14 December 2003

Our voyage began long before we set sail. In fact, for most of us, it began in Hobart trying to shoe-horn our luggage past the flight check-in attendant, making out the excess baggage was simply the standard fare of any expeditioner going to Antarctica… by plane. Of course, Qantas doesn't land in Antarctica, doesn't even fly past Heard Island, which is where we're really heading. But first, we needed to make it to Fremantle where the Aurora Australis is docked and waiting for its marine science crew.

For me, all this was Sunday (7 December 2003) in a rush. Leaving the family for two and a half months was the hardest thing I have ever done. Squeezed in a Qantas 737 was the next hardest - for 4 hours and with a lousy movie. The pulsating rhythms coming from the Cottesloe Beachside pub made do for the late welcome to Perth in preparation for an early start, walk along the beach, hefty breakfast and a bus ride to the dock at 8.00 am for the pre-voyage briefing.

Tim Lamb had done a wonderful job settling my gear in, setting up work stations and the like. I quickly moved my bag, guitar and other reminders of Tassie into my new home - D13, one of the rear cabins on the starboard side. Certainly roomy until we pick up the expeditioners from Davis to return home at the end of the voyage. As it turns out, the view from my bunk through the porthole of the breaking waves is extraordinary.

We had a briefing in the TV room, a 'muster' drill which took us on deck in a life jacket, and a chance to get lost in an immersion suit (a very large dry suit for jumping into the water in an emergency). Lastly, we became acquainted with the lifeboats - seats 67, fully enclosed (great for those inclined to being squeamish and claustrophobic). As it turns out, the seatbelts are not to hold you in place in rough weather but are designed to hold you to the floor if the life boat flips over and needs to right itself again. It was pointed out by the first mate, Ian, that they don't right themselves terribly well if you all end up in a squirming heap on the roof (all the weight is then on the wrong side!).

The rest of the day was ours, settling in, buying any last minute goodies and getting ready for the stormy weather that was bearing down on us.

As is usually the case, the Aurora left promptly on time one hour after the scheduled departure time - some essential marine science equipment arrived in the nick of time. The wind was getting up by this stage, the ship grunted, groaned and rumbled as the thrusters tried to push away from the wharf. We had been docked just near the Maritime Museum and cruised past it into the wind, a little more than the Fremantle Doctor at this stage. After dropping the pilot off, we sailed (metaphorically speaking) into the sunset and gradually picked up the swells but not too bad. We were on our way!

Two days later, another two practice musters on deck (this time in full Antarctic gear), and many hours of sleep, most people began to surface having acquired their "sea legs". Of course, it is more that the haze and dizziness departs and that one can vaguely function without feeling like lying down.

To that point, the weather has been remarkably good. Some even spotted some whales. A number of petrels and albatross were following us. Yesterday, however, saw the seas begin to increase as we descended further south than Tasmania. A frontal system was also on the way. The Aurora had been cruising on 10-12 knots and making good progress. We had been sailing to the north of the storms. Reports from the Southern Supporter, which is carrying the land party, were awful as it was traveling only 2 knots and beating directly into the storms. Needless to say, the Aurora was fast catching up to the Supporter.

With the increased seas, many took the chance to try their luck at shooting 'the big bow-breaker' from up in the expansive bridge (Deck A, 5 decks above the water). Such a spectacle is much easier to appreciate without trying to hold a camera in front of you. Nevertheless, more than a hundred photos were shot trying to capture the shuddering crash on film. Those with digital cameras could keep trying but those with film cameras had to decide how many photos they would save for their first iceberg.

Yesterday, we saw our first fishing vessel on the high seas. It looked like a Japanese longliner, possibly fishing for billfish. It was certainly having a hard time in the swells.

Last night was rough enough to find it easier to cat-nap on the floor rather than in the bunk in the middle of the heave, roll and shudder of the ocean swells. Today is much easier but more of a day for snoozing than trying to do anything. We should be there in 3-5 days.