In focus: HMS Protector – the Royal Navy’s Antarctic patrol ship
After 4 years away from the UK, HMS Protector returned to Devonport on 25th April 2019. Here we look at the history of Antarctic Patrol Ships, Protector and her role in supporting UK interests and global science in the region.
The Royal Navy association with the Antarctic goes back to the early days of exploration of the continent in the 19th Century. Captain Robert Falcon Scott, arguably the most famous polar explorer, was an RN officer and many of the British pioneers had naval connections. The presence of a dedicated Antarctic Patrol ship can be traced back to Operation Tabarin of World War II. Although nominally to deter German commerce raiders from interfering with whaling and merchant ships, the despatch of HMS Highland Monarch, initially to Deception Island, was motivated by a desire to deter Argentine and Chilean claims to territory in the region. In the event, there was no confrontation and the expedition embarked on scientific work which remains the main focus of the UK Antarctic presence to this day.
In 1955 HMS Protector (the 5th ship to bear the name) a former 2,900-ton net-layer built before the war was converted at Devonport to a ‘guardship’ and survey vessel for the Falkland Islands and its dependencies. The hull was ice-strengthened, she retained some armament and was fitted with a flight deck and a crude hangar. Serving until 1968, she was replaced by HMS Endurance.
In 1967 the MoD purchased the 3,600-ton Danish-built icebreaker Anita Dan from Lauritzen Lines. She was renamed HMS Endurance and converted for RN requirements by Harland in Wolff in Belfast, including the addition of a hangar and flight deck for the operation of two Wasp helicopters. Events in 1982 conspired to make HMS Endurance a household name. John Nott’s disastrous 1981 Defence Review which would have decimated the navy, had determined HMS Endurance would be axed as one of many short-sighted economy measures. This was one of the signals that the Argentine government took as a loss of British interest in the Falklands, justifying their invasion. Endurance was involved in the recovery of South Georgia and survived the war unscathed. As the only Chatham-based ship to take part in the conflict, she arrived home on the Medway to a hero’s welcome in August 1982. The Falklands War ensured the future of the RN Antarctic Patrol Ship that continues today. (You can read the full story of the ship 1980-82 in the excellent book by her Captain, Nick Barker “Beyond Endurance: An Epic of Whitehall and the South Atlantic”)
By the late 1980s, Endurance was in a poor mechanical state and the MoD began studies to replace her with an initial budget of £52 Million for a new ship. The budget was quickly slashed to £25M and it was clear an existing vessel would have to be purchased rather than be purpose-built. In October 1991 MV Polar Circle was chartered to replace Endurance for that season. Polar Circle was a 6,100-tonne icebreaker built in Norway. A powerful, modern and comfortable vessel, she was a big upgrade on her predecessor and was purchased outright in October 1992, becoming the second ship to bear the name HMS Endurance. She enjoyed a highly successful career until disaster struck in December 2008 when she was off the coast of Chile. A mistake was made during a routine maintenance procedure led to a serious engine room flood. (The battle to save the ship is recounted in this article by her captain, Cdr Tom Sharpe: Mayday in the Magellan.)
The Chilean Navy came to the rescue of Endurance and she was dry-docked in Punta Arenas before being towed to the Falklands. There was some hope she could be returned to service and she was expensively carried back to the UK on a heavy-lift vessel. It took until 2013 for the RN to finally decide the flood damage to her propulsion and lower decks had rendered her beyond economical repair. She languished in Portsmouth until finally towed away in June 2016 for scrapping in Turkey. With no immediate replacement to hand, the RN presence in the Antarctic was gapped for the 2009-11 seasons until an alternative could be funded and procured.
In April 2011 the MoD took the polar research and subsea support vessel, MV Polarbjorn on a three-year bareboat charter from GC Reiber Shipping of Norway for £26 Million. Smaller at 5,000 tonnes and lacking a hangar, she was initially seen as something of a ‘stop-gap’ and a step down from Endurance. The recession had led to a surplus of commercial vessels on the world market and she represented good value for the post-2010 austerity navy.
