Halley Bay: Power Failure 1967

As recalled by Chris Sykes

Tractor Mechanic 1967 and Base Commander 1968

The news that Halley VI suffered a power failure in July is a great concern for all but it is not the first time a base at Halley has had a power failure. In about April or May 1967 there was also a major power failure. Ricky Chinn was Base Commander then with a base compliment of 48 men. Most were there to build and fit out the new base which became known as 'Grillage Village' and had been delivered as a monster 'Flat Pack' at the January relief. At the time of the breakdown the new base was little more than seven empty shells with no internal fixtures, fittings or heating. It was situated about a mile inland from the old base.

The old Halley Bay base consisted of four separate huts, all of which were buried under the snow. The oldest and deepest was the old IGY (International Geophysical Year) hut built to house the Royal Society expedition in 1957. Although basically sound, at about forty feet below the surface, it was breaking up under the stresses of the ice pressure. However there was some useful storage space down there in addition to still useable office space and loft floor space as alternative sleeping quarters. The hut was reached by a long Dexion ladder down a steep inclined ice tunnel from the main base hut.

This hut, built in about 1960, had been designed with a flat roof with the intention that future buildings could be added on top when required. Unfortunately it was found during construction that there were insufficient nuts and bolts to complete the job. So where two or more bolts were required one had to be removed for use where there were none. Hence the structure was not as strong as intended. At about 25 feet below the surface the ice pressure was also breaking this hut.

As the rafters split, the ceiling below fell, heat escaped and melted the ice above and water dripped in. After several collapses of the ceiling in the lounge someone had the bright idea of fitting a hinge to one side so that rather than fall straight down, it would swing against a wall and be easier to replace. I think it was Jim Jamieson who happened to be sitting reading in the lounge when a collapse occurred. The ceiling swung down and missed him but the accumulated ice and melt water it was retaining fell into his lap. Everywhere there were sheets of polythene pinned up to catch the dripping water and channel it to one side where it dripped into ingenuously adapted cocoa tins so designed to collect water high up where the warmth of the hut would keep it liquid. When the level was high enough it overflowed through a siphon, down a polythene tube and through a hole in the floor. This was to keep the floors dry and prevent the formation of ice. Thus the whole hut echoed to the sound of dripping water and gurgling siphons.

From this hut an ice tunnel led to the base of the main shaft to the surface where another Dexion ladder led up the 25 feet to the surface. About half way up we could step off the ladder into another ice tunnel that led to the science block. Built in about 1964 and only just buried, it was almost completely sound, cosy and warm. It was here that most of the scientific work was conducted. It also housed the radio room.

The garage and generator shed was a single hut completely separate and about 50 yards from the main shaft. This too was buried and accessed through a shaft where a ladder led 15 feet down into it. Here were three generators. The plan had been to run one with a second on standby and the third available for servicing. As the living huts continued to break up it became increasingly difficult to keep them warm and the demand for more power required us to run two generators in parallel with only one available for servicing and standby. But still the demand for power increased and the two running were being asked run in excess of their rated level.

This then was the situation at the 1967 relief. The Perla Dan brought with it a new base, 'Grillage Village', and for two weeks we had the valued help of all available Fids from both Perla Dan and John Biscoe. Thus a good start was made building first the mess hut containing the kitchen and dining room, then the two bunk rooms, the generator hut, the garage, the office block and finally the lounge hut containing the BC's office and the radio room. All these seven huts were separate but connected on one level by Armco tunnels with provision for shafts to the surface as snow levels accumulated around the base. By time the ships left us, all the huts were up as empty shells. The mess hut was to be finished first as this would then enable us to light the coal-burning Esse cooking stove and get some warmth into the hut and to produce hot food. Until the new generators were installed and wired up, there was no electric power in the new base except for a portable Lister generator for use for power tools and lighting.

As winter approached, work pressed on as quickly as possible to finish the new accommodation. Until then we lived in the old base and commuted to Grillage Village by Muskeg tractor. Then at breakfast one morning, we were all tucking in when the lights suddenly pulsed bright then dim several times, then steadied to a somewhat dimmer glow. Johnny Carter and Abdul Smith (diesel/electric mechanics) jumped up, donned outside gear and fled up the shaft, across to the genny shed and down into the generator room. A few minutes later the lights came bright again and normality resumed.

One of the two generators in use had broken an oil feed pipe, and all the oil had drained onto the floor. The engine had seized and stopped. All the power demand had transferred to the one remaining generator which had somehow kept running despite the enormous demand put upon it. John and Abdul had started up the only spare engine to restore the power supply. When they stripped the damaged engine, they found the bearings were completely ruined and the crankshaft was bent. Plainly it was irreparable. We now had only two generators, both already overloaded, and no spare. We were going to have to reduce our demand for power so one generators could be turned off for servicing. Faced with the problem of having to reduce power requirements by more than half, in an old base complex that was rapidly falling apart, we chose to keep the scientific programme going as much as possible and save power by turning off the heating in large areas of the living accommodation including the dormitory block and the lounge which did have a coal fire and which was next to the kitchen with a coal-fired Esse stove.

