At the mercy of the ice
In the Antarctic summer of 1972, four young scientists set off on a trimaran from Cape Bird for a quick outing on a clear day. They would spend the next five days stranded at sea, jumping between ice floes that shattered and sank beneath them, risking their lives with every leap.
Monday 27 November 1972
Nothing comes easy in Antarctica.
It takes four strapping students four weeks to cut a boat ramp through the thick ice of the shoreline. The men have chainsaws, picks, a crowbar, and a cobra drill, but their efforts are hampered by bad weather. Storms roll in every few days, confining the men to their hut and sweeping fresh jumbles of pack ice ashore. Each time, the group emerge to find the gap they had dug refilled. Each time, they start again.
Today, they’re buzzing. They have finally fashioned a decent six-metre ramp, more than enough for their trimaran, RV Clione, which had been stored behind the hut over winter and airlifted down to the beach a month earlier. The sea beyond the ramp is free of ice and the day’s a beauty: early evening, sunny and still. You can see clear across McMurdo Sound to the peaks of the Transantarctic Mountains.
Our foursome are all 20-something University of Canterbury students. All long-haired and bearded, all drawn south to this wilderness by the promise of adventure and cutting-edge science.
Warren Farrelly, a geography master’s student, is here to survey the rocky ridge formations of Priapulus Point. The other three are part of a marine biology study lead by Jim Lowry, a charismatic American PhD candidate with several years’ experience in the Antarctic. Graham Fenwick and Paul Sagar are still undergrad students, but both already have an Antarctic season under their belt. The trio plan to tow a sledge off the back of the trimaran, skimming a net along the seafloor and scooping up the tiny invertebrate animals that live there.
Cape Bird hut is home for the summer. It’s a boxy green shack overlooking an Adélie penguin colony on the shores of McMurdo Sound, about 100 kilometres north of Scott Base.
Farrelly’s spent the day down the coast recording geographic observations. He trudges up to the hut. Fenwick calls out. Would he like to come out on the boat and take some photos? They’ll only be a short while—cruise around, come back in. Too tired, thinks Farrelly. But then: Might as well.
Lowry is uneasy. Farrelly wavers. They should probably leave someone onshore to man the radio. But it will only be a quick trip, right? Farrelly slings his camera over his shoulder. Lowry and Farrelly exchange a look. But they say nothing, and climb aboard, afloat at last.
The trimaran is only about 100 metres offshore when the motor stops. While Lowry attempts to restart the motor—which he’d tested extensively before departing—Fenwick, Farrelly and Sagar lean on the rails, gazing into the inky depths and admiring the stark rock-and-ice scenery. After a few fitful sputters, Lowry tries the back-up motor instead. It starts with the first pull and they turn back towards the shore. But, 30 seconds later, this motor dies, too.
For an hour or so they swap motors, switch fuel lines and tanks, and get nowhere. The men are concerned. A persistent wind and current are pushing Clione south, away from the shore. Meanwhile, the pack ice—the soup of free-floating floes and chunks—has swirled around and is closing in on them. With both outboards useless, the men try another tactic. Donning a lifejacket, Sagar jumps onto a floe sloshing alongside and anchors the trimaran’s winch cable into the ice with an ice axe. They haul the boat slowly towards the shore. But within two floe-lengths, the ice tightens further around Clione, leaving no space to manoeuvre. Before she’s bulldozed completely, they use the winch to pull the trimaran onto a large flat floe.
Meanwhile, the pack ice has been drifting south. The men are now swiftly approaching a large, dark berg grounded just off Priapulus Point. The pack splits as it approaches the behemoth, like a river flowing around an island, and some floes are veering out into McMurdo Sound. Unfortunately for the men, it looks like their floe is destined to swing offshore. They can hear the ice in the sound grinding and groaning. It’s ugly out there. The decision is unanimous: it’s time to abandon ship.
