Report 12: The Mawson chronicles

The Mawson wintering party bid farewell to the last ship before winter
The Mawson wintering party bid farewell to the last ship before winter (Photo: Steve Nicol)
Sleep-deprived boat people await repatriation to the AuroraT shirt designs

Steve Nicol, Voyage Leader

At the ungodly hour of about 7 O'clock on Sunday morning a very excited shipful of people entered Kista Strait and were in full sight of multi-coloured Mawson Station. As the ship moored, the cameras clicked and the anxious residents no doubt wondered what was about to hit them. After a briefing on board by Ivor Harris the Station Leader, the eager masses were let loose on the Antarctic Continent and their feet touched solid ground for the first time in 5 weeks.

Watching from the shore, the station began to resemble an anthill as dozens of brightly-clad people swarmed across the rocks photographing everything that moved and most things that were either anchored to the ground or floating in the harbour.

The weather was good with only light winds and this allowed the acoustic calibrations to begin almost immediately and proceed for the next 30 hours or so, establishing a record for both the speed with which they were completed and the comprehensive nature of the readings that were recorded. While all this was going on the ship's company were revelling in the superb hospitality offered by the residents of Mawson that included a sumptuous banquet, which re-introduced us to fresh vegetables, washed down with adult-strength beverages. To cap the night off Ivor allowed a number of people to stay the night at the station, which for many, including several seasoned scientists, was their first night on the seventh continent and will be one of the highlights of the voyage. The smiles on the faces of those returning to the ship on Monday morning said it all. A totally exhausted Team Acoustics were let off the ship for the shortest of strolls as the ship began to reel in the mooring lines before they went to bed for 18 hours of well-earned sleep. As we sailed out of Horseshoe Harbour the team we left behind looked so few, especially since we took away five of their residents with us.

And now we are back out at sea and have spent the best part of a day dodging storms and icebergs as we obliquely approach Transect 8. As we sailed east we were some distance from the coast so in a somewhat Zen-like approach we started Transect 8, a northerly transect, by going south bringing us almost to touching distance of the ice sheet fringing the continent. Finding no more water that was not solid, we turned around and followed a trench leading back to the transect in a process that pleased the oceanographers (who began hurling expendable sampling instruments over the side like there was no tomorrow) and puzzled everyone else. Not to fear, we are now back on our proper northerly track and the unpleasant weather system that has been lurking in the wings has moved on. We now just have to get ourselves back into working mode for one last push, which will last about two weeks.

One of the key events on any voyage is the design of the T shirt and this usually proceeds in a truly democratic fashion with everyone aboard being able to submit designs. Once we have a field of entries a vote is taken and we submit the winning entry to the manufacturers and pick up the resulting product when we return to Hobart. It seems like a simple process but on each successive voyage it appears to become more convoluted, contentious and fraught.

On BROKE–West we have had an excellent field of designs submitted, ranging from the highly obscure through the puzzlingly abstract to the compulsively detailed, so we have not been spoiled for choice. Unfortunately, democracy is a fickle process so what seems like a simple exercise brings out the bush lawyer in everyone:

"What happens if I want design A on the front and design B on the back but with a different colour scheme on an extra large polo shirt in a shade that isn't available?"

"I still think that design Y is the best – can we get two different designs made up with several options of colours, styles, fronts, backs and matching underwear?"

"We really ought to be allowed to make more than one choice – why can't we use Hare-Clarke proportional representation rather than the long-discredited first past the post system?".

If only people had put as much thought into their science there would be a ship full of Nobel Laureates returning to Hobart next month. On future voyages everyone will be issued with a white T shirt, one size fits all, indelible marker pens in three colours and will be told to get on with it and construct their own individual piece of voyage memorabilia and to hell with democracy and group unity.