Saturday 22nd Sep, 2018

THE SHIPPING LIFE: Antartica-bound


Captain Harry Mansson AM is a Master Mariner, a retired ship’s Captain, with a subsequent varied background as an international consultant to the United Nations/World Bank to a shipping management entrepreneur. He has enjoyed a stellar career at sea and onshore.

Starting with the Swedish Merchant Navy, he also served as an officer in the Swedish Royal Navy sweeping active mines. In 1972 he established Orient Shipping Services Pty Ltd as the general agent for the entry of the Orient Overseas Line (now OOCL) into the Asia/ Australia trade. In 1993 he was deservedly awarded the Order of Australia for services to shipping and international trade.

Post retirement speeches

OCCASIONALLY I am being told that my civic obligations include giving some presentation for various people about my seafaring history. A memorable one was forced upon me by our daughter Michelle, who is a manager at a retirement village and had promised the ‘inmates’ that I would give a lunchtime address. Without my permission but now “too late to back out” (from what, when I had never gone “in” in the first place), so I was told. My audience included ladies who had had their hair made up for the occasion. And all the gents in suits and ties.

My role called for my full Captain’s uniform, startling my neighbours. The show went well enough, sort of careening through the Seven Seas, but one particular fellow with open mouth couldn’t take his eyes off me. Perhaps the group Einstein who would have brilliant questions? At the end of a speech covering the Seven Seas I signed off. My Einstein pointed to my uniform’s four stripes and asked: “How long did you say you worked for Qantas?”

Seafaring extraordinaire to help climatic knowledge and seafaring safety

Not all my seaman’s and “shipping life” was lived out on or with cargo or navy ships. Some, still associated with that business, involved more adventurous projects with small craft. International shipping has long suffered from the lack of meteorological information enabling it to make more use of Great Circle (saving huge distances following the globe) navigation through the Southern Oceans. Any airline traveller from Sydney to Durban siting on the Port side can watch the Antarctic icebergs visible from the deep end of the Circle, and the aircraft is not affected by surface weather. For shipping, the risk of atrocious weather often cuts the Great Circle off at a higher latitude, where the travel then turns into purely East/West or v.v. until it picks up the Circle again where it is crossing the latitude going north. The result is cost in time and fuel to pay for extra safety due to the lack of weather info. Think Durban/Sydney, Melbourne/Cape Horn, Buenos Aires/Cape Town.

Joining “Expedition Icebound” to Antarctica 1999

Hopefully, this expedition would play a small but important role in improving meteorological science for the Southern Ocean. In 1999 I responded to an invitation to ‘volunteer’ as a crew member on the 59ft sailing yacht “Spirit of Sydney”, engine power about 4 HP to help us rattling in and out of a few marinas en route. She was to sail from Sydney the day after that year’s fatal Boxing Day Sydney to Hobart Race start, stopover at Hobart and then proceed to Cape Denison at Commonwealth Bay in Antarctica, where the famous Mawson’s Huts are located.

The mission

Our crew of eight was to install computerised transmitters at the huts for the sending of daily signals to Canberra about the Ozone-layer’s hole changes plus some weather prognosis details. Included was the senior Antarctic expert from the Australian Museum, Steve Martin, a sterling chap. There was no financial reward to anyone for this service by us good Aussies, which would have been handy to offset the $10,000 per person charge for the pleasure. The organisers demanded two separate medical examinations, both of which had to be fully passed. No insurance cover of any kind was available for any of us, due to the considered high risk of the venture.

The trip

The boat was aluminium-hulled with no heating, and in Antarctica up to 1cm thick ice would form on the inside of the hull facing e.g. the bunks and their inmates. The crew was of all ages with myself as the senior at 61, probably accepted due to some induced seamanship, navigational and weather skills, plus the adventurous background as a ship’s medical quack. Having one huge mast, the boat carried mainsail and headsail only.

Watches were in twos, and I was fortunate in being teamed up with Guy Manthorpe, a South Australian commercial fishing expert and keen sailor. The others were a mixed bag of ages, most with some kind of sailing experience, but none from the Southern Ocean apart from our 28-year old skipper. We also carried the Mr/Mrs Claypole Adelaide schoolteacher couple, who were to (now pay attention) spend a full year on location living in a custom-built fibreglass hut, measuring about 4×5 m, anchored down with steel wires onto the rocks. It would be fitted with generator, and supplied with fuel and food for one year. They would be in daily email touch with their SA schoolkids, writing about their observations and concerns.