In the Antarctic summer, daylight persists for 24 hours. It’s now 11.30pm and the sky is still clear blue. Being able to see is life. The men scramble to grab emergency gear, lifejackets, a length of rope, and food from the trimaran. With Lowry in the lead, they begin hopping from floe to floe, heading towards the towering north face of the stationary berg. They hurl heavy tins of emergency gear across gaps, then make the leap themselves. Sometimes the gap between floes is too wide, so they have to use small, floating lumps of ice as stepping stones, springing off each piece before it submerges in the slush.
Tuesday 28 November 1972
Once they reach the inside edge of the grounded berg, they find the pack ice is dense and unmoving. Their sense of urgency melts away as they survey the patchwork of floes, trying to trace a route across the kilometre or so between them and the shore. Not one of the four thinks they’re in any real trouble. They just have to lilypad-hop back to the shore, walk down the beach to the hut and radio Scott Base for a helicopter to retrieve the stranded trimaran.
But as the men pick their way closer to the shore, the ice becomes thin and dark. It’s sagging and soft. Rotten ice that crumbles. You can see the sea through it. “Shit ice,” they call it. They’re now about 100 metres from the shore; tantalisingly close. The four huddle together on a small but stable floe. The crossing to the next good-sized sheet of ice looks treacherous. The water between these floes is -1.8°C—as cold as seawater can be without turning to ice. Fall in and you have as little as 10 minutes of survival time.
But now Lowry pulls on a lifejacket—one of three they had on the boat—grabs the ice axe and ties the rope around his waist, then lowers himself face-down onto the flimsy ice. He begins to slide and shimmy. As he nears the next floe, the ice begins to sag. Suddenly it breaks, and Lowry’s legs sink into the black water—so cold it shocks and numbs the muscles in an instant. He pitches his arm forward and rams the axe into the floe, hauling himself up to safety.
Sagar, Fenwick and Farrelly follow in a similar fashion: removing as much clothing as they dare and flinging it over in a 20-litre tin, before sliding carefully across the brittle ice with the rope and lifejacket. Sagar goes first. The ice breaks, and he screams as the cold water hits. Fenwick and Farrelly tie their cameras to their backs. All of them break through the ice, a below-waist baptism in the frigid sea. They swap their sodden socks for the dry ones they scavenged from Clione.
Now they’re only 50 metres from the shore. But the good ice is behind them. The sheet separating them from safety is only about two centimetres thick. Still, they could slide across and risk getting wet again—if the beach were clear. But it’s behind a 1.5-metre sheer cliff of push ice—jumbles of ice swept ashore and refrozen into a craggy escarpment. They’re stuck.
Shivering, the men polish off two blocks of chocolate and start running on the spot to warm up. Lowry thinks that if they just wait for the sun to dip behind the mountains, perhaps the ice will freeze a bit more and become passable. It’s a happy thought; all four men remain optimistic. In the meantime, they tally up their rations:
- 14 packets of sledge biscuits
- 14 bars of chocolate
- 170 grams of peanut butter
- 170 grams of Marmite
- 1.4 kilograms of white sugar
- 1.4 kilograms of cheese
- 450 grams of drinking chocolate
- 900 grams of pitted dates
- 450 grams of boiled sweets
- 2 x 110-gram cans of sardines
- 8 meat bars
As the sun disappears behind the peaks of Mt Bird and Mt Erebus, the shadow descends and plunges the men into a deep chill. Their feet ache with cold, and they pace long and fast to stave off the icy bite. When the sun reappears an hour and a half later, the thin ice has not thickened. The renewed warmth of the sun brings a sliver of cheer, but any hope of crossing to the shore is dashed.
Frustration gives way to a sense of slow melancholy. The men march single file in a circuit around the small floe—it’s about 19 paces long—their gumboots wearing a groove in the ice. Lowry jokes that Napoleon did the same during his time of trouble, only he had a marble floor. They take turns lying down on the lifejackets—a barrier between body and ice—but sleep does not come. Every couple of hours, the marchers pause to snack on a sledge biscuit—a long-lasting, simple biscuit of flour, butter, salt, baking soda and water that has fuelled Antarctic exploration since the age of Scott and Shackleton.
