Nella Dan 19621987

Nella Dan, Southern Ocean 1984
Nella Dan, Southern Ocean 1984. (Photo: Martin Betts)
Ship alongside wharfDeparture of Nella Dan from Princess Wharf, 1972Voyage 5, Nella Dan beset near Bunger Hills 1987Nella Dan aground, Buckles Bay Macquarie Island, December 1987View from salvage vessel Lady Lorraine. Nella Dan on fire and sinking.Nella Dan's close encounter with Macquarie Island

Without doubt, the most famous of the Lauritzen’s Dan ships to serve ANARE was the Nella Dan.

Commissioned by Lauritzen with considerable input from the Antarctic Division, Nella Dan was named in honour of Nel Law, wife of the AAD Director of the time, Phil Law.

Built by the Aarlborg Shipyard Pty Ltd in 1961, she incorporated all the features of her older sisters, the Thala Dan, Kista Dan and Magga Dan. An ice breaker stern, ice fins and ice knife were becoming regular features, but a novel addition was the double hull in the engine room and part of the holds.

The ascent to the crow’s nest was through the interior of the mast, and the ship supplied its own fresh water with an Atlas generator. At the time of her construction, the Nella Dan was regarded as setting the standard for polar vessels. Her specifications included:

  • main engine turbo charged Burmeister & Wain diesel, with an output of 2500 IHP (Indicated Horse Power) at 300 rpm. The propeller blades were reversible.
  • length overall 75.5 metres
  • breadth moulded 14.3 metres
  • draft fully loaded 6.268 metres
  • speed 12.5 knots
  • bunker capacity 736.2 tons
  • fuel consumption approximately 8 tons per day
  • passenger capacity originally 34 in one two-berth and ten four-berth cabins, most of which were wood paneled
  • permanent helicopter deck of about 100 square metres on the aft deck
  • a special built-in shaft extended from the promenade deck to the bottom of the ship for use in hydrographic surveys. The shaft was also designed to facilitate the installation of special echo sounders.

A novel addition to shipboard domestic operations was the installation of a dishwasher.

Nella Dan sailed to the Antarctic every year of the 26 years she was charted by ANARE.

In the mid sixties, two four-berth cabins were added on the starboard aft deck. This increased passenger accommodation from 34 to 42. At times in heavy seas, it was very difficult and dangerous to move from these cabins (the area was known as ‘skid row’). The lounge was added above the bridge at around the same time. There was also a four-berth cabin on the upper promenade deck.

Nella Dan was involved in the development of what has become a major Antarctic and Southern Ocean marine science program.

In 1979, a decision was taken to participate in the BIOMASS (Biological Investigations of Marine Antarctic Systems and Stocks) program. So the following year in 1980, the vessel was modified at a cost of $1.2 million to undertake deep sea research trawling. This was the first major Australian Antarctic venture since BANZARE into deep sea marine science.

The stern was altered to allow for research scale trawling. The helicopter deck was raised and the gantry, which extended aft of the stern, fitted beneath it. Two trawling winches were installed on the aft deck, and a hydrographic winch was added forward of the helicopter deck. A Caterpillar generator was placed adjacent to the funnel to power the winches and gantry.

A small baggage room forward of the passengers’ mess was converted into an instrument room, in which were installed quantitative echo sounders, a precision depth sounder and a computer data logging system. Another baggage room was later converted into a laboratory.

An additional innovation was the installation of a closed circuit television to allow vision of the trawl deck from both the instrument room and the bridge.

During this time Nella Dan visited every one of Australia’s stations several times, and supported major exploratory activities along much of the AAT coastline. From 1981, she continued to provide a research platform for the increasingly prestigious marine science program until her demise in 1987. She remains one of the longest continuously serving Antarctic ships.

She enjoyed the dubious distinction of plunging her passengers into an unexpected seven week stationary sojourn in the ice in 1985, the longest besetment ever experienced by any ANARE ship, before or since. Nella Dan was beset off the Enderby Coast out from Mount Biscoe, during the ADBEX III voyage 1985–86. The ice was 13 feet thick and held the Nella Dan for 52 days from October, until released by the Japanese 30,000 horsepower icebreaker Shirase.

On her last fateful voyage in December 1987, during resupply operations at Macquarie Island, bad weather blew up. Nella dragged her anchor and was driven aground just metres off the island. Although plans were initially made to salvage the vessel, the decision was eventually made to scuttle her. At 5:42 pm on 24 December 1987, she was sunk in deep water off Macquarie Island.

The response from around the world was overwhelming. Crew and expeditioners who had sailed in her over the years responded by composing poetry, songs and eulogies in her honour. A former doctor from Macquarie Island mourned:

… this is a black letter day in Australian Antarctic history. A tired old ship disappeared under the sea, but it is only the empty shell and not the soul of Nella Dan. Nobody can destroy the memory and love of hundreds of expeditioners who sailed in the little red ship during her 26 years … Nella Dan rests now at the bottom of the sea, but she will live forever in the hearts of thousands of her friends, God bless you, Nella – rest in peace.

Farewell Nella Dan, Aurora, March 1988.