John Biscoe

From the brush of David Bray

Sea Breezes Article: John Biscoe, off South Georgia
John Biscoe off South Georgia
John Biscoe, off South Georgia

Biscoe Days

I first went to sea as Cadet with Ellerman City Line in 1965, aged 16. Ellermans operated a fleet of cargo liners on world-wide routes. Completing my cadetship in 1969, I passed my 2nd Mates Certificate, and sailed as Third Mate, rising to Second Mate after passing my First Mate’s Certificate in 1971. By 1972 I was looking for a new challenge, and I answered an advert for a Second Officer in the British Antarctic Survey. Called to interview by Captain Tom Woodfield in Southampton, on board the brand-new Antarctic research vessel “Bransfield”, I was thrilled to be informed that I had got the job, but less than thrilled to discover that the post was on board the elderly “John Biscoe”, not the state-of-the-art “Bransfield”. I found “Biscoe” in dry-dock looking very sorry for herself.

Over the next week she began to take on a more workmanlike appearance, as she completed her refit and prepared for her forthcoming voyage to Antarctica.

RRS “John Biscoe” was a small, ice-strengthened cargo vessel of about 1500 tons, length 220ft, built in 1956. She had accommodation for 28 crew plus a further 28 “Fids”. Up until 1969 the organisation was known as the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey, or FIDS. All Antarctic base personnel; scientists and support staff were known as “fids” and the acronym has stuck to this day. Between 1972 and 1975, I completed three annual voyages South, sailing as Second Officer.

Her tasks included the relief and re-supply of the various research bases located in the British sector of Antarctica and sub-Antarctica. At the time, bases were located at Stonington, Adelaide Island, the Argentine Islands, Signy in the South Orkneys, and on South Georgia. One further base was Halley Bay, in the Weddell Sea, but the Halley relief was always carried out by the “Bransfield”. Our Southern headquarters was at Stanley, in the Falkland Islands, which was our port of registry. We flew the defaced blue ensign of the Falkland Islands.

When not engaged on re-supply, “Biscoe” would be tasked to support a variety of ship-based research programmes of which more later.

In many ways, my job as 2nd Mate was similar to that in cargo liners. I kept the 12-to-4 watch on the bridge, and was responsible for charts and navigational outfit. But the ship was much smaller than what I was accustomed to, and so was my cabin! However, once into the Antarctic, the work was very different, and very hands-on for everybody. The base at King Edward Point, South Georgia had a small, very rickety jetty, which we could lay alongside for offloading “cargo” (base stores and supplies); all other bases were anchorages, and cargo was worked onto open beaches by boat.

We carried two boats for this work. Stowed on the port side of the foredeck was a 30ft wooden-construction flat-bottomed barge known as the Scow, able to carry about 7 tons. Stowed inside the Scow was a 24ft diesel launch, used as a general workboat, and to tow the Scow. Neither of these boats had names; they were just “the Scow” and “the Launch”. These boats were launched and recovered using the portside 10 ton derrick on the foremast. One of the ABs was designated “launchman”, and it was his responsibility to look after the boat, and to drive it when working. We also carried three Gemini craft for beach landings and other work. Geminis are 16ft inflatable craft powered by 40hp Evinrude outboards.

Cargo was handled manually, with Fids and crew fully involved. It was hard work, and often weather-dependent. Often, on a beach, cargo was passed hand-to-hand from the scow to a growing stack on the beach. After all was safely ashore, we would then assist carrying the crates up the beach to the base. Vital and most important items were offloaded first, in case the ship was forced out of the anchorage by ice or weather, and unable to return.

The ship was manned by Master, First, Second and Third Mates, Chief, Second and Third Engineers, Electrician, Sparks (Radio Officer) and Chief Steward. A majority of the deck and engineroom ratings were Falkland islanders.

A typical voyage would commence with the vessel leaving the UK in the first week of September, taking about a month to reach Stanley via Montevideo in Uruguay. Home port in the UK was Southampton, at the time of which I refer. UK refit work was carried out at Vosper Thorneycrofts, Northam, or at Husband’s shipyard at Marchwood.

From Stanley, the first task of the season was to head South to establish an air depôt on Doumer Island. This was a diversion airstrip for the two DH Twin Otter aircraft operated by the Survey. These aircraft wintered in Canada, and flew South for the operational summer season, being based on Adelaide Island. After the long crossing of the Drake Passage from South America, they required an alternative landing site in the event of Adelaide Island being untenable due to weather.

Anchoring off Doumer Island, drums of Avgas and other essential supplies were landed from the scow, and manhandled to the plateau at the high point of the island. Twin Otters can operate on wheels or skis, and Doumer Island is flat and snow covered. I don’t think the diversion strip was needed during my time with BAS.

Returning to Stanley, our next foray would be to South Georgia, a sub-Antarctic island. The BAS base was established at King Edward Point, opposite the abandoned whaling station of Grytviken. Here, the ship could lie alongside for the offloading of cargo. Once that was complete, the vessel provided support for a variety of scientific projects.

A number of field parties of geologists, ornathologists and the like needed to be deployed to their field sites. These would consist of two to four scientists, with camping equipment for about six weeks. These would be put ashore in their planned locations by Gemini craft.

About two weeks of each season was taken supporting the Botanical survey. Working our way along the extensive coastline of South Georgia, botanists were landed on every accessible beach to collect plant samples. For this task we used two of the Gemini craft, with myself and the Third Mate running the boats. During my three seasons I landed on about every possible location on the remote South coast of South Georgia. We became quite skilled at the seamanship required for this work, with one eye continually on the weather. We were very aware of the fact that we were effectively on our own, with no recourse to the RNLI or similar.