Fenwick and Lowry discuss the science they want to do, but otherwise conversation is limited. They walk, and walk. For Farrelly, pacing is the only way to cope with a racing mind. He feels terribly guilty. What if he’d stayed onshore? He could’ve radioed Scott Base, got helicopters. He analyses the ice, the current, all the decisions they’ve made. He forces himself not to look at his watch, and instead focuses his attention on a pair of skua gulls on a nearby floe. They’re gorging themselves on a mound of dehydrated food the men had abandoned earlier. If he were to eat that desiccated feast, Farrelly ponders, it would probably kill him. Suck his body dry. He hopes the gulls will be okay.
It’s 8am when a light southerly picks up. The skuas fly off; a bad omen, Farrelly thinks, as they’ve left behind some of the food. The mass of ice starts to move, including the tiny floe with its inadvertent commuters. Will they be pushed ashore and disembark in time for lunch at the hut? Or will they be swept further out to sea? It’s an exasperating morning. The wind drops and the current slowly inches the floe back towards Priapulus Point, until it’s back at its original position. Late afternoon and the southerly returns, stronger this time, pushing the floe north. The movement rouses a sense of hope, a chance of a turn of luck. They’re aimed directly at Beaufort Island—perhaps they could land and survive on Emperor penguins until rescue comes.
But physics isn’t on their side, and an abrupt change in course carries the floe directly out to sea. The shift conjures a strange mixture of alarm and awe. As they drift further out, the full panorama of Cape Bird and the mighty ice cap atop Mt Bird, a shield volcano, comes into view. But their icy life raft is shrinking. The surrounding ice has sped ahead, leaving the floe they’re on exposed to wave action. The edges of the floe are crumpling, and it feels like it’s riding lower in the water, ever-so-slowly sinking. The men have had no sleep for 36 hours. They become acutely aware of sounds. The floe is riddled with tunnels, and water slops through them eerily. Up ahead the men can see a concentrated mass of stationary floes—maybe the trimaran is here. In any case, some more substantial floes await them in this wilderness of ice. They see it as a real chance.
In the early evening, the dwindling floe grazes a three-tiered, green-blue castle of ice. Lowry leads the group to their new home, and the old floe silently drifts away. The new floe gives the men room to move, a freedom they relish. There are also plate-like slabs of ice that they use to construct a shelter from the wind. The work is a welcome distraction.
But once the shelter is complete, a relentless monotony returns. While Lowry, Sagar and Fenwick rest in the shelter, Farrelly’s racing thoughts prevent him from lying still. He sees a C130 Hercules plane descending towards the airfield at McMurdo. It’s a tiny pinprick in the sky. Farrelly tries to polish up the tin lids so they’ll be able to signal using flashes.
They’ve now missed the first of their three radio check-ins for the week: Scott Base expected to hear from them at 6.10pm. Surely, they’ll send a helicopter to check.
It’s closing in on midnight and above Mt Erebus, a storm is building. Farrelly, on watch, is first to see the black clouds curling around the peak, the way the waves are becoming short and steep and more damaging to ice. The new floe is ensconced in the ice pack and protected from the worst of the waves, but soon it is tipping and groaning. The men retreat to their shelter. They feel the need to be together but they don’t want to talk. They listen to the sinister grating of ice on ice.
Wednesday 29 November 1972
Lowry, on watch, tells the men to stand up. Farrelly just wants to sit. Might be advisable to stand, Sagar tells him. A wave crashes over the floe, smashing the ice shelter. The men retreat to the lower tier of the floe behind their demolished refuge, clinging to their gear and each other as the floe pitches and rolls. Whitecaps roar up McMurdo Sound and burst over the two-metre-high floe, surging up to the men’s knees. The spray is freezing. Biting water pours into their gumboots. Lowry takes the imagined helm of their icy craft, warning the other three to brace as a new deluge of seawater bears down on them. “Here’s a good one! This one’s going to get us! Hang on!” he hollers. He wants the others to know they’re going to be okay.
