Southward at Last

Ross writes from SA Agulhas:

2007/12/08, Aboard SA Agulhas, S 42° E 08°

It has been three full days aboard the Agulhas now, and I am settling to the rhythm of shipboard life. The days are full of opportunity, and I haven’t had a moment of boredom; in fact, it’s often a tough choice what to do next. Part of this is because of my duties as the ship’s doctor – I have been busier than I expected – but mostly it is because there is always some activity beaconing. Most often, you will find me on the monkey deck, the highest on the ship, above the bridge. Camera and binoculars in attendance, this is my favourite spot. There is a constant parade of seabirds, the occasional albatross, one sighting of a pod of Minke Whales, and always the mesmerising ocean and sky to gaze out upon. The stiff breeze is filled with vigour and promise of adventure, and a warm jacket is sufficient to enjoy it for hours. I’m continuing my reading of Amundsen’s successful expedition to the Pole, and often the tales of tribulation in his preparation bring a wry smile to my lips, having felt to a small degree the same worries.

After the lengthy delays of our departure from the harbour at Cape Town it was almost a relief to wave goodbye as we steamed out beyond the breakwater. The last sight of loved ones, desperately seeking them out in the crowd, was like a little barbed hook tearing loose: painful, but with the promise of healing. We did not begin our southward journey immediately, however. To await one of our smaller helicopters (equipped with a medical transport layout) we had to wait the night in Table Bay, moored in sight of shore but a world apart. Many of the summer team members had brought mobile phones with them, but I resisted the urge to call home. Like Bilbo, I had taken my first step, and the journey was begun. The sea on the first night was very calm, but still I had some customers knocking on my cabin door, queasy and apologetic. On the morning of the 5th at first light the remaining helicopter arrived, and was placed in the hanger, allowing our big bird – the Kamov helicopter – to be brought onboard. While she was being secured we pulled anchor and set a course due west, into the open sea. This course we held without any progress south until reaching 16°E, where we turned southwest. The roundabout route surprised me, but is due to the oceanographic studies being done onboard. We will continue southwest until meeting the Greenwich Meridian at 51°S, and then follow the Meridian until reaching the ice. This will be sooner than expected, as the pack is still very thick for this time of year. More than 600 nautical miles of ice await us – more than the distance we have travelled in three days in open water.

The ship is packed to the brim with interesting characters. Amongst them, I’ve discovered another Hofmeyr, Greg, who is a seal biologist on the Bouvet expedition. He is also a wealth of information on the birdlife around the ship, and has pointed out several species of prion, seagull, gannet, petrel and albatross. Both avid readers of the stories of the epic expeditions, we have shared musings about the strengths and weaknesses of Scott, Amundsen, Cook, Peary, Shackleton, etc. The Bouvet medic is Petrus Kritzinger, an ex-ops-medic and veteran island-hopper who has wintered over at both Marion and Gough Islands before. He’s a wealth of information on the common medical ailments of the winter teams, and has re-asserted the fact that dentistry is one of the major occupations for the over wintering medic. Petrus and the second officer will be my able assistants should there be a major medical emergency aboard.

Finding interesting conversation is superlatively easy – amongst the science teams we have oceanographers, astrophysicists, geologists, geodesists, a geographer, meteorologists, cosmic ray, space and other physicists, geomagnetic scientists, engineers of all types, and more. If I decide to follow Einstein, decide that’s all detail, and just want to know God’s thoughts, we have a chaplain. We have two film crews and an artist-in-residence. There is an entire team for our three choppers, including a plethora of pilots and equal engineering expertise. We also have a large team of maintenance personnel for the base from the Public Works department, and a team of drivers and engineers for the SnoCats. Mealtimes and the evening’s frivolity in the bar are a pleasure, as one can end up sharing a table with any combination of the above characters.

