Antarctic travellers take to the water

The expedition yacht. Mission Antarctica

An international expedition has removed 1,000 tons of rubbish from a Russian research station in Antarctica.

This content was published on March 29, 2002 - 08:42

One of the main sponsors of the project is Ernesto Bertarelli, chief executive of the Swiss biotechnology company, Serono.

swissinfo reporter Vincent Landon, travelled to Antarctica to witness the clean-up. In the second part of his Antarctic diary, he boards the expedition's yacht.

Part Two: Learning the ropes

Mission Antarctica's yacht, 2041, is about 23 metres long and five metres wide. This will be home for 12 of us - eight visitors and four crew - for the next ten days.

The boat was built for racing through the southern oceans in the British Steel Challenge, later the BT Global Challenge - generally acknowledged as the world's toughest yacht race.

"It was designed to sail the wrong way round the world in the southern ocean," said Peter Malcolm, project co-ordinator for Mission Antarctica. "This means it's designed to go into big seas, the wrong way into wind so the whole boat takes off like a rocket when you just bear off the wind a little."

The boat is called 2041 because that's the year Antarctica's environmental status comes up for review. At the moment, the continent is used for peaceful scientific and educational purposes, but territorial ambitions and the desire to exploit Antarctica's mineral resources may prove too powerful to check.

Bay watching

We're anchored at Maxwell Bay. Here, in what is ironically known as the banana belt of the Antarctic Peninsula, the scenery is not all snow and ice.

Rocky hills enclose the bay. Ahead of us on the shore are the brightly painted huts of the Chilean station and the red accommodation blocks of the Russians.

The two nationalities are separated by a tiny stream that marks a time zone. The Chileans are an hour ahead of the Russians.

We're wrapped up in thermals and fleeces and heavy waterproofs but when you're out on deck and the wind blows, it makes a mockery of all our layers of clothing.

The yacht has been modified to make it easier to sail. Originally it was designed for a crew of 14 to race around the world. Changing the sails when the wind picked up required seven people on the front of the boat to take one sail down and put another up.

Now thanks to rollerfurling, one person can do the whole process on their own, sticking the rope in a winch and winding some of the sail away.

It's been further modified for sailing into the ice with five millimetres of steel added to the bow.

The overboard rules

We run through some of the basics of sailing. Second mate, Alex Johnston, takes us through safety procedures.

"The number one rule of man overboard is don't fall overboard and we do that by clipping on to the boat and following the safety rules," he says.

"If you see someone go over the side, shout "Man overboard" as loud as you can and stick your hand out in the direction that you saw them go. Do not take eye contact off them. It's quite hard to see anything in the water and if there's a big sea running, they will disappear very quickly."

The person in the water should try to avoid thrashing about and swimming because that wastes valuable energy.

"Within about two minutes of you going in even with all your kit on you'll probably lose the sensation in your legs and hands," explains Alex.

"Within ten minutes, you're already starting to get hypothermic and it doesn't take much longer after that....

"So put your hood up if it isn't already up, put your back to the wind and cross your arms like so and relax and we'll come and pick you up. And try not to panic."

Hygiene horrors

Below decks, there's shocking news on the personal hygiene front - only one shower each during the ten-day trip. The boat carries about 600 litres of water and has a desalination unit but conservation is the priority.

We're finally ready to weigh anchor. Before we set sail, I ask the captain, Andy Dare, who has sailed more than 120,000 kilometres in this class of yacht over the last seven years, what's unique about sailing in Antarctic waters.

"The thing that's different about being down here is that you are on your own," he replies. "There's no help, no lifeboats, nobody really around so you have be really independent, you have to be very concerned about your own safety because no one else will come and help you. There aren't any second chances down here."

Next: Setting sail

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