Cracks are forming across the creaking floe; a great white fracture splinters the green ice between Farrelly’s feet. His right leg drops 15 centimetres. The next-door floe snaps, a portion breaking off and overturning, sending the surrounding pack ice into a series of violent see-saws.
By now the wind shelter is completely washed away and the men are wet to their waists. Waves are breaking completely over their floe. It’s rocking through what feels like a 90-degree arc.
They all think this is the end. Lowry starts to swear at every wave as it hits the floe. “Motherf**ker! Son of a b*tch!” Sagar thinks it would be easy just to slip over the side and disappear.
After an hour or so, a blessed lull in the weather. It’s an opportunity to move before their floe is pounded to bits. The men can see a potential new home not too far away, but the path is obstructed by a sheer plate of glass-like ice and a five-metre moat of slush dotted with larger chunks. They carefully navigate the glassy ice, which is sitting so low that even the tiniest wave could cause them to slide into the sea. Then, anxious to reach safety, Lowry and Fenwick dash across the loose ice, taking risks with their footing as the soup shifts and swirls. Sagar and Farrelly follow, but just before the target floe, they encounter a widening gap. Sagar leaps onto an ice chunk and hesitates. Farrelly, behind him, knows it’s now or never. He bounds across the gap, using the ice chunk that Sagar is on as a stepping stone. Farrelly clears the gap—just—landing face-down on the floe. Meanwhile, Sagar’s tiny life raft sinks under Farrelly’s impact, then surfaces violently. Sagar spends precious seconds wobbling and steadying himself. By the time he jumps, the floe’s too far away; his legs sink into the sea before Fenwick grabs him. He’s wet again, a little shaken, but safe.
The floe they’re on now is a large disc about 40 metres across. It’s split in three by blocks of ice that provide shelter from the wind—crucial at this point, with exposure symptoms setting in. The floe is floating a good metre above sea level, and is dusted with snow. A fresh assault of weather is brewing above Mt Erebus, and the men construct another shelter using a natural windbreak and some slabs of loose ice. It’s a real beauty—much cosier than their last one.
When the renewed storm hits, the men huddle in the shelter. Their floe is tucked away from what they call “the firing line” on the edge of the ice pack, so is protected—for now. But they can hear the unsettling rasp of ice against ice and see the thick slush staining orange with diatom algae scraped from the underside of floes.
As the floe edges near to the firing line, the wind and sea fall calm. A clear, sunny day. The men sunbathe as the floe drifts lazily into Wohlschlag Bay. There’s no chance of reaching the shore; a cliff of ice 15 metres high borders the sea. They’re not lost; all four men know exactly where they are. Yet they can do nothing but wait, and rest. Lowry and Farrelly talk about what they’d like to do in the next 10 or 20 years, how they’d appreciate the chance to straighten a few things out.
Sagar seems extra sleepy and the others worry he might be suffering from hypothermia. Lowry and Fenwick bundle him in a thicker jacket, feed him handfuls of sugar, and march him briskly up and down the floe. Sagar soon regains his composure. They play catch with a piece of ice.
The men soak in the scenery: the ice-scoured rock; the shadows cast by towering floes on the millpond sea; the steep slopes of Mt Erebus, rarely seen from this angle. A glorious day. Farrelly takes off his socks and lays them out to dry, then lies back himself. He’s sure he doesn’t fall asleep. The others tell him he’d been snoring. Lowry spots a Weddell seal lolling on a floe just like them. Out of reach. Emperor penguins porpoise past. The men are eager for some protein. More urgently, they’re dehydrated. There’s fresh snow everywhere but eating it saps their body heat so badly they can’t quench their thirst. Two small rafts of Adélie penguins jump aboard the floe. Attempts to snatch them are unsuccessful.
While the sunshine means warmth, it also sends an intense glare ricocheting off the icescape. Lowry and Fenwick are suffering from snow blindness—a temporary inflammation of the eye caused by excessive ultraviolet radiation. Struggling to see, they try cutting eye slits in their balaclavas and in bits of cardboard. The eyewear is only mildly helpful. Their eyes are too far gone. Lowry becomes disillusioned. All he can see is a blur. He scribbles notes: “I am so sad that we have come so far and nothing has happened. After coming thru the bad second night storm we thought nothing could get us and in the end that is what will finish us—nothing.”
