by Captain Siddharth Chakravarty
Captain of The Steve Irwin
At about 1730 AEDT, just as I round Cape Adare, I pick out the distinct masts of a sailing vessel. I had some information of an expedition yacht being in the area but didn’t think I would stumble across her so easily in the vastness of Antarctica. Little did I know that this spotting will, for a brief period of 10 hours, add a fourth vessel to Operation Relentless.
Making a quick U-turn to ensure the Yushin Maru No. 2, my tailing vessel, does not spot her, I immediately call my Sailing Master, Mal, to see if he is willing to go and talk to the Skipper of the Infinity, to set rolling an audacious plan. I know it is a mighty request of an expedition boat but I take my chances anyway. The deck crew scramble into their cold weather gear and launch the Delta small boat in falling light. Someone jokes, “Imagine being anchored in the solitude of Antarctica and have a RHIB with four men in dry suits pull up to your boat. The Infinity’s crew is in for quite a shock.”
Darkness will soon be upon us and we must act fast. As the Delta speeds away towards the anchored sailboat, I instruct my Second Mate, Bruce, to ensure we blackout the whole ship. Every single porthole is closed, every single light is switched off and the bridge lights are dimmed. I want to blend into the darkness.
At 2145 AEDT, after I have waited anxiously for about an hour I get the call. “The plan is go. The Infinity will weigh anchor and be underway at 2230.” I quickly explain my plan to sneak in and ask for it to be passed on to Clemens, the eager and supportive Skipper of the sailboat. For the plan to succeed, the vessels are to be completely blacked out, there is to be radio silence and the sailboat is to move just as I come up to her and stop. I get the GPS coordinates for the Infinity and immediately get underway, to be there in 45 minutes.
I calculate that I have eight miles to go from my location to the Infinity. By now, darkness has fallen and I cannot switch on my spotlights to find my way through. Relying on the keen eyes of my Quartermaster, Cassie, and night-vision goggles, The Steve Irwin picks her way through the ice floes. The waters around Cape Adare have uncharted depths and I am constantly monitoring the depth with the echo sounder, ready to hit full-astern should the depth fall to less than five meters. I hear my other Quartermaster, Rod, countdown every couple of minutes, “23, 22, 18…12.”
I am running a bit behind schedule due to the hampered navigation and it looks like I am going to be 45 minutes late for the rendezvous. I get another call from the sailboat, “We have heaved anchor and are drifting, ready to get underway.”
I hear the thumps of ice bumping along the hull. From the bridge, I can see vague outlines of the ice floes, but cannot determine the size or the hardness. Between the icy white of the mountains and the eerie black of the water, I will have to take my chances if I need to pull this off. Caution will need to wait for now.
The Yushin Maru No. 2 switches off its lights as well and uses its sharp spotlights, to thread its way carefully, following two miles behind me.
At 2245 AEDT, I am now close to the sailboat. It is dark enough that I cannot discern the silhouette of the Yushin Maru No. 2 on the horizon and this enthuses me; if I can’t see them, then surely they can’t see me either.
There is a problem, though. I am very close to the coordinates of the sailboat but I cannot spot her in the darkness and she cannot spot me. We need to get really close to each other for the swap to work. Switching on lights is not a possibility. I call the Delta to try and guide me in but they cannot spot me either. I send my Bosun’s Mate to the bow to give a quick flash using a small handheld light. I see a dim flash back and I alter course towards that light, but the path is filled with ice. “It doesn’t matter. Let’s just plough through it,” I tell Bruce. We have a limited window and we’re running late.
Shuddering as I push her through ice, the reliable Steve Irwin never falters once, and finally the edges of the sailboat are visible against the white of the snowy mountains that offer her a lee and an anchorage. The Delta, which has been with the sailboat all this while, comes up to Mal and I, and shouts, “They’re underway now. We should stop.” I hit on the engines full astern, covering the sailboat and bring The Steve Irwin to a dead stop. I now begin pacing outside the bridge watching the Infinity motor away from me.
The sailboat heads west, in the direction I would have continued along, picking her way through the ice. The Yushin Maru No. 2 is stopped two miles away, all her lights off. I almost lose her among the ice floes, but then pick her trail up again on the radar. Now is the time to see if the plan works.
The “plan” is a simple one but it’s never been tried before. I intend to lose my tailing ship by using the cover of darkness to swap radar targets with the sailboat. If the Yushin Maru No. 2 falls for this it will end up following the trail of the sailboat, which could lead them off my radar range. At that point I intend to resume my search for the Nisshin Maru.
The ice that I have just pushed my way through is the same ice that the Infinity has to pick her way out of heading west. It takes her about half an hour to get the first mile and the Yushin Maru No. 2 is still stopped in the water. The only visible mark of its presence is the odd sweep of the searchlight. As the clock strikes twelve, the Yushin Maru No. 2 picks up speed and begins heading west, paralleling the course of the sailboat. It is the first indication that the plan is working.
