November 23, 2014

Heacham Electrician Has South Georgia On His Mind (EDP Front Page Pic and Feature 23/11/14)

My Lynn News review of Ray's November 2014 lecture to the King's Lynn Society of Arts and Science on his previous A4 months on Halley Station, Antartica, is here

Link to this EDP cover pic and story here

“I’m just popping out for a career break. I may be some time…”
Kids gone, mortgage paid, pension looming, many of us dream of throwing up the day job and all our routine securities to do what we always dreamed of, while we still can. Some of us ‘of a certain age’ even do it.
Not many of us leap as far as the South Atlantic!
But that’s exactly what Heacham electrician Ray Thirkettle has just done. (Last Sunday) he joined the British Atlantic Survey (BAS) on remote South Georgia, the best part of a thousand miles east of the Falklands, for a 13 month stint as an electrical technician. On a pinprick island in a vast cold ocean, with long hours of darkness coming next ‘summer,’ Ray will certainly be needed.

Ray Thirkettle ANL-141121-145716001 
This is in fact Ray’s second ‘leap in the dark’. In 2012, he was granted a 4 month career break by the NHS to join the BAS’s flagship Halley station on the Antarctic continent itself. This included a midsummer White Christmas. Clearly it wasn’t enough! And this time, it’s not so much a break as the end of an NHS career.
Does he have any regrets?
“Yes, I’ve just bought a sports car!” he jokes.
More seriously, he adds. “I had a secure position as NHS electrician at the QEH in Lynn, where I’ve been for 7 years. While there are definite rewards in joining BAS, money definitely isn’t one of them.
“But most of all, of course, I regret a 13 month parting from my wife of 32 years, Pauline.”
I ask the 7,697 mile question. And how does his wife feel about being a BAS widow on the other side of the world, starting with another solitary Christmas?
I’m not the first to ask. During Ray’s recent King’s Lynn Arts and Science SocietyLecture about his Antarctic expedition at which Pauline provided technical support – she answered herself with a pair of jazz hands and a big grin. The audience of 65 was suitably amused, if not entirely reassured.
Today, however, we get the real answer. “This is something Ray has always wanted to do. Of course I want to support him in fulfilling his lifelong dream.”
Ray’s sheepish smile of gratitude says it all.
He justifies further, “In this digital age, it’s not that we won’t hear from each other. During my Antarctic trip, we were in email contact every morning and evening and there was a telephone link every week – by satellite to Cambridge and then up the land line to Heacham. All of this will apply equally to South Georgia, where there may even be the luxury of Skype.
“In some ways we’ll see and hear more of each other when I’m on the other side of the world than when we’re living in the same house!”
I stare fascinated at Ray’s map of the bottom of our planet.
It’s easy to forget Antarctica is a continent. The South Pole is on a plateau but elsewhere there are huge snow-and-ice-buried mountain ranges. Halley station was on the frozen coast. South Georgia is a mountain range and a coast in a lot of deep water. It’s not got many similarities to Heacham. Did he learn anything last time to make the long trip south any easier?
“Yes, we’d got to South Africa before I realised I hadn’t packed any underpants!”
Ray moved to Sedgeford with his wife and young family as an employee of Eastern Electricity in 1986 and their youngest daughter grew up there. He got interested in science via the Sedgeford Archaelogical Research Project. (SHARP). “I had an Iron Age horse skeleton in the garage for six months.” I mention that this must have intrigued visitors even more than the sports car and he laughs.
Ray’s involvement with SHARP continues and his distinctive hat and regulation archaeological beard adorned Open Day last year. “I was going to be SHARP’s animal bones expert for the 2015 season. Obviously, since the BAS phone call at the end of September informed me I’ll be in South Georgia that’s all now on hold. But I’ll always be grateful to SHARP for the original inspiration and they are cool about my having a year away.”
Ray’s experience with SHARP led on to an OU Degree in Natural Sciences. The degree involved a lot of detail collected by BAS and the more he found out, the more he wanted to see a station for himself. Lamenting one day in the field to Melanie Van Twest, a young Australian member of SHARP, that he was too old to apply to join one of BAS’s projects, the youngster urged, “Go for it, Ray. They’d snap you up.” And they did. “My OU degree in Natural Sciences was crucial in getting me this job.”