In the evening, Sagar catches sight of an orca. He knows that orcas overturn floes to catch seals. He thinks back to accounts from Scott’s last Antarctic expedition: a pod of orcas cracked an ice floe from underneath in an attempt to reach two huskies and a man. On another occasion during Scott’s era, orcas encircled a floe and spooked several ponies, toppling them into the water and devouring all but one, which swam to safety. The men keep quiet and hidden behind the ice shelter. They don’t see any more orcas.
Their circular floe is now jammed into the elbow of Wohlschlag Bay, sidled up to an ice cliff and surrounded by “shit ice”, rotten and bitsy. The men are on edge, anticipating another night-time storm. Although, lately, there is a divide: Farrelly and Lowry err towards pessimism, while Fenwick is the clear optimist. Sagar wavers somewhere in between.
Thursday 30 November 1972
At about 2am, the ice begins to jiggle. The noise is hell on the nerves. On Mt Erebus, the wind whirls up snow devils. The men are in bad shape. They have no protection from the growing chop, and nowhere to go. Their floe begins to pitch; the wind howls. But for a moment their attention is dragged away from the worsening storm. A lone Adélie penguin seeks refuge on their floe, and waddles towards the clump of men. Sagar creeps up behind it. As an ornithologist, he feels uneasy—why should this penguin die just to help him? But he lunges at the bird anyway—he owes it to the others—and ensnares it in his arms. Fenwick, a hunter, has no qualms about wringing the penguin’s neck.
As the wind fizzles out, Fenwick skins the penguin with his pocket knife and removes its meat, cutting it into small cubes which are portioned into Chesdale cheese boxes. Lowry encourages the men to sample the meat smeared with a bit of Marmite. Farrelly and Sagar struggle to keep their first taste down. Fenwick thinks it’s a bit like very rare steak.
As the day wears on, the men lose confidence in the seaworthiness of their floe. The water is eating its edges; within a few hours, it loses one-third of its original size. So when they abut a floe that appears more structurally sound, it’s moving time again.
This new floe is much flatter than the last. It groans and creaks with every wave that passes. There’s a large crack down the middle of it, and Lowry and Farrelly are alarmed to discover they can fit an entire fist into the crack up to their elbow. As a southerly rises, the men set about building yet another shelter. They’re exhausted. It now takes two men to lift a block of ice that previously required one. Lowry, plagued by his snow blindness, sits as the shelter is built around him.
Fenwick realises they’ve left the penguin carcass behind, replete with heart, kidneys and brain. Farrelly, who thought they’d stripped the penguin of everything useful, kicks himself again.
They’ve now missed their second radio call with Scott Base, scheduled for 6.10pm.
Friday 1 December 1972
The pattern of early-morning foul weather looks set to repeat: chop is mashing the floe they just left into small bits and mush. Farrelly watches as it disintegrates, pacing a triangular course around the new floe. Waiting and watching. How long will this one last?
Farrelly realises he is absentmindedly fiddling with paper in his pocket—not paper, but a handful of wrapped toffees, squirreled away for a sugar hit during fieldwork. That was five days ago. He’s been saving the sweets for a low moment. He fishes them out, and his floe-mates, resting in the ice shelter, each take one. Farrelly tries to unwrap the toffee but his hands are too cold. He places the whole thing, wrapper and all, in his mouth. It still tastes good. He resumes his slow circumnavigation of the floe, watching an arc of black cloud unfurl from Mt Erebus and swing toward them.
