One of the busiest periods of the summer is when a BAS ship docks at Rothera to offload cargo and passengers. This is usually a biannual event, with RRS James Clark Ross (the ‘JCR’) arriving in December to resupply the base, and RRS Ernest Shackleton (the ‘Shack’) visiting in March, ready to take the last few summer-only visitors home for the winter. This time, the JCR had meandered her way down from the UK to the Falklands with a team of scientists onboard, making the most of the trip to collect data from a wide range of different ocean climates. In the Falklands she picked up lots of cargo and a few more passengers and then set off to cross the notoriously rough Drake’s Passage to get to Rothera.
We had a rough idea when she was due to arrive, but some thick sea-ice West of Adelaide Island delayed her passage for a couple of days. Finally, one overcast Thursday morning, the announcement came through that she was going to be docking at 10am. As soon as breakfast was finished, those of us who weren’t needed at the wharf to lend a hand with mooring headed up to the top of the point to herald her arrival, in biting winds and occasional flurries of snow. Soon we could see a red dot on the horizon, which slowly took shape. By the time she was a couple of miles out of Rothera, one of our Twin Otters had taken off on a resupply flight to Fossil Bluff, and did a cheeky low-level fly-past by way of welcome.
She docked neatly at the Rothera wharf, and almost immediately all hell broke loose. The on-deck cranes unfolded into action to unload seemingly endless piles of pallets and containers, while all of the base tractors and other heavy machinery buzzed around the station depositing them wherever there was space available. Meanwhile another crack team were tasked with pumping thousands of litres of diesel and aviation fuel into the bulk tanks on the far side of the base, a dull job that required constant oversight but would take a couple of days to complete. As the huge crates of food and drink were deposited near the food-store, chain gangs of several dozen volunteers were recruited to pass the boxes inside and stack the shelves for hours at a time.
All of us involved were stunned at the sheer amount of edible stock required to sustain an Antarctic base for a year, all of it packaged neatly in plastic boxes. It was no great surprise that shelves and shelves of pasta and rice were required to keep us going, but I also unpacked such oddities as enough marmalade to supply a small country, and enough marzipan to build a fairly substantial statue. The exhausted-looking chef who was directing the food restocking pointed out to me that all of the food has to get ordered 12-18 months in advance, so there are inevitably some items which end up in excess!
The ship’s tight schedule demanded some long working hours, so free-time was at a premium while she was docked. However, whatever spare hours were available were spent by the Rothera residents catching up with on-board friends, giving the JCR crew tours of the base, walks round the point and skiing trips on the ramp. Meanwhile, visits on board the JCR were arranged and the ship’s bar proved a happy meeting place for all. Self-control was the key to this – with an inevitably long day of physical labour to follow, hangovers resulting from these bar visits were not to be risked!
Three days of this regime was enough for everyone, and by Sunday morning the ship was being loaded back up with all of the waste from the previous season, as well as anything heading back to Cambridge. Amongst other things, one of our big Sno-Cat tracked vehicles was winched on-board for the long journey home, where it would be overhauled back at HQ. Finally, the ship gave three huge blasts on her horn and slipped away from the wharf, with a crowd of the base staff waving her on her way. Appropriately, another departing Twin Otter was able to give her a final fly-by as she disappeared into Marguerite Bay for another year.
Happily, that is not the end of all of the hard work – with the ship came piles and piles of new comms equipment which has to be checked, configured and installed – easily enough to keep me busy until the end of the winter.