First impressions of the South Atlantic

Well Christmas is over, the New Year has well and truly begun and I have gotten over my stinking cold: I have officially run out of excuses not to write this!

I’ve been home for just over a month, 2 months now and having had time to reflect on the last trip, I’m pleased to say that Yes, it was a good trip. I find that with a bit of time to give me perspective, I sometimes change my mind about whether I actually enjoyed something or not, or rather; whether the good outweighed the bad.

I did my first trip as a qualified officer on a cruise ship, I wrote this about it afterwards. Reading the other posts (such as this one) I did while on board mostly reminds me of how knackered and stressed out I became, and in the time leading up to joining the next ship I was becoming more and more uneasy about going back. While I certainly met some lovely people who I would be more than happy to sail with again, and I got to (briefly) see some beautiful places, the workload and lack of support from HQ was demoralising, there was a lot of playground politics between the crew and I rarely went ashore with people because everyone’s work schedule was different. While I was busy and enjoyed the work (mostly) and the seeing pretty places and really liked my co-workers, I still felt like I was living quite a lonely existence sometimes, and I was knackered. So when I was offered this job, three weeks before I was due to go back to the cruise company, it wasn’t really that difficult a choice! I was, naturally, apprehensive about going to somewhere so cold and far away, but I also saw it as a new adventure. And I do love a new adventure.

It wasn’t the most auspicious of starts. My first thoughts, as we bounced and jiggled and jarred in a minibus along the “road” from Mount Pleasant Airport to Stanley and I stared blearily out of the window at a grey, cold, sleety moorland, were “Oh dear gods, where the hell have I landed myself?” followed soon after by “What the hell? There’s NO trees!”.

No trees. Yes, that’s the thing that hit me the most. The landscape is deeply reminiscent of Dartmoor; low peaty heathland with occasional rocky outcrops that disappear into low cloud. There are differences though too, like the rivers of rock slewing through the landscape, big lumps of grey rock, all pretty much the same size, in long swathes cutting across the land, and nothing grows between the stones. Plus there’s the myriad of areas all along the roadside, all fenced off with barbed wire and red signs saying “WARNING MINES!” And there’s NO trees. Even on the most desolate British bit of moorland there’s the odd tree here and there, or a few bushes. There are no natural trees on the Falkland Islands. It’s weird. In Stanley, people have planted trees and bushes in their gardens, but the westerly gales that the islands generally experience has prevented anything larger than a heather from growing naturally.

By the time we arrived at the ship, I was the last person left on the bus. All the others who had been picked up at the airport with me had been dropped off at their respective homes or hotels already to begin their recovery from the two 8 hour long flights, with a 2 hour break on Ascension Island between them (in what I can only describe as a holding pen), and followed by an hour long drive on a road that really doesn’t deserve such a title. We were warned as we set off “Anyone who’s not been here before, it’s a bit bumpy in places!”. A *bit*! At least half of the road is not tarmacked; it’s gravel and potholes. The sections of tarmac are randomly spread along the road, so you have a period of (relatively) smooth, quiet driving. Then you hit an un-tarmacked bit, and at first you think it’s not that bad, but after a few minutes you realise your neck and back are starting to hurt, and by the time you get to the next smooth bit you are praying for it to end. So you can imagine by now, by the time I reached the ship, I was a *bit* shattered! Keen to make a good impression though, I naturally said yes when asked if I was going to the pub!

The first week onboard was spent alongside, which was strange to me, having only ever worked on ships that almost never spent even one night in port. Still, it meant I had plenty of time to learn the non-navigational side of my new job from my handover. Previously I was only responsible for the LSA, and now I am responsible for both LSA and FFA. I had of course, learned about the maintenance of both during my cadetship, but as a cadet you are generally helping, or doing it under the supervision of someone else, and don’t necessarily get into the routine of doing the same things week in week out. Plus, every ship is different, and the specific jobs and/or ways of doing said jobs vary slightly. Actually having a proper handover was a new one on me as last time I joined a ship the guy I was taking over from was moving into a different role at the same time! Another pleasant surprise was not having to be on the bridge while in port: On cruise ships you stand watches no matter whether you’re in port or not; as you’re in and out of port every day it makes sense to keep the routine, plus its a security requirement, but it doesn’t half make doing the rest of your maintenance a pain. Suddenly finding myself on daywork, having plenty of time to do all my jobs, and being able to knock off at 5 with everyone else and have a few drinks (or maybe several, occasionally!) was a revelation!