Lowry looks stricken when Farrelly tells him about the storm headed their way. His inability to see puts the floe-dwellers in a tricky position. If the weather forces them to change floes yet again, Lowry won’t be able to make the crossing. Farrelly has a quiet word with Fenwick and Sagar, and proposes that come what may, they stay with Lowry. The mood is sombre. No longer desperate, but sad. Farrelly eats a last supper of dates and a sledge biscuit. Lowry writes a goodbye note to his partner back home. “These guys with me have been just great,” he writes. He asks her to tell their parents and partners they tried until the end. “And Suzie I know I wasn’t good at showing it but I loved you most of all.” Sagar thinks about irony. He came down here to study the shrimp-like creatures on the bottom of the ocean, and it could well be that they’ll end up studying him.
But the dark clouds don’t reach Wohlschlag Bay. Sunlight filters through instead. The noise of crashing ice, muffled by several kilometres, becomes a steady grinding, before gradually subsiding.
A helicopter resupply flight to Cape Bird is scheduled for later this afternoon. The men scan the sky. The morning drags, the air is desperate. It’s mid-afternoon when the maddening silence is punctuated by the throb of an Iroquois heading towards the hut. The men imagine the fuss that must be unfolding. The resupply crew will find the trimaran gone, and climatological records and a calendar last marked up on Monday. Ninety minutes later, the helicopter roars back over Ross Island.
On arriving at Cape Bird hut, Scott Base leader Peter Fraser initially thinks the men might be working nearby. Then he realises that the trimaran is absent, too. He rummages through papers in the hut. The calendar was last crossed off on 25 November. Fraser radios Scott Base: it’s time to swing into a search-and-rescue operation.
Shaun Norman, deputy leader at Scott Base, is devastated when he hears about the empty hut and missing trimaran. Scott Base is a tight little community. Everyone feels like family. But Norman is especially close with Lowry, whom he first met several years earlier on an American icebreaker. Norman hops on the next helicopter, to start the ground-based search at Cape Bird. He is filled with dread.
For the four on the ice, it’s an excruciating three-hour wait before the aircraft search begins. They see a helicopter return to Cape Bird, and a Hercules belt around the coast and begin a grid-search pattern across the sound. But all the search activity appears to be to the north of them.
The men munch on a penguin-meat supper—by now the cubes are much more palatable, having been marinating in the warmth of their pockets for hours. The soft, moist meat is a relief for their sore gums, scratched by the sharp edges of sledge biscuit.
The beat of the helicopter gets louder now. It appears over Harrison Bluff and begins to trace the ridge of Wohlschlag Bay, sweeping within 200 metres of the men stranded on the floe. They run about in a frenzy, waving coats, trying to attract attention. There’s no way they won’t be seen. The helicopter is so close they can see the loadmaster looking out the back window. Lowry sets off a flare that seems to bounce off the helicopter’s windshield. The helicopter wags its tail—they’ve been spotted! But then the helicopter turns and glides back toward McMurdo. They must be going back to refuel, gather more help, the men agree. They bundle up their belongings for a speedy exit.
They had not been seen.
It’s late afternoon in Christchurch when the telephone rings in the Bullock household. Suzie Bullock watches as her mother answers the phone, observing a cloud of concern descend over her expression. Jim Lowry, Suzie’s partner, is missing in Antarctica. He hasn’t been heard from for five days, and the trimaran is missing from the base. Five days is a hell of a long time.
Saturday 2 December 1972
Bitter disappointment sets in. The men retreat into their own thoughts. Eventually, Farrelly and Lowry emerge from their solitude to discuss the dire possibility of the floe breaking up. They think it might be best to just jump into the water. You’d go numb so quickly you wouldn’t feel a thing. Fenwick remains the optimist: it never crosses his mind that they won’t be rescued.
The search continues through the night. Multiple aircraft fly up and down, up and down the sound. The floe drifts and the surrounding ice disperses. The flare had been useless—too pale against the surrounding white glare—so Fenwick and Farrelly experiment with burning kapok from a lifejacket. The smoke is white; useless. They cut four-centimetre strips off the tops of their gumboots and when a Hercules passes nearby, light the bundle of rubber. Black smoke curls up in ribbons, but there isn’t enough of it and it is soon blown away by the wind. The men return, dejected, to the ice shelter. It’s early morning when the sound of aircraft recedes and doesn’t return.
