I’m home, after 16,000 miles by air, 4,335 nautical miles by ship and two months away. I have been to the Antarctic Peninsula via York, Brize Norton, Falkland Islands, South Georgia, South Sandwich Islands, South Orkneys and South Shetlands. But in all those miles the only time I stepped outside the UK was on the few landings we made in Antarctica, which thanks to the wisdom of the Antarctic Treaty, covering all lands above 60 degrees south, belongs to no-one except itself. Christmas day was spent at 67 degrees south and our southernmost point was 68 degrees 12.4 minutes south (according to the navigator, and he should know!).
In my bag are three full sketchbooks, a wealth of memories on each page. As we patrolled this wilderness of ice and light in a ship guided by every technological advantage of the 21st century, the ghosts of past explorers, exploiters and knowledge seekers were ever present, from Shackleton’s grave and remains of whaling stations in South Georgia to the empty Antarctic Station huts of the 1950s, still with their tins of food in the cupboards as if they had been left only yesterday. I drew sea, sky, icebergs, mountains, glaciers, seals, penguins, birds, maps, life on the ship, pelagic birds tilting and gliding above the waves, ice floes cracking as the ship pushed through them, fragments of history and the excitement of the present moment. I even drew a traffic cone at the British Antarctic Survey Station Rothera (which may well be a first for an Antarctic sketchbook!).
With every sketch I tried to use the process of drawing to try and work out why a cold and inhospitable wilderness, that should make us long for the warmth and comfort of home, instead makes us feel intensely alive and hungry to return.
In our covid-free floating bubble there has been no need for masks or social distancing. I’ve been the only civilian on board a Royal Navy ice patrol ship, finding my place amongst people who occupy a disciplined and ordered world far removed from mine. Strangers have become friends and once I found my way around the ship’s routine it felt good to be back on the wild waters of the Southern Ocean in such different circumstances to my last adventure two years ago.
I started preparing this blog whilst still on the ship, on the final day, trying to pack and wondering how I seem to have accumulated so much extra ‘stuff’ when I’ve been thousands of miles away from the shops for two months (well ok, I bought a few tiny gifts in Falklands… and a South Georgia hoodie… and a Rothera tee shirt). After a few weeks of perpetual daylight we were back in the Falklands where the sun sets at around 9pm at this time of year. As I sat on my suitcase tugging at the zip then noticing I’d failed to pack my boots or towel, the message was piped round the ship to lower the ensign for the night:
Attention on the upper deck, face aft and salute. Evening colours. Carry on
Over the next weeks and months I will be developing the ideas I have bubbling away, and I’ll post regular blogs with sketchbook extracts. Some time this year there will be a book and also some youtube videos as well as a host of other projects… on top of all the regular studio work of course. It’s going to be a busy year. Thank you to all who kept me company along the way by responding to my instagram and facebook posts, it made a big difference knowing there was so much interest out there. It underlined for me just how fortunate I was to be in a place that holds so much fascination for everyone – and my grateful thanks to Friends of Scott Polar Research Institute and the Royal Navy for making it possible.