The two survivors of a Norwegian expedition following the footsteps of legendary compatriot Roald Amundsen to the South Pole have defended their journey amid growing condemnation.
Bedraggled and showing signs of facial frost bite, controversial Scandinavian adventurer Jarle Andhoy and his 18-year-old companion Samuel Massie today spoke of their ordeal after being airlifted from Antarctica to Christchurch by a United States Operation Deep Freeze flight.
While the pair managed to trek non-stop for a week to the US base at McMurdo Sound, the three other members of the Wild Viking expedition are believed to have perished in the Southern Ocean after their 14-metre steel vessel Berserk disappeared a week ago.
Andhoy, 34, undertook his latest polar odyssey without permission from the Norwegian or New Zealand governments - he has a history of launching unsanctioned voyages, though this is the first that has likely ended in tragedy.
He and Massie disembarked from the Berserk on February 13 near Scott Base to start their quest on quad bikes to mark the centenary of Amundsen becoming the first explorer to reach the South Pole on December 14, 1911.
The Berserk's emergency locator beacon was activated last Tuesday, it lasted for several hours before transmissions ceased and it is now assumed the yacht sank in one of the worst Antarctic storms in 20 years.
The missing men are Tom Gisle Bellika, 36, Robert Skaanes, 34, who are Norwegian, and Leonard J Banks, 32, who holds dual South African and British citizenship.
Lou Sanson, chief executive at Antarctica New Zealand, said the venture was unwise.
"It was very unusual to be attempting a 1600km trip to the South Pole on motorbikes. It is minus 20 (degC) there. On the Polar Plateau it is minus 30. You get wind chill up to minus 70. These guys were 220km towards the pole and still had over 1200km to go."
Andhoy insisted he had taken the necessary precautions to safeguard his crew.
"I think we did everything as good as we could. We prepared 110 percent.
"The place where this incident happened was a very easy going place to sail, it's near a sound, near land, safe anchorage ....
"This ending is very, very surprising. There's no logic to it."
Andhoy had not considered the repercussions of his adventure when returning home; his initial concern was contacting the families of the missing men, whom he believes have little hope of survival.
"There's nothing to prove the boat is lost but I am going to be very honest with the family and realistic.
"If there is a mechanical problem or distress situation, hopefully they are flying with the winds."
Massie held faint hopes the Berserk was "sailing somewhere in South America without an engine" but was also braced for the worst.
"It's been really traumatic. I'm here and not my crew," he said.
"We were definitely well enough prepared. It was the boat that managed to f..k it up. It's so sad.
"This is the darkest time. I've been living with them now for the last seven months. When you live with somebody for that length of time in a ship a few metres big you really get to know them. They get like family, you know. I just lost three family members."
Andhoy made light of their non-stop, week-long trek to reach the Americans once they lost contact with the Berserk's stand-in skipper Bellika.
"It was a walk in the park, Norwegians are born with skis in their feet," he said.
Andhoy added he was grateful for an extensive multinational search that covered more than 10,000 square kilometres, often in treacherous seas and 180kmh winds.
"This help is really beyond anything we expected because we put ourselves in that situation. We knew the risk of it."
ANDHOY'S CHEQUERED PAST
Andhoy's tragic expedition to the North Pole is the latest in a sequence of controversial seafaring journeys the 34-year-old has attempted in the world's polar regions.
His issues with authorities began in June 2002 when he departed the Norwegian port of Longyearben on Svalbard with the goal of following the path of the Viking chief Ohthere and progress as far as possible north in the Arctic circle.
Although Andhoy claimed the voyage set a world record for the distance travelled northwards in open water it was criticised by Norwegian authorities who fined him for sailing without insurance and failing to submit a route plan.
Andhoy was also fined of 20,000 Norwegian Kroner ($NZ4731) and was refused permission to continue in Svalbard's waters.
He refused to pay the fine and when taken to court in 2003 he and his crew members Alex Rosen and American filmmaker David Mercy faced fresh charges of environmental crimes, including unauthorised landings in protected areas and provoking a polar bear.
They were found guilty in March 2004 and placed on a two-year probation.
However, four months later Andhoy and Rosen attempted to continue the voyage before diverting to the Baltic Sea.
In the summer of 2007, Andhoy undertook a new expedition to explore the Northwest Passage, sailing from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean along the Canadian coast, infuriating authorities there.
But in early July two of the crew were arrested after the vessel was boarded and searched. Andhoy was also detained shortly afterwards after attempting to free one of his crew and smuggle him across the US-Canada border.
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