At Cape Bird, Norman and four others cover the ground around the hut again and again, walking the beach and climbing to higher ground to look out across the pack ice. Nothing. No sign of life except penguins. Nothing to say where the men went. The searchers retreat to the hut and begin packing up the belongings of their missing friends. Norman is shattered.
It’s around 9am when the air search resumes, but again the focus seems to be north of Wohlschlag Bay. As their floe drifts closer to Cape Royds, the men are stirred by the possibility of bumping into the fast ice and crossing it to reach land. Yet again, the current is not on their side. They are drifting north in a sparse ribbon of floes.
Farrelly spends a lovely stretch of time hallucinating conversations with his friends in New Zealand. While Sagar and Fenwick rest, Lowry and Farrelly continue to walk and talk quietly. If the floe begins to break up it could be best, they think, to simply jump into the water. Death might take upwards of five minutes, Lowry reckons. Farrelly thinks closer to one.
Talk of home dries up, and shifts to sophisticated, if sluggish, discussions of the eating qualities of different types of ice and snow. Lowry lies down with the others. Farrelly walks as much as he can, trying to stay alert in case a plane comes close.
Mid-afternoon, a Hercules flies low above them. It completes a few laps of the sound then continues north, headed for New Zealand.
From the Hercules, Alvin Boeger scans the sea ice. He’s a Navy man, part of the ice reconnaissance unit, and he knows about the missing New Zealand scientists. Everyone on board does, and although they’re not part of the official search, all eyes are on the ice. Boeger spots a flash from the pack below. Could be them? He informs the crew, who radio the position back to McMurdo and Scott bases.
At McMurdo Station, American helicopter pilots Jeff McComas and Al Costlow are waiting to hear whether the search will resume. There’s chatter on the radio; a Hercules has just radioed in a sighting of something in the ice. Is it worth investigating? As the higher-ups debate whether to restart the search, the pilots watch dark clouds gather around the slopes of Erebus. A storm is coming. They note down the position and prepare for take-off, despite not yet getting the go-ahead. They don’t wait for permission. They have to go now.
Back on the ice floe, the men’s ears prick up. A thrum: It’s the first helicopter in a while. They’ve seen the black clouds brewing around Mt Erebus, but four pairs of eyes are now trained instead on the helicopter, a tiny red blob gliding across the backdrop of the Transantarctic Mountains. The thrum grows louder.
In Antarctica, helicopter pilots hate flying over water: crash and you’re screwed. But this helicopter turns out to sea, following the loose line of floes the men are stranded in. They run, waving their arms frantically. Farrelly worries his mates who can’t see will run right off the floe. The helicopter turns slightly, then veers towards them.
On the ice: pandemonium. The men holler. Lowry hugs Sagar and Fenwick, then comes over to Farrelly. The two of them look at each other, grinning. They hug. They huddle in one corner of the floe to give the pilot room for an approach, but then Lowry remembers the crack down the middle of the ice. He starts to wave the pilot away. The pilot just waves back and keeps on coming, landing right across the crack. He hovers, placing as little weight as possible on the fragile floe. The crewman gives a thumbs up: get in here! The men nearly bowl him out the other side with their enthusiasm. Back thumps and handshakes all round. The pilots are gobsmacked that the four scientists are all in one piece, and in fairly good physical condition. The flight back to McMurdo Station, the American base, is turbulent with rising wind. They’ve just beaten the storm.
A crowd is clustered around the helicopter pad. The rescued men are whisked away to the base’s hospital. There, they are served a tremendous roast, which they struggle to eat, and told to down a large tin of fruit juice to combat their dehydration. Sagar has minor frostbite on one of his feet, while Fenwick has mildly frostbitten feet and snow blindness in one eye. Lowry and Farrelly have no frostbite at all, but Lowry has snow blindness in both eyes. The blinded eyes are covered. Vision will take a couple of days to return. Farrelly and Sagar are escorted to hot showers; while they soak in the warmth, a hairy arm sticks past the shower curtain. “Hey, you frigid Kiwis, you guys deserve a Bud,” an American calls out, passing a can of cold beer.