Does he feel smug at escaping the Norfolk winter before it sets in?
“I’m more likely to see a White Christmas than you will in winter Norfolk – South Georgia is mountainous and snow is possible all year. But the main snow will come during May-October.”
Temperatures across the South Atlantic vary enormously. A quick glance at the BAS website (at the time of writing) reveals it is currently minus 11 degrees at the Halley station in Antarctica, +9.4 at King Edward Point on Georgia, where it is more than sheltered than the otherwise equivalent Bird Island (+3.1) - and a chilling minus 38 degrees at the South Pole.
The temperatures Ray can look forward to in his upside down year will typically range from minus 15 C to a sweltering high of 20 C. Luckily, he will be living in a sheltered valley on a long peninsula called King Edward Point. The high surrounding mountains will protect the small team from the worst excesses. He has been preparing for this and other eventualities with training courses since October.
“We had better weather in the Antarctic in Spring 2013 than Norfolk did. And I came back to a colder welcome – from the weather – than I’d left in the frozen South.”
“But by June 2015 it’ll be dark and chilly and may even plummet to 20 degrees below.”
Is he worried?
“No. I am equipped with 22 kg of state-of-the-art Antarctic kit to keep me safe and warm.
“BAS don’t own the station. It belongs to the South Georgia government. As you might expect, it uses cutting edge sustainable fuels – in 2008, a new  Hydro Electric Power station (designed and built in Kendal, Great Britain by Gilkes Ltd) was installed, using the mountainous terrain and a lake, and – reassuringly – there is a stand by generator.  I’ll be a snug as a Norfolk bug in a rug.”
His new penguin-populated Georgia base does have some reminders of home. King Edward Point includes a church; a whaling station converted to heritage and protection; Shackleton’s grave and a harbour for tourist cruise ships. It even has seals. A corner of the world forever England?
The scientific research, as you might expect from its location, is primarily fishing based. The BAS-contracted laboratory re-opened after a 20 year impasse caused by the Falklands conflict –Argentinian forces briefly occupied this island and still claim it - and is aimed at providing scientific advice to assist in the sustainable management of valuable and commercial fisheries around the island. What is Ray’s part in it all?
“Twofold: 1. to keep the base’s electrical equipment running and also to assist the scientists. The latter includes crewing the power boats as they conduct fishing surveys.
2. To generally help run the station, keep it tidy and clean, and take my turn to cook– making use of a recent crash course from Pauline. Unlike the Halley team’s happy arrangement where international chefs in search of adventure and a CV embellishment are typically employed, the Georgia team is too small to justify dedicated chefs. But I’ll do my best!”
Ray is keenly aware of the role of science in rescuing the planet. “The station is important to the world as it is collecting data about sustainable fishing and the viability of fish stock.
“And also how many whales have been pinched by unauthorised whalers!” adds Pauline.
There are penguin and seal colonies to monitor and reindeers to control. Rats were accidentally introduced to the island via whaling boats and the damage to bird species is clear by comparing the birds’ relative thriving on nearby Bird Island, which is rat-free. The station has overseen an enthusiastic rat-eradication programme, still not quite successful.
Ray hates talk of ‘decimating’ rats though –because it’s a sloppy and unscientific use of the word. “We need to get rid of them all, not just one in ten!”
It is this precision that helped get him the job. He was the only person on the Halley station trusted with polishing the glass frontage of the spiral staircase.
This scrupulousness also typifies Ray’s concern with the wider environment and the sustainable survival and prospering of the world to which BAS is so committed. Ray’s recent lecture for the KLSAS ended with his passionate advice to British youngsters. “Don’t follow popstars and footballers– the really exciting place to be in the modern world is Science.”
Looking at Ray’s example, there might be a few more ‘of a certain age’ who feel the same!  

