Lawson man's Antarctic escape

It wasn’t quite the trip to the Antarctic that Dr Ben Maddison of Lawson was expecting. 

The academic and adventure guide was one of 52 expedition members on board the Russian chartered ship the Akademik Shokalskiy when it became trapped on the ice on Christmas Eve, near Mertz Glacier in Commonwealth Bay, attracting international media headlines.

Just like explorer Sir Douglas Mawson, whose trip a century ago they were commemorating, it was all very dramatic, but still a long way from Mawson, who was forced to eat his own dogs and endured the soles of his feet falling off.

Dr Maddison, a polar history specialist, spent his days waiting for rescue helping run a program of art classes and Russian lessons, even finding the time to stage the 2014 Antarctic Writing Festival on the ice.

He said the trip’s website had registered over half a million hits and “last I heard there have been more than 13,000 press items since we got beset on the ice... it is history making”. The expedition even unwittingly becoming part of the debate about climate change.

As Dr Maddison told the Gazette, “Antarctica is still a place where the unexpected can happen”. 

Dr Maddison’s voyage was part of a five-week landmark trip celebrating the centenary of the first Australasian Antarctic expedition led by Mawson. But the Shokalskiy, an ex-Russian spy ship, became trapped in heavy ice, about 1500 nautical miles south of Hobart, sending out a distress message on Christmas Day. Difficult weather conditions delayed a complex rescue mission.

Their dramatic six-hour, three-nation air and sea rescue mission in Antarctica by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority’s Rescue Co-ordination Centre began at 4pm last Thursday. It involved seven helicopter runs, winching to safety the passengers from a distance of about 14 nautical miles from drop off points on ice floes next to their rescue vessel, the Australian icebreaker Aurora Australis.

“We had spent several days tramping down the snow of a floe adjacent to the ship to make a helipad, and erected a windsock on an ice orb conveniently located on its perimeter (I did the first ascent!),” Dr Maddison said.

He was on board to deliver history lectures and said he would use the experience to deliver lectures about escaping the ice and look at “how ships beset in Antarctic ice escaped –  or not”.

The Aurora Australis will head towards the Casey base to complete a resupply before heading to Australia. Dr Maddison said he was enjoying being a “five-star refugee”. They are not expected to arrive back in Australia until January 18 at the earliest. 

Dr Maddison was trying to bring the unsung working class heroes of the polar regions to the world’s attention and did an early launch of his book Class and Colonialism in Antarctic Exploration 1750-1920 about the issue.

Ironically there was no rescue for the 22 crew members of the Akademik Shokalskiy. They remain with the vessel awaiting a rescue by US icebreaker Polar Star within a fortnight.

“They are safe and well provisioned (Aurora Australia gave them some food supplies as part of the helicopter operations). As resourceful seafarers, they will probably make a football and play soccer on an ice-pitch, and as Antarctic workers have usually done, will look forward to the time when they can return home.” 

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