Another project occupying about ten days was the Benthic Survey. The vessel would be taken to a position maybe ten miles offshore, in between 100 and 200 fathom of water. While the ship drifted, bottom samples were taken by lowering a grab sampler on the end of a long rope from the starboard derrick. It was a long, wet, tedious job lowering then recovering the grab, only to find on occasion that it hadn’t triggered on contacting the sea floor, and no sample had been collected ( “Bless me”). The scientists would sort and riddle the sample for marine life. To me it was just mud! We would also lower a small beam-trawl to the bottom, and drift with it for about 20 minutes. We would work two or three locations every day. One discovery was Spider crabs, not found in this area hitherto.

Christmas usually found us alongside at King Edward Point. On occasion we would meet up with either “Bransfield” or HMS “Endurance”, the Royal Navy ice patrol vessel. Socialising with their complement provided a welcome diversion from work.

Back at Stanley, we would prepare for the next phase of our voyage; the relief and re-supply of the bases on the Antarctic Peninsula (Grahamland), and the South Orkneys. Located on the latter was the marine biology base on Signy Island. Here, in addition to base supplies and FIDs we supported a squad of builders constructing a new slipway and boathouse. 

Then South to the peninsula, with the bases at Adelaide Island, the Argentine Islands, and Stonington Island to be supplied. All these locations were anchorages, all cargo and personnel transported by boat. Lots of hard work lifting-and-shifting, with always one eye on the weather. On occasion the anchor had to be picked up in a hurry due to a large berg drifting down on us.

Navigationally, the officer on watch had to be extra vigilant. The waters in which we were working were poorly surveyed, and we had to keep a close eye on the echo-sounder when under way. If the bottom was coming up fast, speed was reduced quickly. Tell-tale signs were observed, such as the occasional breaking wave in a swell, indicating a shoal patch that wasn’t on the chart. Indeed, some of our Admiralty charts were annotated as being compiled from information provided by my predecessors in the “John Biscoe”.

We were reliant upon radar, especially toward the end of the season when a lot of work was in the hours of darkness. Icebergs don’t carry lights! Our biggest asset, however, was our forward-facing searchlight. This would show up floating ice quite clearly, sometimes with no indication on the radar. We had no autopilot; there was a man on the wheel all the time. As he was always looking “where he was going”, the combination of manual steering with searchlight was very effective. Pity they didn’t have such on the “Titanic”! When on passage we would maintain records of positions and soundings to add to our patchy knowledge of the sea floor topography.

It was interesting work. Sometimes cold and wet, usually very hard work, but very satisfying. Something of a contrast to the life of an officer in a conventional cargo ship.

Occasionally things wouldn’t go according to plan; there is always the unexpected. In January of 1974, we were heading South across Drake passage when we had a major medical emergency to contend with. In atrocious weather conditions, I was called at about 10pm to be told the Chief Cook was seriously ill. We carried no doctor, indeed, the nearest medical assistance was hundreds of miles away. Chief Cook Trevor Morris had a severe internal haemorrhage, and was losing blood fast. I was the officer in charge of the medical locker, so it was my responsibility. Receiving radio advice from a doctor aboard “Bransfield”, a thousand miles away in the Weddell Sea, we started giving Trevor saline via intravenous drip. Sparks had established that the Argentine vessel “Bahia Paraiso” was anchored in Admiralty Bay in the South Shetland islands, and carried a doctor. However, she was over 24 hours away at our best speed (12 knots). We turned the wick up.

Over the next hours, Trevor’s condition deteriorated markedly. I was told I was going to have to give him a blood transfusion! Testing established Trevor’s blood group as  O-negative, so I had to find a donor. Eventually, one of the embarked Fids tested O-negative. Under instructions from the “Bransfield” doctor, I managed to obtain blood from the donor and add it to the drip. It didn’t help. Later that day he was having major relapses, with no signs of life. Then he would recover. We used oxygen to keep him going, but eventually ran out of oxygen. Then somebody remembered that we had big cylinders of industrial oxygen in the hold, part of the cargo. Quickly, crew located a cylinder, and hauled it to the deck and into the accommodation. The connection didn’t fit the oxygen set, so our engineers turned up a fitting on the lathe so we could connect this huge cylinder to the face mask. No reducing valve; we gently cracked the valve open by hand to give him oxygen, and it worked.

But he was still going downhill fast. Our ETA Admiralty Bay was going to be too late! We requested the doctor come toward us. Embarking in the support ship “Bahia Paraiso”, they sailed to an open-ocean rendezvous with us late that night. Hove-to half a mile  from her in tremendous seas and darkness, our Third Mate took away a Gemini, and brought the doctor across. Epic seamanship or what?

Once back alongside with doctor, the Gemini was hoisted bodily out of the water with everybody on board, and dumped on the deck. The doctor looked as if he needed to see a doctor! But I grabbed him and led him to Trevor. I went to bed..a place I hadn’t seen for a long time!

Next morning we were anchored in Admiralty Bay. Trevor had been stabilised, and was being transferred to the Argentine ship, which took him to Punta Arenas. There an Argentine naval aircraft took him to Buenos Aries, where he was hospitalised. He died there three weeks later.

And after all that, we found ourselves fighting a stupid war with Argentina a few years later.

The final stage of every voyage was a courtesy visit to the various foreign bases in the area. Then early March, we head North for home.

All of this was more than 45 years ago. BAS operations today are a world away from my “Biscoe” days. Our experiences were more akin to those of Shackleton and Scott than to those of today. “John Biscoe” is long gone, and her successor is at the end of her career. I was privileged to attend the naming ceremony of the new ship “Sir David Attenborough” in Lairds yard at Birkenhead in 2019. Unfortunately, the position of Second Mate had been filled!

This article, and others,  follow a series which Sea Breezes magazine is publishing, featuring David’s paintings, and the stories behind them.