Jonty Pearce leaves the relative balmy conditions of the UK to venture south and follow in the footsteps of legendary explorer, Ernest Shackleton

A Happy New Year to you all! Our own New Year’s Eve was spent far from home in what I’m told is the southernmost city in the world: Punta Arenas.

We had left the snow and ice of a UK Christmas for South American midsummer – it was 30C and bright sun when we landed in Santiago de Chile – though as our journey continued further south the ambient temperature dropped back a little. Punta Arenas was sunny and warm when shelter from the biting wind was found.

Why then, were our bags full of down coats and warm inner layers? If I mention the word Antarctica – the White Continent – all might become clear.

We flew into Frei Station on King George Island on January 2nd to join the ice-strengthened cruise ship, Ocean Nova whose stated goal is to cruise down the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula into the Polar Circle (66.33S).

With safety briefings complete, we set off across the Bransfield Strait that separates the South Shetland Islands from the Antarctic Peninsula. The temperature dropped as the wind got up, and snow flurries whirled against the windows as we weaved our way between the small icebergs that littered our path.

Shackelton ship, Endurance under sail

Endurance under sail. Credit: Frank Hurley/State Library of New South Wales/Wikimedia Commons

Initially, poor conditions prevented our planned landings so I ventured into the ship’s library. My gaze immediately landed on Alfred Lansing’s ‘Endurance’ and the incredible tale of Shackleton’s voyage, entrapment in the ice, and subsequent survival. My leisure reading material was chosen.

This epic tale took place just beyond the land lying to Ocean Nova’s port side; the floor of the Weddell Sea is Endurance’s final resting place. To be so close brings Shackleton’s exploits to a new level of awe; to experience Antarctic conditions, albeit on a relatively calm summer’s day, is incredible.

The passengers aboard Ocean Nova can relax warmly while looking out through double glazing at the majestic scenery passing by. We can venture out onto the observation deck to feel the bite of the wind and the chill of the air; we can feel the power of the ship’s engines as they drive the hull through the pack ice and small icebergs that at times obscure our path.

A wooden ship sinking in ice in Antarctic

Endurance before she finally sank. Credit: Royal Geographic Society/Wikimedia Commons

And we can compare our creature comforts with the hardships that faced Endurance’s crew as they navigated similar waters under sail and steam power. The thick knit sweaters and oilskin jackets available in 1915 fall far short of the modern day hi-tech fleece and down-stuffed jackets that cover our warm layering systems.

Their ship was strongly built of seasoned woods with a hull thickness of more than two feet that allowed them to drive through the icy waters in a similar way that our strengthened steel plates permit, but they lacked lacked the power of modern diesel engines. The shuddering blows felt throughout the ship as Ocean Nova shoulders her way through the ice might have sent anxious shivers up Shackleton’s spine; even Endurance was not strong enough for this treatment.

Yet we are no icebreaker – twice now our planned path has been blocked by fast ice despite information from satellite imagery and the warming effects of an Antarctic summer. We, too, dare not get trapped in the ice, although for us all would not be lost; in this day and age there is the possibility of summoning help by radio for evacuation by helicopter or icebreaker.

To see three sailing yachts down here also draws my admiration. Even with a warmly clad lookout posted on the bows and a sturdy steel hull, navigation in these waters calls upon a special sort of yachtsman.

When we later called into Vernadsky Station for a tour round the base and a sample of their home brewed vodka (they had run out by the time we left) we were relieved to find two of the yachts safely moored in the shelter of the channels between the islands. I just hoped the Ukrainians could produce more of their hooch in time to provide the yacht crews with some inner warmth…

Antarctica is a dangerous cruising ground. Separated by the infamous Drake Passage from the nearest mainland and subject to rapid changes of weather, no RNLI exists to rescue wayward sailors.

Continues below…

The ever-present danger of ice increases with latitude; even in Antarctic summer care needs to be taken.

The thought of a drifting winter entrapment in frozen seas beggars belief. Shackleton’s feat in leading his expedition out of the icy wastes without the loss of a single man is one of humanity’s greatest tales. And it all happened just over that ridge…