The first day of winter

Early this morning, a handful of people stood together on the Rothera wharf as the BAS relief ship, the Ernest Shackleton, gave an almighty blast on her horn and slipped away into Ryder Bay for the last time this season. It is difficult to overstate how significant this moment was for us, the eighteen-strong team who are left behind for the long, cold and dark Antarctic winter.

RRS Ernest Shackleton departing Rothera

The departing passengers line up to wave us goodbye.

The ball finally started rolling earlier this week, when the ship sailed down from the Falklands and docked at the Rothera wharf. The usual chaos of the end-of-season relief followed, with containers of stores being winched off the ship, and all of the waste from the summer being loaded on board to be disposed of. Then came the refuelling, with the ship pumping thousands of litres of fuel into the base’s bulk storage tanks, ready to keep the boilers running over the winter. Finally, last night, all of the work was completed and the only important job remaining was to have a huge celebration.

There is a lot of tradition within BAS that surrounds these occasions. This decreed that the eighteen winterers would spend the evening wining and dining on the ship, whilst the departing summer-only staff had the base to themselves. What this actually meant is that whilst we were innocently making merry on board, the dastardly landlubbers were busy setting all sorts of booby traps and practical jokes around the station, intended to enliven our otherwise dull forthcoming months. At the time of writing, I haven’t yet fallen prey to any of these tricks, but as an example, here is one of the jokes played on a previous bunch of winterers. On this occasion, the team returned to base to find that all of the forks had been removed from the dining room – there was not a single fork of any description to be found. One month into winter, the joke had grown a little stale as they were still having to eat every meal with spoons. It was only weeks later when the electrician opened a loft hatchway to do some maintenance and was hit by a mighty cascade of falling cutlery. With this in mind, we wait in trepidation…

We all emerged from our rooms this morning slightly the worse for wear, and headed in the direction of the wharf with a mounting sense of excitement. It was cold, still and beautiful, and as we hung around the side of the ship a couple of humpback whales appeared only a stone’s throw away from where we stood. The sun was just starting to appear on the northern horizon, and the mountains to the south were lit up in shades of gold.

The flares are let off in celebration of the ship finally leaving.

There were a lot of goodbyes to be said, but this was a happy occasion – we were desperate to get going with our winter, and the passengers were excited about heading home after a long season. After the compulsory hugs and the promises to stay in touch, they walked up the gangway and lined the side of the ship, shouting and waving at those of us being left behind. Eventually the ship gave a massive blast on her horn and started slipping away from Rothera. With another nod to tradition, this was our cue to raid the base’s stock of out-of-date emergency flares, which we unleashed with gusto. In scenes reminiscent of the bombardment of Sarajevo, rockets exploded above our heads and we coughed and cheered in the thick red smoke. Slowly, the ship dwindled off into the distance and eventually disappeared off round to the south of Adelaide Island.

And that, really, was that. As we stood on the wharf I looked around at the little knot of people that would represent our entire world for the next seven months. There will be no visitors, no ships and no planes. Our nearest neighbours are 40 miles away as the crow flies, on a small Argentinian base further down the peninsula. Soon, there will be more night than day, and the temperatures will drop frightening quickly until Antarctica becomes a truly inhospitable place.

As one, we confronted this frightening reality in inimitable English style – we went for a nice cup of tea.

The RRS Ernest Shackleton at the wharf.

The winter team, from left to right: George (Base Commander), Steve (Field Assistant), Phil (Dive Officer), Dave (FA), Scott (FA), Mairi (Marine bio.), Tim (Sparky), Rob (Doc), Justin (Chef), Me, Tim (Boatman), Rosey (Meteorologist), Jack (Vehicle mech.), Ash (FA), Tom (Electronics eng.), Dale (Plumber), Ash (Marine bio.), Rob (Generator mech.)

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