‘I won’t see you again’

On February 22, 2011, a Norwegian yacht sank off the coast of Antarctica and three of its crew were lost. For a decade, it’s been alleged the New Zealand Navy instructed the boat to leave safe anchorage despite a storm warning. A Stuff investigation casts

2022-01-15T08:00:00.0000000Z

2022-01-15T08:00:00.0000000Z

Stuff NZ Newspapers

https://stuff.pressreader.com/article/281513639515779

Mainlander

The storm was ferocious. The winds neared 200kmh and icebergs were tossed around by 10-metre waves. A New Zealand naval commander would later describe the conditions as the worst he had experienced in three decades at sea. Before it was over, it claimed the lives of Leonard Banks, 32, Tom Gisle Bellika, 36, and Robert Skaanes, 34. They were members of the ‘‘Wild Vikings’’, a group of adventurers who sailed to Antarctica in a yacht called Berserk. Two team-mates – Jarle Andhoy and Samuel Massie – were ashore, attempting an audacious expedition to the South Pole. They called themselves the Berserkers, an Old Norse word meaning fierce warrior. At first glance, the Berserk was not a typical Antarctic boat. It had sharks’ teeth painted on the hull and its name was emblazoned on the sides, graffiti-style. At 14m the vessel was relatively small – especially to be sailing the heavy seas of the Southern Ocean – but it was ice-strengthened and its crew were highly competent sailors. One was South African/ British, four were Norwegian. They flew the Kongeflagget, the red, white and blue Norwegian flag. After leaving New Zealand in January 2011, they sailed to Antarctica to mark the centenary of the Norwegian Roald Amundsen’s conquest of the South Pole. The expedition leader and skipper was Andhoy, who cut a sort of rockstar adventurer figure with his pale blue eyes and unkempt hair. He had a reputation for daring exploits, but could also be reckless. Once, as part of a Bear Grylls-style documentary on Norwegian TV, he approached a wild polar bear. On another occasion he had a dangerously close encounter with a walrus. His Antarctic endeavour was no different. If successful, he and Massie would be the first people to reach the bottom of the Earth on quad bikes. But to get there they would face freezing temperatures and the risk of falling into one of the many crevasses that scar the Antarctic landscape. The other issue was timing. Most South Pole expeditions are launched between November and January, ideally after wintering over on the ice. The Berserkers planned to cross the continent in February, late in the polar season. With Andhoy and Massie ashore, Banks, Bellika and Skaanes dropped anchor in a sheltered cove in McMurdo Sound, to wait until the land team returned. But, inexplicably, they decided to leave the bay, and sail into a polar storm. They were never seen again. Samuel Massie was a typical disaffected teen. The son of a Norwegian mother and British father, he was studying mechanical engineering at a tertiary college in Bergen, but frequently skipped classes. He smoked weed and came close to being arrested for possession when a local dealer asked him to sell the drug for him. One day, he arrived home to a letter informing him his application to attend an outdoor college in northern Norway had been accepted. Massie was confused. Eventually his mother confessed she’d applied for him. Massie thrived at the college and caught the eye of charismatic sailing instructor Andhoy. At the end of the course, Andhoy took him aside and said he was impressed by the teenager’s seamanship and determination. He explained his plan to celebrate Amundsen’s voyage, and offered him a place on the Berserk. Massie didn’t hesitate. ‘‘Count me in,’’ he said. It was mid-2010. Massie was 17, and had to get his parents’ permission before joining the crew of Berserk. After a two-day stopover in Singapore, he flew to Darwin, Australia, where he met his shipmates. Skaanes, Andhoy’s childhood friend, was the boat’s chef. A former gymnast, he served in the military and had a young daughter in Norway, whose picture he carried everywhere. Banks was a carpenter who lived for surfing and reggae. A South African and British national, he had long blond hair and an easy smile, the ladies’ man of the group. American Edwin Kumar was Berserk’s engine man. He had studied aerospace engineering at university, earning the nickname ‘‘Rocket’’. He met Skaanes and Banks while backpacking in Asia and agreed to join their crew. He was only meant to go as far as Darwin but picked up sailing quickly and was good with a video camera. Andhoy was shooting a TV documentary about the voyage and asked Kumar to go with them to Antarctica. He accepted. From Australia, the Berserk sailed through the Torres Strait Islands and around Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands. Massie later wrote an account of the expedition and it reads like a Boys’ Own adventure. About this time, Kumar began to question Andhoy’s leadership. The skipper ran a tight ship – the crew were clear in their duties and there was no alcohol on board – but when they were ashore, Kumar says, Andhoy’s behaviour would attract trouble. ‘‘His motto was ‘lock your daughters away, the Berserkers are in town’. He got his ass kicked multiple times.’’ Andhoy’s cavalier approach extended to officialdom. He did not have the consent of the Norwegian Polar Institute to visit Antarctica and had not completed a mandatory Environmental Impact Assessment, a requirement under the 1959 Antarctic Treaty. Relations between Kumar and Andhoy deteriorated further during the Pacific crossing. Kumar scraped his knee and his leg became infected. Instead of helping him to get medical attention, Kumar says Andhoy told him to ‘‘toughen the f… up’’. By the time the Berserk reached New Zealand, Kumar was done. He was concerned about heading south so late in the season, and suspects the timing was deliberate, to ensure they got better footage for the documentary. A mutual friend had told him, ‘‘Jarle likes bad weather because bad weather makes good TV’’. Before setting sail, Andhoy asked the crew to sign a contract stating they were ‘‘fully aware of all dangers and the high risk of the expedition’’. The contract said: ‘‘I participate at the risk of losing my life in the harsh environment, and will not hold the expedition leader or the captain responsible for any loss of life.’’ Before Kumar left, Andhoy insisted they film his farewell for the documentary. Each of the crew had paid a medical retainer and Kumar says Andhoy would only return the cash after the scene was shot. As he stood at the Auckland marina, he felt tears well. ‘‘Goodbye friends,’’ he thought, ‘‘I won’t see you again.’’ The Berserk was heavily laden as she left Auckland. As well as the quad bikes, the boat carried fuel, cold weather gear and enough food to winter over. Anything that didn’t fit into a storage space was lashed to the deck. Kumar’s replacement was Tom Gisle Bellika, a Norwegian who had sailed Canada’s Northwest Passage with Andhoy. Known as ‘‘the horse from the north’’, he was 2 metres tall and broadshouldered, the embodiment of a rough, tough sailor. The plan was to head as far south as possible, so the quad bike team would have less distance to travel over land. It was tough sailing. The crew had to keep a constant lookout for icebergs, each taking watch throughout the night. It was still unknown who would remain on the Berserk and who would push for the South Pole with Andhoy. Amundsen is revered in Norway, so it made sense that another Norwegian go. When Andhoy took Massie aside and told him he would be the one, the teenager was overjoyed. The Berserk sailed into McMurdo Sound, the southernmost navigable water in the world, on February 11. Andhoy showed the shipbound-crew where they would wait: a small cove on Ross Island named Horseshoe Bay. They were only to leave, he told them, if ice forced them out. Stormy forecast The Berserk wasn’t the only ship heading into McMurdo Sound that week. The New Zealand Navy frigate HMNZS Wellington was charting a similar course, a few days behind. The newly commissioned patrol ship was conducting sea trials in the lower Southern Ocean. At the helm was Lieutenant Commander Simon Griffiths, a clean-cut and coolheaded career naval officer. The Wellington entered McMurdo Sound early on February 21. At 7.30am, it sailed into Backdoor Bay, just south of Horseshoe Bay, and found the Berserk anchored there, to the crew’s surprise. Private ships frequently sail to Antarctica, but favour the more accessible Antarctic Peninsula, south of Argentina. Few visit Ross Island, where New Zealand’s Scott Base and America’s McMurdo Station are located. In the summer months the area is home to a steady