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The Polar Master Tim Page - Polar Master on the RRS James Clark Ross for the British Antarctic Survey

Thanks to Tim Page for writing this blog for us at Aquamarine Medicals and coming to see us for his ENG1 medical. A little bit about Tim: Tim is the Master of the RRS James Clark Ross, a scientific research vessel for the British Antarctic Survey. In February 2021, the RRS James Clark Ross left Rothera Research Station for her last voyage for BAS. We hope you enjoy Tim's stories and photographs that give us a glimpse into what it is like to work in one of the most unique and remote places on Earth.

I’m currently employed by the British Antarctic Survey as Master on the polar research ship RRS James Clark Ross.

The ship is a touch over thirty years old now but to look at her, you would be forgiven for thinking that she was only a fraction of that age.

James Clark Ross approaching Signy in heavy pack ice

The purpose of the ship is to carry out science operations in the polar regions and to support the shore-based research stations that the British Antarctic Survey operate in the British Antarctic Territories, with all the fuel, food and equipment they need to remain operational year round.

The ship herself is small at just a whisker under 100m in length but on the inside she is like the Tardis, with accommodation for twenty nine crew and forty seven scientists or research station staff. She also has three good sized cargo holds, seven laboratories, two science winch rooms, two gantries (one at the stern and the other on the starboard side), six cranes and four work boats. Added to this the ship is fitted with a huge array of acoustics sensors which includes a high resolution 3D deep water multi-beam swath bathometry suite that allows the ship to survey and map the seabed in stunning detail.

The crew of the ship are not scientists, and the scientists are not seafarers, but working together with the science equipment and machinery on board, we are able to deploy and recover instruments in some of the harshest waters on the planet, to the greatest water depths and if the ship is in pack ice, through the ice. Some science cruises can last anything up to two months and can also be spent almost entirely in the ice. There is not a great deal of shipping in Antarctica but during those long cruises in the ice, the thing that strikes you most is the absolute solitude. You’ll not see another ship or hear a peep out of the VHF radios for weeks on end.

Photo: Deploying a seabed science array in pack ice at night. The ship is stopped and you can see the ice back filling the route the ship came in.

Photo: Pushing into heavy seas crossing Drake Passage towards the Antarctic Peninsula

Cargo operations at the research stations are a very busy time for all on board. Of the five stations, only two have jetties large enough to put the ship alongside. One station is on an ice shelf that requires the ship to secure alongside the ice itself and the other two have to be worked by boat. Of the four work boats the ship carries, three are inflatables and the fourth is a 13m landing craft. Sea conditions at one of these stations is rough all year-round, making boat and cargo operations extremely challenging.

Photo: Tim as the Chief Officer taking a time out from assisting a science party working on fast ice in Pine Island Bay.

RRS James Clark Ross through the arch of a grounded iceberg on the West side of Signy Island. Photograph taken by R. Turner

The ship was designed to run through first year ice one metre think at a speed of 3 knots, but in reality she is capable of working in ice far thicker. As you would expect, the ship is ice strengthened and fitted with an ice knife in the bow. Propulsion is diesel electric driving a single fixed pitch propeller and two white gill thrusters, which is topped off with an oversize semi-balanced rudder. With all of this, the ship can break ice and is manoeuvrable enough to wriggle through the tightest leads in the ice.

You might think that with it being so cold in the Antarctic there would be little wild life other than penguins and whales that are able to survive in such a harsh environment but you would be mistaken. The skies are full of birds from the great Wandering Albatross down to the smallest Storm Petrel and the seas are teaming with fish, seals, penguins and whales. It’s not unusual to encounter penguins and seals hundreds of miles from the nearest land and if the ship is stopped in the water conducting science operations and there are Humpback Whales nearby, it’s almost a given that they will come over and see what you are doing, spending hours swimming around and around the ship. Ashore at the research stations and other landing sites that we visit, it is not uncommon to come across huge numbers of seals and penguins, and while everyone will stop to take countless numbers of photographs, we do go to great lengths to protect the environment and ensure that none of the wildlife is disturbed.

Photo: Chinstrap Penguin

Photo: Fur Seal

Working the ship in ice is without doubt one of the best parts of the job but you have to be so careful as a layer of snow sitting on the pack ice can hide a multitude of nasty surprises that can damage the ship. Pack ice can also move very fast and if the wind is blowing in the wrong direction the ice can become pressured and difficult to move in. You also need to keep a good eye on the ice types you are encountering. Grease Ice and Pancake Ice will offer hardly any resistance but Porridge Ice which like its namesake suggests looks like porridge oats, will stop the ship dead in a matter of seconds. If you spot Porridge Ice, you look for an alternative route around it and if you do drive into it, you get out of it as quickly as you can because you will not get through it.

Photo: Ice accretion over the fore part of the ship in the Weddell Sea. The sea around the ship is starting to freeze.

Icebergs come in many shapes and sizes and the largest that I’ve encountered is the eighty two mile long A64a that you might have seen in the news over Christmas. This broke off from the Larsen C Ice Shelf a few years ago and finally drifted out of the Weddell Sea last year. Pack Ice and Icebergs don’t always move in the same direction or at the same speed and it is a sight to see when you witness an Iceberg ploughing its way through pack ice.

Photo: A small and weathered tabular iceberg

Photo: Sunrise in the Neumayer Channel

Being the Master of a ship with all these capabilities, a dedicated team, and such a diverse work pattern is without doubt one of the best and most rewarding jobs you could ever hope for.

Top: Using three searchlights while working in pack ice during the hours of darkness. Bottom Right: Adele Penguins diving into the sea. Prince Edward Island. Pine Island Bay

Credits:

Tim Page and the BBC