Arctic P and the furthest voyage south ever undertaken
by Caroline White
Looking for the ultimate Christmas gift? We show you how to make the most of your superyacht vacation by planning a true adventure, just like the account of Arctic P's southern voyage below. You'll find this – and more Christmas gift ideas – in the December issue ofBoat International_, out now. _
To the uninitiated, an Antarctic voyage sounds like a pilgrimage that a person makes once, a life-changing but one-time isolation emersion. But those who have visited the bottom of the world often return home infected with a passion for this seemingly alien region. Water moves differently there; ice does weird things; you can see unnaturally far into the distance; even light and sound are altered. Its strange glamour pulls adventurers back, as Sir Ernest Shackleton described in the poem that he scrawled in a visitor’s book in Chile, in 1916: “We were the fools who could not rest/In the dull earth we left behind/But burned with passion for the South/And drank strange frenzy from its wind.”
A century later, the appeal of the south seems just as potent. “It is like nowhere else I have ever seen. It is so vast and humanity has had so little impact there – it is somehow mesmeric.” This repeat visitor is a member of the family that owns the 88 metre explorer vessel Arctic P.
On their first visit in 2013, the boat journeyed from the Falkland Islands to the Antarctic Peninsula. Humpback whales nosed around the hull, the boat skirted monolithic tabular icebergs and guests wandered among vast penguin colonies, before flying out from King George Island. It was the furthest south a private vessel had gone for years. But it wasn’t far enough. “They said, let’s do a real expedition this time, go where no one else has been,” says captain Russell Pugh, recalling his subsequent conversation with the owner’s family. “Let’s do the Ross Sea.”
On the opposite side of the Antarctic continent to the first, this expedition would run south from Tasmania to McMurdo Sound, then veer off east to skirt the Ross Ice Shelf, into profound isolation. This voyage of more than 5,000 nautical miles would take them to a significantly wilder part of the Antarctic. It was a serious proposition.
“Nobody would have got to us [if we’d got into trouble far east on the Ross Ice Shelf],” says co-captain Ronnie Maclean. “McMurdo is the nearest base, nearly 400 nautical miles away, and I don’t think a helicopter’s got that range. If they got to us they wouldn’t be able to fly back without refuelling. It would have to be a land-based trip to get us and at that distance. How long would it take, how long would you survive the conditions? That’s why not many people go out there.”
As Pugh notes, the prospects of rescue by sea were no more promising. “Arctic P was built as a salvage tug – that’s what she was designed to do, so if we can’t get out, no one can get in to get us.”
Arctic P’s qualifications are the main reason that this expedition was even conceivable. Built in 1969 by Schichau Unterwesser in Bremerhaven, her pre-conversion career included the rescue of commercial expedition vessel Lindblad Explorer, which ran aground at Plaza Point in the Antarctic in 1972. The current owner’s family bought her in 1993 and undertook a rebuild in Malta, overseen by Klaus Kusch, and a number of upgrades since. Despite her now superyacht-standard interiors, Arctic P is still a serious explorer vessel.
“We have 50mm steel plating on the bow and 30mm on the ice line. It’s ridiculously thick and ridiculously heavy,” says Pugh. Fitting stabilisers voided her Ice Class, but as Pugh notes, “She was built to be the strongest, toughest salvage rescue vessel in the world,” and she lives up to her promise.
Equally important to the trip were those on board. As well as a permanent crew used to far-flung cruises there were two captains: Maclean, who normally works on rotation with Pugh, came along to share shifts and to take care of the tenders (there are five). Arctic P also took on an ice pilot, captain Uli Demel, a master mariner with extensive experience of ice: what it is doing and why, which ice is safe to break through and which to avoid. There was an expedition guide who gave talks on the history and biology, a historian and biologist to give lectures and even a wilderness-trained doctor in case of a medical crisis far from help.
Another important outsider was Tim Soper, founder of adventure specialist EYOS Expeditions, who helped plan the voyage and get the special permits required to visit the region. He would be expedition leader, in charge of off-ship activities and safety ashore. The team was uniformly rugged and well-prepared – even the doctor had climbed one of the highest mountains in Antarctica in his early 20s and holds the world record for the highest base jump.
“We were always in a state of readiness,” says Pugh. “Once you’re down in this region you still have internet by a pilot system, but it’s pretty sketchy and very slow. You can get ice charts to see if the ice is changing, but it’s just a case of watching the weather. If the pressure drops you know there’s something not good around. So, you get out.”
Thanks to Arctic P’s 1.4 million-litre fuel capacity, they were able to keep the engines running constantly, for the entire journey – more than 5,000 nautical miles – because as Pugh says, “The chief engineer was worried that if we stopped them, they’d cool down too much and take too long to heat up to get away in an emergency.”
