Voice of Real Australia Episode 4 Transcript

Tom Melville: [00:00:00] Hello, I'm Tom Melville. Welcome to Voice of Real Australia. Each episode we bring you people, places and perspectives from beyond the big cities. This week, producer Laura Corrigan takes us aboard the Aurora Australis, the retired Antarctic ice breaker. It was built at Carrington Slipways just north of Newcastle and is the only Australian made icebreaker. During its 30 years of service it's made hundreds of voyages, taking thousands of Australians to Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. Now, though, the ship is moored in Hobart with an uncertain future. [00:00:31][31.6]

Taylor Fuller: [00:00:32] I can remember the moment that I saw the Aurora Australis. When you're in Antarctica during the middle of the summer, the sun never really sets. It kind of dips below the horizon, but then comes up. So there was this kind of orange hue cast all along, this huge field of ice. And then right in the middle was this big red beacon of hope. That was the Aurora Australis. [00:00:57][25.0]

Laura Corrigan: [00:00:58] When Taylor Fuller was 19, he found himself in the middle of an international rescue mission in Antarctica. He was aboard the Akademik Shokalskiy, a private Russian vessel conducting marine science research. On Christmas morning, 2013 the ship and its 74 passengers and crew became stuck in the ice off the coast of Antarctica. The Australian icebreaker Aurora Australis was one of the ships that came to their rescue. Lianne Millhouse is an operations and shipping officer for the Australian Antarctic Division. She was on the Aurora when the distress signal came in. [00:01:31][33.1]

Leanne Millhouse: [00:01:32] We were in the middle of doing KC resupply when the Australian Maritime Service, called on the Aurora Australis, along with a number of other countries' icebreakers to go in and assist the Akademik Shokalskiy that had gotten stuck in the ice. So we packed up and headed off. [00:01:54][22.9]

Laura Corrigan: [00:01:55] The Chinese icebreaker Xue Long and French vessel L'Astrolabe had also responded to the stuck ship. The Xue Long used its helicopters to ferry passengers from the Shokalskiy to the Aurora. Taylor Fuller again. [00:02:08][12.9]

Taylor Fuller: [00:02:08] We marked up a helipad using spare Milo tins that we had in the hall and tamped down the ground around the ship so that the helicopters could land on it without their landing gear seeping too far into the snow and ice where they were landing next to our ship. [00:02:29][20.6]

Laura Corrigan: [00:02:29] Taylor says he felt at home aboard the aurora. [00:02:32][2.1]

Taylor Fuller: [00:02:32] People were very, very nervous about what could have happened to us. But it was a really, really lovely trip home. And all of the crew and the captain of the ship made us feel really welcome. [00:02:43][11.1]

Laura Corrigan: [00:02:45] Leanne Millhouse says that's just the way it is in Antarctica. When someone needs help, no matter what station, no matter what nation, you lend a hand. [00:02:52][7.3]

Leanne Millhouse: [00:02:53] It's one of the unique things I think about going to an Antarctica. Everybody actually wants everyone to succeed, so they would do their best to help. And there's no real elitism. So you might have some people that are higher levels in their normal world, but they will pitch in and go and help in the galley, for example, we've got a task. Let's get in and do it and do it safely and efficiently as we possibly can. [00:03:19][26.6]

Laura Corrigan: [00:03:20] Sarah Laverick is a marine biologist and wrote a book about the Aurora Australis. She says people really get to know each other aboard the icebreaker. [00:03:27][7.6]

Sarah Laverick: [00:03:28] You might think that icebergs start blending together or something like that, but they're always unique. There's always unique experiences onboard. And you're sharing these experiences in a very isolated environment with not that many people. So you do become quite close. It's almost like family in a way, like a crew members much older than me that I consider really good friends that I met on my voyages. And I don't know if I would say that if we'd just been working in an office environment. [00:03:53][24.5]

Laura Corrigan: [00:03:54] Sarah actually met her husband on the aurora. He was an officer on the ship during her second voyage. They first met when he was instructing her team on how to put on an immersion suit in case of an emergency. [00:04:04][10.6]

Sarah Laverick: [00:04:05] And I was paired with another girl, Bec, who's really tiny in all these immersion suits are just huge, like big kind of wetsuit or dry suits. And Andrew came up and he had this really cheeky grin and he said, Oh, I think you and Bette could jump in there and still have room to spare. And he flashed these really cheeky kind of smile. And I thought, oh, that guy's really good looking but gee he knows it. And I thought he was a bit, I guess, arrogant. So my first impression of Andrew wasn't a good one. [00:04:29][24.3]

