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Saturday, 22 December, 2001, 10:44 GMT
It will be all white - eventually
McGourty, BBC
Our correspondent gets to know the locals
So what do you do when you get stuck in the Antarctic ice and the ship's captain says the water must be rationed? Christine McGourty, our science correspondent, reflects on her "Shackleton moment"

In all the months of planning my trip to Antarctica, this was something I'd never foreseen. It was well past midnight; we were stuck in the ice; and the debate raging in the ship's bar was over how many lightbulbs there were in the Hermitage museum in St Petersburg.

It was white in all directions - snow and ice stretching out to the horizon to meet the white cloud-filled sky

The man responsible for this discussion was Vsevolod Afanasyev, the electronics genius on board our British Antarctic Survey ship, the James Clark Ross. All day long, Sevy, as he was called, would prowl silently about the vessel, unmistakable with his long grey beard and glasses as thick as his Russian accent.

It was at night that he worked his conversational magic. After our long argument about the Hermitage lightbulbs, he had to confess, finally, that he didn't actually know how many there were, except to say there was probably an awful lot. His mother had been an electrician there and he had followed her around when she changed them.

Sevy's job now was to help maintain the scientific equipment on board this very hi-tech research ship. But he proved equally useful, if not more so, at making time pass quickly when it was icebound.

All the same

The James Clerk Ross was heading to the British Antarctica base at Rothera, taking scientists and cargo with it. We'd covered some 2,000 kilometres (1,200 miles) from Stanley in the Falklands. But just 50 kilometres (30 miles) or so from our destination, the ice had intervened.

Vsevolod Afanasyev, Bas
Vsevolod Afanasyev: The man with the stories
Truly, it was not such a bad place to be stuck. From where we stood, it was white in all directions - snow and ice stretching out to the horizon to meet the white cloud-filled sky.

It was only just below freezing and there was plenty of time to stand on deck admiring the scenery. Sleepy seals lounged around on the ice flows, a solitary Emperor penguin preened itself in the sun, and tiny fluttering snow petrels flew in rings around us.

The only occasional sound came from the ship's engines when they were fired up every so often to stop us drifting too far with the ice.

On our second day trapped in this polar wilderness, a dozen or so scientists stood forlorn around the bar, debating the wind direction and thickness of the ice. Sevy alone was oblivious. Apparently from nowhere, he produced a tiny metal device about the size of a coin, dropped it straight into his full pint of English bitter and waited for our reaction.

Crushed in the ice

We watched hypnotised as it sank to the bottom of the glass. Then listened in astonishment as Sevy told us how this particular piece of sophisticated electronics had flown twice around the world on the leg of an albatross.

He assured me that there was "no cause for undue pessimism"

He had invented it himself to help scientists track the movements of these giant birds after they had left land. Unfortunately, all his genius with electronics and conversation could do nothing to get us to land any faster. It was simply a matter of waiting - waiting for the wind to blow the ice away from land and back out to sea.

For the moment, though, it was blowing exactly the wrong way - packing the ice in tightly to the coast and pushing us in the direction of dangerous rocks. Our ship could be trapped, crushed. God forbid, we might have to abandon ship and wait to be rescued.

Not much chance then of seeing in Christmas with the family. This was no matter for idle speculation. It was exactly what had happened to this crew on this ship two years ago, and in this precise spot. The ship was stuck here for six full weeks and it was an experience that our captain, Chris Elliott, had no intention of repeating.

Star Wars technology

He assured me that there was "no cause for undue pessimism". But it was not comforting to see the chart from two years ago laid out on a table on the bridge to compare the situation then and now.

Mcgourty, BBC
Antarctica is not a place to visit if you love the home comforts
Back then, a pupil from a school in the Falklands had e-mailed helpful suggestions - but a light saber to cut through the ice was not something even this leading research vessel was supplied with.

It was our third day in the ice when water rations were introduced. The jokes about the explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton and his ship the Endurance, crushed in the Antarctic ice in 1915, were starting to wear thin.

Quite suddenly though, in the early afternoon, the wind dropped, the ice loosened and the captain decided the time was right to make a bid for freedom.

The ship's engines roared into action. There were some anxious moments. I could feel the deck shaking beneath my feet as the engines worked at full power. We were barely moving. Soon, though, it was full speed ahead. And to our astonishment, the ship just kept on going.

It crashed its way through the ice for five hours and then - beautiful, dark-blue water opened up in front of us. Finally, land was in sight. Our destination was approaching, and just for a moment, I felt a certain sadness. I might after all be home for Christmas, but there would be no more long, bright, summer nights on the James Clark Ross with Vsevolod Afanasyev and his utterly absorbing Russian tales.

Christine will be reporting from the Antarctic for BBC News Online throughout Christmas week

Map, BBC
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