South to the Ice! - A reminiscence of an Antarctic rescue - Part One

Viola Trawler Post

15th June 2020

Part one of a fictional short story written for the Violas Trust by David Drewery.

I’m Ole Hansen and I am the Mate on the little ship the Dias, based mostly on a speck of land in the far south of the Atlantic, the island of South Georgia. It’s a grand place if you don’t care too much about the isolation, poor food, the cramped living quarters on the ship and some rough company! But it suits me. The money I make from the Argentine company that owns our ship, Pesca, is pretty good and there’s little to spend it on. Unlike most of my fellow crew members I’m not married so all the more for me. I am not so minded about the many months away from Norway either. I grew up in a winding valley in the mountains to the west of Sandefjord in the South of the country. That was pretty isolated as well, so loneliness here doesn’t worry me very much. I write a few letters to my parents who still live there, and that’s a tough life too.

Well, I must tell you my story of our voyage to Antarctica, and it turned out to be quite an adventure. But, I should start by speaking a little bit about my ship, the old Dias, that in the end proved something of a life-saver. Our ship’s really a trawler that used to fish in the North Sea before the Great War. We Norwegians hunted for herring, haddock and sole in much the same waters so I heard. She was based in the great port of Kingston-upon-Hull on the East coast of England. It is probably still the biggest fishing port in the world, so I feel quite proud to work on her. And that’s where she was built, up river on the Hull at a small town called Beverley. And she was built strong. Her plates are as thick as my thumb, and rivets aplenty. It means she can tough it out even in the stormy seas down here and push away a fair amount of ice in the fjords. I hear she was first called Viola, which is a pretty name. The Captain says he reckons it was some lady from Shakespeare, but I’ve never read any not even in Norwegian! But Dias will do. It may be after the Portuguese sailor in the olden days that sailed round the African Cape, but who knows. She is over 100 feet long and skinny as a pencil so rolls a good deal but is a very seaworthy ship and handles well. We are out in all weathers around the islands, snow and sleet, wind and rain catching seals from our main wharf at Grytviken. In the season we catch and flense hundreds of elephant seals. The blubber from the huge males can fill a couple of barrels with oil – it’s a messy business. But good money for Pesca. We never take more than allowed by our licence and the numbers seemed to keep up each year. Well, the business has kept me in pocket for a good long time.

So, to our journey to Antarctica last year. It started in February just before we were ready to begin the sealing season again. The company sometimes hires out the Dias in the slack period to the government back in Buenos Aires to take men and food down to the base in the South Orkney islands, about 450 miles south west of us (and those are nautical miles so if you’re used to kilometres it’s 850!). First, we had to sail to the town of Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego to collect our cargo. That was a dismal journey, over a week, battling the wind and high seas to head due west to the Beagle Channel where we got some respite before arriving at the port. You might think we would welcome the change of scene, bars and a bit of life but this town is drear and sad. Much of the place has been built by inmates let out to do work from the big prison they have there. There’s not many that escape from Tierra I can tell you, so I guess it was a good place to lock up the malcontents and a few thieves! The depression in America and back home in Europe had sunk the place even more with not many ships going round the Horn now.

Even if we weren’t able to have much fun there we did get all our cargo for the South Orkneys – boxes of food, dried fish just like we have back home in Norway, building materials and plenty of beer! We also had about a dozen men to ship down there, some to work repairs on the buildings and those who would stay there over the winter to measure the weather.

And then we were off, laden to the gunnels. Once we had put Navarino behind us, passed  Picton and rounded Nueva Island, we were back into the roaring forties and beyond to the furious fifties and then screaming sixties. What conditions we have down here! And those wind belts live up to their names. With all that weight, my God,  did the old ship roll in those long steep waves pushing through the Drake Passage. Many of the passengers were sick as dogs. We had to take our meals in shifts in the little cabin below the galley. It is no bigger than a cupboard, and the cook can’t produce very much at a time. We were going very slowly at only about 5 knots and it took us more than ten days to get to the South Orkney Islands.

It was my first time below sixty degrees South, and I was very excited. As we approached the islands the sun came out from behind the clouds over the biggest one, (it’s called Coronation), sparkling with ice and snow, glaciers tumbling down to the sea and I could smell the land after our days at sea. It was actually the smell of the birds. The penguins on the shore make quite a stench. Now don’t get me wrong, South Georgia is a spectacular place, with mountains much higher, but this place feels more remote and far-flung, right on the edge of Antarctica proper.

Photo source: Robinson, R and Hart I 2014 Viola. The life and times of a Hull steam trawler, London, Lodestar Books,  and Hull Maritime Museum. None of the characters are intended to represent persons living or deceased and the incidents described are entirely imaginary.

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