Three die in 'Viking' yacht off Antarctica

MICHAEL FIELD
Last updated 19:26 27/02/2011

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A foolhardy voyage to Antarctica by a group of self-proclaimed Vikings has cost three lives while forcing a New Zealand navy ship and its 55 crew into savage seas, damaging the new vessel.

Berserk, a Norway-flagged 45m-long steel yacht with three men aboard, disappeared on Tuesday, in McMurdo Sound, 33km north of Scott Base.

Yesterday it was confirmed that an empty liferaft, found by the Sea Shepherd's Steve Irwin, was from Berserk. There was also debris but no sign of the missing men.

Berserk had dropped two other men, with quad bikes bought in Auckland, on the ice. Last night they were trapped on the Ross Ice Shelf, trying to reach Scott Base, before the sea ice, which is breaking up, separates from Ross Island.

An Auckland mariner who saw Berserk in the Viaduct said the boat had been made unseaworthy by its heavy cargo, including the quad bikes lashed to the deck.

After Berserk's emergency beacon sent a Mayday signal, ice-strengthened patrol vessel HMNZS Wellington, commissioned last year and in McMurdo Sound, was dispatched.

"As we responded, we were stuck in the most intense storm I have ever encountered in 19 years in the navy," skipper Lieutenant Commander Simon Griffith told Stuff yesterday from inside the Antarctic Circle, enroute for Dunedin and a Thursday docking.

Hurricane force winds up to 182km/h "exploded off the Ross Ice Shelf" and sharp swells of 8m slammed into HMNZS Wellington.

Spray turned to thick ice on the decks. Aerials, lighting and speakers were swept away. Griffith ruefully noted they even lost their stern light.

Liferafts were ripped off. "We still have enough on board to keep us safe," he says. In the midst of it, Griffith got word of the Christchurch earthquake; he kept it to himself for 12 hours.

Wellington made it into the lee of Mt Erebus but once they entered McMurdo Sound they got slammed again.

"They were the biggest seas I have ever come across, but it was pretty obvious the ship was up for it." Nothing of Berserk was found.

On Monday they had met Berserk at Back Door Bay, where Shackleton's Hut stands.

"They gave us a call and asked us for a packet of cigarettes. We did not have any, but we gave them a cigar," says Griffith. The yacht was warned severe weather was coming.

"The yacht seemed a very sturdy, oceangoing yacht and they were three cheerful Norwegians."

Berserk leader Jarle Andhoy, 34, and Samuel Massie Ulvolden, 18, were attempting to reach the South Pole to mark the centenary of Norwegian Roald Amundsen's South Pole expedition.

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The three left on the yacht were Robert Skaane, 34, Tom Gisle Bellika, 36, and South African Leonard Banks, 32.

Andhoy, a television celebrity in Norway, was fined recently for "trying to talk to the polar bears".

Canadian authorities arrested him on suspicion of being a member of the Hell's Angels and deported him.

Berserk needed to get permission from the Norwegian Polar Institute to sail below 60 degrees south.
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Official Jan-Gunnar Winther confirmed they did not have permission.

Scott Base manager Troy Beaumont said the storm which hit Berserk and Wellington was "a bit of a doozy".

"There are a whole lot of treaties down here and they have managed to violate every one of them," he added.

Antarctic New Zealand CEO Lou Sanson told Radio New Zealand the two men on the ice shelf were stuck amidst crevasses in a whiteout with minus 20C temperatures.

"Why you would want to drive a motorbike to the South Pole at this time of year is completely beyond us.

"It just seems all the safety principles operating in Antarctica have been broken."

Auckland commercial skipper Kevin Peat saw Berserk at the Viaduct.

"They had all the stuff sitting on the dock and we thought there was no way they could get it onto the boat, but, over a two week period they slowly, but surely, lifted the gear into the boat," Peat said.

"We thought it was a joke, no way you would go with all that gear out it onto the ocean, certainly not the Southern Ocean."

It included 44 gallon drums of fuel lashed to the deck, along with quad bikes.

One bike was lashed over the engine room hatch.

Berserk was structurally sound but all the weight would have compromised its righting moment, meaning the boat would be vulnerable to capsize.

He said it would have cleared Customs but as a foreign flagged vessel, it could not be prevented from sailing, even though it was unsafe.

ICE BREAK HALTS AIRLIFT

Meanwhile, an American bid to get as many people back to New Zealand from McMurdo Sound and Scott Base today has run into trouble as the sea ice which holds the runways breaks away from land.

The US Antarctic Programme has already moved its 500 people out of quake-struck Christchurch and was last night and today sending two giant US Air Force Globemasters south to bring out several hundred people early before winter.

If successful, they will be flown to Auckland from Christchurch today in an RNZAF airlift.

Scott Base manager Troy Beaumont told the Sunday Star-Times that the sea was opening up and access to the ice shelf was becoming difficult.

"The ice is breaking up," he said. He said it was likely the Globemasters would be able to land at this point, but it would take staff longer to get onto the ice.

Antarctic New Zealand CEO Lou Sanson said they had run into complications now that the Ross Sea Ice Shelf was parting from Ross Island.

"We are seeing the biggest ever break out of the Ross Ice shelf in 15 years, our supply lines to the airfield are getting affected," he told Radio New Zealand.

- Stuff

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