So, once I’d learnt my way around the ship, gotten my head around the planned maintenance system and sampled the delights of Stanley’s drinking establishments a few times, it was finally time to head out to sea. Only a short trip, heading north of the islands to lay some acoustic buoys. While the vessel is predominantly a fishery protection vessel, we also get sub-chartered by oil companies to help them do research. The acoustic buoys were being placed to record marine life sounds to see if drilling in that area would have too much of an effect on the wildlife. As the ship was built as a buoy tender she has a large working area fwd and a 20T heavy lift crane, however these buoys were much smaller than navigational mark buoys, we used one of the Effer cranes and a bit of ingenuity. Once that was done we headed back to Stanley and after a quick turnaround we were finally off to South Georgia!

The trip to SG takes about 4 or 5 days, depending on the weather, and on that first trip, Oh Boy did we have weather! The wind got up to 55kts and the waves got up to at least 12m. Sitting on the bridge though, I was pleasantly surprised by two things: a) I definitely do not get seasick (I’d packed a few packets of Stugeron, just in case, never been seasick before, but have mostly been on ships with stabilizers) and b) its not half as scary as it sounds. From the navigator’s chair on the worst day (in weather like that one does not even attempt to stand unless absolutely necessary!) my view consisted of a wall of water, followed 5 seconds later by nothing but sky, followed 5 seconds later by (you guessed it) a wall of water! On the bridge though, I felt perfectly safe, and somehow you don’t notice how bad it is when you’re below, well, I don’t anyway. The ship rolls a fair bit, but we try and direct the bow into the waves so that the motion is mostly pitching rather than rolling. And when it gets really bad, we simply hove to and wait it out. The worst part of it is when you’re in your bunk below trying to sleep. You can stuff your lifejacket under the mattress and put pillows against the bulkhead in an attempt to wedge yourself in, but there’s nothing you can do to stop yourself from noticing when she slams into a wave. No-one gets much sleep when it’s like that, and non-essential maintenance is put on hold until things improve or we reach land.

It was a blessed relief to reach the lee of the island, although due to the visibility I could only see it on radar. We slowed down once in calmer seas, to make an arrival time of 0900 at King Edward Point. As I am the 8-12 watchkeeper this meant I got to do all the arrival checks etc, as well as driving, although by that time the Captain was up and about and as it was my first time coming in he took over earlier than he would normally. (For those not in the know, the Captain ALWAYS does the parking, on every ship). This gave me the opportunity to admire the view. There were blue icebergs in the middle distance and despite the grey and gloom of the weather, the sun managed to shine through the low cloud  at the bottom of the snow covered mountains. The island has no lowlands and no foot hills. It is just, quite literally, a snow covered mountain range in the middle of the ocean. It is, to use the word it in its proper sense, awesome.

We discharged our cargo (supplies for the British Antarctic Survey base), stayed in port for a night and then went out on patrol. This is our primary function; in the South Georgia area there is good fishing to be had; in the winter time, there are long-liners fishing for Toothfish and Icefish and then in the spring we get krill trawlers. The fishing rights are controlled by the SG government who issue permits. The permits also dictate how much each vessel is permitted to catch but obviously we can’t weigh the catch while we’re all at sea. What we do is patrol the area on the 1000m contour line (where the fishing is best) and look out for any vessel that isn’t supposed to be there. We log all vessels sighted and check their AIS details against our list of people we expect to be in the area. If they’re not expected or not on AIS we go for a closer look. Well, actually, we call the Fishery Protection Officer, who decides what they want us to do. The FPO is not a member of crew as such, they sail as the “Charterer’s Representative” but while on patrol they, with the Captain, decide what we’re going to do and where we’re going to go. As well as checking out USOs (Unidentified Sailing Objects) we also, when possible, board the legitimate vessels to check that they are operating as per SG’s rules. This is mostly a case of having a wander around the vessel, making sure they’re not chucking baited hooks overboard/leaving them lying around on deck and probably having a cup of tea too. The hooks thing is because seabirds go for them and then choke and die, which is bad as most of the seabirds down that way are endangered/protected species – various albatrosses and petrels etc. (And it looks like we’re doing well on that front!)

