Danish business consultant Rasmus Nygaard was just 20 years old when he stood on the beach at Buckles Bay on Macquarie Island and watched the polar ship Nella Dan smash against the rocks. The ship had been in the final stages of transferring fuel to the Macquarie Island research station on December 3, 1987 when the wind picked up and the anchor shifted.

“We had a swell towards the shore and it was high tide, and all of a sudden the anchor was slipping,” Mr Nygaard said.

“We were very close to the shore because of the bunker hose and within two minutes we were on the beach.”

Macquarie Island personnel used LARCs – lighter, amphibious, resupply, cargo vehicles – which can travel on land and in water, to rescue everyone on board.

“They did a tremendous job coming around the vessel in heavy seas and getting people down the rope ladders,” Mr Nygaard recalls.

“The rope ladders were clapping against the side of the ship and when the swell hit the port side, causing pressure in the diesel tanks, we got a lot of vaporised diesel on the deck and that made everything very slippery.

“Trying to run around in the life suits was almost impossible but we got everyone off.“

Nella Dan was refloated several weeks later but caught fire and was scuttled in deep water.

“A lot of them never went to sea again”

For Mr Nygaard, who was a deck hand on the ship, the experience was extraordinary but not traumatising. 

Others felt differently.

“For a lot of my friends on the ship, they’d been there eight, 12 or even 20 years and for them it was like losing their home,” he said

“A lot of them never went to sea again. They left the beach on Macquarie Island and that was it.”

Duplicate coin marks Tasmania’s royal connection

Nella Dan was one of four polar ‘Dan’ ships  built by Danish J. Lauritzen A/S Lines. The ship was named in honour of Nel Law, the first Australian woman to visit Antarctica and wife of then-Antarctic Division director Phillip Law.

Mr Nygaard now works for the Danish ship designer KNUD E. HANSEN, which designed Australia’s newest icebreaker RSV Nuyina.

On a recent trip to Hobart, he and colleagues from KNUD E. HANSEN toured the ship for the first time and presented memorabilia, illustrating Denmark’s maritime links with Australia, to Nuyina’s crew and captain.

The items included a duplicate of the coin welded in the keel of RSV Nuyina commemorating the marriage of Danish Crown Prince Frederik (a former dog sled patrol officer) to Tasmanian Crown Princess Mary; a photo of Nel Law and the J. Lauritzen ensign.

There was also a lid from a food crate, picked up by a Danish captain in Commonwealth Bay in 1978, on the first expedition to rediscover Mawson’s Hut.

Stamped on the lid is the word ‘Aurora’, which Nuyina translates to, in the Tasmanian Aboriginal language palawa kani.

“We’ve come full circle to bring some of the history back”

“When we were contracted for the design of RSV Nuyina it was a very big things for us,” Mr Nygaard said.

“This is our first visit on board the ship since it was built, so we’ve come full circle to bring some of the history back.

“The coin shows the bonding of Denmark and Australia and is also about the camaraderie between the countries and wishing the ship fair winds, safe voyages and great camaraderie on board.”

Mr Nygaard, who is also chairman of the Friends of the Nella Dan society, said the items were collected by former seafarers and “kept as souvenirs for 30-odd years.”

“In Danish maritime history, the wreckage and scuttling of the Nella Dan in some ways marked the end of an era,” he said.

“It was a ship where you had Danish seafarers and navigators and engineers on all levels, even the deck boy.

“After that everything changed. In the 1990s a lot of Danish shipyards closed and there were big changes in the maritime industry. Hopefully we’ll see it coming back now though.”

Although Nella Dan was considered state-of-the-art at the time, with its fresh water generator and dishwasher, it was tiny in comparison to RSV Nuyina and its facilities were basic. 

Nella Dan was just 75.5 metres long – compared to Nuyina's 160.3 metres – and could travel at 12.5 knots (Nuyina's maximum speed is 16). The Dan ship had capacity for 42 passengers while Nuyina can carry 115.

RSV Nuyina is built specifically as a scientific research ship and has a sea ice staging area, science operations room and cool, cold and frozen stores.