After the initial jubilation of seeing the Yushin Maru No. 2 pick up the trail of the sailboat, I fall back into my pensive stupor. The ice has slowed the movement of the sailboat immensely. Instead of averaging a planned 7 knots, she is only doing about half of that. I fear the veil of darkness will lift soon, revealing the sailboat to the Yushin Maru No. 2. The ship’s crew, all piled behind one of the radar screens, share my mood. Unblinking, we stare at the radar information on the two targets that are slowly but steadily moving away from us, one minute at a time.
“It seems to be working. The Yushin Maru No. 2 is following us”, says Clemens, the Infinity’s Skipper, as he calls in on the pre-decided half hour interval. He indicates the progress is slow but that sees open water ahead and intends to bring his speed up to maximum once there.
After another hour of waiting, the Yushin Maru No. 2 is now two miles from us. Suddenly, I hear, “Those spotlights again. They’ve spotted us.” The Yushin Maru No. 2’s powerful lights sweep the horizon and fall on the bridge of The Steve Irwin. They go off and on again, and past until they hold their glare straight at us; almost as if telling me my little trick is over. I ask Mal to call the Infinity and let them know that it seems like the Yushin Maru No. 2 has figured it out. Clemens, however, says he is navigating through heavy ice and that the Yushin Maru No. 2 is still following, the lights possibly just helping her keep up with the sailboat. I decide to give it another 15 minutes.
We watch the sailboat hit open water and increase her speed to about seven knots and the Yushin Maru No. 2 does just the same. Soon the miles between The Steve Irwin and the Yushin Maru No. 2 increase. Someone jokes, “This will be funny when they realise they have been following a sailboat, instead of The Steve Irwin. Imagine having to call the whaling fleet commander and explain the sudden transformation of The Steve Irwin into a 34-meter sailing boat!”
After about three and a half hours of the swap, the Yushin Maru No. 2 is 12 miles away and I decide to begin creeping towards Cape Adare in an attempt to round the Cape and escape. It is a difficult decision to make. If I wait for too long the darkness will lift and the sailboat will be identified. If I move too soon, I will be spotted on the radar of the Yushin Maru No. 2.
Mal and Vince take the controls and begin the one-mile crawl to Cape Adare. To not seem suspicious, we set a speed between 0.3-0.7 knots. This one mile turns out to be not only the slowest mile of my life, but also the most tense. On the other side of the Cape lies an opportunity to completely outsmart the whalers. It gives us a chance at finding the Nisshin Maru for a fifth time this whaling season. On the other side of the Cape lay victory, freedom and a fresh lease of life for Operation Relentless.
At 0300 AEDT, I am around the Cape and begin altering my course to head southeast when the phone rings. It is Clemens. “The Yushin Maru No. 2 just spotted us. They have come in close, seen that they have followed the wrong boat and have turned and are now heading at 19 knots in your direction.” I pick up my binoculars and look in the direction of the sailboat. 15.5 miles away I catch a glimpse of the mast-lights of the Yushin Maru No. 2 heading straight for me just as I disappear behind the cape. I pick up my speed to maximum and run south along the coastline off Cape Adare. I have 45 minutes before the Yushin Maru No. 2 will round the cape and come looking for me. I kick the table and think to myself. “We almost pulled it off. Almost. Another five minutes and I would have been free of this tail. Another five minutes of darkness or snow or obscured visibility would have given me a chance to find the Nisshin Maru.”
On the bridge there are two different opinions. “The Yushin Maru No. 2 has to come through ice and cover 15.5 miles. We’re safe,” and, “We should go in close to the shore now and begin drifting. They won’t see us.”
I’m not too optimistic. The heavy snow and the mist that have been hanging over Cape Adare all night have lifted. The visibility seems to be about 10 miles. I intend to run as fast as I can until the Yushin Maru No. 2 emerges from around the bay and hope that she does not see me drifting 10 miles away. The chances are slim but my fingers are crossed.
At about 0450 AEDT the YM2 spots me sitting against the black backdrop of Cape Adare and beelines for me at full speed. For now I am back with my tailing ship. If only I had another 30 minutes of darkness or snow!
The night, however, is a powerful reminder for me. It reminds me why Sea Shepherd is so successful on these campaigns. We cannot match the Japanese whaling fleet physically. They have the money, they have the number advantage and they have faster and more manoeuvrable ships. But they lack the passion, the imagination and the drive to succeed. They lack the guile and the skill the Sea Shepherd crew have to take on such a tough opponent and still win.
I’ll walk away from this experience with a smile, knowing that for those 10 hours, the Captain of the Yushin Maru No. 2 was fooled. He was asinine enough to follow the Infinity.
photos: Tim Watters