The Ice Man of "Iron Bark" - Trevor Robertson sailing to Antarctica

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Portions of this article appeared first in Cruising World Magazine

ANTARCTIC ADVENTURE

THE ICE MAN OF IRON BARK

By James Baldwin

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Iron Bark II lies frozen in the ice at
Port Lokroy on the Antarctic Peninsula.
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On May 20, 2000, 51-year-old Trevor Robertson sailed his 35-foot Wylo gaff-cutter, Iron Bark II, into Chaguaramas Bay, Trinidad. I met Trevor a few days later when he hauled his boat out next to my own boat at a nearby boat yard. Remarkably, this unassuming Australian had just come directly from the Antarctic where he spent the previous winter alone aboard his boat, frozen into a remote bay on the Antarctic Peninsula. When I asked why he chose to spend a winter alone in the Antarctic, Trevor simply said: "It seemed like an interesting thing to do." Despite Trevor's modest declaration, I knew this incredible voyage could not have been conceived and executed by such a casual approach. As I heard more of his story, I learned just how much careful planning, thorough preparation and rock-hard resolve it takes to survive a full year in the most inhospitable region on earth. Around the boat yard, Trevor became known as "the Ice Man" for obvious reasons. The term is no reflection on his personality, which seems almost too sociable for those tempted to judge him as merely an ice-loving hermit. Trevor, who grew up near Perth and worked in the past as a petroleum geologist, began sailing in 1974 when he purchased a 10-year-old 34-foot wooden sloop which he sailed mostly single-handed and engineless from west Australia, around the South African cape, to the Caribbean. Unfortunately, he lost that boat on a reef one night near Petit St. Vincent due to a navigational error after three sleepless days at the helm. "Bernard Moitessier wrote a book after he lost a boat in similar circumstances not far away a few years earlier, so I am in exalted company," Trevor said with a laugh.

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After working a couple years as a charter skipper out of St. Lucia, in 1981 he returned to work on the oil rigs of west Australia. In three years, he socked away enough money to purchase a 30-foot fiberglass sloop in which he completed a five year circumnavigation. Back in Fremantle in 1990, he sold this second boat because, as he pointed out, "She was not suitable for the high latitudes I now wanted to sail in." Trevor moved to Queensland, bought a piece of land, and set about building his vision of an ideal high latitude cruiser. He chose the Nick Skeates designed Wylo and of course built her in steel to withstand the hull-crushing force of ice. "She's a tough little boat," Trevor said in his typical fashion of understatement. "The Wylo design is easy to build. She has a full keel of moderate 1.5 meter draft and shallow draft is quite important in Antarctic waters. You need to be able to tuck into shallow bays where the bergy bits can't follow you in."

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Trevor Robertson aboard Iron Bark II in
Trinidad after his year in the Antarctic. 