Original EDP Feature by Gareth Calway here

The Cambridge-based British Antarctic Survey is one of the world's leading environmental research centres and is responsible for the UK's national scientific activities in Antarctica.  ‘Digging Sedgeford’ the full story of the SHARP project’s first 18 years is published by Poppyland Publishing  Gareth’s Norfolk Notables features for the EDP are available online at His Christmas show with Dr Paul Richards ‘A Hanse Christ  Mess’ is in the Hamburg Suite at Hanse House in King’s Lynn on 6 December details  or

Ah! Gentoo Penguin with Chick and an egg!!

“Arrival Sunday 23 November
Just got here after a week's travelling! Phew.
I am not a great sailor and the ship was going from side to side a lot.
The Hydro plant we have here was designed and built in Kendal, Great Britain by Gilkes Ltd.
Skype, alas, does not work, it has taken me I hour to log on to emails! Still quite incredible that I can do this on a very remote island down here.
I will keep you in the news loop, may be able to send small photos if I pick my time. This is written at 22:30 on a Sunday when things are quiet.
Seals are very very smelly!
Cheers and love to all,

'Shackleton' Day 5 Dec

Me - Thinking of you on the day Shackleton set off from South Georgia 100 years ago. 'The Guardian' has a centrefold of Endurance in the ice today. The crew are playing football next to it!
Good job we’re all British or we’d faint!

Ray- One of my workplaces, the Hydro Power Plant, is no more than 100 yards from the gentleman's grave. There is a fence around the graveyard, to keep reindeer and seals off.
Kind Edward Point Factfile (adapted from BAS website
Position: King Edward Point lies 860 miles east of the Falkland Islands, on South Georgia, a mountainous island near the bottom of the world, no nearer South America than Antarctica. Access is by boat or ship-based helicopter.
Purpose: Administration support; applied fisheries research.
Occupied: By the British Antarctic Survey.

Station Facilities

3 separate laboratories; a dedicated communications room; offices with excellent computing facilities; a walk-in freezer for specimen storage and a library

Administration & Status

South Georgia, part of British Overseas Territories, is administered by its own government, based in the Falkland Islands, and represented locally at King Edward Point by a Government Officer. BAS staff at King Edward Point provides logistic support assisting the Officer to carry out his duties plus the delivery of an agreed science plan.

Scientific Research

BAS scientists provide sound scientific advice to assist in the sustainable management of the valuable commercial fisheries around the island.
Surrounded by cold waters originating in Antarctica, South Georgia has a harsher climate than expected from its latitude. Permanent ice covers over half the island, large glaciers flow from the highest peaks in sharp contrast to the green coastal belt.  Mountain-sheltered, King Edward Point receives drier and calmer weather. Temperature range −15°C to +20°C with well-defined summer and winter, though snow can fall on any day of the year. The island is typically snow-covered from May to October.


Mountainous and glaciated.
Coastal fringe is snow-free in summer with lush vegetation.
The island was once the home of the whaling industry. Tens of thousands of whales were brought ashore to be rendered down for oil. Many of the beaches are littered with whalebones. The whaling station at Grytviken, across the bay from King Edward Point, is now a heritage site and includes a museum.


Abundant seabirds including penguins. In summer the station beach becomes a breeding ground for Elephant seals.

Station Personnel

King Edward Point station has 22 people living on station in summer and 12 people throughout the winter. BAS staff comprise 2 fisheries scientists; 2 boating officers; 2 technicians (electrical and mechanical); a doctor and a Base Commander.

Life on Station

Everyone is on a rota to clean, cook evening meals and make bread. Comprehensive training in navigation and Search and Rescue techniques is provided initially in the UK and continued upon arrival.


Athena (BAS) said...

Wonderful, a really nice read!

Unknown said...

I have enjoyed this post very much.Thanks for sharing.

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