Dangers at sea

The bow of the ship with a huge wave crashing over it
Nella Dan plunging into heavy seas en route to Antarctica (Photo: Robert Tomkins)
Shackleton's rigged ship Endurance listing sideways in the ice in which it is stuckPeople wearing life jackets and cold weather gear participate in a fire drill on board Aurora Australis

Between Hobart and Antarctica lie the world's stormiest waters and very strong winds.

Seasickness affects many passengers in the first few days of their voyage south, and some until they reach the calm of the pack ice. But more than stomachs are at stake. Ship travel in polar regions always involves unforeseen risks and Australia's shipping program has not been without incident.

In 1988 a Force 12 storm southwest of Hobart, with hurricane force winds and a 15 metre swell, caused four helicopters on board the ship Icebird to break loose in the hold and smash themselves to bits. In 1987 Nella Dan was blown ashore on Macquarie Island during unloading operations in heavily easterly weather, and later scuttled after she caught fire.

A sailor's worst nightmare became reality at 2.25am on 22 July 1998 when fire broke out in the engine room of the Aurora Australis while the ship was deep within the ice. A quick response from passengers and crew minimised the danger, and the Aurora made it safely back to port and on to Newcastle for repairs.

  • Different accounts of the fire aboard Aurora Australis were written for different audiences. Ask the students to compare the Australian Antarctic Division's media release [PDF] about the fire aboard Aurora Australis with The Chilling Fields [PDF] or the account in Scott Laughlin's expeditioner profile.
  • Explore why they are so different and write your own media release and a letter to a friend about another experience.

The dangers do not disappear when the ships enter the ice. Pack ice, a solid sheet of ice up to several metres thick, can trap a ship and hold it fast for months. If they do not have the power to plough through the ice, an ice-strengthened ship will back up from the ice sheet and then steam forward, riding the ship's bow up and onto the ice and crushing it with its weight. Lesser ships can be crushed from the pressure of the pack.

From Shackleton's Endurance, icebound and crushed in 1915, to the sinking of Icebird's sister ship Gotland II in 1982 and Southern Quest in 1986, polar ships have succumbed to the immense pressure of the ice. Less spectacular but more common are besetments, where a ship can be trapped for days or weeks at a time. Nella Dan was beset for 48 days in 1985. Ice reconnaissance by helicopters and high resolution satellite pictures of the ice, transmitted from the Antarctic Meteorological Centre at Casey, now provide valuable information about ice conditions and minimise the risk of besetment.

  • Ask students to imagine that they are on a vessel that has to be abandoned, either in the pack ice, or the middle of the Southern Ocean. Give them these questions to answer in groups:
    • What would be the voyage leader's priorities?
    • You have 90 seconds to leave your cabin. What would you take with you?
    • Who would you take?
    • What are the ten most important items to take with you in a lifeboat?
  • You can create maths problems based around rescue; e.g. there are two or three ships in your vicinity in different positions, travelling at different average speeds - which will get to you first?
  • Have a class debate about the rescue of private expeditions. Who pays? Draw on the recent accounts of rescues in the Southern Ocean, such as the rescue of yachtsmen in the tragic 1998 Sydney-Hobart yacht race or more recent rescues, for example the private Australasian Antarctic Expedition 2014. This could extend to a discussion on the physical and psychological factors involved in survival.
This page was last modified on August 5, 2015.