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David McDowell remembers

David Statham, Stanley Black and Geoff Stride.

It is a bit hackneyed to use the phrase “Polar Explorer” these days but in 1956 we were all polar explorers. As we stepped off our various ships which delivered us to this faraway place, nothing could really prepare us for the environment we were entering. Everything was new and somehow we had to make sense of it. As a consequence we found ourselves hanging on every word the experienced old hands passed on to us.

They were the key to unlocking the secrets of living and coping with this alien land.

It was to such an environment that I found myself, holding a large kit bag, stepping ashore at the British Antarctic base on Signy Island in the South Orkneys. The base was to have a complement of eight men for the 1957 scientific program. Of these, four had at least one year’s polar experience and the remainder were all inexperienced newcomers. Two of the latter were Dave Statham and Stan Black and I joined them as we began to learn the base routines. There was much to learn. Dogs had to be fed, floors scrubbed, weather details transmitted to the wider world every 3 hours. We all had to learn to operate diesel generators as well as radio transmitters. Importantly, we each had a turn at cooking for a week feeding eight hungry men which for most of us was a huge challenge.

Preparing for winter

Preparations for the coming winter months meant dogs had to be trained to pull sledges. We must have all looked like a bunch of rank amateurs as we tried to instil in the dogs the idea of all pulling together in the one direction rather than turning on each other to unleash pent up annoyances. One fight was so bad the dogs fought themselves to a complete standstill ending up in a huge mound of fur and rope traces with a couple of exhausted and bewildered polar explorers trapped underneath it all.

Before the winter set in, there was active use of the two dinghies on the base with their Seagull outboards. Sledging rations were transported to various storage depots around neighbouring islands in preparation for survey work later in the year. Stan was involved in many of these boat trips and on one occasion, accompanied by Dave, did a full circumnavigation of Signy Island.

Most of us on base were given various responsibilities, for instance Stan was made quartermaster responsible for the distribution of food stores to the various cooks each week. Incidentally, Stan was far and away the best cook on base. Dave was given the large task of dog handler which involved ensuring the dogs were fed and trained.

Slowly but surely we newcomers began to get the hang of this Antarctic environment.

All of a sudden winter was with us. Temperatures plummeted and sea ice formed. In fact it turned out to be one of the best sea ice seasons for many years. This meant there was plenty of work for the dog teams to do. The training given to the dogs by Dave and his helpers began to pay off. Active well-trained dog teams rarely fight and can pull heavily laden sledges over long distances. Many sledging trips involved being away from base and so we all learnt how to cope with pitching a tent in a blizzard, ensuring the dogs were fed and well secured. We learnt what it was like to be laid up in a tent for days on end as a blizzard raged outside.

From time to time on base there were parties and celebrations and sometimes messages from home via BBC broadcasts. There was a beer issue of one can per week per man. These used to be saved up for special occasions such as midwinter, birthdays and end of season dinner. Later in the season we were all asked about our requested deployment for the following year. Dave, Stan and myself all felt we were ready for the real Antarctic and applied to be moved to Horseshoe base which was considerably further south below the Antarctic Circle. Much to our surprise this request was granted and the day eventually arrived when a relief ship arrived at Signy to take us aboard for the journey.

Relief ship holed by iceberg

What we did not realise was this was the start of an epic drama. A few hours out of Signy the relief ship struck an iceberg. There was a serious hole below the waterline and the ship took aboard large quantities of water into the bilge and hold. The seriousness was soon revealed when non-essential crew members were marshalled into lifeboats ready for launching from the stern section. The order was given to dump overboard any heavyweight cargo and to do it in the shortest possible time. This led to frantic scenes as 44 gallon drums and anything else we could lift were pushed over the side. Meanwhile attempts were made to block the hole with timber and quick-setting cement. Unfortunately the sand in the cement mix found its way down into the bilge pumps which ceased working. Finally the situation was stabilised by swinging a heavy scow (landing barge) and leaving it hanging over the ship’s side using the specialised ship’s crane. This had the effect of tilting the ship so that the hole became partly exposed above the waterline. This made it much easier to carry out temporary repairs to block the hole from within the cargo hold.

