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A day in the life of the Rothera boatman

Rigid inflatable boats (RIBs) play an important part in supporting British Antarctic Survey's science and operations at Rothera Research Station on the Antarctic Peninsula and at King Edward Point Applied Fisheries Research Station at South Georgia. During the busy Antarctic summer (October-March) the Rothera biosciences teams get to their study sites in boats – it's a cool operation. Here Rothera Boatman Jim Elliott describes a typical day.

07:45 Flight operations briefing
The pilots, Field Operations Manager, Base Commander, scientists and me meet for the daily brief. The weather forecaster (seconded from the Met Office) briefs us on both local and deep-field weather conditions so that decisions can be made about what flying and boating/diving activity will take place today. As well as providing support to the Rothera dive team, the boats are launched during passenger flight take off and landings to provide search and rescue (SAR) back up. After the brief it's down to the boatshed to prepare for the day.

Rothera Boating Images

We launch our boats from Rothera's wharf. There's quite a drop to the sea so we either lower the boats into the water or, in the 'balmy' summer months, use a slipway which makes launching the RIBs much faster. The boat team has a tractor for pulling boat trailers and a HIAB crane mounted on a tracked Nodwell vehicle for lifting the boats into the water. During winter we have to dig our kit out of the snow and spend around 30 minutes warming up vehicles.

08:30 Diving and boating brief, Bonner Laboratory
Scientists, dive officers, and boat crew are briefed on the planned activities for the day. Today we might be supporting diving operations, deploying oceanographic sampling equipment, taking terrestrial biologists to their study sites on nearby islands or training our colleagues in various aspects of boating.

Diving days are pretty involved - we have supervisors and people on 'seal watch' while the science team is in the water. The dive officer, marine biologist and marine assistant are also trained coxswains and able to drive the dive boat which, with up to 4 launches to organise before morning break, is essential for the smooth running of our work. The weather and ice conditions determine our activities of the day. Both can change very quickly and the dive officer and boatman must use their experience and judgement to decide on which activities can be supported safely. We don't launch our small boats if the winds are greater than Force 6 or if this ice is too thick to navigate through. Because weather and ice conditions can change so quickly we need to be flexible, and frequently have to change our plans during the day. As soon as our briefing is over and decisions are made, we notify the Rothera Operations team so they can build this into the overall operational plan for the day.

09:00 Boatshed, south end of the station
I get the boats out of the boatshed ready for the first crews to inspect them. Each of our three types of boat (see below) are fully fitted with safety equipment (flares, first aid kit, fire extinguisher, spare kill cord, signalling kit) and boat kit (emergency food, anchors, warm kit, repair and tool kit etc.). The crew then don their boat suits, lifejackets and VHF radios, as well as warm gloves and headgear. Sunny days are still chilly on the water as the sea will still be –1°C in the early days of summer and rarely rises greater than +2°C in late summer. The boats will be loaded and launched at the wharf.

Profile - Jim Elliott, Rothera Boating Officer 2006-2009

A marine biologist by academic pursuit and a small boat specialist by professional interest, Jim discovered diving and marine science in his Gap year on expedition to Tanzania with 'Frontier'.

After a Bachelor of Science in Zoology at Aberdeen University, he spent 15 months in the Bahamas initially on diving expedition with 'Greenforce' and subsequently with a US-led 'International Field Studies' (IFS) field station on Andros. He specialised as a PADI Divemaster and excelled in marine teaching and boat operations.

On return to the UK, he worked as a wildlife guide and crew for wildlife RIB operators, 'Seafari Adventures', Easdale. Returning to Aberdeen University to complete a Masters in Marine and Fisheries Science in 2003, he subsisted his thesis on seabird and cetacean activities in the whirlpools off the west island of Jura as a skipper for 'Seafari Adventures'. In 2004 - 2006, he worked as the marine technician for the Scottish Environment Protection Agency's marine team based at Dingwall, in northern Scotland.

Prior to employment with BAS, he was a freelance skipper for 'Seafari Adventures', Easdale and 'AquaXplore' of Skye. Prior to his departure for Rothera, he attended an RYA Powerboat Instructor, BAS Workboat course, mobile HIAB crane operator, chainsaw and Advanced First Aid courses.

10:30 somewhere outside the boatshed
Things are getting pretty busy – if we have time we'll grab a quick coffee but more likely we'll be getting ready to launch. We set up our radio communications and call sign with the Rothera Operations Tower at the centre of station. With a vast array of multiple frequency equipment, our trained radio operators follow flights to field parties as far as 1000 miles away, receive hourly weather updates from them and, at the same time, use VHF radios to keep in touch with the diving and boating teams. Every activity and position is logged every 30 minutes. The radio operators do an incredible job of dealing with an intense level of radio traffic. Should any boat, plane or field party report problems or miss a check-in time, the radio operators will alert the Operations team so that the appropriate response can be organised.