Laura Corrigan: [00:04:30] But spending that much time together can put strain on relationships. Krill specialist Steven Nicol worked for the Antarctic Division as a scientist and programme leader for 24 years. He appreciated the need for passengers to let off some steam. [00:04:45][14.5]

Steven Nicol: [00:04:46] Something that happens about two thirds of the way through the voyage where everybody gets really tired and ratty. And we were in the middle of a storm there and it was snowing like anything and now built up on the helideck. I was up on the bridge with the captain. You could look at the CCTV cameras and you could see the snow building up there, and then gradually people would come out onto the helipad in a Force eight gale, this is. And they start having a snowball fight. The captain then looked at me and he said, you know what you've got to do? I said, what? He says you have to go down there and you have to let them beat you up down there? So I put on my outdoor gear, I went down and everybody took out their frustrations on me. All went back to work much relieved. [00:05:27][41.5]

Laura Corrigan: [00:05:28] In their downtime, crew and passengers would play board games, watch movies, write journals and emails, play instruments, bird watch and well, watch, maybe take up photography. And before the vessel became dry, drink at the onboard bar. And just like Aussies on the mainland, they'd love to have a barbecue. Leanne Millhouse again. [00:05:47][18.6]

Leanne Millhouse: [00:05:47] It's about minus eight, but you're having a barbecue, eating a steak sandwich and you're just watching iceburgs go pass. And it's quite surreal. It can really be uplifting. The mood can change quite a bit. Whether it's a barbecue or a trivia night or some sort of social occasion just really lifts the mood of everyone and you can trundle on for a few more days. [00:06:10][22.6]

Laura Corrigan: [00:06:11] Gerry O'Doherty has sailed more than 50 voyages on the Aurora Australis. He's the ship's master. One of his fondest memories of the icebreaker was bringing in the new millennium with his shipmates. [00:06:21][10.5]

Gerry O'Doherty: [00:06:22] We were parked up in a place called the Amery Ice Shelf, tucked up in the sea ice there. We put a ladder over the side and set up a bar down there. And we had music and dancing and some penguins joined us. And we watched The Sun at midnight, just sort of kiss the horizon. I can say that the sun never set on the 20th century for me. [00:06:43][20.5]

Laura Corrigan: [00:06:44] The Aurora Australis is affectionately known as orange roughy because, well, it's orange and the ride to Antarctica is notoriously bumpy. Melanie Van Twest's has travelled on the ship as a medical doctor. [00:06:56][12.1]

Melanie Van Twest: [00:06:56] The most remarkable thing was watching the curtains over my little window. They would sway out into the cabin and then sway back flat against the wall. And as I watch them, I was trying to get it into my head that the curtains are actually hanging still and the wall was moving. To this day, I still can't quite wrap my brain around that. [00:07:19][22.2]

Laura Corrigan: [00:07:20] The Aurora Australis is about ninety five metres long and 20 metres wide. It's painted a deep orange colour. It has a flat bottom and its keel is toward the back. It can hit a maximum speed of 16 knots. It's the only ice breaker made in Australia. Gerry O'Doherty first saw the aurora when it was being built at Carrington Slipways near Newcastle in the Hunter region of New South Wales. It's strange Orange Hull was not like anything he'd ever seen before. He was a professional fisherman at the time. [00:07:49][29.3]

Gerry O'Doherty: [00:07:50] After the ship was built, let's said I had an unguided and unauthorised tour of the ship. I'll leave the details out, but I got to meet some of the people that were fitting the ship out and some of the crew. I asked them what I had to do to get a job on a boat like that. So my first mistake was calling it a boat because they all reminded me of the ship. And when I got down to the trawl deck, I met one of the bosuns and when I asked him that question he said, well, you've got to have a job on a merchant ship. And I sort of realised straight away that it was going to take some time and effort to to get away to sea. But as things turned out, nearly 10 years later, I did get away to see the Merchant Marine, and I did eventually get a job on the Australis and I've been here ever since. [00:08:31][41.5]

Laura Corrigan: [00:08:32] Don Laverick family ran the Carrington Slipways shipyard. Incidentally, Don is the father of Andrew Laverick, the handsome officer Sarah fell for a board, the ice breaker. Decades ago, Don travelled to Helsinki in Finland and visited the shipyard of what Wartsila, the company that designed the Aurora Australis. [00:08:49][17.3]