The emergency was still not over. The ship’s radio officer sent out mayday signals for at least two days before contact with the outside world was made. Eventually a small whale catcher vessel arrived and stood by us for 24 hours until a naval ship HMS Protector came to the rescue. It was decided that our ship would proceed at slow speed to the whaling station on the island of South Georgia for repairs but all non-essential personnel would be transferred to the Protector. This involved transfer by small boat in open seas with a huge swell running. The main problem was getting aboard the naval ship because the small boat would ride the wave and be level with the big ship’s stern deck and a few seconds later it would be down metres below, level with the ship’s rudder. To cope with this, the trick was to stand each person, one at a time, in the bow of the boat and wait until the next wave came through. As the bow moved up level with the stern rail, two or three burly marines would hopefully catch hold and haul the individual over the rail.

Eventually, our journey towards the south resumed. However, this was not without incident as our ship became increasingly trapped in the sea ice as we moved further south. Weeks were spent with little or no movement. The problem was solved with the arrival of a US Coast Guard icebreaker. This had large powerful engines which enabled it to crush its way through the ice. After a long struggle we were able to sail into the fjord alongside Horseshoe base.

Arrival at Horseshoe Base

For the 1958 scientific program the base had a complement of six men, all with at least one years polar experience. Stan Black resumed his role as quartermaster and Dave Statham again was the dog handler. Also joining us was Geoff Stride as diesel mechanic. Geoff had spent the year at Deception Island which was a busy weather station off the north west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula

Once again winter arrived quickly with a sudden dive in temperatures producing workable sea ice. This led to much activity training dog teams and updating sledging ration depots which were located at various sites in the fjord system. As time went by the sea ice improved, thickening with a good layer of hardened snow on top. Compact snow is ideal for dog sledging so it was decided to attempt a visit to the emperor penguin colony on small islands in Marguerite Bay to the south of Adelaide Island. This had been on the scientific wish-list for some time. The request was to obtain egg samples as a part of research into Emperor Penguins. The route to be taken was researched from available maps and previous sledging reports. The plan was to ensure each overnight camp was to be safely on land wherever possible, hence the route followed a curve which took in islands and land promontories along the way.

With all the preparation done the sledging party set off on the appointed day calculated to coincide with the first egg laying of the Emperor Penguins. The party consisted of Dave Statham, Stan Black and Geoff Stride with two sledges, each pulled by seven dogs. The sledges carried ample supplies, a radio transmitter and they set off in ideal weather conditions.

For the three of us remaining on base (John Paisley base leader, Ray (Paddy) McGowen radio operator and David (Mac) McDowell senior meteorologist) this meant extra duties so we were all a bit envious of the sledging party on their interesting trip.

Deteriorating weather conditions

Two days after the party left base, the weather deteriorated with severe gale force winds funneling down the fjord. Once the weather eased, we are astonished to see the sea ice at the entrance to the fjord had blown away. This was obviously serious but our sledging party according to plan should be camped on land somewhere. We had radio scheduled times planned but during these radio sessions we were unable to pick up any signals from the sledging party. Once again this was not unusual as radio equipment in that era was notoriously unreliable.

Obviously, this was becoming of increasing concern and it was decided to begin a search by bringing in sledging teams from base W to the north led by John Rothera and Base E from the south led by Peter Gibbs. By the time these teams arrived the sea ice had reformed. A systematic search began following the planned route of the missing party. During this time feats of endurance and heroism by these search parties were commonplace. Following the planned route produced no results so the search was widened to include Marguerite Bay coastline to the south.

Unfortunately, no trace of the missing sledging party was ever found. As a consequence the search was scaled down. Back at Horseshoe Base, routine began to return to some form of normality as relief staff were sledged in from base W to help ease the workload. One night something like a month and a half after these events, there was a commotion out on the dog span (were the dogs are tethered). To our amazement we found a dog from the missing party loose on the span. In subsequent weeks around a dozen dogs wandered back into the base. All were in excellent physical condition.

What happened to the missing party? How did the dogs survive? The truth is no one knows. There can be plenty of theories but it is all conjecture. All I can say is these three men were our colleagues and mates. Together we had shared the highs and the lows of this amazing Antarctic experience. I think of them often.

David (Mac) McDowell
February 2009