A tattered black and orange liferaft, found drifting alone and unoccupied on an icy sea … this was the only trace of a yacht and its three crew, missing during an expedition into the freezing waters of the Antarctic.
The crew of HMNZS Wellington had made contact with Berserk one day earlier.
Photo: Royal New Zealand Navy
Late on the afternoon of Tuesday, 22 February, as the nation was reeling with the news of earthquake devastation in Canterbury, a search was beginning hundreds of miles away for the Norwegian yacht Berserk, missing inside the extreme southern boundary of New Zealand’s search and rescue region.
Well known in Norway for undertaking extreme and challenging voyages, the five man crew of the 48 foot (14 metre) steel-hulled sailboat were part of an expedition aiming to be the first to cross the ice to the South Pole on quad bikes.
The skipper and expedition leader, Jarle Andhoy, and crewman Samuel Massie, both from Norway, were successfully dropped off onto the ice. Then, 8 days later, something went terribly wrong on board Berserk. An alert from the yacht’s distress beacon, located about 27 nautical miles (50 kilometres) north of Scott Base in the Ross Sea, was picked up at the Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand (RCCNZ) back in Wellington.
The vessel’s three remaining crew, Norwegians Tom Bellika and Robert Skanes and a British man, Leonard Banks, were in trouble.
Faced with a remote location and fearsome weather, rescuers began putting out the call for help to assist in the search to nearby vessels of opportunity. Among the first to answer was the crew of HMNZS Wellington, who were nearby on assignment and had, ironically, spoken with the crew of Berserk just a day earlier.
After steaming through the night to reach the beacon’s position, Wellington arrived in the early hours of the next morning, only to be beaten back by winds raging in excess of 60 knots (110kmh) and ferocious 6–8 metre swells.
HMNZS Wellington was the first to join the
search but faced extreme conditions and winds.
Photo: Royal New Zealand Navy
What followed was a week-long international search effort covering vast areas of ocean and ice at the bottom of New Zealand’s 30 million square kilometre search and rescue region. It was the southern-most search and rescue effort ever coordinated by RCCNZ.
Braving extreme weather conditions, including the worst blizzard experienced in the summer season in the area for many years, the vessels Professor Khromov (also operating as Spirit of Enderby) and Steve Irwin answered the call from RCCNZ. They joined the search, combing the area for any trace of Berserk.
Thankfully, improved weather conditions allowed crews in smaller boats and a helicopter crew from Steve Irwin to continue to search, with refuelling and logistical support from nearby McMurdo and Scott bases. Help also came from the Norwegian Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC).
The general manager of MNZ Safety Services, Nigel Clifford, says despite these dedicated efforts, the only trace of Berserk’s presence was a small, round battered liferaft found almost 3 days later, drifting 45 nautical miles (83km) north of the original beacon alert position.
“Inside, the first aid kit and survival knife were missing, but, unfortunately, there was no sign of anyone or any evidence the raft had ever been occupied,” Nigel says. “This was supported by further evidence that indicated the raft had floated free from the vessel by itself.”
Crew of Steve Irwin put the Zeppelin in the water to
recover the Berserk liferaft.
Photo: Barbara Veiga
Finally, after 7 days of searching with no further sign of Berserk or the three missing men, the difficult decision was made to formally suspend the search.
“Sadly, given the absence of any further sign of the vessel or crew, combined with the extreme weather conditions and near-freezing temperatures experienced in the Ross Sea at the time, it had gone beyond the point where we could reasonably expect anyone to be found alive,” Nigel says. “Our deepest sympathies are with the families of the three men.”
He also paid tribute to those who had helped in the search. “This was a truly international search and rescue effort, with people and agencies from a host of different countries banding together to try to find Berserk and its crew. We particularly want to acknowledge the courageous and dedicated efforts of crews from the three search vessels and helicopter involved, who selflessly put themselves on the line to help out. Tragically, our best efforts were in vain.”
The calculated search area covered more than 25,000 square kilometres, and the three vessels and helicopter put in 141 hours of combined search time over 7 days, making it one of the most extensive searches conducted in the area.
A helicopter from Steve Irwin located the Berserk lifereaft in the Ross Sea.
Photo: Barabara Veiga
Note: All times are in New Zealand Daylight Time
5pm: RCCNZ detects signal from distress beacon registered to Norwegian sailboat Berserk, 27 nautical miles (50 km) north of Scott Base in the Ross Sea. Signal ceases about 45 minutes later.
Attempts to communicate with Berserk via regular broadcasts on maritime radio and satellite phone begin and continue throughout the search.
RCCNZ contacts Royal New Zealand Navy vessel HMNZS Wellington and asks it to divert to the signal’s position. Heavy seas hamper the ship’s progress.
3am: Wellington reaches the search area and completes search plan provided by RCCNZ. It then leaves the area due to extreme conditions.
RCCNZ tasks the vessels Steve Irwin and Professor Khromov (also known as Spirit of Enderby), both about 24 hours away, to assist in the search effort.
Steve Irvin near Franklin Island in the Ross Sea
Photo: Barbara Veiga
7am: Steve Irwin arrives in search area and commences aerial and on-water searching according to search plan provided by RCCNZ.
7.30am: Steve Irwin locates liferaft reportedly lost from Wellington.
1pm: RCCNZ makes contact with Berserk captain Jarle Andhoy and crewman Samuel Massie, who have been making their way to the South Pole on all-terrain vehicles. Both are safe.
4pm: Professor Khromov joins Steve Irwin in the search.
The search continues throughout the day.
Professor Khromov resumes its journey towards Antarctica, but continues searching as it goes.
Steve Irwin continues aerial and on-water searching.
9am: Steve Irwin locates unoccupied and damaged liferaft later determined to have come from Berserk about 45 nautical miles north of the yacht’s original distress signal position and in the middle of the search area determined by RCCNZ. There is no sign the liferaft was ever occupied.
Searching resumes and continues throughout the day.
8am: Steve Irwin continues searching, focusing on an area around Franklin Island at the head of McMurdo Sound.
11am: Steve Irwin stands down its helicopter after 21 hours of aerial searching and begins its voyage northward to Hobart. It continues searching along coastline as it travels north and trying to reach Berserk by radio.
9pm: Steve Irwin formally released from search.
10.45am: Professor Khromov officially released after searching on return journey from Antarctica, but continues to maintain lookout as it voyages to Terra Nova Bay.
4.30pm: RCCNZ officially suspends search efforts after three vessels and one aircraft total 141 search hours, with a calculated search area of 25,600km2 of ocean and ice.