rostered indoor duties for the day.
News sweeps across the ship that a vessel has been picked up on our radar just 13 nautical miles from our position. The radar shows our bearings on a collision course with theirs, which means we should make visual with them soon, as long as they maintain their course. The anticipation and excitement mounts: is it a Japanese whaling ship?
The call goes out to the deck crew to suit up and ready the small boats for deployment. We ready with excitement and adrenaline coursing through our veins. As a small boat driver I put on my wetsuit, Mustang suit, PFD (personal floatation device), boots, gloves, helmet and goggles. I am ready for battle.
I get on deck and start work readying the Delta RIB (rigid-inflatable boat) for deployment. The Delta will be the only RIB deployed for this action. At this stage I am unaware of the details of this particular action.
I jump onto the Delta's deck, check its bungs, scuppers, batteries, fuel lines, self-righting, flush the engines, then start to put more air into the pontoons, which have lost pressure due to the extreme cold. It's at this point someone yells out "abeam to the port-side". I look over to see the Japanese kill ship the Yushin Maru No. 2 just a few hundred meters off our port-side and closing; she's close enough to see her crew donning PFD's and scrambling about her decks. I can almost see the whites of their eyes, and I think to myself "where the hell did the ship come from?" It's like she just came out of nowhere. But I'm excited beyond words. This is the moment I've worked over six months on-board for, and we've found her after just 10 days at sea.
Orders are issued. For reasons of expedience, only the Delta will be deployed to pursue the kill ship; its objective: to pelt her decks with Butyric Acid (rancid butter bombs) and make them unworkable for the whaling crew. I am the Delta's Coxswain, so I get to go on the mission. With me will be two boat crew who will act as Bowman, Stern Sheet (wo)man, and both as throwers. Also in the boat will be two media: one videographer and one photographer.
The Delta is lowered alongside the Steve Irwin in rough conditions with me and Molly. Because of ice and the chase, the ship is not able to be positioned so that we are given a lee side to deploy in, which sees the RIB pitch wildly in the swell as we watch the Steve Irwin's freeboard loom above us then suddenly drop away. The pilot ladder is then dropped down. I put the engines hard aport then throttle astern to stick hard against the hull of the ship so that the other crew and media may safely use the pilot ladder to come aboard.
Laurens, the other boat crew, is the first to come down the ladder, but just as he gets a foot onto the RIB's pontoon it drops violently into a trough leaving Laurens holding onto nothing but the ropes alongside the ladder.
The RIB the lurches up towards him again. For a split second there is a real danger that it will crush him between the ships hull. Molly scrambles across the RIBs deck to grab him. As fate has it, the boat bow rises to his feet safely, and he swings them onto the deck, dropping onto it safely. Not exactly text-book, but he's onboard, in one piece, and laughing. The two media then climb on board and have their equipment lowered without incident.
And we're away. The Yushin Maru No. 2 is about three nautical miles ahead of us at a 000° (North) bearing. We can't see it through the weather and above the waves, but we know it's there, so we pursue. The swell has increased, as has the wind and a number of breakers around us. Our visibility is further hampered by driving winds carrying sleet and spray. To top it of our bearing has us in beam seas which could flip us sideways, so we zigzag our way through the waves.
Out of habit I look down at the compass on the RIBs console: It's spinning around feverishly. "That's right," I remember, "I'm not in Hobart any more: this is the Antarctic, and magnetic compasses are useless here." As we still have a visual on the Steve Irwin, I use it to roughly ascertain my bearing, knowing that it will also be in pursuit of the kill ship.
Just to make sure the Steve Irwin hasn't changed baring, or the kill ship for that matter, we radio in for confirmation of our bearings. At least we try. The talk-button of our radio's hand piece has frozen in place and we are unable to place a call to our ship's bridge. So for minutes Molly frantically tries to thaw the button with her breath and clothing. Meanwhile, Laurens uses our satellite phone to call the bridge.
Our bearings are confirmed, but we are a little off course; to be expected with our zigging and zagging, but we are heading overall in the right direction, and the Steve Irwin's bearing is confirmation of this as all we can see is her bow, at least at the time.
Now we can see nothing; we have no visual on the Steve Irwin or the Yushin Maru No. 2, despite the bridge informing us that they are only three nautical miles ahead of us. This means we are not gaining on her at all, so I increase throttle speed and ride the beam seas as fast and straight as I think it's safe to do.
We are now completely surrounded by white caps, which makes spotting bergee bits and growlers (ice in the water) increasingly difficult to do. The wind and swell is still picking up.
With no visual on the Steve Irwin for sometime to assist us with our bearing, and the increasingly disorientating conditions, we radio in to the bridge for a bearing. We'll navigate with the GPS from hereon in.
We get our new bearing, and it sees us turn right into the wind and swell. "Surely this isn't right," I think to myself, "surely the wind hasn't swung around this drastically and disoriented us so significantly." It is confusing out here, so we put our faith in technology and our bow into the waves.
The sea gets really rough. Not only has the wind and swell continued to pick up, but now there are frequent rogue waves breaking amongst it all. And they're big. Very big when you're in a six meter RIB.
Our trim is all out of whack. The trim is completely in, as it should be when in a head sea, but we have too much weight toward the stern. The engines are heavier than the boat was originally designed for or equipped with.
But we continue. The swell is now peaking at four meters. And the sound of props spinning freely lets us know we're getting airborne. And then it hits us: two big breaking rogue waves. We ride to the top of them with our bow pointing skywards, and just as we're about to go over the crest the wind catches us like a sail and almost flips us backwards.
Normally I would adjust the 'human ballast' in such situations, moving crew to the front of the boat to keep our nose down, but in these waves, sitting in the front would see that crew drop up to five-six metes onto the deck as our boat fell into the trough. And that would hurt.
The weather is getting worse, but then all of a sudden we spot a ship. It's the Steve Irwin, and it's going the opposite direction. What the... we've just gone around in one big circle. I don't know whether to feel disappointed, embarrassed or relieved. It's getting rough out here, and we obviously have no idea where we are going, and our GPS is clearly giving us bad data. Laurens calls in our intent to abort to the bridge, and we wait for the ship to ready for our return. We make our way back to the ship.
We get alongside the Steve Irwin flawlessly. Adrenaline and the clarity it affords is a beautiful thing. Molly attaches the lines to our painters, and the crane's hook swinging dangerously free around our heads is finally secured to our lifting straps. Arne lifts the boat to the bulwarks and Molly and I alight to the ship's deck. There is now sleet and snow blustering about in 44 knot winds, and the ship is surrounded by frenzied breakers. Not a moment too soon.
And then in mere moments and in the most testing of conditions, Arne, on his first campaign, has the Delta back in its cradle, safe and sound. Amazing.
So, unfortunately, we failed the mission's objective. But as an exercise, a baptism by fire, it was a complete success. We were tested, our training, intelligence, initiative, tenacity, our very characters were pushed to the limits. And we as a team were not found wanting. We kept cool heads, worked as a team, and never lost our resolve. So the Japanese whaling fleet had better watch out. They may have superior resources and numbers in these conditions, but our deck crew, our bridge crew, all our crew in fact have courage, commitment and passion that cannot be contained or restrained. And we are enraged at the injustice occurring, the wholesale slaughter that is being perpetrated in these waters by pirate Japanese whalers.
We got up this morning as a green, nervous, and untested deck crew unsure of ourselves and of our abilities. We returned as tested eco-warriors. The spirit of Bushido and Bunbu-itchi lives on in the Sea Shepherd!
The whales are counting on us for protection . . .
We are counting on you to keep us fighting for them.