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Why Did The Akademik Leave It Too Late?

January 8, 2014
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By Paul Homewood

 

Akademik Shokalskiy, 27 Dec

 

Now that the Akademik Shokalskiy has begun to move to safety, it is time for some serious questions to be asked.

Australian authorities have said that any inquiry into how the Shokalskiy came to be stranded would have to be conducted by Russian authorities, as it is a Russian ship.

One of the questions, they may want to consider, is just what those in charge knew about the deteriorating weather conditions, and why they did not move out of danger earlier. (OK, yes I know, that’s two questions!)

 

On 23rd December, the ship was at the western edge of the Mertz glacier, having sailed from Cape Denison to the west. Janet Rice, the Green’s Senator Elect for Victoria, who was on board, takes up the story on her blog.

This is the entry for Dec 23rd.

We were out in similar conditions this afternoon. Somewhat brighter – in fact there was blue sky and sunshine for some periods. The weather has been better than the forecast blizzard, so that was good.

We had another fabulous day, albeit with a few mishaps. We made the continent! Or almost! To one of Hodgeman’s Islets west of the Mertz Glacier. It may or may not have been connected to the mainland. Regardless, it was made of rock!

It was an 8km journey from the ship, traversed by Argo, quad bike and skis. The surface was firm – a pleasant change from the previous few trips. Steve and Peter the skiers described it as being like skiing on an ice rink. The Argo journey was however still something to endure rather than enjoy.

 

This account also bears out the blog post of Chris Turney’s son Robbie, who also made the same trip ashore.

 

 

So, we learn that there had been warnings of blizzards, yet nevertheless a tourist party was allowed to go ashore, and traverse across the ice to the shore, some 8km away. If they had had to be recalled in an emergency, presumably it would have taken the best part of an hour to get them back, plus the time needed to ferry them and the Argos back on board.

Worse still, as Robbie relates, there were actually three convoys of Argos, so getting them all back on board would have taken some time.

This in itself seems utterly irresponsible. Even though conditions were good at the time, it is well known just how quickly things can change in Antarctica. With blizzards in the forecast, it appears even more crazy.

Even if they felt the tourists could be brought back to ship quickly enough, if conditions worsened, there was still the issue of getting the ship out of danger.

By late afternoon, the ship’s captain was becoming extremely concerned. Back to Janet Rice.

 

The first drama of the day was the sinking – or almost! – of one of the Argos. The Argos are designed to be amphibious – just. They were launched today off the ship – and two of the three made it safely being towed by a zodiac the 50 metres or so to shore. The third was towed too fast it seems – and water came over the bonnet / bow, flooding both the engine and the vehicle itself. Ben tried in vain to bail out with a spade and luckily they made it to shore before the vehicle sunk entirely. Ben ended up rather wet too, but similarly to Mary, not submerged enough for the lifejacket to come into play. Sadly Argo engines don’t take too kindly to being submerged… the ships engineers are still working on it and not very optimistic about its prospects.

The third drama of the day is the one which is still unfolding. Because of the Argo mishap we got off late, and had one less vehicle to ferry people to and fro. I’m told the Captain was becoming rather definite late in the afternoon that we needed to get everyone back on board ASAP because of the coming weather and the ice closing in. As I write we are continuing to make extremely slow progress through what looks like a winter alpine snow field – it’s yet another surreal part of this journey that we are in a ship trying to barge our way through here! I’m sure the Captain would have been much happier if we had got away a few hours earlier. Maybe we would have made it through the worst before it consolidated as much as it has with the very cold south- easterly winds blowing the ice away from the coast, around and behind us as well as ahead.

 

Within hours of the embarkation, the vessel was struggling to escape through thick ice, and by 9.30 the next morning was completely stuck.

The whole episode smacks of gross negligence. In theory, it is the ship’s master who bears ultimate responsibility, but was he put under undue pressure to sail into the area in the first place?  What advice did the captain give to the expedition leaders?

Who made the decision to allow anybody, and particularly tourists, to not only leave the ship, but to travel 8km away from it?

And did the captain ask for the shore parties to return to ship before they actually did?

 

I suspect the lawyers will be kept busy! What is absolutely is that those responsible won’t get away with blaming it on bad luck.

8 Comments
  1. January 8, 2014 2:51 pm

    I guess the real key question is the one “What advice…”. If they captain did not impress upon them that he was the master and that his word was law, I can see where they kids would not have taken him seriously. If he did impress upon them, then it made no difference, but at least the responsibility is all Turney’s.

  2. January 8, 2014 3:54 pm

    Considering WUWT & Weatherbell provided an accurate forecast within 24 hours of request, that the weather would ease up within 10 days, was the expense, inconvenience to others, and, the enormous amount of extra CO2 generated in the over-hasty rescue, worthwhile?

    Were Turney’s Tourists ever in any danger to life and limb???