In the old main base, the dormitory block became so broken that it quickly became uninhabitable. I remember the temperature in my bunkroom dropping to -19C before I moved to somewhere warmer in the loft of the old IGY hut. I had to abandon the bedding I had been using as it was frozen to the bunk. Others made similar moves to anywhere warmer they could find; at least the constant dripping and gurgling noises stopped as everything just froze.

The warmest places on base were the kitchen and lounge. At least with a coal-fired cooker and a coal fire in the lounge we had some heating; even so, the temperature dropped to about -14C. Throughout, our cooks Dave Blossom, Neil Fothergill and Mac McKerrow continued to provide regular hot meals. We still had our Saturday night dinner and film show despite the cold. The temperature might have been low but all through, our morale and spirits remained high.

Regular base routine was maintained. Gash runs, fuel runs and regular gash duties continued, although the prospect of having a shower in a bathroom at minus 19C was not attractive. The shower consisted of a five-gallon drum open at the top. A tap at the bottom was connected to the shower head. It hung from a hook over the bath tub and had to be filled with hot water then lifted into place. It was necessary to remember there was only five gallons of water or else you had a whole new problem of trying to dry yourself while still covered in soap. One gash duty was neglected; washing floors proved dangerous as any wet floor further than two feet from the kitchen stove froze immediately.

Someone had a birthday to celebrate and brought a case of Newcastle Brown to the lounge to share. Surprisingly the beer in the bottles was still liquid even after being stored in his bunkroom. So off came the cap but no beer came out. As soon as the gas pressure was released when the cap came off, the beer froze in the bottle. We could see the ice following the first flush of gas bubbles up the bottle. We tried shaking the bottles then turning them upside down over a glass before opening them. Some beer came out but froze in the glass before we could drink it. So we celebrated his birthday with the bottles arranged round the fire as we watched and waited for them to thaw enough to drink.

Work at 'Grillage Village' progressed as quickly as possible and as soon as they could, those whose jobs were at the new base moved there and found accommodation wherever they could in the warmer loft space in the mess hut.

As winter set in, the possibility of moving to warmer accommodation became more attractive. Soon the new generators were up and running and the huts could be heated, although most of the accommodation in them was not finished. At least we could move into the loft spaces while work building the bunk rooms and work areas continued.

One final event in the old kitchen occurred shortly before we abandoned it. I forget who was on night watch that day but one evening he came into the old kitchen to get himself some breakfast. He chose a tin of kippers. These were supposed to be heated in boiling water before opening the tin. But instead he put the tin in the oven and forgot about it. Some time later our evening was interrupted by an explosion from the kitchen. On inspection we found the cast iron oven door had been blown off its hinges and an even splatter of shredded kippers lined the opposite wall. Now without a usable cooker in the old base, a move was essential. The old living quarters were abandoned soon after, although not everyone could leave the old base yet.

Science still had to progress and the new science block was not yet finished, so the old science block was adapted to include enough living space for those who had to remain to be comfortable while continuing their work. One consideration was the toilet facilities. Originally this had been in the old main base hut which was now abandoned. The solution was to excavate a space just off the ice tunnel that connected the science block to the old main access shaft. This was unheated and cold. The toilet seat was made to be detachable and usually hung on a nail inside the hut door. This kept it warm and had the added advantage that you could tell whether the toilet was occupied by its absence from the nail.

By now most of the new base was up and running and the old scientific block could be abandoned. However we still raided the old base for timber, stores and anything else useful. We even used the old garage as a kennel for our bitches with pups. And thanks to the work of our GA's we raised 19 pups that winter whereas previously only two or three managed to survive.

1967 was a very eventful year. It had started with the loss of Halley Bay and its ramp where the relief ship could moor and unload. An ice fall from the nearby cliffs caused a large wave to lift both Perla Dan and John Biscoe, breaking their moorings as well as breaking up the ice shelf to which they had been moored. Before the gangway to the shore fell away completely a number of us, including Ricky Chinn, Dad Etchells, myself and a few others, got ashore. There were four or five Muskegs and many empty sledges on the ice shelf that was already breaking up. We rescued them all. I was driving the last tractor up the ramp. Near the top, Ricky indicated that I should drive well beyond the top before stopping. We then walked back to see what had happened to the ships and noticed a thin blue crack in the ice at the top of the ramp extending right across it and beyond the headland to our right. The next day that crack had opened right up; where the crack had been there was now the edge of a cliff, and the headland had floated away as an iceberg. The bay was gone; since then the base has been renamed 'Halley'. The year ended with the Brotherhood air lift. But that is another story.

[26 Aug 2014]

Broken rafters in the old IGY hut
(Click to see a larger versions)

Broken rafters

Broken rafters


27 Aug 2014
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