POLE POSITION – A WINTER AT ROTHERA

LAST CALL

It has been a long and tiring summer season but at last the end is in sight as the ship docks in for the last time before the start of the long Antarctic winter. We finish in style by hosting the first ever gay wedding on the frozen continent in the shape of two able seamen tying the knot. About thirty crew come ashore to take part in the festivities and thus the last night of the summer season ends up being an absolute roar. Early next morning the dining room is crammed with people hugging each other, exchanging whatsapp addresses and one can even glimpse the odd tear as friends and partners bid each other farewell. In the kitchen we’re busy putting together a special champagne smoko which is then loaded on a gator and taken down to the “Bonner” lab, next to the jetty. At this time of year the sun doesn’t rise much before 10am so once everyone has climbed aboard all of us winterers huddle on the ice in the glare of the ship’s powerful search lights, enjoying the wonderful sight of two snow petrels swooping in and out of the light beams. Ancient people used to believe that those delicate, immaculate birds were the souls of seamen who’d died at sea; their apparition is always as sudden as it is delightful and I do not tire of watching them weave in and out of the grey skies like wandering angels.

Then a loud low call rents the night, it is the ship’s horn announcing cast off. This moment has been months in the making, we were already talking about it among ourselves during pre-deployment training in Cambridge back in September albeit in the idly abstract way one tends to consider things that are a long way off. It certainly doesn’t feel abstract now, with the departure of the SDA our last tenuous link with civilisation is severed and we are now on our own for the next five or six months. Those other 23 people are going to be my sole companions through the cold and dark winter ahead. Somehow this feels me with excitment and anticipation, this group is truly extraordinary and I am looking forward to every single minute of the coming season. As the ship gently and silently pulls away we light smoke bombs and flares that we brandish like swords and wave wildly in the dense polar night. The people on the ship wave back and shout a last farewell, drown by the din we’re making on shore. The wharf is bathed in a vivid red glow pierced by encroaching swirls of smoke among which brightly attired, overexcited people whoop and jump in a scene redolent of Bonfire Night – only the Guy is missing. Then the ship is gone, swallowed by the night and we are left alone on the ice with seals, petrels and penguins for company. Time to go and have our Champagne smoko!

POLE POSITION – UN SINGE EN HIVER

L’ ADIEU

Nous attendons ce moment depuis le mois de Septembre, l’instant ou le navire s’eloigne imperceptiblement de la jetee, emportant avec lui le reste du personnel d’ete pour ne laisser que 24 “hivernants”, abandonnes sur un roc glace pour toute la duree du brutal hiver Antarctique. Nous avons clot la saison en beaute en celebrant hier soir le premier mariage gay du pole sud. Deux matelots ont prononce leurs voeux et toute la base en a profite pour reveilloner. C’est une scene plus sobre qui s’offre a nos yeux ce matin puisque tout le monde est reuni dans la cantine ou l’on s’embrasse, on echange des addresses et on verse meme une larme ou deux pour les plus emotifs. Je suis affaire aux cuisine car, selon la tradition, nous allons celebrer le debut de l’hiver par un Smoko au Champagne. Saumon fume, pate de canard, humous et des bulles bien petillantes! Tout cela est charge dans un gator et nous prenons la direction du laboratoire oceanographique ou nous allons trinquer une fois le navire parti.

Sur le quai tous les hivernants sont reunis, l’equipe marine aide le navire a larguer ses amares tandis que nous allumons des bombes fumigenes et des torches que nous brandissons comme des oriflammes. Bientot la scene n’est plus que trainees de fumee rougeatre qui s’echappe et se repand en volutes lourdes et paresseuses. On se croirait a une fete foraine, des etres barioles dansent, bondissent et hurlent des “adieu” que le vent emporte aussitot. Des petrels zigzaguent entre les faisceaux des phares du navire qui sonne sa corne de brume. Le pont, etincelant de lumiere, s’eloigne petit a petit comme absorbe par la nuit qui l’entoure, jusqu’au moment ou le dernier point lumineux s’eteint soudain, ne laissant plus sur le quai que mes compagnons et moi meme, derisoire presence humaine au coeur de cette immensite glacee. Avec le depart du navire c;est une nouvelle etape qui commence, l’hiver polaire nous attend, ca va etre formidable, mais allons d’abord boire ce Champagne.

One response to “POLE POSITION – A WINTER AT ROTHERA”

  1. Welcome to winter and the start of an experience that so few people have had the opportunity to take part in.

    Like

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