13:00 Lunch, Bransfield House
If we're not out on the boats all day it's a brisk ten minute walk from the boatshed to the staff restaurant for a catch up with colleagues. Today, lunch is interrupted by news from a science team on a nearby island. An amorous elephant seal, weighing about 3 tonnes, took a bit of a fancy to one of the RIBs anchored near the beach. It's badly damaged and the science team is stranded. So, short lunch for me while we mobilise two boats to pick up the crew and bring the water-logged boat back to the station for repair.

14:00 Hangar Cove, north of station
Our Dash-7 is due in from Chile bringing in personnel and light equipment. During summer there are many flights like this via Chile or Falkland Islands. We get 'Stella', today's SAR boat, on the water to be ready in the event of any aircraft emergencies. This exercise is a good training opportunity for other people on station who frequently make up the boat crew. Crewing on the boats offers an excellent opportunity to see the surrounding area, get off station and experience a variety of wildlife including whales, seals and penguins. (see training fact file).

Video: Boating in ice around Rothera.

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17.00 North Cove
During summer Rothera hosts a few senior scientists, policy makers and journalists who come for first-hand experience of our science and operation. This week we have an ITV news crew filming and broadcasting a series of special reports about the rapid warming that's taken place on the Antarctic Peninsula during the past 50 years. Reporter Bill Neely is doing his piece to camera from the boat with Sheldon Glacier in the background. We're extraordinarily lucky also to get some cracking views of Minke whales… everyone gasps in amazement as these elegant creatures glide gracefully alongside the boats.

Jim Elliott working in the boatshed at Rothera
Jim Elliott working in the boatshed at Rothera

19:00 after dinner, Boatshed
Rothera sits in a truly stunning position and during the evening when the weather is good the light on the towering ice edge is fantastic. This is the time when the boat crew volunteers to take people on recreational trips – everything looks so different when viewed from the water and it is so rewarding to see the pleasure on everyone's faces as we go round massive icebergs, looking at penguins and seals hauled out on the ice. It's one of the great photo opportunities around the station.

21.00 Boatshed
At the end of the trips, boats are unloaded, fuel tanks refilled, engines checked and trip information logged. Any damage or necessary maintenance is noted and the boats are stowed away for the next day. I look around the boatshed before heading up to the station for a catch-up with folk in the lounge and maybe a quiet moment of reading in the library. There is plenty to do to relax.


Boating at Rothera Fact File

Overview of boating fit

Humber Destroyer 5.5m R.I.B.'Stella' - Fitted with twin Mariner 40 H.P. outboard engines and steering console positions. Mainly utilized as dive boats. 'Stella' is also utilized as the S.A.R. boat to cover the Dash 7 take off and landings onto the Rothera airstrip.
Humber Destroyer6.0m R.I.B.'Erebus'
Humber 4.8m R.I.Bs 'Nimrod', 'Scotia' and 'Terra Nova' - These R.I.B.s are used as general workboats, occasionally as a dive boat, back-up S.A.R boat and for recreational purposes. They are powered with one tiller steered Mariner 40 H.P. outboard engine.
Avon heavy duty inflatable work boats 'Aurora' and 'Discovery' - Primarily for general science use and as the CTD deploying boat, (hand operated winch fitted for this purpose). One of the two Avons will be operational at any time with the other stored as a spare.
Outboard EnginesM - 4 x 40 H.P. Electric/manual Mariner engines for Humber Destroyers9 x 40 H.P. Mariner engines for the Humbers & Avon boats

Overview of boating infrastructure

Boatshed - Miracle Span type building with concrete floor and South facing double doors, this is insulated and can be heated up with a space heater. Small heated workshop and office. A fuelling bowser is located just outside the boatshed with limited oil spill response equipment inside.
Slipway - The slipway leads from the boatshed into the cove formed between the end of the runway and the end of the wharf. During the summer operations a steel slipway structure is lifted into position. On occasion boats may be launched at North Cove.
Trailers - Each of the boats has it's own trailer with beaching bars to align the boat onto the trailer. These trailers are generally front-mounted onto the tractor.
Massey Ferguson 4370 tractor - Dedicated to the boating operation, used for towing the trailers and boats around.
Palfinger HIAB crane mounted on a Nodwell 60C tracked vehicle - Boats may be launched directly into the water from the wharfside using the crane. Generally the crane is utilised when the slipway is inaccessible due to heavy brash ice. During the summer, boats are stored on their trailers adjacent to the boatshed. The S.A.R. boat should always be stored on its trailer next to the crane for rapid deployment.


Training fact file

Before leaving UK for Antarctica, selected personnel had a 5-day boat course at RGIT in Aberdeen and trained as coxswains. This is an extended RYA Powerboat Level 2 course tailored for BAS with sea survival skills, powerboat emergency procedures and hands-on a selection of boats commonly used. When they arrive on station, they will then be familiarised with the boats, local area and operating procedures.

Base personnel will be trained as Competent Crew to assist the coxswains, as each boat must operate with two personnel. The boatman who is a certified Level 2 Powerboat Instructor trains competent crew, with greater emphasis on Man Overboard and hands-on emergency procedures.