THE captain of a Portsmouth-based warship has told of a dramatic race against time as a closing ‘trap door’ of ice threatened to leave his ship and a team of British scientists stranded in Antarctica.
HMS Protector made a dash to safety after the weather took a turn for the worse during a recent visit to James Ross Island off the eastern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula.
The navy’s on-loan ice breaker picked up four scientists working in the area before punching through a dangerous 12ft-thick pack of ice at night as a storm threatened to block her path to open water.
Captain Peter Sparkes, of Knowle, Fareham, said: ‘It was like navigating Hampton Court maze in the dark with a miner’s lamp on.
‘In front of us there was a trap door of very thick glacial ice which we could predict was going to build up and close the entrance.’
It took the ship 24 hours to break through 38 miles of ice and into open water, Capt Sparkes said.
‘It was excruciatingly slow but also very exhilarating. We were pushing through ice which at points was four metres thick. We were just pushing it out of the way.’
Just four days before, Protector had broken the same ice to visit James Ross Island and drop off four climate change scientists from the British Antarctic Survey who had enough supplies to last 30 days.
But with the weather charts spelling danger, Capt Sparkes ordered the ship to turn back early.
No sooner had the scientists been recovered using Protector’s small boats, ice from the Weddell Sea was being driven towards their position – potentially blocking Protector in ‘like a cork in a bottle’.
The ice-breaker fought through the ice, out of Terror Gulf and back into the open seas with not much time to spare, said Capt Sparkes.
He said: ‘We got out just in time. The entrance to the sound shut behind us about six hours after we got through. There’s another ship still stuck there two weeks later and that could have easily been us.’
The commanding officer praised his 75-strong crew and his ship’s technology for the escape.
He said: ‘We have very good satellite imagery. We could see what was coming in and that was going to potentially pose a risk to us. Fortunately it was spot on and we were able to get out of there.’
The incident earlier this month came shortly after Protector’s sailors fought a major fire at an Antarctic research station which claimed the lives of two Brazilians.
Twenty-three sailors from the warship used their firefighting equipment for more than four hours to extinguish the blaze at Brazil’s Ferraz research station.
Protector is currently at rest in the Falkland Islands before returning to the Antarctic for the third and final time of a nine-month deployment which ends in July.