  3. January 8, 2014 6:02 pm

    I’ve been extensively researching (and preserving) all the blog entries, tweets, and interviews from the passengers and Mr. Turney from the trip. Seems to me that because they had to anchor the ship in the Commonwealth Bay area much further from Mawson’s huts than they wanted to, the trip to and from the huts took longer than they had thought and kept many of the scientists and “along-for-the-ride” passengers from actually setting foot on the continent.

    “We made the continent! Or almost! To one of Hodgeman’s Islets west of the Mertz Glacier. It may or may not have been connected to the mainland. Regardless, it was made of rock!”

    This comment from Janet seems to indicate that she was VERY excited about “making the continent”, setting foot on LAND in Antarctica. I know I would have been very disappointed if I had paid for a trip of this nature, scientists or tourist, and NOT actually been able to go ashore on the continent itself. Plus, Mr. Turney makes it clear that they wanted “samples” from another location on land to “compare to the ones they took in Commonwealth Bay”-hard to prove that conditions in the Bay are declining due to being blocked by a glacier and sea ice for the past 3-4 years if you don’t have some “control” samples from the area to compare them to right?

    So, my theory is that the weather was turning and they knew it. They had used up the clear weather window with the trip to Mawson’s huts, and because it took so much longer than they’d hoped, many people who wanted to, and many scientists who needed to, get to shore never got the chance. With a blizzard quickly closing in, they leave Commonwealth Bay and sail East hoping to find a place to anchor, get to shore, take some samples and let the rest of the people who wanted to go to shore actually set foot on land. I imagine the Captain said something along the lines of “make it snappy folks…weather is coming and any clear shot out of the incoming ice is closing fast”.

    It takes too long to get on shore because of the Argo issue. They have less transportation around on shore because of the Argo issue. Any scientist is going to want to get as MUCH done, and collect as much evidence as possible, because these chances are so rare and difficult to accomplish in the first place. The weather comes in, they attempt to get back on board as quickly as possible, but in those conditions, FAST is really very slow. The Captain becomes MORE insistent, get back on the ship! According to Janet, they left HOURS after she felt the Captain wanted them to. And as of her writing, the ship is already in trouble. She says the next morning that the ship “moved less than a kilometer” over night.

    Chris Turney’s story that there was some kind of massive break out of ice that came out of nowhere and trapped them is pure spin. Even if there HAD been a massive break out of fast/multiyear ice from the other side of Mertz Glacier, they would have been able to see it coming with real time satellite feed images. And they KNEW that bad weather was coming in BEFORE they headed East to Watt Bay and the Hodgeman Islets. Whether it was “for Science” or for “tourists” or for anything….the decision to attempt to get on shore with those conditions coming was a risky and stupid decision that could have ended far more dangerously than it did. They are truly lucky that no one was hurt and that the boat wasn’t crushed or sunk like those have in recent years.

  4. January 8, 2014 6:11 pm

    Joe,
    I don’t believe the tourists were in danger to life or limb. I DO believe that there were limited supplies on board and that not knowing how LONG they could be stuck there, it was wise to remove as many people as possible from the ship for food/water reasons, as well as there being the risk, no matter how slight, that the hull of the ship could buckle or be breached by the ice crushing it. In such an event, rescuing 74 people quickly would have been a much more dangerous and horrific mission than having to rescue 24.

    I think that people who actually KNOW the dangers and the possibilities and the insanely unstable conditions there made the right choice to get as many people off the ship as possible, as a precaution in case things got worse. Luckily, they didn’t. But if they had left them there, and things HAD turned out worse, then people would have been asking “Why didn’t they get them off the boat when they had the chance?” The ultimate safety of all involved is ALWAYS the most important criteria in extreme, wild, unknown situations-and it’s all about reducing the risks as much as possible.

    Chris Turney obviously either didn’t KNOW that criteria, or ignored it, and he’s responsible for his decisions either way.

  5. January 9, 2014 12:33 am

    Thanks Paul. Good article.
    As former skipper and charter boat crew I cannot see how the captain could have abdicated his responsibility to the charterers.
    If he caved-in to avoid mutiny this would at best be extenuating, not exculpating.
    The law of the sea is harsh. Dura lex, sed lex.

  6. Brian H permalink
    January 9, 2014 3:40 am

    If the captain is pushed to the wall, I wonder what he’ll have to say about his Christmas menu of Turkey and Rice.

  7. January 9, 2014 9:37 am

    It’s worth noting that the Rice blog entry for Dec 22nd said
    “Ah it must be because the days are now getting shorter that the weather has changed! There’s a blizzard on the way apparently!”

    On the more general question of who is really in charge and responsible, it’s important to remember that the Russians who are running the ship are being paid huge sums of cash by the western scientists and tourists on board.

  8. Brian H permalink
    January 10, 2014 10:04 am

    One day past the solstice and the shorter day caused a blizzard? Where’d she get her meteorology degree, Lower Podunk Community College?

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