By Lucy Ashton
A sailor from Dumbarton will enjoy the ultimate White Christmas – serving on board exploration ship RRS Sir David Attenborough on its maiden voyage to Antarctica.
Launchman Scott Thornton will spend the festive period near the South Pole on a mission to support UK scientists conducting climate change research. He helped dock the state-of-the-art ship at Rothera Research Station on Friday, December 17. Scott, 37, believes the excitement of being involved in RRS Sir David Attenborough’s first polar mission more than makes up for missing Christmas at home.
He said: “To be honest, I think getting to sail on RRS Sir David Attenborough’s maiden voyage to Antarctica is the ultimate Christmas present. It’s like the golden ticket. “I love Christmas but I’m used to being away and I know I’ll see my parents and brother when I get back but I’ve been so excited about this trip.
“Not everyone can say that they’ve spent been to Antarctica – it’s a real box ticker. Almost every day on ship is a working day so the chances are that we’ll be working on Christmas Day but we have plans to hold a Fakemas on another day. We’ll have a Christmas Dinner at some point and we’ve all organised a secret Santa. I’m excited in anticipation to see what I might get.
“The shipmate I’ve drawn really liked a knife I had a couple of trips ago and tried to order one, but it was not in stock. I’ve managed to source one so I’m looking forward to seeing him unwrap it and hoping that the good energy flowing will mean I might get something decent as well.”
High spirits – ice cool Scott Thornton enjoying his first visit to Antartica.
He added: “I also have spending quality time with my parents, brother and wee Border Terrier to look forward to when I get back. We’ll go out for dinner somewhere nice and exchange gifts. “I’ll send them all some texts on Christmas Day… if the wifi’s working.”
Able Seaman Scott’s duties as launch-man include operating the ship’s cranes and driving and maintaining the work-boat Erebus and cargo tender Terror – used to approach the Bird Island and Signy research stations where the water is too shallow for RRS Sir David Attenborough.
World famous naturalist Sir David Attenborough visited the vessel named in his honour as part of a send-off for crew in London before they departed on their seven-week journey to Antarctica.
The £200 million ship is part of a major UK Government polar infrastructure investment programme designed to keep Britain at the forefront of world-leading climate change research in Antarctica and the Arctic.
RRS Sir David Attenborough was commissioned by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) – part of UK Research and Innovation – and is operated by British Antarctic Survey (BAS).
Scott beamed: “I was in the yard at Birkenhead when my Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship Fort Rosalie was in for a refit and I saw the steel being cut for RRS Sir David Attenborough. It instantly peeked my interest and that’s what first brought BAS to my attention and when I saw this job come up on their website in 2019 it was a dream come true to land it.
“It was brilliant to meet Sir David Attenborough when he came aboard to give us a nice ‘bon voyage’ before we set off. It was great to get the two of them together – man and boat. It was impressive to see a man of advanced years looking so sharp. I think I’m in worse shape at 37. He said a few words to the crew telling us it was a momentous occasion and that it was such an important thing for us to be going south and that the scientific research it will deliver over the years is such a big deal in terms of saving the planet.”
He added: “I think Sir David’s the biggest celebrity I’ve ever met, although I actually served Alice Cooper at a shop in Glasgow when I was about 21. He came in wearing trackie bottoms to buy a trilby hat. I didn’t realise who it actually was until he was gone and everyone was talking about it.”
Scott was thrilled to meet his ship’s namesake Sir David before setting sail – and revealed he constantly has the legendary BBC naturalist’s voice ringing in his ears.
He laughed: “Sir David pre-recorded numerous tannoy announcements for us as a favour. So everything from ‘No smoking on deck’ to ‘All personnel not sailing with the vessel, please disembark’ is in his dulcet tones. Even when we crossed the equator, Sir David announced, ‘King Neptune has been sighted on deck’. It is hilarious.”
It is experienced former Royal Auxiliary Fleet seaman Scott’s first trip to Antarctica Scott said: “I’m so proud to be on this ship’s maiden voyage. Everything we do is a ship first and this is also actually my first trip south. I crossed the equator for the first time even though I’ve been at sea a number of years. We stopped off at the Falkland Islands en route and it was absolutely beautiful. One of the highlights travelling down was sailing past Fogo, a volcanic island in Cape Verde. It was like nothing I’ve ever seen before. We saw a massive sea turtle on the way down and a large number of sei whales. A mother and calf were really close into the ship as the sun was setting and you could see them all blowing. It was fantastic.”
The ship is designed to break ice to help get scientists to the areas they need to get to, to conduct their research. Scott said: “Most ships avoid ice like the plague but we actually go looking for it. “The ship is designed to break ice and help us get the scientists to the places they need to study. I’d never been in ice so this is all new to me but I am more excited than anything. The sea can be hazardous every day. No two days are the same and you need to keep your wits about you but we’re doing what we’re trained to do.
“A seafaring environment by nature is more dangerous than other jobs but when you hit rough weather you’ve just got to take the hit and crack on.
Dumbarton man Scott Thornton is in Antartica for Christmas.
“A few of the scientists had not been on ship before, so there’s been a few green faces, but I think they’ve found their sea legs now. We hit some pretty rough sailing on the way here, but it was a good test of the ship’s ability and it can be quite exhilarating. When you do a hard day’s work in tough conditions you feel you’ve put in a good shift. It is challenging but it really bonds a crew together and I think that takes the edge off missing Christmas at home because we are like a big family on this ship.”
Minister for the Polar Regions, Amanda Milling said: “This magnificent ship is something everyone across the United Kingdom can take immense pride in. I’d like to wish everyone on board for its maiden voyage a Merry Christmas.
“The UK Government’s commitment to further investment in our Antarctic scientific infrastructure is putting British scientists at the forefront of polar research, as we lead the world on getting to grips with climate change.
“The UK’s presidency of COP26 in Glasgow last month, and our ongoing investment in science, demonstrates our determination to drive forward a greener future to save our planet.”