The hospital, too, is an excellent place to meet people. Of the 79 passengers and 41 crew, I have now had more than 50 consultations in the three days at sea. As the ship steams southwest to the meridian in choppy swells she pitches and rolls gently, never more than 10 degrees, but sitting in the hospital the movement is sufficient to bring creaks from the cupboards and heavy anaesthetic machine where it is secured to a bulkhead, and also sufficient to bring a steady parade of patients. Minor complaints drift in – seasickness predominant, but so too is day-to-day general practice: coughs and colds, minor trauma, skin lesions, infections, even conditions of the mind. One unfortunate passenger has discovered he suffers agoraphobia, with genuine anxiety attacks, in the empty expanse of the southern ocean. Quite literally, I have had representation from every rank and team from the stewards to the Captain pass through the clinics, which I hold daily, morning and evening.

Well-stocked and orderly, the hospital initially felt quite small, but I have become accustomed to this new domain, and it begins to take on a semblance of familiarity. Two rooms are separated by a short passage that forms the entrance hall, from which a bathroom with one of the ship’s only two baths is accessible. The aft room is the sick bay, with three beds, oxygen cylinder bank, rescue stretchers and the mobile x-ray machine. The x-ray machine uses a digital plate, linked an adjacent computer, from which the images are immediately visible. Forward of the short passage is the theatre and consulting room, packed literally to the ceiling with equipment shelves and cupboards. The centre of the room is occupied by a theatre table, which doubles as dentist’s chair and examination bed. Two portholes look out upon the waves streaming past – a great view for the anaesthetist, should he exist and have space to sit at the patient’s head. The anaesthetic machine is a modern model, simple but multifunctional, with attendant flat-paned monitors and ventilator. A halothane vaporiser stands waiting to be filled; gas supply is limited to oxygen from the bank and a nitrous oxide cylinder. Cupboards against the forward bulkhead hold all manner of medications, while the surgical equipment (limited to a single thoracic tray, abdominal tray and minor equipment sets) is stashed in a cupboard below the fridge. Beside the door hang a jump-bag and portable oxygen cylinder for emergencies, with the sobering addition of a life-jacket and immersion suit for the doctor. My laptop usually lies open on the small desk in the surgery, capturing patient notes into a spreadsheet for simple record-keeping; more complex cases get transformed into full clinical notes for the ship’s medical file. Over the desk is a miscellany of books: surgical atlases, equipment manuals, drug formularies. It is immensely satisfying to practice clinical medicine again: to see patients from the second they present, listen, examine, diagnose and treat straight from my little pharmacy. Follow-ups are often a brief word at dinner or while watching an albatross above decks – accompanied by the pleasure of watching people get well again. My faith in medicine is restored.

As the ship’s doctor, I have the privilege of a cabin to myself, which is unheard of amongst the passengers. It’s a well-appointed and cosy corner on the port side just forward of the helicopter hanger, with easy access to the main stairwell, an adjacent door to the outer deck ladder leading up to the bridge, and in close proximity to the small library. I have a bunk, desk, en-suite toilet with shower and plenty of storage space. For company, I often take my computer or files to the library, where there are always several of the more academically inclined busy on laptops, generating reports, reading studies, or tweaking photographs. The sense of purpose and camaraderie is ubiquitous in these gatherings, and topics of conversation are broad, from the scientific to the trivial. A current favourite is the weather. Yesterday, as we steamed towards 40° south, we passed through the South Atlantic High, and the wind dropped to zero. The sea took on a glassy appearance, sunlight sparkled, and the air was clear. Many rejoiced in the good weather and particularly the steadiness of the ship, but I couldn’t shake a sense of foreboding, which I shared with the Captain on a visit to the bridge. His remark, of course, was “The calm before the storm.” The synoptic shows a significant low pressure (952 millibar) directly on our path down to Bouvet Island. We’re expecting 6 meter swells by tomorrow morning, with progressive worsening throughout the day. The weather service, when pushed, hazarded a guess at a 12 meter peak with 80 knot winds. The Roaring Forties are taking a deep breath, and planning to live up to their name. I can barely contain my excitement. But perhaps that is a better influence on the nervous members of the team than dread.

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