Iron Bark II is not only massively constructed, but has an attractive rounded chine that is quite unusual in a home-built steel boat. Her ice-proof hull plates are 5 mm around the keel, 4 mm at the waterline, and 3 mm along the topsides. A 40 mm thick steel plate caps the bottom of the keel. To allow the 16 hp Isuzu diesel to operate in freezing waters, Trevor installed a dry exhaust with glycol anti-freeze cooling system in the keel. The 11-ton displacement gaff cutter has a custom tapered aluminum mast stepped on the keel and rising a moderate 10 m above the mostly flush deck. This simple rig also carries a hanked-on jib and staysail. The relatively short, 200 mm diameter mast with 6 mm wall thickness has proved strong enough to survive several knock-downs in wild Southern Ocean storms. Now that Trevor is sailing in more moderate latitudes, he has added a gaff topsail to the rig. Trevor is not exaggerating when he claims Iron Bark II is nearly indestructible. Stanchions and handrails are heavy-walled pipe welded directly to the deck. Pointing out the ample stainless steel rubbing strake welded onto the hull, Trevor said, "I'm quite happy to go into a fishing harbor and lie alongside the roughest concrete wall with no fenders. One time a big fancy fiberglass yacht was unfortunate enough to drag anchor during a storm and get tangled up in my stanchions. In a short time his boat was all busted up and he was quite amazed to see I had no damage at all. I can even haul her out using a crane with chains hooked directly to the deck scuppers". When Iron Bark II was launched in October 1997, Trevor immediately took her on a shakedown cruise to Vanuatu and back to New Zealand. The next year he sailed out of New Zealand for the ultimate solo adventure - to sail as far south as he could reach and winter over in Antarctica. Over the years, I've interviewed several men who have gone off on years-long extreme voyages and participated in a few minor adventures myself. The one thing these men have in common is being uncomfortable trying to explain what drives them to test the limits of their endurance in the earth's untamed regions. Maybe they search, as I have done, to fill that mysterious hollow spot inside that lies guarded behind a wall of unspoken fears. Or perhaps they simply need to satisfy what's been called the 'Ulysses Factor' - the natural exploring instinct of man. Another friend of mine, Alberto Torroba, who sailed a dugout canoe across the Pacific without navigation instruments, finally threw up his hands when questioned too closely and said, "Don't ask why!" Whatever it was that drove Trevor to do battle with the Antarctic winter, he proved himself the ultimate hardcase survivor. For forty-eight days after leaving New Zealand, Trevor negotiated a series of Southern Ocean gales on the 5,400 mile run to his first stop at the Melchior Islands off the Antarctic Peninsula. Ten days later a charter yacht sailed into the bay and asked Trevor if he needed any assistance. "What I need is local knowledge, real quick, and plenty of it," he replied. After getting some valuable tips from the seasoned charter skipper, Trevor made use of the almost continuous daylight to explore southwards along the peninsula, visiting the Videla Research Station operated by Chile and the Ukraine's Vernadsky Station. He forced himself to keep on the move in order to exploit the brief two-month Antarctic cruising season which begins when the ice breaks up in January. He eventually reached nearly 67 degrees south, where few other boats have gone, before being forced to turn back by impenetrable fields of ice. "Anchoring in the Antarctic is difficult because the bottom is generally bare rock that's had its sediment scoured away by the ice," Trevor said. "The technique I used was to find the smallest available cove, drop the anchor, then quickly get into the dinghy and set four lines up ashore before the anchor drags. If you're in shallow enough water, the big bergs ground themselves before smashing into you." Amazingly, Iron Bark II has no anchor windlass. Trevor routinely pulls in up to 90 meters of chain hand over hand because he considers a windlass "too slow"! Trevor chose to winter at the site of the old whaling station in Port Lockroy, which he described as having: "good protection and a friendly group of summer residents at the Antarctic Heritage Trust, which is a British charitable organization of dubious legality. They flog post cards, stamps and T-shirts to the tourists that occasionally come in on small cruise ships or charter boats and wave the Union Jack in support of Brit territorial claims to the Peninsula. But I have to say all the personnel at the bases treated me well and were extremely generous." A week after his arrival, Port Lockroy was abandoned for the winter. Trevor was now alone and without contact with the outside world. "I made a conscious decision not to take a satellite phone or SSB radio with me," Trevor said. "It's not that I didn't want to speak to other people. I just felt I had no right putting people in a situation where they would have to risk their lives to save me if anything went wrong." I agreed with Trevor that this is what separates a real adventure from today's high-budget and high-tech thrill-seekers who are unwilling to let their survival depend on their own actions. That's not to say that playing at adventure with rescue available with the flip of the EPIRB switch is not valid or rewarding, but it is a world away from the satisfaction gained from doing an expedition truly on your own. For a few weeks longer, Trevor would not be entirely alone. Each day he rowed ashore in his dinghy to count penguins, seals and birds for an ongoing census project. His chief companions now were weddell seals, fur seals, leopard seals and penguins. The snow petrel - with their all white bodies tipped with black beak and feet - were also plentiful. As the long, cold Antarctic night descended when the sun disappeared entirely in May, the wildlife he had come to develop a bond with, also fled to leave him truly alone. For some days before the freeze-up, the bay was filled with brash and pack ice, which prevented Trevor from getting ashore for his daily solitary walks. To protect his windvane steering from more ice damage than had already occurred when he had sailed and anchored among the ice floes, he unshipped it and stored it ashore under what at the time looked like a conspicuous rock. Trevor recalled, "It was a lot less conspicuous in January when it was buried under ten feet of ice and snow. It took me a week or more of trenching to find it." One day in June Trevor awoke to find the surface of the bay had cleared and then suddenly froze up as smooth as a skating rink. He longed to get ashore for some exercise, but knew breaking through the thin ice would mean certain death. Unable to resist the opportunity, he put on his waterproof survival suit over his regular multiple garment layers and pushed himself ashore while lying on a makeshift sled made from one of his bunk boards. Within days the ice thickened so that it was safe to walk over. Then a strange thing happened. Day by day, the boat was sinking lower and lower into the ice. It seemed inexplicable and probably frightening. "What appears to happen," Trevor explained, "is that the first layer of ice gets a grip on the hull, especially the rudder and bobstay. The sea ice then continues to form by accretion from above and pushes the boat down." Nearly every day Trevor spent hours of back-breaking labor chopping the ice away from the stern as well as digging out his mooring lines. When I asked how he coped mentally with the long lonely days of frozen darkness, he admitted, "The lack of light was depressing. I used just one kerosene lamp and when I felt particularly depressed, I'd also light a candle." Obviously, you need a tight grip on your sanity in this situation. The average person would likely go mad and die during a winter alone in that soul-destroying darkness and isolation. Besides the darkness, the cold was insufferable. Because of a need to conserve his limited supplies of fuel, he ran his heater only one day a week for six hours. "Extra fuel for a pressure lamp and for the heater would have been nice," he said. "But I only had room to carry 600 liters of kerosene and it had to last the entire year. To provide daily heat would have taken ten drums. Costs of resupply are high. Though it's quite a bit further away, I was told a single drum of kerosene delivered to the South Pole costs $16,000." Lack of heat meant he could not use his electric lights or any electric appliances. Frozen batteries simply do not work. Because he could not heat the battery compartment, one of his frozen batteries eventually split its case and was ruined. . To give an example of how complicated the simplest chores become in the sub-zero world, Trevor explained the steps involved in making pancakes. "First melt some ice for water. To start the kerosene stove even the preheat alcohol has to be preheated next to the lantern before it will burn. Chisel off a chunk of frozen olive oil. Then melt the batter in a double boiler of water. Fry the pancake. Then melt the frozen jam in the double boiler. Then eat quick before it freezes up again."

