But not for long.
Last night I fell asleep to the usual sound of metal scrapping pieces of floating sea ice that were getting thicker and more compact each passing day. But I woke up in the middle of that night with a unusual silence all around. After almost two week on board, its getting difficult to see if the ship is moving or not. That is, when the sea is calm has it has been so far, because otherwise all you need to do is check if the furniture is being thrown across the walls or not.
Its one of those things. After a week I’m already used to all the sounds and movements on the ship. Hence, their sudden absence is enough to wake me up. But not enough to make me leave the bed. After cleaning a line of drooling out of the pillow and looking around the cabin all confused, I just turn to the other side and resume the snoring process. But next morning, as soon as I look outside from the room’s hatch, I realized the we were stopped and surrounded by ice from all sides.
I then went downstairs to get my breakfast and check on the situation. We weren’t exactly stuck at that time actually, i.e, the ice wasn’t glued to the hull…yet. When that happens there’s not much we can do but wait until it melts or releases its grip from the ship and there’s enough water for an escape. What was going on with us was simpler: the route that we were following so far has a giant strip of thick and compact ice between us and the Antarctic coast. It was too much a big of a bone for the Shackleton to chew. The Shack can break ice up to 2 meters thick and even in that limit it needs some space so that a water corridor can be created from the broken ice pieces. But the ice ahead of us was just too compacted. Even if the Shackleton could break a piece up, the surrounding pressure would close the opening immediately, and we could get really stuck then. At that point the captain and remaining officers were studying satellite images and radar surveys to determine the best course of action from that point on and that was why we were stopped.
Besides the satellite images and assorted navigation gizmos, this trip brought a new interesting piece of kit: video camera equipped drones! That’s right! For those who think these gadgets are only useful to play around with a GoPro and scare people jogging, there a really useful application. I’m only sorry that I hadn’t had the chance to play around with them…yet.
In my opinion, their only weakness is the electric motors, or better, the batteries. In the middle of the Antarctic polar circle, with temperatures averaging -5 ºC, the usefulness of these components is seriously diminished and these babies can only fly for around 10 minutes. But its enough to go up 100 meters, spin around themselves and take a 360º panoramic photo or video, and then get safely back into the ship’s deck. It seems simple and it would be if we were in a tropical beach taking fotos of bikinis and coconuts. But standing on board of a 10 knot moving ship and surrounded by sub freezing water, a small miscalculation may cost the little fellow’s life. Even with satellite images that even provide ice densities, nothing beats a high resolution color picture or video of the next kilometer for a captain in need of a quick call. Since we got into seriously packed ice, these drones were making regular flights above the ship’s deck.
I don’t know if it was the drone video, the satellite images or just good old sailor’s intuition but the ship turned around for a while around lunch time and a few hours later guess what? We were on open sea again.
But oh my Budah, how was that possible?
Well, it turns out that along the coast there’s this open water corridor several miles wide (miles…one week aboard and I’m already speaking like a regular rum drinker, bucket spitter old sailor. Ahrrr matey!). That happens because, in the Antarctica that connects to the Wendell sea, the predominant wind is from the West, that is, away from the coast and into the sea. That pushes the thinner sea ice away from it. Since we are in austral Spring, the sea is not cold enough freeze up again, specially considering that we are under 24 hours of sunlight for a while now. The temperature rise is enough to keep the water in its liquid state (Note that sea water, because has a lot of Sodium Chloride dissolved in it, has a freezing point bellow 0 ºC – Ricardo, the Chemist). The main objective so far has been that one: cross that ticker sea ice barrier and get to this open water “ring” that surround Antarctica. From this point on we are just following the coast until we get to N9, the docking point.
Christmas is in full around the Shackleton, well, sort of. This is going to be my weirdest Christmas so far. The only thing that really smells like Christmas is the cold, and even that one is a recent thing, considering that two weeks ago I was running around the ship in my shorts and t-shirt.
The concept of Christmas night losses its meaning when, well, there are no nights around here now. We also don’t have a chimney, unless Santa wants to drop down the engine exhaust ports. We do have a Christmas tree though. Two of them actually. A “regular” sized one in the middle of the common room and another smaller one next to it, both strapped to the walls with ropes and strings so that the ornaments don’t end up all over the floor. And that’s it. If we dock around the 25th, which is highly probable right now, Christmas is going to be right in the middle of relief week, that is, when everybody is going to be busy with hauling fuel around and all sorts of supplies between the ship and Halley. Christmas dinner is probably going to be a cold bacon sandwich in the backside of a Snowcat.
Ho, Antarctic, Ho.
When we reached open sea again, a wave of optimism has swept the ship. It seems that we are going to reach Halley before Christmas after all. In the mess corridor someone from the crew started a bet pool. For just 1£, each person could guess the day that he or she though that we would set foot in Antarctica. I was meditating around the subject for some time now and since I was also doing the meteorological observations, I was a regular customer in the bridge and I had access to the satellite and radar images. I had the chance to make a very educated guess. Ironically that was my problem. I lost so much time pondering probabilities and developing a mathematical model that would allow me to predict the arrival date with one minute of error margin that, when I was about to submit my guess, the pool was already closed…
Looks like I need to get rich in some other way…