The most memorable moments were possibly the sea crossings – there were enormous waves crashing onto the ship and even reaching the bridge
Captain Russell Pugh
After a stop at Macquarie Island to see king and royal penguins, Arctic P headed for the pack ice, guided by satellite imagery and altering course to avoid southern ocean storms. Whenever the party went ashore the crew took survival gear – tents, rations – on the off chance the weather closed in and they were unable to return to the vessel.
That same night they saw their first iceberg – 25 metres high and 80 metres wide. In the morning, the sea was full of them. On day 13, after waiting out strong winds off the Balleny Islands, they started south again and made a Champagne toast as they crossed the Antarctic Circle and passed through the pack ice. Much of the journey covered the open ocean, and for one young member of the family, these parts were a highlight. “The most memorable moments were possibly the sea crossings – there were enormous waves crashing onto the ship and even reaching the bridge,” he says.
The boat hugged the Antarctic coast as she journeyed south, stopping, most notably, at Shackleton’s and Scott’s huts, which another family member describes as “extraordinary. There was something indescribable about them. The silence, the layout, the mementos from home – the silence was profound”.
Scott’s hut, at the foot of Mount Erebus, was particularly charged with pathos because of its role in his fatal attempt to reach the South Pole: it is the base they never returned to. Arctic P’s log describes the “beds still ready to be slept in and provisions ready to be cooked; pictures of dogs and cartoons of the time on the walls”. As captain Pugh puts it, “When you walk in you feel like they just walked out of the door, moments before you.” They traced the overpowering smell of the place to a stack of 100-year-old seal blubber in the stables, and outside found the skeleton of a dog, still at leash.
The next stop – the US McMurdo Station, a research facility housing 1,200 people – was an incongruous patch of civilisation before the guests and crew plunged into true isolation, west along the Ross Ice Shelf. “The Ross Ice Shelf is an area of floating ice about the size of France,” says Soper.
“What we see of it is a 50 metre-high ice cliff that runs for 400 nautical miles. It takes over 24 hours to sail the length of it. You just look in awe out the window as this thing goes on and on.”
But there was a definite purpose to this particular leg of the journey. It had been a warm summer and it was likely that the ice shelf – once known as the Great Ice Barrier because ships could not get south of it – may have melted back at its eastern end, allowing them to travel further south than any other vessel in history. “We didn’t know if we could do it or were going to waste two days going there and back,” says Pugh. “We made a decision at Scott’s base.”
The signs weren’t good: contrary to their charts, the shelf had grown north, rather than receding south. But just before they reached the Bay of Whales the ice line dropped away and the bay itself scooped far into the shelf. “The whole time, we were thinking we were not going to make it, because the ice line was many miles further north than we had hoped, but then the lines crossed and we suddenly realised, ‘Oh, we can do this, we can really do this.’” They set the new world record at 78° 43.0336’ S 163° 42.1317’ W – just 677 nautical miles from the South Pole.
Guests and crew celebrated by decking the yacht in the flags of every nation represented on board and drinking a toast on the foredeck. But it wasn’t just the record that captured their imaginations. “It felt significantly different,” says Pugh. “You think: ‘This is the Antarctica that we read about. High ice-cliffs, seals, emperor penguins.’ We had a pod of porpoises swimming around, killer whales and then a few minke whales came in. It was bright sunshine, really one of the most glorious days of the whole trip.”
There was nowhere to anchor so Pugh ran the boat gently against the ice, engines running, and got the guests and crew ashore via Zodiac. “There was a light swell and the ice was moving up and down really gently,” recalls Soper. “We hiked over to a viewpoint on top of an iceberg that was frozen fast into the ice. It was just spectacular.”
At minus 19 degrees Celsius, the temperature was equally remarkable. Freezing spray hit Maclean over and over as he bumped along in the tender, encasing him in ice – to the amusement of the crew – while snow dust blowing hard off the shelf while he was clutching a camera left his fingers “frost nipped” and tingling for two days – even through thick gloves. Indeed, when the sea formed into pancakes of ice around the boat, and when those pancakes started to join up, Pugh said: “I think we better get out of here before we’re frozen in.”
The journey back ended in Dunedin, new Zealand, via the Italian research base Terra Nova (where they were served coffee and biscotti) and Cape Adare to see the largest Adélie penguin rookery in the world. They also visited the huts where, just over 100 years ago, the first explorers spent winter in Antarctica.
There can be few places in the world where a century later, visitors are still as utterly unreachable, so profoundly alone as the far reaches of coastal Antarctica. And that is undoubtedly part of its appeal: “It was like being on the moon,” Maclean recalls of the Bay of Whales. “The sun was shining – not a cloud in the sky. You’re at a place where perhaps nobody’s ever walked. I can’t describe the sensation. It was just – a lonely planet, you know?”
Pictures courtesy of Captain Ronald Maclean, Paul Crierie, Tim Sopernd and Dr Glenn Singleman