A further £13 million was spent on converting MV Polarbjorn for RN requirements. She underwent a short refit in Odense shipyards in Denmark during May 2011. Work included installation of 4 Multi-Beam Echo Sounder (MBES) transducers into the box keel for hydrographic surveying, fitting a Sound Velocity Probe and a Ferrybox for water sampling. The largest task was the repositioning of the flight deck aft. A new ship control and dynamic positioning system was fitted and the engines, generators and thrusters were overhauled while the galley and accommodation refurbished.
Formally re-named HMS Protector on 1 June, she commissioned into the fleet in Portsmouth soon after. (She is the 7th RN ship to bear the name, the 6th HMS Protector served briefly as a Falkland Islands Guard Ship, 1983-88) After trials and Operational Sea Training, she deployed for her first season in the Antarctic in November 2011. When it became clear that HMS Endurance was finished, HMS Protector was purchased outright from Reiber for £51 Million in September 2013. Despite tight budgets, the investment in Protector was a significant demonstration of the UK’s long term commitment to the Antarctic and South Atlantic.
The design of Polarbjorn/Protector is a development of her smaller half-sister, the 4,000-tonne RSS Ernest Shackleton acquired from Reiber in 1999, which serves primarily a logistic support ship for the British Antarctic Survey. In some ways, Protector is better suited to her role then Endurance with a larger cargo capacity served by two knuckle-boom cranes that allow self-loading and unloading were there is little or no harbour infrastructure. Her three holds have a cargo capacity of 3,300 m2 and could take up to 90 TEU 20 containers. This space is very useful to embark all kinds of supplies and bulky items. A useful sheltered mid-ships deck area has space for various boats. These include the Survey Motor Boat – James Caird IV, a ramped workboat (Terra Nova) a steel hulled fast rescue craft (FRC), two Pacific 24 RIBs and various inflatable dinghies.
Protector has a 4 cm thick steel hull and is built to ICE-05 standard, capable of breaking sea ice up to a maximum of 1 metre in thickness (depending on the composition and age of the ice). This includes additional hull stiffeners and an ice-knife bow which rides up on the ice shelf and then crushes as cuts using the weight of the ship. The propeller is shrouded and the rudder and pintle are strengthened to resist ice damage. Internally there are heating arrangements to keep fuel and ballast tanks from freezing. By far the strongest hulled vessel in RN service, other unique features include a crowsnest above the bridge, manned during icebreaking to extend the horizon that can be visually observed to plot the best path through ice. Mounted on the stub mast at the bow is a powerful spotlight to illuminate icebergs when navigating at night.
The main propulsion comes from two Rolls Royce Bergen BRM-G8 diesels driving a single controllable-pitch propeller. Protector has a good endurance of about 70 days and a range of over 14,000 nautical miles. Top speed is a modest 15 knots and about 4 knots when ice-breaking. There are also two bow and two stern thrusters controlled by a dynamic positioning system capable of holding the ship precisely in place using GPS in winds up to 80 knots. This gives her the ability to come alongside without reliance on tugs or to hold a position for loading operations. There is also a drop-down retractable azimuth thruster under the bow which could provide emergency slow speed propulsion in the event of damage to propellor or main engine failure. In July 2015 while the ship was drydocked at A&P on Tyneside, the hull was painted with Ecospeed. This environmentally friendly coating is specifically designed to protect the hull from the impacts of ice and is reinforced with glassflake resin so stays bonded to the hull plates as they flex and bend under pressure and impact.
A plum draft
In the late 1960s, the US Coast Guard started painting its ice-breakers red to make them more visible when operating with aircraft in blizzard conditions. The first HMS Endurance adopted this attractive red and white paint scheme (with buff upperworks) which has become universal for most government-owned icebreakers and was she acquired the nickname “Red Plum”, also bestowed on her successors.
The Antarctic Patrol Ship had historically been deployed down South for about 7 months each year for the Antarctic summer, making the 9,000-mile journey to and from the UK. Since 2015 a new forward-basing arrangement was adopted where the ship is maintained in South Africa while the crew is rotated on a roughly two months on, one month off routine. This efficiently maximises the use of the ship and Protector is typically at sea for about 330 days a year. Operating a three-watch system, of about 100 men & women assigned to the ship’s company, around 66 are on board at any one time while the others are ashore on leave or training. A team of RN divers, as well as a detachment of Royal Marine cold weather specialists, support personnel when landed ashore in Antarctica.
