Outside my window, the wind is pumping 130kmp/h, then I hear the loud scream of the SAR Alarm. I grab my survival bag and head to the mess, the primary muster point. That is where I am informed that the Aurora Australis, Australia’s Ice-Breaker has broken its moorings and run aground in Horseshoe Harbour. This is going to be a long day.
The local time is 9:15am (3:15pm AEDT) on Wednesday the 24th February 2016. Mother nature is showing us how much power an Antarctic blizzard has, sustained winds of 130kmp/h and zero visibility. You can hear the wind hitting the “Red Shed” (Living Quarters) the windows, they are pure white, you can’t see a thing out there. We all gather and our Station Leader Jen Wressel informs us that the “AA” has broken its moorings and run aground on West Arm. “The ship remains watertight, with no damage to the hull of the vessel”
The Aurora Australis departed Hobart on the 11th of January 2016 carrying 66 expeditioners and has been conducting marine science around the Kerguelen Plateau Region in the Southern Indian Ocean before arriving at Mawson Research Station on the 20th of February 2016 to conduct the Mawson Re-Supply.
After the briefing the Field Training Officer who is also the Emergency Response Team Leader calls the ERT which I am a part of, to meet up stairs. We gather and discuss the options. We know that we can’t go out there now it is too dangerous, we also know that the crew on board are safe and that the ship remains water tight. So we gather all our ERT equipment and return in an hour. This goes on for a while, the weather is atrocious, and stays this way for 2 days.
The next day I managed to get the first image of the ship. It really looked battered, there were huge pieces of ice, frozen on the bright red iron, you could only just make out the tiny AA 2, the Aurora Australis’s little tug boat moored to the side of ship. It was strange to see the ship there. We new where it was, but the last time I had seen it, it was moored in the middle of the harbour.
Blizzard conditions remained for 2 days, the crew on station were doing well, our concerns lay with those on the ship. We have been working hard and by this time we had laid plans for the crew aboard the AA to transfer to Mawson, when the weather conditions allowed. We have now been informed that there is a breach in the hull. It is only minor and in a section of the hull that normally holds ballast water. “This breach has occurred in an area of the ship that poses no risk to the stability of the vessel or of fuel leaking into the environment”.
The following day the weather lifted and we initiated our plans to transfer all expeditions from the AA to set foot on Antarctica. This was a real relief for the current team at Mawson and I am certain for the crew that have been aboard the AA since it left Hobart 7 weeks ago. We welcomed the AA crew to Mawson and escorted the new Mawson-ites up from the wharf to the warmth of the Red Shed.
On the 27th of February the ships crew managed to re-float the AA at 7:20pm AEDT (1;20pm Mawson time) using the ships ballast and work boats. The crew aboard the AA conducted a full assessment of the ships damage, whilst the AA stayed with in the vicinity of Mawson Station. This took 4 days to complete and on the 2 March the AA sailed, on its way to Fremantle in Western Australia.
The marine science expeditioners aboard the AA and the previous wintering crew remained at Mawson until the 2nd of March. They were transferred to Casey Station via the Japanese Ice-Breaker The Shirase, and onward to Hobart Australia on the 14th of March via a C-17A Globemaster III, operated by the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). The Shirase is operated by the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force (Japanese Navy) for the Japanese Antarctic Research Expedition (JARE)
It was an incredible experience, super challenging for everyone involved on so many levels. Mawson is designed to house 40 Expeditioners, during the grounding there were 80 people on station. This stressed the very small water producing capabilities meaning the entire station was on strict water restrictions. One, three minute shower every three days. The waste water treatment plant was well over capacity, however “Team Plumb” did an incredible job at keeping everything working well. There are only 42 rooms on station, which meant many people needed to share the very small rooms, some slept in the library and some in the “Dog Room”. There were many little things that popped up as well, we didn’t have enough chairs in the Mess for everyone to sit down for dinner, we needed to get more coffee mugs, plates, cutlery and glasses from “The Green Store” and the very small dish washer, well that was pretty much going all the time. Even with all this extra stress on the station, everyone got along great. It was great to have the scientist on station. In my field I tend to talk to other tradies, Electricians, Plumbers, Mechanics and Carpenters, so having someone from a field so far away from what I do was super interesting. I spent a lot of the time asking questions about their research and about their time at sea. I also found a new light on my trade. I don’t tend to see what I do interesting, the things that I do everyday for work are just work, however these were interesting to them. It was a mutual cross skilled interest in someone else’s life, something I really valued and something you just don’t get anywhere else other than here in Antarctica.
After this huge start to our season, the Mawson Wintering crew, the 69th ANARE had settled into station life and had built a community we are all proud to be a part of. This does happen usually but the challenging start, I felt helped it along. I look forward to what this season brings and I invite you to join me on this adventure. It will be a long year down here, there will be ups and downs, there will be incredible challenges and lifetime friendships. This is going to be one adventure I will never forget.
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