TWO things of note occur in Newcastle, near Sydney, in 1989: the city experiences a magnitude 5.6 earthquake that damages 50,000 buildings and cost $4 billion in repairs, and Australia’s first locally built Antarctic icebreaker, Aurora Australis, is launched.
It isn’t exactly an easy birth. Early in the process engineers at Carrington Slipways discover inconsistencies in plans supplied by renowned Finnish shipyard Wärtsilä Marine: ducts do not join up, services overlap, pipes are forced to compete for the same bulkhead space. With patience and ingenuity the team forges ahead – only to have production derailed again shortly thereafter when Wärtsilä enters bankruptcy.
Despite these hurdles Aurora Australis is completed on time in 1990 and delivered to operator P&O Polar on behalf of the Australian Government.
Fitted with 133 berths, it incorporates an array of laboratories, hull-mounted oceanographic sensors, a central data-logging system, a commercial-sized trawl net, finer sampling nets, a conference facility, a photographic darkroom and a surgery. It is the most sophisticated vessel ever used by the Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition.
Its first voyage of significance is to Australia’s three stations on the edge of the continent itself (Casey, Mawson and Davis), combining on the brand-new ship both new personnel and new systems – a recipe for certain frustration if not complete disaster.
This is the start of a 30-year career during which Aurora Australis survives fires, besetment, breakdowns, a grounding, illness and injuries, and the failure of key pieces of scientific monitoring and recording equipment, all while making a priceless contribution to Antarctic research. Presented in biographical style, Through Ice & Fire records the highlights and lowlights of three decades of sailing in one of the world’s harshest environments and pays tribute to the people who populate the ship through until its retirement in Hobart at the end of the 2019–20 summer season.