I have to admit something now: I’ve not yet actually done a boarding. I only had one opportunity and when it came to the crunch, I chickened out. This wasn’t on our first patrol,  but we found a couple of krill trawlers one day and as the weather was OK and the seas not too high, the FPO decided to put the RIB down and go see them. I’d been down in the RIB plenty of times when we did practice runs in calm areas, but this was my first time on the high seas. It looked fine from the bridge, and I went down in the RIB perfectly happily, (dressed in full thermal boat suit, helmet etc.). However, once alongside another vessel, which suddenly looked HUGE; and with a swell of about 1-1.5m; and then watching the FPO make a lunge for the ladder and then apparently get his ankles squished by the RIB as it rose up on the swell; and then the RIB driver not being able to keep the boat alongside the vessel, while the other AB held the ladder for me at an angle (so that the only logical conclusion was that I would swing wildly towards the side of the vessel and bash into it once he let go)…… I couldn’t do it. back on the ship, no-one blamed me, most people have backed out more than once, but especially on their first time. As the duty officer I wouldn’t have been responsible for checking anything myself, but we go as a witness, in case a problem is found, in which case I’d have to make a statement and be prepared to go back to the Falklands during my leave when it came to court.

After that first trip everything has slightly blurred into one. There were hours and hours and hours of staring at fog; there were days and days sat at anchor in 50+kt winds; there were weekly and monthly jobs to do, which seemed to come round alarmingly quickly as it very often felt like no time had passed at all; there were passengers to ferry back and forth (max of 12!); there were fuck ups (flooding the port accommodation alleyway being a particularly memorable one!); and there were moments of sheer brilliance: Whales! Seals! Penguins! Huuuge icebergs! (biggest seen on radar was 17 miles long, biggest seen properly by eye was 8 miles long)…. I remember looking out of my porthole on the first morning we had a sunny day in SG and being blown away by the awesomeness (there are pics, I’m working on getting them up!). There were several delightful evenings ashore in Stanley, or just sitting out on the lower poop deck having a few post-work beverages when in port. There were several other evenings when we decided that it was too damn cold to stay out there and retire instead to the engineers workshop (the only place inside where it is permitted to smoke). There were deck BBQs in the hold, complete with laser lighting and mulled wine. (I may not remember the end to all of those evenings!) I visited the SG museum (lots of old whalers equipment and pics, and lots of dead things in jars, I loved it!), we went tobogganing, we went for walks along the beach, which became increasingly populated by seals, mostly of the elephant variety. The last time I went for a wee wander I had the privilege of seeing an elephant seal being born (much like a sheep giving birth: lots of noise followed by a slithery squelch and then licking). So yeah, it was a good trip. Most of all it was good people, with no bullshit and the chance to kick back with them at the end of a long day. The ethos of the ship is that of “Work Hard, then Play Hard”, and I’m looking forward to round two!

I’m sure I’ve missed out loads of stuff, but this has become so long that I’m going to leave it there, hopefully it gives you an idea. Probably a rose tinted idea in fact: it’s difficult to write engagingly about monotony and boredom, much easier to tell you about the memorable and fun bits. If you have any questions or comments though, I’d be happy to answer them 🙂 Meanwhile for the rest of my leave I’ll be working on getting my flickr up to date, which to my shame is now only a year and 10 months behind!!

Wishing you fair winds and calm seas S4 xxx

Edit: Only a year after I wrote this I have finally got those pictures up on Flickr! You can see them here