Signy / by Jerry

16th to 19th November

Unlike the other British Antarctic survey stations, Signy operates for the summer only. Sitting just south of 60 degrees it endures a full Antarctic winter and upon arrival the base staff never quite know what to expect. Six of them got ashore that first day, cutting through the choppy sea on the small RIBs, to check it out, returning to the ship in the evening with tales of snowdrifts and flooded stores.

The following day was calm and sunny, suitable for a larger group of twenty or more of us to get ashore and get working. First up were the important people: the station staff and the technicians looking at getting all the generator, boiler and water systems up and running. Afterwards the manual labour, including me, got our jolly ashore.

With the bay full of ice the tender couldn't get to the jetty so we were unloading at a point on the shore around 100m from the station. From there the cargo was lifted onto large sledges and towed by skidoo over to wherever it was needed, whether for immediate use and installation or stacked up to be sorted through later.

Station damage over the winter was minimal as everything had been well secured before departure. Much of our work involved digging away at the snow; uncovering buried equipment and clearing it from where it had drifted up against the buildings, opening walkways and reducing the chances of flooding once it starts to melt. This last necessity was exemplified by the state of one of the store rooms. Marks on the doors and walls showed it had flooded to an impressive 30cm at one point, but we were greeted with a solid 10cm of ice on the floor. A team of ice breakers, shovelers and moppers were deployed and had largely cleared it by lunch time. Enough to restart one of the big freezers which happily worked, cooling itself and melting much of the remaining ice in the room.

Perched on the jetty eating chips sent over from the ship, we reflected on how nice a day it was. Piles of clothing littered the site, evidence of shed layers from people expecting the worse now working in single layer thermals and passing round the sun cream. The brilliant white of the ice-packed bay was broken only by lounging elephant seals, while the glaciers, cliffs and peaks all around us were a reminder of what a potentially inhospitable place we were in, despite temporary comforts.

Normally if the weather is good at relief we would work until dusk but we were called back to the ship mid afternoon, leaving the Signy crew to enjoy their first night on station. The reason was the sea ice. That big barrier we'd sailed through had been pushed south by the winds and had crept up on our current location. When we left it before it had taken another hour to get to Signy, a distance of maybe ten miles. This time it was a couple of hundred meters, just the distance back to the ship that was sat right at the edge of the pack, ready to cut off though it to find a larger area of open water suitable for spending the night.

The wind picked up the following day, pushing a barrier of ice across the entrance to the bay and preventing us from getting ashore. It was touch and go after that but we managed to get a tender in and unload the remaining cargo; the fresh and frozen food as well as the all important bond. Once everyone was happy the base was up and running properly, with all systems checked and approved, we were heading back through the ice on our way north.

The first humbers brave the conditions to take station staff ashore for an initial inspection.

Better weather for our visit ashore on the tender, full of food (in the blue boxes) and an array of science, domestic, technical, engineering and personal kit.

The RRS James Clark Ross sitting smartly in the bay.

Shovelling snow. A popular pastime on Antarctic bases.

Transporting goods from the landing site to the station. A long way man-hauling or a short way by skidoo.

Breaking for lunch on the jetty.

Vital early job; attaching the sewage pipe.

More digging.

Directing the tender in to the improvised landing site.

Happy station staff, left for another summer.

Signy station.