On our last week before Winter we got one last visit from the Ernest Shackleton before going North for good. After a pit stop in Halley, the ship is only going back to this place in next December.
Successive seasons spent in this part of the planet create all sorts of traditions and habits that, perhaps due to the isolation and to the fact that we are in an area without any permanent human settlement, only make any sense down here.
Most holidays and european celebrations, besides most of us being raised under their shadow, end up getting ignored most of the time. Its difficult to find out why but I think it has much to do with the fact that our seasons are all switched up.
Christmas isn’t just the presents, Santa and Baby Jesus. There’s also the cold – the peak of Winter in the northern hemisphere – the sort days, the long nights and the school break. Well here we can only count with the cold and even so this one is relative. For someone that has been around here for a year, during Christmas it is simply too hot and bright to get the same type of context that we get back in Portugal or the U.K. Likewise, when we are going through the peak of Winter down here, when it is literally too windy and cold to get outside of the station, the North part of the globe is busy scheduling vacation time, getting hot, travelling and getting a nice parking spot by the beach.
We do celebrate Christmas and New Year, but in a somewhat superficial fashion. These two events normally land in the most chaotic part of the season, most of the times with a ship on shore throwing all sorts of cargo to us and eager to get back North.
Since during the first years of continental exploration the ship was the only way to get people and supplies here, these regular visits got their own tradition.
In Halley the rule dictates that, during Shackleton’s first visit after Winter, the team that has just gone through a Winter on station goes on board for a night for a cerimonial dinner with the ship’s captain, officers and crew. This logic gets repeated a few months later, during the ship’s last call in Halley, but now the dinner is with the new wintering team elements instead. It makes sense to be like this, like it was a last moment of civility before getting abandoned in the station with the approaching Winter.
During one Summer the Ernest Shackleton visits Halley at least twice: the first call, somewhere between the end of December and January, as soon as this one can break through the ring of sea ice that it is floating towards North after another very cold Winter. When all cargo and staff are happy and secure back on the station, the Shackleton continues its tour around the coast of the continent to supply other stations or simply returns to the Falkland Islands and/or South Africa to get more people and supplies.
Last call happens later, normally when the ocean starts to cool down again but just before any ice forming at its surface, that is, around the end of February, beginning of March. The routine is the same but instead of bringing new people South, when the Shackleton leaves Halley for the last time before Winter it is filled to the brim with people, from folks that were there for the Summer only to the outgoing wintering team. The only ones behind are the incoming winterers.
This is not a sure thing since any of these events depends greatly on the weather and volume of sea ice encountered during the trip. We had years were the Shackleton end up stuck in ice for a whole month, still kilometers away from Hally, and others where the trip from Cape Town was completed in less than two weeks.
Likewise, during my first Summer I watched the Shackleton perform three calls, which is highly unusual, while just the year before the ship was able to get to Halley just once in December. There was simply too much sea ice around the area for a second call that year.
As member of the team that was going to be left behind during the 2016 Winter, I went for a last dinner with the crew from the Shackleton on its last week down by the shore.
As much as you want to respect traditions, these should never interfere with the greater good, a concept that unfortunately is rarely applied in the rest of the world. As so, these wintering dinners aboard the Shackleton only happen if there’s time and conditions for it.
If the last call goes all nice and there are no major delays unloading the ship and if the ocean remains crossable for at least a few days after the dinner, then it happens. Otherwise it doesn’t make any sense to endanger a ship and its whole crew, including new passengers, for a tradition. Again, the planet only gets out winning if the traditions that people tend to cling to were always put against the context at that time.
But in this case it was all good. The ships’s unloading went without an hiccup and sooner than expected. 3 days before the planned departure date, myself and the remaining winterers went for a last night in the ship. Yes, because the night is also included in the process. Though we still have plenty of daylight by then to make a safe return trip back to the station at any hour after dinner, trips around Halley, which also includes the coast, can only happen if there’s someone manning the communications office to track our travels. These are elementary safety procedures. Since obviously there’s not going to be someone working comms all “night”, the best course of action is really to spend the night in the ship’s quarters, something to which I was well used to after living 3 weeks in it.
I returned to the Shackleton in the middle of an afternoon. With last call finished and with the ship idling just waiting for the remaining passengers to get back from Halley next weekend, the crew was around the area resting, taking the customary pictures or enjoying the sunny day to down a couple of beers in a beach reclining chair by the afternoon’s sunset… in Antarctica.
Our team arrived in two sno-cats and, after a brief introduction for those who had never set foot inside the Shackleton’s, we went straight to our allocated rooms to switch into something more… cerimonial. After all it was a dinner with members from the Royal British Navy and there was a bit of protocol to follow.
After that, it was another fun night. I had the advantage of knowing the ship pretty well though the crew was different from the one that brought me here. The crew gets changed with every call, normally. After they dropped me in this piece of Antarctica, the crew that I knew went back in Cape Town went back to South Africa were they got relieved by this crew that was already waiting for them there.
The officers were dressed for the occasion and the rest of the crew had their Sunday outfits on. Though the food aboard the Shack was always very good, the chef saved some special bites for the occasion. Other than this, it was another night talking, among ourselves and with the ship’s inhabitants, lots of fooling around as usual but without any issues or major confusions.
Next day we woke up a bit later than usual (again, winterer’s privileges) but I was still the last one out of bed. There’s something about this ship that simply damages my capability of tracking time. I lost breakfast… again, something that I had done in more than one occasion when coming down South. But at that time I had the time zones changes to blame for. On this day it was just laziness and a dangerous ability to turn off alarms without even waking up, something that I accidentally developed during my student days.
With the whole team woken up and ready for another day, all was left was to say our goodbyes to the ship’s people and return to Halley. I was going to return to the Shackelton by the end of that week, if only for a few minutes. For every sno-cat full of Summer people that was going to the Shackleton we needed at least one winterer with them to bring the thing back to the station and I was selected to be the driver of one of the last ones.
I ended up spending my last minutes aboard the Shackleton down in the kitchen drinking cups of real milk with my fellow winterers. From that point on we were expecting at least 8 months of powdered milk.