Aurora on the rocks

Following is an edited extract from Through Ice & Fire by Sarah Laverick, published by Pan Macmillan Australia.

The Aurora Australis and her crew had just begun a busy day delivering cargo at Mawson station. The bright orange ship nestled comfortably within the arms of Horseshoe Harbour, and the inhabitants of the colourful buildings dotting the rocky Antarctic hillside supervised the resupply operations with interest. The Aurora’s cranes danced over the ship, brightly punctuating the overcast sky as they feverishly lifted heavy pallets onto barges waiting patiently beside the icebreaker. The squat craft motored back and forth across the steel water to the snow-speckled granite shores of the station, where a shore crane eagerly took possession of the valuable bounty.

But a slight breeze that had begun to ripple the water at lunchtime soon intensified to a gale that sent wavelets and spray whipping across the harbour, bringing the hectic operations to a halt late in the afternoon. A blizzard was coming: the crew and expeditioners packed up their equipment and the cranes and barges were stowed for the day. Their efforts had already paid off: the ship and shore teams had managed to unload a large portion of the precious stores that would see Mawson station through the harsh, dark months of the approaching Antarctic winter of 2016. It had been a good day.

That evening, the Aurora’s complement lined up for their well-earned dinner in the ship’s mess. The room slowly filled with buzzing chatter and the chink of cutlery on plates, and someone pointed out that snow was now swirling against the portholes. Unperturbed, the 68 people on board continued their evening’s business; they’d already withstood a blizzard two days earlier and they all knew it was just a matter of time until it would ease off. They would simply get comfortable and wait it out.

But this was no ordinary blizzard.

By the next morning, the Aurora was mercilessly buffeted by vicious winds and driving snow, and the screaming gales showed no sign of moderating. The ship’s massive mooring lines strained against the load, then stretched taut as the winds gusted at over 176 kilometres an hour. Then, incapable of taking any more, the hefty ropes and cables snapped; the resounding cracks and booms of the parting lines stifled by the immense white noise of the blizzard. The blizzard, now unimpeded, ruthlessly drove the Aurora toward the shore. Minutes later, the icebreaker shrieked and juddered in protest as her sturdy metal hull ground roughly against the uneven, dark rock of West Arm.

On station, the Mawson search-and-rescue alarm wailed throughout the corridors. The station’s expeditioners gathered in the mess, then squinted anxiously against the whiteout while they were briefed on the unfolding crisis. For a fleeting moment the blizzard eased, revealing Australia’s Antarctic flagship lying helplessly on the rocks at West Arm. A hazy photograph of the forlorn, snow-crusted ship was hastily taken and emailed to headquarters in Hobart.

The image went global. As news of the Aurora’s grounding spread, the world’s media and the international Antarctic community held their collective breath while the ferocious storm continued to lash at the stricken ship. Was history repeating itself? Had the Aurora, just like her predecessor the Nella Dan 29 years earlier, met an untimely end on a desolate rocky shore at the far reaches of the Southern Ocean? All over the world, they waited.