HMS Protector, the Royal Navy’s newest ice patrol ship, has returned to her home in Portsmouth after her maiden deployment to Antarctica, where she surveyed and patrolled the Antarctic Peninsula.
The ship departed Portsmouth on November 28 last year and arrived in Antarctica on the centenary of the Royal Navy’s Captain Scott reaching the South Pole on January 17. She returned to Portsmouth on June 27.
In her first deployment since joining the Navy’s fleet in June last year, Protector conducted three separate intensive work periods in the ice. She used her multibeam echo sounder and deployed her survey motor boat to provide hydrographic charting and imagery of the region for the UK Hydrographic Office, which provides 80 per cent of the world’s nautical charts.
The ship also assisted with the resupply of British Antarctic Survey stations in the region.
On February 23 sailors from the ship tackled a ferocious fire which raged through a Brazilian research base on King George Island in the South Shetland Islands. They fought for hours to tackle the blaze, which claimed the lives of two of the base’s personnel.
Protector’s crew used the ship’s small boats to land vehicles and equipment. Operations ashore were co-ordinated by her executive officer, Commander Don Mackinnon, working with Chilean and Brazilian naval personnel.
A few weeks later the ship punched through the ice in a race against time to pick up a team of British Antarctic Survey scientists.
Protector put the group on the remote James Ross Island but worsening weather meant they had to be rescued four days later. With a change of wind direction there was a chance ice from the Weddell Sea would be driven towards the island, potentially blocking the ship in.
Commanding Officer Captain Peter Sparkes decided the safest and least risky option would be to sail through the ever-increasing pack ice and send in the ship’s work boats and fast rescue craft to retrieve the scientists.
They were safely extracted with all equipment, and were back on board within 90 minutes of the first boat entering the water in a ‘textbook’ operation.
The deployment also included surveying the forbidding shore of Point Wild on the northern coast of Elephant Island.
On previous visits the Navy’s attempts to survey the waters have been thwarted by the elements, but Protector’s small inflatable boats were able to land personnel to collect data about the tide, shoreline and water. This will allow accurate depths to be plotted on updated charts – particularly important as the area is an increasingly popular destination for cruise ships.
In April, Protector ventured to her most southerly point of the deployment, the Rothera Research Station, 800 miles (1,300km) south of Cape Horn. The ship delivered aviation fuel in rolling seas and in temperatures of minus 15 degrees Celsius.
“Protector’s return from her inaugural deployment to Antarctica represents a significant achievement for the ship’s company who have transformed this unique ship into a Royal Navy warship, deployed her and operated her in the most challenging environment, and recovered her safely to the United Kingdom, all within 12 months,” said Captain Sparkes. “We now prepare ourselves to redeploy the ship south again in September.”
HMS Protector is being leased from Norwegian company GC Rieber Shipping for three years as an interim replacement for HMS Endurance, which suffered flood damage when she was operating in the South Atlantic in 2008.
Built as the Norwegian vessel MV Polarbjorn (Polar Bear) in 2001 and chartered to the Royal Navy since April this year, HMS Protector was commissioned into the Navy on June 23, 2011, on the 50th anniversary of the implementation of the Antarctic Treaty and the centenary year of Scott’s expedition to the South Pole. Previously, she operated under charter as a polar research and subsea support vessel.
Polarbjorn has accommodation for 100. Large cargo holds and open deck areas provide storage capacity for remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) and related equipment. A 50-ton crane and 25-ton stern A-frame allow equipment to be deployed over the side and over the stern.