My First “Sniff” of the Southern Ocean

by Phil Peterson
Bosun - The Bob Barker

Phil Peterson, Bosun on The Bob BarkerPhil Peterson, Bosun on The Bob BarkerNow that we are at sea I feel a renewed sense of energy. Even as many of the new crewmembers are seasick and hardly seen, the veteran crew is about the ship tending to their duties. Up on the bridge music is playing and there is a lot to talk about. We’re reminiscing about last years’ campaign and spotting the sea birds around the ship, as well as starting to speculate when we will see our first iceberg.

I always feel a bit anxious just before we leave port and this year was no different. Worrying about last minute supplies, whether everything is secure, and the obvious unknown as to what the whalers will bring to the table this year are my biggest concerns. The members of my deck team are quick learners and have not disappointed me. Training pretty much everyday in past weeks leading to departure brought out the best in them and sometimes the worst in me. I expect a lot from them, and I forget not everyone knows where everything is and how to use it.

As The Bob Barker steadily heads south, pushing her fuel-laden bow through the two-meter swell, I am finally at ease. We are easing into a routine that will keep us busy and the ship at the ready. Safety-at-sea drills are planned and executed. Small boat launch and recovery will fine tune the crew’s skills and find any weakness in the system.

There are some who know what can happen when a launch goes bad. In 2011 The Bob Barker had just dropped off the pilot and was outside the heads of Sydney. I was at the helm of the Gemini - our small boat deployed at action time - with my navigator Alistair, or “Buoy” as most of us know him. Pottsy was Bosun at the time and he radioed us to do an underway recovery, something I had never actually done but understood the dynamics of.

Phil leads the small boat crew in sea trials.Phil leads the small boat crew in sea trials.Our first recovery went well; pull up next to the ship, pin the port nose of the small boat alongside, attach the painter line, ease back on the throttle and proceed to be towed at six knots. Safety lines on bow and stern, signal for the crane hook to be lowered, hook on, and up we go. Easy peasy. No sweat.

We repeated the procedure for at least an hour without a hitch. Pottsy was impressed with the efficiency of the crew and I was very happy with what was happening. It had been a long day though. The deck crew had been up early and had worked hard getting the ship to sea. It was now past dinner and I was getting very hungry. I had Buoy radio-in that we wanted to come aboard. The response we received was, “One more launch.” Somewhere, somehow on deck signals got crossed, and the painter line was being stowed. It was quickly reset and the evolution restarted.

As the Gemini was being lowered into to water the painter line that would normally tow us along slipped out of the fairlead, which it is usually secured. That slack, now in the line, ran aft with the weight of the 2-ton small boat, knocking Deckhand “Beas,” Michael Beasley, to the deck. As the boat was still attached to the crane and the forces on the quick release caused it to fail, the boat started drifting back and to starboard, catching the port rail in the water and turning the Gemini off balance.

Phil, adapting launchers for the small boats.Phil, adapting launchers for the small boats.As we were being lowered to the water I had sensed something wrong as I was watching the ship running forward past us. I tried to get the outboards running and managed to get the port engine into gear and turned hard to port to try and straighten out the boat. It was already filling with water and the dynamic forces were trying to tear the boat from the crane. I looked back at Buoy as he was hanging onto the radar arch and I told him, “I'm outta here!” I took a deep breath and dove out the port side and down under the Gemini, between the small boat and the ship, swimming as deep and as fast as I could.

When I came up, I was behind The Bob Barker and started looking for Buoy. I figured he had followed me, or was tossed from the Gemini as it smashed against the hull. He was nowhere to be found. All I could think of was he was either still on the Gemini or ground up into fish food by the propeller of The Bob Barker. The lovely Sara Keltie was pointing at me the whole time as The Bob Barker did its “Williamson turn” to retrieve me. I finally saw that Buoy was safely on deck and Pottsy somehow got the boat into the water and came to fish me out.

As he approached I noticed half the crew had eyes on us and the others were busy pointing to an object about 30 meters behind me. We got the boat back on deck and no one was hurt. As our Captain at the time, Rob, told us, “It was a great training opportunity, we learned something and we will fix it.” It never occurred to me that I was in any danger during any moment of the incident, until I found out the “object” everyone was pointing at was a six meter Great White Shark coming in to give me a sniff....

 

all photos by Simon Ager

Click here to read Phil’s bio.

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