Yachting World Features Editor Elaine Bunting reports on her time with Mission Antarctica, the environmental flying squad that helps clear up the Antarctic:
This has been my most unusual and coldest Christmas, spent at sea among the ice. Recently, we have been at Endeavour Island, just off the Antarctic Peninsula, at 64deg S. We were tied alongside the rusting hulk of an old whaling ship, protected in a tight cove of ice cliffs and slopes.
The ‘we’ is the crew of yacht 2041, flagship of a company called Mission Antarctica. The permanent crew comprises skipper Andy Dare, 1st mate Alex Sizer, 2nd mate Alex Johnston and engineer Mike Tattersfield, and four others of us lucky enough to accompany them on this first exploratory voyage of the season. We had a windy and, at times, very windy crossing of the Drake Passage from Ushuaia, but here we are on the vast, pristine, lately discovered and damned chilly seventh continent of the world.
Mission Antarctica’s objective is to clean up rubbish from Bellinghausen, the Russian research base at King George Island, working in collaboration with the Russian Antarctic Expedition, and sponsors such as Serono and Royal & SunAlliance help with funds that allow Mission Antarctica to remove it on a chartered ship.
The purpose of the yacht is to take groups of young people and sponsors’ representatives to see Antarctica. “Our role is to bring people from various countries to see how it shouldn’t be and then how it should be,” explains Andy Dare. “The reason we want to involve young people is that the Environmental Protocol of the Antarctic Treaty is due for review between 2041 and 2048, and hopefully some of those people will be decision makers then.”
The rubbish at Bellinghausen, tonnes of which has already been removed, mainly comprises fuel drums and bits of machinery, a hummock of rusted detritus that has built up during the 40 years of occupation at the base.
The yacht 2041 is a former 67ft steel Challenge yacht, much modified for sailing here, including 5mm extra steel plating below the waterline from the bow to the mast, three extra watertight compartments and about half a ton of spares. In Antarctica, it is vital to be self-sufficient. There is no lonelier and more unforgiving place on the planet. There is no help, no shelter, no shops: you’re on your own.
For now, we are roughly on the cruise ship route and there are a few other yachts about, but that is all relative. In total, 17 ships and 8 yachts ply these waters commercially. With other private yachts the total number of vessels here each season is probably not greater than 30. In perspective, that’s nothing: the Peninsula is considerably larger than all of the British Isles.
Weather conditions are extremely changeable. Today, it has been snowing, with visibility down to a quarter of a mile or less. Yesterday we had fog, calms, snow, clearing skies and rain. The only common denominator is that it is very cold and that any wind lowers that to absolutely perishing.
The reward, though, is huge. Low cloud means we have yet to see the extent of the peninsula bar the raw, ice cliff snouts of enormous glaciers and some sheer nunataks of rock, but those are merely foothills. On the mainland opposite us, the peak of Mt Johnston, only four miles from the coast, rises to 7,000ft while on nearby Brabant Island, Mt Parry, even closer to the sea, is 8,274ft. That’s more than twice the altitude of Ben Nevis.