Don Laverick: [00:08:51] I can recall a gentleman showing me around the shipyard in January where the snow had been shovelled off the paths and was about six feet high. This guy says to me "what a lovely day today", and I said mate, I can't feel me fingers or me ears or me nose and minus four and you say its a nice day? He said "aw you should be here when it gets down to minus 40". I said, what how the hell do you build ships under those conditions. He said "so we let the welders knock off when it gets to minus twenty". Oh, very generous. Unbelievable. [00:09:25][24.4]

Laura Corrigan: [00:09:26] Don says from the beginning. The Aurora was a challenge. The multi-purpose ship had to comply with regulations for aircraft carriers, fuel tankers, cargo ships, fishing boats and passenger ships. [00:09:38][11.6]

Don Laverick: [00:09:39] Well, the material was much heavier than anything we'd done before. The bottom plating was about twice as thick as a normal cargo ship to survive the ice. Bending the plates for the shape of the ship, we had to buy a heavier set of rollers to roll the shapes. Every bit of it was a challenge. The hydraulic system on it was bigger than anything we'd ever tackled before because the winches were trawling. [00:10:10][30.9]

Laura Corrigan: [00:10:10] Don's eldest son, Bruce, was working on the ship in dry dock during the Newcastle earthquake of 1989. [00:10:15][5.1]

Don Laverick: [00:10:17] He thought the ship had fallen off the block in the dry dock. When he came up onto the deck and looked around the hole, a city clouds of dust. Those fires that BHP and the whole city was a dreadful mess. Dust flying everywhere. They were still trembling. [00:10:33][16.8]

Laura Corrigan: [00:10:34] The Aurora Australis launched in 1989 and would become Australia's premier Antarctic exploration vessel for more than 30 years. During its time at sea, the ship took its fair share of knocks. Barbara Wienecke is a seabird ecologist. She was on board the Aurora in 1998 when it suffered an engine room fire that night. Barbara had been on deck watching people taking ice measurements, and she went to bed around midnight escaping the minus 20 degree chill. [00:11:07][32.5]

Barbara Wienecke: [00:11:08] Two and a half hours later, one hears the dulcet tones of our captain's voice. And I thought can't be true. I mean, surely. But he kept repeating that this was not a drill. We had to leave. I remember my cabin mates saying, come on, Barb. Everybody else is running down the corridors. I think we really have to go. It is really hard to comprehend that this is actually not a dream and it is really happening. We are miles from absolutely everywhere. It is in the middle of winter in Antarctica. And your ship is on fire. And as soon as we got outside, you could smell something we hadn't smelled a day before. [00:11:39][31.4]

Laura Corrigan: [00:11:40] All the expeditioners had been mustered out onto the helideck in subzero temperatures. [00:11:44][4.0]

Barbara Wienecke: [00:11:45] I was far too busy trying to figure out what was going on. Too busy to be afraid. I certainly failed extremely wide awake. It isn't amazing. It seems that the thought processes are speeding up. So much is going through your mind. I realised actually that some of my colleagues had been a little bit underprepared in that they literally just ran out of their cabins and didn't have much warm gear with them. I knew it was going to be cold out there, so I made sure that I grabbed a few extra pairs of gloves and even some socks. I just shoved him into my pockets. And when I saw my colleagues with bare feet, of course, I handed them spare socks. When the lifeboats were lowered, just in case that we had to evacuate the ship, that's when I thought, no way, no way am I going to go into any of those little hubs. I rather go down with the ship. [00:12:27][42.5]

Laura Corrigan: [00:12:27] The fire was put out and nobody was injured, but the ship did lose power. [00:12:32][4.2]

Barbara Wienecke: [00:12:32] And as the days progressed, you sort of realise that, okay, everything is found. We didn't have any water. The toilets didn't work. It was disgusting. I mean, not having a shower is one thing, but not being able to use the toilets. That was pretty harsh. [00:12:44][12.1]

Laura Corrigan: [00:12:45] But again, the famous Antarctic camaraderie kicked in. [00:12:48][3.4]

