Heacham man back with Georgia on his mind

King Edward Point
Picture courtesy British Antarctic Survey team ANL-160225-160328001
King Edward Point Picture courtesy British Antarctic Survey team ANL-160225-160328001

Just a couple of weeks ago, Heacham electrician Ray Thirkettle set sail from South Georgia on a five-day voyage to the Falklands.

For the 59-year-old, it was the first lap of a seven-day journey home to his family after 15 months with the British Antarctic Survey in the South Atlantic.

Antarctic wading ANL-160225-160415001

Antarctic wading ANL-160225-160415001

He said: “I wasn’t in the best of form when we left, as we’d had a leaving party and I’m not a practised drinker. But I felt a lot worse after two days in a force 10 gale.”

Back home, tanned, weathered and glowing with health, Ray cycled over the ‘hill’ from Heacham to talk to me about his homecoming. The views of Norfolk’s beautiful coast might have turned his head if it hadn’t still been in the ‘lenticular’ clouds around King Edward Point.

Ray witnessed five seasons in South Georgia’s “pretty benign” climate, with it -10C at its coldest, although he was comparing it to his previous stint at Halley Station in Antarctica itself (-50 C).

The island lies at about the same latitude south as the UK is north, albeit in a polar ocean bringing icebergs and snow all year round.

Ray Thirkettle back home ANL-160225-160257001

Ray Thirkettle back home ANL-160225-160257001

He said: “It doesn’t settle for long in the summer. The sun is unpleasantly strong due to the thinned ozone layer. The fierce winds drive horizontal snow past your window and a man to his knees.

“It’s drier than the UK though!”

Ray was one of only eight winter residents, the electrician in a core team of BAS scientists, doctor, boatman, mechanic and government officer. Their vital work supports the South Georgia government in fishing; tourism; habitat restoration – for albatross, seals, penguins, pipits – and British science surveys.

Among the many summer visitors was the patron of the South Georgia Heritage Trust, last on the island in 2009 to open its new Hydro Electric Power plant, HRH Princess Anne. Ray served her flapjacks he had made himself.

Antarctic Princess Anne pictured by Ray thirkettle ANL-160225-160425001

Antarctic Princess Anne pictured by Ray thirkettle ANL-160225-160425001

“That was a great day,” he said. “ I‘d been irritated by all the briefings and etiquette training but she was very personable, very well-informed about science, a joy to talk to. I told her I get this stunning view every morning and she said with refreshing directness no you don’t, half the time the fog obscures it!

“And she arrived, not on a luxury cruise liner, but on the same humble fishing protection vessel I later spent two days heaving my heart up on.”

And what does he miss? Intimacy and solitude, living closely with eight comrades thousands of sea miles from nowhere, yet able to walk where, “yours are the only footprints in the snow”.

As he rejoins the ‘traffic’ and ‘crowds’ of small village Norfolk, muttering about ‘light pollution’ he is clearly pining for the turquoise polar sea, velvet dark and touchable stars down under!

Welcome home Ray.

* There’s a YouTube link to a film of the kind of ferry trip Ray took at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2P7fbOxDRWs&sns=em