To get drinking water he chopped and hauled fresh water ice from a glacier because all the ice surrounding the boat was contaminated with salt. Snow can be used in an emergency, but it is not nearly dense enough to be efficient for the fuel and work expended in melting it. Trevor's diet during the expedition consisted mostly of recipes based on rice, flour, corned beef and butter. To survive the cold he had to eat a fat-rich diet of about 4,000 calories a day, he estimated. Even so, he came out of the Antarctic as lean as a marathon runner. During the six hours a week when he ran the heater, the inside of the cabin, which was soon covered in a grubby freezer frost, would start streaming condensation. Everything, including clothing, bedding and books, got wet and then froze solid when the heat was shut off. To read the frozen books meant pulling off a glove and using his hand to thaw one page at a time.

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Iron Bark lies securely moored with four
lines ashore in a cove on the Antarctic Peninsula.

To keep from going stir crazy, he went out walking several hours each day, regardless of the weather. The lengthy dressing process required removing his thick down-filled parka and redressing in his 'active wear' layering system, which included: polypropylene long johns, two layers of fleece inner garments, gore-tex outer garment, three pairs of socks, felt boot liners, three pair of gloves and mittens, face mask, two fleece caps, a hood, and a pair of snowshoes. Exposed flesh could get frostbite within minutes, making outside toilet stops undesirable.

When I asked what were the temperatures and winds like, Trevor said, "I had no thermometer or wind instruments. Measurements did not seem terribly important. Probably -20 degrees Celsius mean temperature. The katabatic winds were strong enough to blow you off your feet at times. I made a mental map of the terrain so I could feel my way back in a white-out." From his journal, Trevor describes the ecstasy of the sun's return: "I didn't realize how much I missed the sun until it reappeared on July 23. For fifty days, the sun never rose above the surrounding mountain range. When it first reappeared, I skipped and ran along the ridgetops trying to keep it in view just a little longer." It was not until January, however, that the Iron Bark would finally float free from the ice's grip. Before the break-up, Trevor spent two and a half weeks of daily labor with pickax digging out his buried mooring lines. Once free of the ice, Trevor again sailed south to further explore the stunning beauty of ice-covered offshore islands and the cliffs and glaciers on the Antarctic Peninsula. As he carefully maneuvered his way through the open leads between the pack ice, he stopped whenever possible to continue his penguin census. After thirteen months in the Antarctic, Trevor finally turned north for warmer climes. The return trip across the notorious Drake Passage lived up to its stormy reputation when a southeasterly gale nearly drove him onto the rocks of Cape Horn. Several days later he sailed into the Falklands for much-needed provisions and much-missed human contact. In Port Stanley, Trevor had a new Aries windvane flown in and fitted to replace his old ice-damaged gear. He then sailed a relatively easy and mostly downwind passage of nearly 6,000 miles to Trinidad with one brief stop at Brazil's Fernando de Noronha Island. While Trevor had Iron Bark hauled out at IMS Yacht Services yard in Chaguaramas this summer, he worked on extending the bowsprit and fitting a topmast and welding on a stern platform to protect his new wind vane from ice. He launched his boat in July and has since done some cruising between Trinidad and St. Lucia. Trevor is now working for an oil company in Trinidad in order to finance another voyage into the ice. This time he plans to head to the opposite end of the world, to attempt to pass through the Arctic's Northwest Passage. Trevor plans this next challenge as another low-budget - he estimates a cost of $25,000 - and entirely self-sufficient adventure. Some call it mad, but in my view, his is surely one of the most authentic, inspiring, and today, increasingly uncommon ways of testing the extreme limits of human exploring achievement.