Barbara Wienecke: [00:12:49] Because it was a Marine science voyage all sorts of people had brought along all sorts of gear. My team had a couple of high pressure gas cookers. When the ships and the galley staff heard about it. Oh, great. It started to cook vast quantities of soup and coffee. The reason why they could do that? Our marine biologist colleagues heads several hundred litres of distilled water? Thankfully, that hadn't frozen. And to this day, I'm amazed that the crew actually managed to get into this burned out cabin and fix things out of whatever little bits and pieces they found and got her going again. [00:13:24][34.4]

Laura Corrigan: [00:13:24] Ship master Gerry O'Doherty has his own horror stories from his time aboard the Aurora Australis. [00:13:29][5.0]

Gerry O'Doherty: [00:13:31] The worst experience I had was a toilet that malfunction in Cabin 13. I won't describe the details of that, but certainly the worst thing that's happened to the ship itself was the ship breaking its moorings at Mawson Harbour in 2016 and then drifted onto the rocks. That was in a blizzard. Yeah, that was probably one of the most heart stopping moments. First of all, we couldn't really see what was going on outside because of the blizzard. We did know that we were up against the rocks, but we didn't know how much damage the ship had sustained as a result of that. It wasn't exactly panic stations, but it was like we've got a serious situation on our hands. Let's do everything we can to make sure everybody is safe as possible. [00:14:13][42.3]

Laura Corrigan: [00:14:14] Gerry says one of the biggest challenges of the job is telling the expeditioners when they have to abandon the voyage and go home. [00:14:20][6.8]

Gerry O'Doherty: [00:14:21] So we do our best to try and get those people in those groups to those locations. And sometimes it's just not physically possible to do it. Well, you have to deliver the bad news to say, I'm sorry, but your project's just about to go down the gurgler and to experience the disappointment, that sort of news brings. That's really tough. In fact, I think that's one of the hardest parts of the job. [00:14:43][21.3]

Laura Corrigan: [00:14:43] During its service for the Australian Antarctic Division the Aurora Australis conducted 150 research and supply voyages involving 14000 expeditions. The ship propelled Australia's Antarctic programme, making strides in understanding the Southern Ocean. Advancements were made possible in oceanography, climate science, marine research, glaciology and conservation, including the management of krill fisheries. It helped Australia to make its mark in Antarctica. Melanie van Twest again. [00:15:15][31.6]

Melanie Van Twest: [00:15:16] There's a point called the Antarctic Convergence, and it is really like sailing into a refrigerator. The temperature just plummets over a matter of hours. And that's when you know that you really got their bits of ice, icebergs start to appear. And the sense of excitement and trepidation, to a certain extent, it's a dangerous place. You become very aware of how the ship is our refuge and our haven in that hostile climate. [00:15:45][29.3]

Laura Corrigan: [00:15:46] Antarctica is often described as monochrome, endless fields of grey and white ice and snow. But Sarah Laverick says there's actually a lot of colour. [00:15:55][8.8]

Sarah Laverick: [00:15:55] Something that I used to love, which was a bit surprising to me, was seeing seals on ice floes and things. If they've been eating krill, they'd leave like really vivid red streaks of poo on the ice. It almost looks like blood. The leopard seals the mouth at the ship because they're not quite sure what it is. So they open their mouths and that's like them saying, don't come near my flow. And as you go past them, like, say, if you're 50 metres off, 100 metres off as their floe goes by that pop of pink against this sort of white and blue landscape is really obvious and surprising. I used love seeing it and I don't know why. [00:16:29][33.8]

Laura Corrigan: [00:16:29] Stephen Nicol recalls seeing a particular colour in Antarctica, the elusive green flash of the sun. [00:16:35][5.2]

Steven Nicol: [00:16:35] As the sun just goes down beyond the horizon. There's very occasionally if the atmospheric conditions are right, there is sort of this absolutely intense flash of bright green light that just appears above the sun. In fact, the very first time I saw it, we were at the start of a long voyage. And one of my colleagues was there ready to photograph it and everything. And so we saw it and he was just stoked, he knew he'd taken a photograph. But it turned out he was using black and white film. [00:17:06][30.5]

Laura Corrigan: [00:17:07] Antarctica is the raw as natural habitat. It's designed to break ice 1.2 Metres thick. Gerry O'Doherty says the golden rule of seafaring is don't hit anything. But that's what the aurora was built for. [00:17:21][13.6]

