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Come Ice or Stormy Weather

Come Ice or Stormy Weather

The story of HMS SCOTT's journey from refit to Antarctica

It is just after 0800 on 31 January 2010 and HMS SCOTT, the RN's Ocean Survey Vessel (OSV), noses her way into the Neumayer Channel, where she will pay a visit to the historic British base of Port Lockroy. At 64° 49' S, it is just 160 nautical miles from the Antarctic Circle, and the most southerly of all the bases that SCOTT will visit while acting as Ice Patrol Vessel over the 2009-2010 austral summer season. But how did she come to be here in the first place?

It is a story that begins in December 2008, with a major flood in the engine room of HMS ENDURANCE; whilst the ship was saved and subsequently brought back to the UK, it was apparent that she could not be repaired in time to embark on the 2009-2010 Austral summer deployment.

HMS Scott on station in the Antarctic
HMS Scott on station in the Antarctic
© 2010 MOD

SCOTT was chosen because she was designed to operate in ice conditions. Ice strengthened to Lloyds Class 1A, she is capable of operating in first year ice up to 80cm thick; in addition, her fuel and water ballast tanks are fitted with an oil heating system and her upper deck fire hydrants have trace heating to prevent freezing in cold climates. SCOTT does have certain limitations though; whilst the large expanse of the foredeck permits winching operations, there is no flight deck or hangar to operate an organic helicopter capability from. This would have an impact on the ship's ability to land personnel ashore, making the ability to conduct boat operations all the more crucial to the success of the deployment.

However, there was one even larger difficulty to overcome; in early February 2009, SCOTT was undergoing a protracted refit in Portsmouth dockyard, whilst her ship's company were still living and working ashore. Ship Staff Move Onboard did not take place until 6 April, leaving just over 6 months to bring SCOTT back to front line status and prepare for a deployment never before undertaken by the ship. Thankfully, there were some experienced hands at the helm with both the Commanding Officer (Cdr Gary Hesling RN) and First Lieutenant (Lt Cdr Tony Jenks RN) having previously served in HMS ENDURANCE.

In those early days following the decision, a well considered and wide ranging Command Estimate was developed with many of the strands proving to be elements vital to the success of the mission.

One of these considerations was the manpower requirement for the Antarctic work period. SCOTT is very lean manned with a crew of just 52 personnel; a stark contrast to ENDURANCE's crew of 129. Clearly there would need to be an up-lift in manpower, but to what extent? It was suggested that the 3-watch manning system be suspended, but it was decided that this was not a suitable option. In the end just 9 additional service personnel would be embarked to supplement the crew. These included a medical officer, a diving team, a complement of Royal Marines trained in cold weather survival and a Leading Photographer who would be there to record the deployment. To this number were added 3 civilian guests who would join SCOTT in the Falkland Islands; these were Rob Bowman from Polar Regions Unit of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), Rod Downie from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and the artist Rowan Huntley, who was being sponsored by the Friends of Scott Polar Research Institute.

There was also the matter of equipment uplifts; not least the issue of the ship's boats. Flat bottomed inflatable boats are best boats to use when making beach landings; however, with insufficient time to fit inflatable boats, the ship's Jet Pac RHIBs would have to do. To cope with the rigours of operating in Antarctica, they were 'winterised' with heater elements fitted to the engine bay covers. At the time SCOTT only had one sea boat davit; however, through discussions between the ship and MPH IPT it was decided that a second davit should be fitted on the port side of the foredeck. This would allow SCOTT to conduct boat operations from both sides of the ship whilst underway. The large expanse of the ship's foredeck came in useful as it allowed sufficient space for this additional fit without the need for major structural alterations.

With the crew back onboard in Portsmouth and the ship declared safe to proceed to sea, SCOTT finally entered her base port of Plymouth on 19 June. Following a busy regeneration period that stretched through the summer and into early autumn, the ship undertook OST before deploying as originally planned six months previously, on 26 October 2009.

One final problem remained to be solved though. Could SCOTT get through Hecate Channel and alongside the main jetty at East Cove in the Falkland Islands? A small team from within the ship's own survey department was despatched to Mare Harbour to conduct a survey of both the channel and berth and, despite gale force winds, they provided data of sufficient quality to confirm that the ship could get alongside.

