Peril on ice: SA captain tells of Antarctic ordeal
Captain who steered SA Agulhus II out of danger while looking for wreck says it all began in his Umlazi home
What do icebergs and Umlazi have in common?
The answer is a 37-year-old ship captain currently sailing 3,000 nautical miles south of Cape Town.
Knowledge Bengu has emerged as the unlikely hero of a scientific expedition which last week was forced to flee treacherous sea conditions via a remote ice passage in Antarctica. The expedition team, travelling aboard SA’s ice-breaking research ship SA Agulhas II, had been trying to locate a 104-year-old shipwreck when weather conditions suddenly deteriorated.
Bengu and his crew steered the ship to safety through thickening ice in the remote Weddell Sea not far from the South Pole.
The ship is now visiting SA’s research stations in the Prince Edward Islands in the sub-Antarctic Indian Ocean.
Responding to Times Select questions via e-mail, Bengu said he was relieved to have escaped the Weddell Sea.
“The sea ice started forming rapidly and temperatures falling sharply. The sea ice drift direction changed to mainly westerly, which resulted in more compact ice conditions.”
He said that despite aborting the mission he was proud to have made history as the first ship captain to return to the Weddell Sea since the doomed polar expedition led by Ernest Shackleton in 1915.
Shackleton’s ship, Endurance, sank after becoming trapped in the ice, forcing the explorer to escape across the ice.
“Nobody actually gave us a chance to make it over the wreck site, and understandably so, because no one has ever made it to the Endurance sinking position,” Bengu said.
“Such an achievement really needs to be celebrated by all of us – South Africa made history and this attests to the skill and professionalism of our South African seafarers. The admiration for the vessel’s performance from the client is constant is huge gratification to vessel team,” he said.
Bengu credits a neighbour at his parents’ Umlazi home for inspiring his maritime ambitions: “I never thought I will one day specialise in ice navigation; I just never thought it was even possible for me to see Antarctica for free, and, moreover, get paid for it.”
He said dodging icebergs in frigid waters required mental strength and preparation: “Fortunately my mental strength towards any voyage is very powerful – I switch over to my mental sea-going mode so that I can focus on the voyage at hand. I am responsible for the safety of the vessel and passengers, I have to remain focused at all times and pull up the team where it is necessary.
“I have done almost 10 Antarctic voyages and I am always mentally prepared for what lies ahead.”
Life aboard the hi-tech Agulhas is a lot more comfortable than the frigid conditions common to early polar expeditions, with thermal-heated accommodation. The ship’s ice-breaking capability is also a major advantage. Said Bengu: “The vessel must keep the propellers turning to keep the encroaching ice away from the stern to protect the rudders [which might] restrict manoeuvrability of the ship. All officers on board received ice navigation experience from cadet and junior officer level, which makes life easier for the whole team.”
Sadly, sea conditions last week forced the team to abandon their mission, along with a submersible “autonomous underwater vehicle” that had been deployed to look for the wreck. It is still unclear whether the vehicle managed to capture images of the wreck before it was lost under the ice.
Bengu and his crew earned high praise from the expedition leader, polar geographer John Shears: “The expedition team, and the officers and crew of the SA Agulhas II, have been simply outstanding.
“The Weddell Sea Expedition team are truly disappointed that after such a huge effort, and overcoming several major setbacks, we have not been able to find Endurance.
“We are, however, very proud of our other achievements over the past weeks in Antarctica. We have greatly surpassed our primary expedition objective of undertaking pioneering scientific research at the Larsen C Ice Shelf.”