Gerry O'Doherty: [00:17:22] Just a thunderous crack, like a continuous banging noise with one crack after the other. It's quite exciting. We often get people up on the bow just to experience that sort of shaking and thunder that occurs when we're doing it. And sometimes the ship can just continually push through ice and continually break ice under the bow and push it aside. And it goes underneath the ice sheets, beside the ship, as well as sometimes going underneath the hull, sometimes passing through the propeller area. And when it goes through the propeller, that adds a whole new dimension of shaking and rattling that keeps everybody awake. And sometimes the ice is heavy enough or strong enough that it actually stops the ship in its tracks. And when that happens, we have to reverse the ship for a couple ship lengths and then basically go flat out, straight back into the same spot and have another go. And sometimes that backing and ramming you might have to do two days to get to where you need to go. [00:18:22][60.9]

Laura Corrigan: [00:18:23] Barbara Wienecke was one of those passengers who'd like to get up on deck to watch. [00:18:27][3.6]

Barbara Wienecke: [00:18:27] She doesn't actually go through like a hot knife through butter. The bow rides onto the ice and the weight of the ship cracks the ice. You feel the ship's bow rising and then she slowly comes down and you suddenly see this fighter like veins running through your eyes. And, you know, she has cracked the ice. She goes into reverse again, takes a good run up and off she goes and breaks some more ice. [00:18:51][24.2]

Laura Corrigan: [00:18:54] The aurora has now been decommissioned. The ship's future is unclear. Melanie Van Twest started the Aurora Australis Foundation, which led a push to see the ship given heritage status and turned into an Antarctic museum and function space. [00:19:10][16.1]

Melanie Van Twest: [00:19:11] We're one of the very few active Antarctic nations that does not have a museum to record the history of its work in Antarctica. And that is an incredible oversight and a great shame. There's no point having a history if we don't communicate that to people. So although most Australians would know that Australia maintains and Antarctic programme and we have a presence in Antarctica, I would say very few would be able to tell you how many stations we have or the name of one of those stations, or will know that we're on Antarctica 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and have been since 1948. [00:19:49][38.3]

Laura Corrigan: [00:19:50] But the ship's owner, P&O Maritime Logistics, has been granted an export permit needed to sail the ship overseas. They say they've been approached by a number of interested parties from around the world. Leanne Millhouse would love to see the ship continue to operate. [00:20:08][17.7]

Leanne Millhouse: [00:20:09] It would be nice if she was still on operational working vessel. She would need someone to buy her for that particular task. So the upshot is, it be great if she could still continue to work in whatever capacity, whether it's another country or it's another company. She's still a very good ship. [00:20:27][18.2]

Laura Corrigan: [00:20:28] The Aurora Australis is being replaced by the Nuyina, built in Romania. The new icebreaker and supply vessel is almost ready to go, but its final testing phases have been delayed by the Covid pandemic. It's expected to arrive in Hobart in 2021. Gerry O'Doherty is keen to take up a role in the Nuyina. [00:20:47][19.1]

Gerry O'Doherty: [00:20:48] Certainly the excitement of the technology that it will have, it's got everything that possibly opens and shuts and goes round in circles -- it has an incredible capability. [00:20:57][9.2]

Laura Corrigan: [00:20:58] What is clear is that the Aurora Australis meant a lot to a lot of people. A second home, an adventure, a scientific breakthrough, a lifesaver, a matchmaker and so much more. [00:21:11][12.5]

Tom Melville: [00:21:19] That story there from Laura Corrigan. If you're around Hobart, you might have seen the Aurora Australis growing barnacles at Princes Wharf. You can't miss it. That striking orange hull really does stand out. And if you want to know more about the historic ship, look out for Sarah Laverick book Through Ice and Fire. That's it, though, for this week's episode of Voice of Real Australia. Thank you so much for listening. Subscribe on Apple podcast, Spotify or wherever you listen. I'll be back in a couple of weeks. If you like the podcast, please share it with friends and give us a five star rating on Apple podcasts. Everyone has a story to tell if you'd like to share yours. Email voice at Aust Community Media dot com dot are you. That's voice at aust A-U-S-T community media dot com dot are you. Our Facebook page is Facebook dot com slash. Voice of Real Australia. Voice of Real Australia is recorded in the studios of the Newcastle Herald. It's produced by Laura Corrigan and me, your host, Tom Melville. Our editors are Gayle Tomlinson and Chad Watson. Special thanks. This week, go to Ian Kirkwood and the Australian Antarctic Division. This is an ACM podcast. [00:21:19][0.0]

This story Voice of Real Australia Episode 4 Transcript first appeared on Newcastle Herald.