An iceberg in the South Atlantic
An iceberg in the South Atlantic
© 2010 MOD

SCOTT arrived off the Antarctic Peninsula the following January and on entering the Bransfield Strait, which was to become the ship's main operating area for the next two weeks, found that it was almost completely ice free with only a few large 'bergs present. Although these were calving smaller growlers and brash ice, none of it was unavoidable. It was only after the ship had finished her main tasking in the Bransfield Strait and was heading east to the South Orkney Islands that any significant fields of growlers were sighted. These bands, stretching a dozen or so miles across the open sea, had been driven north out of the Weddell Sea as a result of a period of gale-force winds coming from the South.

What was observed though was the multitude of wildlife present both on and in the waters around the Peninsula. Penguins, whales and birds were observed in large numbers, with the sight of a humpback whale breeching becoming a common occurrence. SCOTT often had company in the form of albatrosses that glided effortlessly across the waters alongside the ship for hours at a time.

Whilst the work period in Antarctica was brief at just 4 weeks long, it was also a busy programme that mixed BAS and FCO-led visits to some of the many research bases on the Peninsula with multi beam sonar data collection that led to the discovery of a large seamount.

Often the ship would spend the day conducting informal base visits then return to the Bransfield Strait to conduct survey operations during the few hours of darkness overnight. During January and February true darkness only lasts a pair of hours at these latitudes. In addition to the main tasking, was a request to clear up the remnants of the equipment left by a Joint Service Expedition to Brabant Island some quarter-century earlier. In the end efforts proved unsuccessful due to a significant amount of snow covering the area in question and the inability to find a suitable landing spot for the Jet Pacs.

One task that was achieved was the delivery of essential stores for the base at Port Lockroy. Once a British Research Station, it is now maintained by the United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage Trust and is a popular stop for cruise ships, not least because of the spectacular scenery and the large population of penguins, colonies of which live around the base. The Neumayer Channel, in which it is located, is similar to a fjord, with high snow covered mountains on all sides and a small glacier at one end. As SCOTT slowly steamed up and down the channel, she passed seals basking on small floes and quite unconcerned by the ship's presence.

Friends of SPRI, Artist in Residence, 2010, Rowan Huntley, at work with her portable easel
Sponsored by Friends of SPRI, Artist in Residence, 2010,
Rowan Huntley, at work with her portable easel
© 2010 MOD

The ship's embarked artist, Rowan Huntley, also made great use of each day and could often be seen on the upperdeck, wrapped in layers of warm clothing and with her Heath-Robinson style polar easel, busily capturing on canvas the majesty of the landscape with peaks and plateaus so high that they were visible beyond the curve of the horizon and often threw assessments of distance off by dozens of miles.

SCOTT returned to the Falkland Islands in the middle of February for maintenance and to rotate personnel, before continuing the long passage back to the UK. She slipped back into Devonport on the evening tide of the early May Bank Holiday Sunday without pomp or fanfare, just another warship movement amongst the many that take place each week. Once safely back in base port, it was time to consider the lessons learned during the deployment. As identified early on in the planning process, the most suitable boats for taking personnel ashore are flat-bottomed inflatable boats and the experiences of the boat's crews bore testament to the need for these craft on future deployments of this nature.

The support the ship received from the personnel operating at Mare Harbour, both the Army's Port Ops Regiment and NEFI, was without criticism. Their flexibility and willingness to assist in all aspects of maintenance was most welcome, particularly when there was need to lift all 9 cylinder heads on one of SCOTT's two main propulsion engines.

Since her spell "down south" SCOTT has returned to her primary role of ocean surveying, undertaking a 3 month deployment to the North Atlantic during which she surveyed a 40,000 nm2 area of seabed. On top of this was a high profile visit to Cardiff to commemorate Captain R F Scott's departure for Antarctica aboard the Terra Nova in 1910. In September SCOTT undertook a second FTSP package, her last until the middle of next year. Following on from this was a brief RTP before the rigours of a DCT tailored to prepare the ship for her next deployment. She will once again be sailing south, leaving the UK in early November to spend a second season acting as the RN's Ice Patrol Vessel. With the experience gained from last season, the next one offers greater opportunities for the crew of HMS SCOTT to make best use of the platform. Acting on the lessons learnt, they will provide the RN with a capability that has proven to be flexible in its operational tasking without requiring significant periods of time spent changing roles or undertaking additional training to achieve the aim.