For me (a member of ANARE expeditions in the 1960’s) the chance to visit memorable places in Antarctica again was indeed the opportunity of a lifetime. Such was the case when I joined 41 other passengers on the Icebird for voyage 7, its 1991-92 resupply voyage to Davis and Mawson. the itinerary also included a visit to Heard Island to establish a temporary winter station there.
Most people may be aware of the changes over the years but it is difficult to put it all into perspective without actually experiencing it. Reading “Antarctica and back in sixty days” by Tim Bowden provided considerable information, particularly as this book is an account of a very similar voyage some three years ago. One thing has not changed; ships still get stuck in the ice and due to delays on the previous voyage to Casey, our departkure was delayed so Voyage 7 was shortened by eliminating oof-shore work at Mawson.
The Icebird is larger than the Dan ships (6433 tonne deadweight and 2505 tonne nett weight represents a factor of more than two). At 109.6m its length is half as long again and similar ratios exist for the 18.9m width and 7.6m draught. Up to 14.75 knots speed can be attained from its variable switch propeller powered by a 12 cylinder diesel 4200 kilowatt (kW) engine, which can also produce some 800kW of electrical power. This system is supplemented by two 660 kW diesel alternator sets. The vessel is basically an ice-strengthened freighter with three large holds (with continuous hatches) and a sukperstructure aft to accommodate 26 crew. Two cranes, each with a 40 tonne limit working over a radius of 25 metres are located on the port side of the ship. Passenger accommodation is provided by means of a three level (or four if the bar and lounge suspended underneath are considered) self-contained module that is bolted to the ship over the hold immediately forward of the superstructure. Only once has this module been removed, to carry lengths of pipeline to the Alaskan oilfields.
The upper two levels of the module contain 4 berth cabins either with en-suite or shared facilities. The mess, complete with servery and medical centre share the lower level with the machinery neded for the module including the notorious ‘Icebird’ vacuum toilet system. As well as the mess which has video facilities, there is a recreation room on the middle level and a bar and lounge on a level below the mess. The module is connected to the superstructure by by a companionway at the lower level facilitating the transfer of food from the galley located in the superstructure. Because of the accommodation module, little cargo is carried in the third (aft) hold. The ‘tween decks are used for hand cargo and ship’s food and the actual hold itself is used for a games area, complete with table tennis, badminton and a couple of exercise bikes. Signs of use are beginning to appear, particularly the storage fittings in the passengers cabins. Perhaps it was the Icebird that Vitali Vitaliev saw when he noted in his book ‘Vitali’s Australia’ that Constitution Dock was where ‘the tired hulks of ice-breakers from the Antarctic come to rest’!
As all passengers are required to be in Hobart a day or so before departure, some time was available to observe the loading activities. Down at the whare, the sheer size of the cargo to be transported contrasted sharply with the earlier dys of ANARE, with some individual items ranging up to nearly 29 tonnes. Numerous vehicles and huts/shelters were conspicuous as were the number of shipping containers. These containers, some with self-contained refrigeration units, are stacked kup to four layers high on the hatches just forward of the living module. One wondered how this arrangement, which really seemed out of place to the uninitiated, would perform in the turbulent waters of the Southern Ocean. Added to all this was the bulk cargo of nearly one million litres of assorted fuels.
Two days were spend in Hobart which included receiving the kit issue for a round tripper and an extensive briefing; more elaborate that the earlier ANARE ones and with particuklar emphasis on safety at sea. This was reinforced by a compulsory trip on the Derwent in one of the Icebirds four covered life boats. It was a good opportunity to meet some of one’s fellow travellers, including a media component and representatives from the British Broadcasting Corporation. With most of the summer expeditioners and the 1992 winterers already down south, the other passengers, including (in Tim Bowden’s words) ‘a sprinkling of women’, were those with varied projects or reasons fortunate enough to gain a berth. Included were a couple of other vintage expeditioners or ‘old sweats; John Manning from Mawson 1967 and numerous summer survey seasons and Attila Vrana destined to spend 1992 with four others at Heard Island, the first ANARE party to winter there since1954. Both Attila and myself started our Antarctic experience together at Mawson in 1965 and had crossed paths regularly since then. To put that period into today’s perspective, an item returned to Australia on the previous voyage from Casey was part of Old Casey’s kitchen now destined for the museum. We predated that by years. No wonder the ‘old sweats’ on board were knows as the ‘fossils’.
Finally the record cargo was loaded, resulting in the ship being very low in the water. So low in fact that moderate or heavier seas prevented access to most of the deck including the hold containing ship’s supplies, until smoother seas were encountered. Most of the ship’s movement was in pitching with little rolling but the heavy load proved to be a mixed blessing. The ship’s progress was initrially slow, but it speeded up to its maximum cruising speed on reaching the Antarctic Convergence. The only pack ice encounered was a small amout off Davis.
The voyage into Davis on Sunday 9 February was on one of those balmy days with magnificent weather and conditions. The glistening icebergs gave us a splended welcome to the continent, especially to those who had been up to see the sun rise. The Chinese Antarctic supply ship Ji Di was at the Davis anchorage as there are no long-term moorings available in the Larsemann Hills, site of the Chinese Zhongshan station.