South to the Ice! - Part Two

Viola Trawler Post

16th June 2020

This is the second part of the story “South to the Ice”, by David Drewry.  Ole Hanson, the Mate of the “Dias” (a converted trawler originally named “Viola, built in Beverley to work in the North Sea, now a sealing ship owned by a Norwegian company and based in the South Atlantic) has sailed from Grytviken in South Georgia to Tierra del Fuego, to pick up stores and men bound for the Argentine base, Orcadas, in the South Orkney Islands. After a dismal few days in Ushuaia the Dias battled through the stormy Drake Passage to arrive off ice-covered Coronation Island. Ole takes up the tale.

We sailed the north coast of the big island and then past a few islets to Laurie Island where the Argentine base is located, called Orcadas. I was later told this was Spanish for Orkney. Well if that’s true it’s really a name from old Norwegian! My ancestors, the Vikings, settled north of Scotland hundreds of years ago. Then, the name was meaning seal islands – it’s funny how these names get changed.

We spent a day unloading the Dias of all the stores. And how those men we had brought from Ushuaia scampered ashore once we had ferried them to the little jetty, keen as mustard to get off the ship but not so much help to cart the crates to the base. The Argentines gave us a great meal, though, of beef and potatoes washed down with bottles of Quilmes beer – made by the Germans in Buenos Aires . I had tasted it there on one of our visits and it is very good, a bit like our beers in Norway that we get sent down to Grytviken – Ringnes is one of them and I think it’s better.

The leader told us a little about their work. The base has been there since 1904 when it was sold by a Scottish explorer called Bruce to the Argentine Government. They keep records of the weather which seems a small job for all this effort, but the leader tells me the British have said the islands are theirs, so they are staying put to let London know they have an interest too.

Shortly after we arrived the leader asked the Captain for his help. Apparently some men from the base had gone over to the big island in one of their small whalers to try to climb the highest mountain called Mount Nivea. I thought it shows they have a lot of spare time from eating, drinking and watching the weather. This mountain is about 1200 metres high, over four thousand feet, which is not huge, but it rises quickly out of the sea and is pretty steep with a lot of ice covering it. Well, they had been gone a long time without any radio messages and the base was worried. They asked us to sail to Coronation and see if we could find them and their camp, maybe even rescue them if they were in trouble. They needed a bigger ship you see as the ice was starting to come back. By the end of March, the weather is usually turning to winter and with some big storms.

We quickly re-boarded Dias and she took us back along the north coast, close in as we dare as a good area of the sea hasn’t been sounded for depths, and we spotted a lot of jagged rocks along our track. A big glacier was also ahead, and the sea was full with icebergs that were breaking up into bergy bits and growlers. Any one of these could damage the Dias even with her thick plates. I was on the lookout all the time from the open Bridge which is cold work.

We worked our way carefully for about twelve miles to a couple of headlands which were the closest to the mountain. These looked like they were the ends of ridges running down from the high peak. The sun was still out and the bays and peaks and icebergs looked wonderful. But I knew it was treacherous country. My sharp eyes soon spotted a tent on the ice a little way from the shoreline by the edge of the ridge, and we gave several blasts on the Dias whistle. That certainly brought out a couple of figures who waved to us. Now this was the tricky bit. How to get the Dias close inshore for the dingy to be launched. There was a lot of ice and the lead line gave only a few tens of feet of water. But the Dias proved her worth quickly responding to the helm as we dodged our way in, nudging away the brash ice. We got ready to launch our small boat. The Captain intended to remain on board and told me to be the leader. I had spent a lot of my young days tramping and taking long ski trips in hills beyond our home on the edge of Telemark and was very comfortable with snow and ice. I had three crew with me, all good men and ready for a spot of excitement.

We polled a lot of ice out of the way as we rowed towards the shore. Soon we ran up onto the shingle and immediately hauled the boat out of the surf, secured it and went  scrambling up a shallow sea cliff to the camp. The couple of Argentines there looked pretty miserable and were in some state of distress. They told us two companions had gone up the nearby ridge two days ago and had not returned. Going up themselves to look for them they had been lucky to survive an avalanche that came down a nearby gulley. The end of the summer can be quite a dangerous time to climb in these regions, it would have been better in the winter or spring despite the cold.

We quickly decided to go up ourselves as we were fresh, to see if we could spot anyone. We took off our seaman’s long boots and exchanged them for ones with hobnails, took our ropes and knapsacks with some food and water and set off as fast as we could up the snow slope and onto the steep and icy ridge. The going was tough, and the light was getting poor with cloud coming in over the high peaks and a breeze picking up. We found some tracks in the snow and followed them. Suddenly we were stopped still. Out of the gloom we saw two big crevasses cutting across our route. The ice was getting deeper and we could see we were now on the edge of a wide glacier. The crevasses had been hidden by snow but with the summer thaw the snow bridges had sagged and partly fallen through so we could look down into a cold frozen world. Harald, one of the riflemen from the sealing work, a hefty and muscular chap, took the rope and managed to pick his was across the remnants of the snow bridge. We had hold of him and of our breath! He then fastened the rope to a pole he stuck in the snow and assisted the rest of us to get across. We all blew a sigh of relief at the bridge having held. But now we faced the second crevasse about ten metres further on. This was a shock.

Approaching Coronation Island, photo source: Glasgow Digital Library (Uni https://sites.scran.ac.uk/voyage_of_the_scotia/scotia/images). None of the characters are intended to represent persons living or deceased and the incidents described are entirely imaginary.

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