Sailing the Southern Ocean in an unheated boat is never the ultimate in comfort. With the bunks exposed to the living area, there was never much peace with atrocious rock music belting away and the doubtful smells from the equally open galley intruding. The winds and seas lived up to their reputation, and all crew had to be on rope whenever near or on the outside. Daily average speeds varied from three to eight knots, and often a look on the chart after the daily GPS plot would make some wonder “if we will ever get there”. Our incoming weather reports were mainly from the Australian Casey Base (south of Africa) on a 3-day frequency and with the Antarctic on the size of a postcard. Hopefully our work would change all that somewhat. My shipmates put on a nice 61st birthday party and sang for me, cake and tea. I was allowed to pick the music that day, creating much groaning from the young ‘uns.


The sight of the first iceberg was a cause for much joy. As we got closer the magnitude of the whole continent slowly emerged and fascinated, the horizon dominated by a hundreds of meters high wall of ice and in between thousands of icebergs, some near the size of Tasmania, we were told. My regular best contribution to the sailing was as a helmsman, since I seem to have a knack of it and certainly love to control the beast in strong winds. My watch-mate Guy Manthorpe, a fishing executive and keen sailor from South Australia, and I got along famously, really a must on such a trip. Together we developed a sense of how to place the “Spirit” at a close wind angle of maybe 6 degrees and leave it there in its ‘rut’ with no movement of the wheel, but our hands hovering over it to catch it if needed in a second. In this manner and myself in charge we did what was called by others in the log book “Harry the Speed Freak reached 26 knots today”. In 50knot winds. Guy and I shared the fascination with the sea, passing through it, careful navigation and responsibility coupled with the total respect this element demands. Much of our watch work demanded the use of cylindrical plexiglass face masks to prevent frostbite on the face, but which impaired visibility, crucial in iceberg territory!

We had some hard tacking the few hours before arrival, and I was childishly proud when our skipper, less than half my age, called out “I love your work, Harry”. I felt like a happy schoolkid receiving compliments from his teacher, that’s how important it seemed to me to be a good “sail-sailor” on top of “the other”.

Finally, we were off Cape Denison and switched on the small engine to bring us inside through the natural entrance into the small bay adjoining the Mawson’s Huts.

As instructed from base we were to tie up with eight separate ropes in all directions using suitable rocks ashore (“your lives will depend on it”), using our Zodiac, which took us 24 hours. There was permanent daylight, but at the end everyone was totally exhausted, and an incredible sleep period of eleven hours ensued, snoring being the only sound from inside! The daily time lost its significance; breakfast could be had at 1500 hrs depending on the sleepers.

During our 12 days there, we spent time preparing the computer transmission, establishing the Claypole Hut, fighting off unhappy seals, cuddling up to the thousands of penguins inspecting us at close range, and us inspecting their noisy and smelly nursing rock plateau with their thousands of brown floss babies. Taking care with cranky Weddell seals, faster than you think and with their bites inviting fatal infections.

We also spent time being fascinated by the inside of the Mawson’s Huts, having been left very much the way it was: can of Keen’s Mustard, smoking pipes, newspapers, cutlery, sleeping bunks with initials carved in, like by world famous team photographer Frank Hurley.

All this from the 1911-1914 Expedition. And we inspected the graves of Lt Bellgrave Ninnis and Dr Xavier Mertz, both who had died from being poisoned by eating the livers of their dogs in order to avoid starving to death, their resting place on top of the hill overlooking and endless ice wall to the west. Ourselves, we didn’t need any fear of starvation, but we suffered somewhat unnecessarily from the most unimaginative set of provisions that we had been supplied with. If you are a fan of canned baked beans and crisp bread, and cannot stand any other cheese than Edam, the “Spirit” was the way to go. Furthermore, the conditions often called for a small drink in celebration of some trivia that enhanced our day of hardship, but the boat was free of alcohol due to its owners’ persuasions. The beans supply was for two years, in case we got frozen-in or stranded due to a screw-drive-ice sunken boat. It wouldn’t be the first one in Antarctica, Shackleton’s expedition being just one of many coping with such a disaster.

From the print edition August 10, 2017

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