A bucket-list voyage became a quest for safe harbour on board coronavirus-free expedition ship MS Roald Amundsen. Edwina Hart describes how she weathered the at-sea quarantine
I’d signed up for an adventure, one that was sure to push my boundaries. I was travelling to the coldest, windiest, driest place on earth on board a Hurtigruten expedition ship – it was the trip of a lifetime.
Yet the journey delivered the unexpected when, 18 days later, Roald Amundsen and all its passengers were stranded off the Chilean coast, turned away from port in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.
In late February, we departed Chile’s southernmost city of Punta Arenas. By the time we’d started cruising through the Chilean Fjords, there were only a handful of confirmed cases of Covid-19 in South America.
As we set sail, expedition leader Steffen Biersack announced over the loudspeaker: “We are going into the wild, we are going into the elements. Sometimes we have to make contingency plans… This is not a holiday, it’s an expedition”. His words rang true on our voyage.
For the first fortnight, my fellow passengers and I enjoyed blissful quiet. We glided past glistening, cathedral-esque icebergs, keeping our eyes peeled for wildlife. I spotted a pod of orcas swimming alongside the bow, crabeater seals sleeping atop powder-blue ice fragments and colonies of squawking gentoo penguins.
We were following in the footsteps of legendary explorers who’d braved the vast, white wilderness. I listened, rapt, as onboard historians delivered lectures on polar exploration of the Heroic Age (a period that lasted from around 1901-1917).
We learnt that once Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen won the race to the South Pole in 1911, Irish-born Ernest Shackleton turned his sights to the crossing of Antarctica. I was entranced by Shackleton’s ill-fated journey; one which would play on my mind over the following days.
The first sign of difficulty arose on March 15, when our ship was turned away from Punta Arenas. Ports across Chile had closed to cruise ships and borders were shutting throughout South America.
Our captain, Torry Sakkariassen, remained optimistic. Our coronavirus-free vessel had already essentially been quarantined for more than two weeks, as we floated around one of the world’s last frontiers. My bags were packed ready for disembarkation and my scheduled flight to Santiago. However, our hopes were dashed by 6.30 the following morning when no one was allowed to step on land.
After several days anchored offshore, with little hope on the horizon, an eruption of cheers greeted our captain’s revelation – a new plan had been hatched that would see us sailing south to the Falkland Islands, a British overseas territory.
We had to face the Drake Passage, a turbulent stretch of sea that separates the perilous Cape Horn headland and Antarctica, for the second time. Overnight, our ship shuddered, creaked and rolled in the 26ft swells. Soon the seasickness set in.
The next morning, an albatross, a seafarers’ omen of good luck, circled above as we navigated the tempestuous seas. Soon, as if by godsend, the waves calmed, the sun came out and a rainbow stretched across the sky.
Still, being trapped onboard a cruise ship, not knowing how or when you’re going to return home, is challenging. Overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness, I turned to the pages of Shackleton’s memoir, South, for comfort.
My interest in Shackleton was ignited after exploring Elephant Island as part of our cruise itinerary. Here, Shackleton and his men had joyously stepped onto solid ground for the first time in 497 days.
Our Zodiac zipped around the desolate, inhospitable Point Wild, a significant shard of land where twenty-two of Shackleton’s men were marooned for months. With their plight in mind, how could I complain about being imprisoned on a luxury cruise ship?
Not long after setting out on a Trans-Antarctic Expedition from South Georgia in December 1914, the Endurance encountered pack ice in the Weddell Sea where it became trapped. For ten months it drifted in the ice floe.
The ship was eventually crushed and sank. The men had to set up “Patience Camp” on the ice, where they lived for several months. This drifted hundreds of miles before breaking up and forcing them to take to their lifeboats. They were blown off course to Elephant Island. There, twenty-two crew members were left under the command of Shackleton’s right-hand-man, Frank Wild, while Shackleton and a team of five undertook a 800-mile lifeboat journey to a whaling station in South Georgia.
This story kept me occupied as we headed for the rugged coastline of the Falkland Islands. To delve a little deeper into Shackleton’s story, I enlisted the expertise of Charlotte Yeung, Roald Amundsen’s resident expedition guide and historian.
I mentioned how I’d put our predicament into perspective by thinking of Shackleton’s men. She humoured me: “Frank Wild didn’t know when he was going to be rescued on Elephant Island, so he had to keep people’s spirits up. We, similarly, don’t know when we will be able to get off.”
Thankfully, that’s where the similarities end. Our ship was refuelled and pallets of provisions, such as fresh fruit and vegetables, and plenty of wine, replenished our dwindling stocks. As Charlotte noted, “quite a contrast to the men living on Point Wild. The only fresh food they would have had, they had to catch – so seals, penguins, seagulls and limpets.” Then there was hoosh, a kind of stew made from a blend of seal meat and blubber, ship’s biscuits and pemmican. It’s a far cry from the beetroot-cured salmon that was served at Lindstrom, our ship’s Norwegian-themed restaurant.
The Elephant Island party slept under two upturned boats (nicknamed the “snuggery”), where they lay in a mixture of melting snow and penguin guano. Learning this left me especially grateful for our onboard sauna and outdoor hot tub.
Charlotte added of the marooned men: “I think the hardest part was maintaining morale, which Frank Wild was really good at. You know, every day he would say, ‘Lash up and stow boys, the boss might come today!'”
In contrast, the Hurtigruten team organised a daily schedule with activities, including as scavenger hunts, photography workshops, watercolour painting classes and lectures on topics from Antarctic marine life to geology. Exercise took the form of morning yoga or “a mile around the deck”– a 490ft outdoor running track. After dinner, karaoke and talent shows kept passengers amused until bedtime. There was a mood of positivity on board, as well as comradery between the passengers and the ever-smiling crew.
Our patience was rewarded when, on March 26, the final 378 passengers disembarked at Port Stanley. Some of Shackleton’s words resonated as I began my journey home, 10 days later than planned. “Difficulties are just things to overcome, after all.”