A unique ship that offers memorable experiences in the fascinating environment of the Antarctic, a draft to HMS Protector is usually sought after. As a former civilian vessel, her accommodation standards have more in common with Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessels and she is considerably more comfortably appointed than any warship. She is also the only ship in the fleet with a sauna, demanded by her original Scandinavian owners. The majority of RN publicity photographs of the ship, mostly taken in fine weather, do not show the flip side of Antarctica. This is a dangerous environment which requires special expertise in which to operate safely. Even in the summer season, the average temperature around the coastline ranges between -10ºC and freezing with many days when winds frequently exceed 60 mph. The South Atlantic and seas around Antarctica are stormy. Life on board Protector is not always comfortable.
Task and purpose
The official job description for HMS Protector is to “patrol and survey the Antarctic and South Atlantic, maintaining UK sovereign presence with wider regional engagement, supporting the global community of Antarctica.” Covering the UK’s largest Overseas Territory, this is a broad remit for a single ship.
Her hydrographic surveys contribute to the safety of navigation in the region and underpin the UK’s commitment to the Antarctic Treaty, a great example of humanity working in harmony. Logistic support for the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and other international scientific teams is a significant part of her duties. BAS is respected around the world and their scientific observation and research contribute significantly to the global understanding of issues such as climate change and meteorology. In a typical task for Protector in January 2019, working with RRS Shackleton, she delivered 4 large tracked vehicles, 14 snowmobiles, sledges, shelters, fuel and food to last nearly 5,000 days to the BAS team working on Thwaites Glacier. The scientists are conducting a 10-year study that will help understand if this giant glacier is breaking up and what its impact could be on rising sea levels. Protector also has a role in fishery protection in the South Atlantic, conducting occasional inspections under the auspices of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine and Living Resources (CCAMLR).
Her frequent visits to the Falkland Islands for logistic support and personnel changes are always welcome. Occasional visits to the far-flung British possessions of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands also provide reassurance and monitoring. Instead of returning to the UK for the Winter every year, forward basing has allowed the ship to make diplomatic visits and conduct surveys in other parts of the world. During the past four years, she has been to New Zealand, Tasmania, Chile, Uruguay, South Africa and even conducted survey work in balmy Diago Garcia and the Seychelles. She was employed in the search for the missing Argentine submarine ARA San Juan in 2017 and later visited Buenos Ares, a fine bridge-building humanitarian effort for two nations that still have unresolved tensions over the Falklands.
Protector offers a Search and Rescue capability in a remote part of the world as tourist cruise ships visiting the area are increasing. In 2013 she came to the rescue of Cruise ship Fram trapped in ice floes and in 2012 she landed a fire fighting team to help after a serious fire broke out at the Brazilian research base on King George Island.
Protector is not allowed to deploy weapons under Article 1 of the 1961 Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) which bans all military activity on the continent (South of 60º Latitude). However, she does carry miniguns and GMPGs for self-protection which are mounted when entering ports outside the treaty zone. Although her role is primarily scientific, she is also a useful intelligence gathering asset and has a full HF/VHF/UHF ICS25 military communications fit inside an ISO container installed in the lower cargo hold with an antenna farm on the bridge roof.
Lacking a hangar, the flight deck is exposed and only certified for use in daylight. Helicopter landings are infrequent and Protector is unable to provide the valuable helicopter logistics capability that her predecessors could offer. In 2009 the RN still had 62 Lynx helicopters but now has just 28 Wildcats and would probably be reluctant to permanently allocate two of these precious aircraft to Antarctic duties. Small UAVs have been flown from Protector which can be used for aerial photography, surveying and plotting routes through sea ice.
The retention of an Antarctic Patrol ship is partly a legacy of lessons learned during the Falklands War 37 years ago that the presence of even a single ship can influence events. Protector is a valuable asset to the UK and an ambassador for good, supporting global science and conservation. At the time of writing, the ship has arrived at UK Docks on Teesside and is about to commence drydocking and a major refit before heading back to the Southern Hemisphere in the Autumn of 2019.