stream of scientists, military personnel and other staff – most of whom fly down from Christchurch. It’s not difficult to imagine Banks, Bellika and Skaanes were equally startled, but it was the Wild Vikings who initiated radio contact, to score some cigarettes. But of the Wellington’s 58 crew, only seven were smokers and, with a long voyage ahead, they were reluctant to part with their tobacco. One crew member offered them a cigar. The Wellington planned to land some crew ashore and visit Ernest Shackleton’s Nimrod Hut. A group of sailors heading ashore in a dinghy visited the Berserk, bringing fresh fruit and vegetables, the lone cigar, and a warning: a storm was forecast. Griffiths would later describe the exchange as ‘‘warm, jovial and informal’’ but the Berserkers did not disclose the real reason for their voyage to Antarctica. ‘‘There was no mention of landing two people on the ice,’’ a former crew member says, ‘‘let alone the attempt at the Pole.’’ Before they parted, someone took a photo of Banks, Bellika and Skaanes as they stood on deck. There’s no indication of the tempest about to be unleashed. The storm hit the following afternoon and the Berserk’s emergency radio beacon was activated at 5.53pm NZT on February 22, though by the time the distress signal was relayed to vessels in the area, it was too late. The beacon ceased transmission after 45 minutes, suggesting the Berserk sank more than 10m below the surface, the maximum depth the emergency device could operate. Nine days into their land expedition, Andhoy and Massie were also caught in the storm, enveloped in a whiteout. The journey had already been tough going and they still had more than 1000km to go. As a safety precaution, they were in contact with the Berserk every six hours via satellite phone. When the storm hit, the crew didn’t answer the call. Under international law, any ship is required to come to the aid of another in distress. Along with the Wellington, two other vessels responded to the Berserk’s emergency beacon. One was the Steve Irwin, a 59m ship that was part of the Sea Shepherd fleet. It had been in the Southern Ocean pursuing Japanese whalers. Captain Paul Watson, who founded the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society in 1977, knew the Southern Ocean well. He guided his ship towards the distress signal location in increasingly dire conditions. ‘‘The seas were actually trying to freeze around us,’’ Watson says. Conditions had improved by the time they arrived in McMurdo Sound. The Steve Irwin carries its own helicopter, which Watson dispatched to search the area. Starting where the distress signal was last recorded, the helicopter searched for 14 hours, refuelling several times at McMurdo Station. In the calm waters, they spotted food packets and life jackets from the Berserk, but no sign of the missing men. The third ship to join the search was the Spirit of Enderby (aka Professor Khromov), which ran Antarctic cruises from New Zealand. On the ship was Rodney Russ, founder of Christchurch-based tour company Heritage Expeditions. He has visited Antarctica more than 50 times and knows McMurdo Sound intimately. He suspects the Berserk either hit floating ice or had ice on the mast and rigging, making it topheavy, and causing it to capsize. Russ admires anyone with an adventurous spirit, but says Andhoy’s polar expedition was ‘‘ill-conceived and doomed to failure’’. ‘‘You need to do your homework. There’s no way in the world that they could reach the South Pole on quad bikes at that time of the year. You don’t start going to the South Pole in mid-February.’’ Concern grows After failing to make radio contact with the Berserk, Andhoy and Massie grew seriously concerned. On February 24, Andhoy used the satellite phone to call a contact in Norway who told them the boat was missing. The pair abandoned their journey and headed back to Scott Base. On February 25, the crew of the Steve Irwin recovered the Berserk’s damaged liferaft. There was no-one inside. The liferaft had not been used. Watson wasn’t surprised. From the moment he heard about the distress signal, he doubted anyone would be found alive. ‘‘It most likely came down on a growler (a smaller iceberg) and it crushed the hull. It went down real fast.’’ Russ agrees. Seawater freezes at -1.8 degrees Celsius and he doubts the water would have been much warmer than that. Survival time would have been two minutes, at most. ‘‘That’s the only good thing about it,’’ he says, ‘‘It would have been all over very quickly.’’ On March 1, Maritime New Zealand’s Rescue Coordination Centre (RCCNZ) in Wellington formally suspended the search. It had covered a vast 2.4 million hectares of the Ross Sea. RCCNZ’s official report recorded that the three vessels searched for a total of 141 hours. Adecade on, it remains a mystery why the crew of the Berserk would have left safe anchorage, knowing a storm was coming. Three theories have emerged. The most incendiary implicates the New Zealand Navy: that the Wellington ordered the Berserk, uninvited and lacking any formal permission, to leave Backdoor Bay. In a Facebook post on the fifth anniversary of the tragedy, Andhoy wrote: ‘‘Our shipmates disappeared in the Ross Sea after contact with (the) New Zealand Navy. Today we know that the New Zealand Navy, polar authorities and Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Norway and New Zealand withheld information, lies about circumstances [sic], has stolen expedition gear and erased the last traces of the Berserk expedition 2011.’’ He later doubled down on the theory, telling the Outside Online website that the Wellington made contact with the Berserk three times, was doing surveillance, and New Zealand ‘‘set a strategy to offer no hospitality’’. Samuel Massie too suspects the Wellington ordered the Berserk to leave the bay. ‘‘I have got no idea what would make anybody leave a safe harbour into the storm,’’ he says, ‘‘That is illogical. You just don’t do it.’’ Paul Watson goes even further. In an interview with Stuff, he accused the New Zealand Navy not just of complicity, but conspiracy. ‘‘I think that the Wellington ordered these people out of the harbour and then they tried to cover up the fact that they had any responsibility in the fact that the vessel went down,’’ he says. ‘‘There’s no other explanation as to why they [Berserk] would have left a safe harbour, while they were waiting for two other crew to return from their excursion to the South Pole. ‘‘New Zealand was very hostile to any vessels landing in the vicinity of Ross Island without prior permission.’’ Stuff sought a transcript of the communication between the Wellington and the Berserk under the Official Information Act but the request was declined. However, Simon Griffiths tells Stuff that no such order was given. ‘‘At no stage was any instruction or recommendation given to the yacht by any person from HMNZS Wellington. ‘‘Any loss of life at sea is distressing, and I still think about the loss of the Berserk.’’ The second theory is that the crew left of their own volition. Heritage Expeditions’ Russ questions how safe Backdoor Bay would have been in a storm. ‘‘It’s a precarious anchor at the best of times,’’ he says. Such a severe storm would empty ‘‘push ice’’ out into open water, he says, making the harbour unsafe. ‘‘Some of that is multi-year ice and it’s rock hard . . . They would soon be surrounded by ice. I don’t think they had an option but to leave.’’ Russ thinks the Berserk crew probably did the right thing in leaving Backdoor Bay, they just left it too late. Lou Sanson, chief executive of Antarctica New Zealand from 2002-13, was heavily involved in the incident and remembers it well. He agrees Backdoor Bay would have been dangerous in the storm. ‘‘It’s exposed as hell to the south. It would seem to me to be good seamanship to look after the yacht and get into open water.’’ The third theory emerged during this investigation. Edwin Kumar says Massie told him he and Andhoy were beaten down by the weather on their way to the South Pole. Faced with freezing to death, Andhoy contacted the Berserk to come and get them. ‘‘Jarle called them and said ‘mayday, come and help us, come rescue us’,’’ Kumar says, ‘‘They had a meet-up spot if s... hit the ceiling. ‘‘That’s why they left that anchorage. Jarle flipped it and said [the NZ Navy] told them to leave.’’ Kumar was in Australia when he got a call that the Berserk’s emergency beacon had gone off and a search was under way. Having assisted in kitting out the yacht, his name and number were registered with RCCNZ. ‘‘That’s why I don’t believe Jarle when they said the New Zealand [Navy] kicked them off,’’ he says. ‘‘They wouldn’t kick out a f...ing vessel right before a major storm and then risk going to save them.’’ As ‘‘self-proclaimed pirates’’, the Berserk crew would not have left even if ordered to by the authorities, he says. ‘‘Those guys were trained not to leave. The only reason they would have left is if it came from Jarle.’’ Sanson was one of the first people to talk to Andhoy and Massie after their aborted mission. Having abandoned the South Pole expedition, the pair travelled for 72 hours straight to reach Scott Base. They left their quad bikes and other equipment and caught the final flight of the season back to Christchurch. Sanson interviewed them when they arrived. Andhoy made no allegations against the New Zealand Navy at that time, Sanson says. The leader of the Wild Vikings was more concerned about the search for the crew. ‘‘He was convinced that his mates were still alive and he was trying to mount another rescue mission,’’ Sanson says. ‘‘He was pleading for more resources to keep searching.’’ Sanson grilled Andhoy about the preparation for the expedition and the lack of environmental permits. ‘‘He said he knew what he was doing, he was polar-trained in Norway. He just brushed me off.’’ Andhoy was approached for this story but said he would not comment if Massie and Kumar were also quoted. He described Kumar’s theory as ‘‘bulls...’’. Massie also denies it and says Kumar may have misunderstood the situation. Despite protests from the families of the dead men, Andhoy’s plans for a documentary on the expedition went ahead. A nine-part series aired on Norwegian television in 2012. The last two episodes show the Berserkers battling the elements to reach the frozen continent. That the footage even exists is remarkable. Andhoy carried all of it – several bags’ worth – with him on the South Pole trek, instead of stowing it on the Berserk. Kumar always found that strange. ‘‘That is something you would leave on the boat if you felt the boat was secure.’’ The story of the Berserk has gone largely untold in New Zealand. The tragedy happened on the same day as a much larger one – the Christchurch earthquake, which killed 185 people – so it was barely mentioned in the media at the time. But more than a decade on, it still looms large in the lives of those involved. Kumar has given a lot of thought to what he would have done had he not left the Berserk in Auckland. ‘‘I would have abandoned the boat and gone to shore until the storm blew over,’’ he says. Banks, Bellika and Skaanes did go ashore, albeit briefly, in Backdoor Bay. Research by Stuff confirmed they visited a shelter near Shackleton’s hut and signed the visitors’ book the day of the fatal storm. Lenny Banks’ twin sister, Charlene, also holds Andhoy responsible for the loss of the crew. ‘‘I do blame Jarle,’’ she says, ‘‘Because it was unsafe. It was late in the season. Ultimately, he is the captain of the ship and he’s the one that’s responsible.’’ In their last conversation, when Lenny was in Auckland, he told her he might not make it back from Antarctica. ‘‘He said, ‘it’s a 50/50 chance, but it’s the risk I’m willing to take for the adventure of a lifetime’. ‘‘I tried very hard to get him off the boat,’’ she says. In 2012, Andhoy and Massie sailed back to Antarctica to search for wreckage and recover the quad bikes and equipment. None of it was there. During that voyage a short service was held to honour their crewmates, a year after they were lost. In 2014, Norwegian authorities fined Andhoy 45,000 Norwegian kroner (NZ$8360) for violating environmental protection protocols in the Antarctic Treaty. Life changed Today, Samuel Massie’s life is unrecognisable from when he was a teenager in Bergen. After gaining prominence as a Berserker, he was invited to appear on Skal vi danse? (Shall We Dance?), the Norwegian version of the hit show Dancing with the Stars. He didn’t win. But he was a hugely popular contestant and returned the following year as the show’s host. He has since become a household name in Norway. As well as adjusting to his newfound celebrity, Massie has wrestled with the fact that if Andhoy had chosen someone else to attempt the Pole, he would not be alive today. ‘‘I’ve thought about it definitely, many times. ‘‘Even though it’s 10 years since, you still think about it. If not every day, it’s every week. It’s like flashes. You carry it with you.’’

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