Back in Christchurch, officials visit the Bullock household for a cup of tea. They’re kind. Five days is such a long time, they say. That means he’s gone, Suzie thinks. But later in the afternoon, the phone rings again. This time, Suzie answers. On the line is Bob Thompson, head of the Antarctic division at the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. He is so emotional he can barely get a word out. “They’ve been found,” he says. Bullock’s first reaction is disbelief. Then relief. He’s alive. He’s safe.
On his last night in Antarctica, Farrelly has a nightmare. “I could clearly hear ice floes grating and breaking up in the current,” he writes in his diary. “Ours would be next. I had to open the shutter before my mind would believe that I was safe and not on an ice floe.”
After three days recuperating at McMurdo and Scott Base, the four men fly back to New Zealand, where a media blizzard awaits them. The scrutiny is intense. There’s an inquiry, too: what led to this near-tragedy? While Farrelly, Sagar and Fenwick return home, Lowry fronts up to the inquiry. He doesn’t talk much to Suzie about the inquiry or what happened. Better to bottle everything up.
The inquiry finds that Lowry, as leader of the party, made several mistakes. These included not letting Scott Base know they were heading out on the water, not properly maintaining the trimaran motors, and allowing Farrelly to join them on the boat. “I made a mistake. I know that he was not supposed to go,” Lowry states in the official inquiry document. The inquiry concludes that the trimaran motors likely failed due to use of old fuel which was left over from the previous season and may have been contaminated with water.
But it also finds that the response of Scott Base was inadequate. The two-to three-day interval between check-in radio calls is deemed insufficient. Plus, the communication logs had not been kept updated—this might have alerted someone earlier that things were amiss at Cape Bird. The inquiry goes further, recommending a raft of other survival equipment—smoke bombs, a homing radio, and signalling mirrors—be made mandatory. Small watercraft-based research is temporarily prohibited, too.
It’s February 2022, and Sagar is once again adrift in McMurdo Sound. But this time, he’s in a Zodiac with a bunch of tourists. They’re only a few metres from the shores of Cape Bird. Sagar thinks of Lowry, his charming and fearless friend. A lump grows in his throat. Lowry hadn’t made it to the fiftieth anniversary of their rescue; the foursome never did get to celebrate.
Lowry never returned to Antarctica, and lost a plum role he’d been about to start, as coordinator of Antarctic programmes at the University of Canterbury. But he finished his PhD, and had an illustrious career at the Australian Museum in Sydney studying crustaceans. There were expeditions aplenty. Lowry died aged 79 in November 2021 in Italy, where he retired with his wife Lucia and son Rafael.
Farrelly never went back to the ice either. He moved to Northland and became a geography teacher. He and his high school students were responsible for the establishment of the Whangārei Harbour Marine Reserve (Issue 90, Mar-Apr 2008).
Fenwick continued his marine biology studies at Kaikōura and went on to a varied scientific career in Canada and New Zealand. He eventually focused his research on the communities of organisms that live beneath our feet, in groundwater ecosystems.
Sagar returned to Antarctica the following season, drawn back by the rawness, the beauty. He even headed back to Cape Bird to continue the marine investigation—a task much trickier without a trimaran. There he met fellow scientist Joy Woods, who would later become his wife. Sagar put in two further summers on the ice, and went on to a long career at NIWA studying seabirds, especially those of the subantarctic islands.
He says those five long days on the ice taught him “that there can be large consequences from seemingly small, simple decisions”.
When Fenwick thinks back to the ordeal, he thinks about how avoidable it all was. “We’re often reluctant to speak out when a bad decision is being made,” he says, “and we were absolutely fortunate. We all carry a burden of guilt.”
The men suffered anxiety and nightmares for a time—symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, “although we didn’t have a name for it in those days”, says Fenwick.
“I still think about it now and then,” says Sagar. “Especially when the weather is bad.”