What Actually Occurred to the ‘Berserk’?


On the afternoon of February 22, the Berserks emergency beacon went off. For some reason, the boat had left its anchorage and traveled into a storm that was forecasted to hit the Ross Sea.
ANDHOY: The beacon was activated seven nautical miles from Horseshoe Bay. It lasted around 18 to 20 minutes—only a very short time before the signal died out. 

Had you spoken to the crew the day before that?
ANDHOY: I’d discussed the bad weather that was coming. They had tied long polypropylene lines from the deck to shore. The plan was to stay in Horseshoe Bay, tethered to land, and if necessary stay in the hut.

The boat set out, apparently sank, and has never been found, though a search crew did later locate an empty lifeboat from the Berserk. The three men on board are presumed dead. You and Massie turned back, heading for McMurdo Station, the U.S. Antarctic research base on the south tip of Ross Island, about 21 miles from the Shackleton hut. You made it and were flown out on a military plane. Right?
ANDHOY: That’s correct. It made no sense to continue south at that point, so we returned and left McMurdo on the last plane of the season. And for us, the big mystery was why the crew left safe anchorage just before the forecast storm. I got a last message from Bellika saying, “We leave now. Make contact when you can.” Those were the last words. I tried calling him back, but that was the last communication.

When we flew out, we had no awareness of what had been going on with the crew and the official parties in McMurdo Sound prior to the Berserk’s disappearance.

What happened when you reached New Zealand?
ANDHOY: We had a meeting with representatives from New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and they were very upset because they claimed we had sailed illegally to Antarctica, and had violated environmental rules by anchoring in Horseshoe Bay. And that’s where my questions began. Sammy and I were in a situation where three of our friends were assumed to be dead, and in New Zealand we were met with the accusation that the Berserk had sailed to Antarctica illegally? When we got back to Norway, the Norwegian Polar Institute reported alleged violations of the Norwegian environmental regulations to the state prosecutor, based on information given to them by New Zealand authorities. The alleged violations were illegal sailing and anchorage in Antarctica. The criminal charges and the focus on safety lines tied to land were in direct contradiction with international maritime law and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas, specifically with regard to the fundamental rights of the high seas and the right to safe passage in the seas surrounding Antarctica.

In the wake of the tragedy, I didn’t counter these matters in court, but after my search expedition back to Antarctica I did. There was a long legal process in which the Norwegian Polar Institute demanded that I be punished for not obtaining a permit and insurance to go to Antarctica. We lost in district court, and made an appeal, but ultimately failed to reverse the decision. The positive from these cases is that the Polar Institute was forced to release some of the documentation and communications about the expeditions. The cases also revealed that many of the demands for sailing “legally” in Antarctic waters—including requirements for insurance—are really a bureaucratic form of banning access.

Do the rules require getting a permit in advance to travel there?
ANDHOY: This is a gray zone. The Southern Ocean is, by definition, free. It’s the high seas, and anyone can sail and anchor there. In the ice shelves and on land, independent travelers are required to give notice, and it was later explained—in court in Norway—that this notice had to be approved by Norway, because I’m a citizen there. Regardless of that, no bureaucratic rules should hinder our expedition’s right to make a safe anchorage. My key point is this: the official focus was always on whether the expedition was there illegally, and whether we had purchased the necessary insurance, which they know doesn’t exist for that area. The bureaucratic requirements were irrelevant to the events that led to the accident.

Right. However, once you got back to Norway, you learned that there was a criminal investigation pertaining to the charge that the Berserk had illegally sailed to and anchored on the coast of Antarctica, and that the crew had gone on land. My understanding is, when you learned that the authorities knew these details about the boat, this suggested that they knew more about the ship’s movements and whereabouts before it disappeared than you’d been led to believe. Is that accurate?
ANDHOY: Correct. We know for a fact—through documentation from the court cases—that Norwegian and New Zealand authorities focused mainly on allegedly illegal movements by the Berserk in Antarctica, and not on the boat’s safety before the emergency beacon was activated.

At one point around February 15 or 16, the Berserk crew told me they were going to the Scott Base, the New Zealand research facility near McMurdo Station, because Lenny Banks had an aching tooth. The McMurdo and Scott bases are very close to each other—about two miles—but our crew got a cold shoulder from the Scott Base. They didn’t want to assist our guys at all, which was in accordance with the official advice New Zealand had put out regarding the expedition on February 14, 2011.

In addition, there was a new ship in New Zealand’s Navy, the Wellington, which was in the area on its first Antarctic deployment. What we have found out—through media reports and crew on the Wellington—is that the Wellington contacted the Berserk crew three times in a period of 24 hours, before the Berserk left its anchorage. We have asked the New Zealand Navy to release the extensive logs and photos they kept, which would shed light on what was said to our crew by the New Zealand side, but that information has been held back.

So you have no idea what was said during these encounters?
ANDHOY: The New Zealand Navy has given some official statements to news media about friendly meetings they had with the Berserk, but to us, and to relatives of the missing crew, they have never provided complete information about why they looked them up, or produced logs and documentation, or revealed what was communicated when they were in contact. To me, it’s been a breach of truthfulness and transparency about what happened, because New Zealand has consistently withheld that information. But the prosecution has used details from the information they have—about the missing crew’s whereabouts—in Norwegian courts.

And the official response from New Zealand is that these contacts never took place?
ANDHOY: Initially, we were told there had been contact, but that they had no pictures or documentation. Later, more information leaked out, from both official and private parties. There are photos that prove the Wellington and the Berserk met, and documents proving that our crew’s movements were under surveillance and being reported to Norway. According to the New Zealand Navy, during one of these meetings, crew from the Wellington gave the Berserk crew a cigar—a friendly gesture. But the documents circulating prior to the distress signal did not seem friendly. The Norwegian representatives were very active in sharing information to everyone that our expedition was “illegally” in the area, and New Zealand set a strategy to offer no hospitality. A short time after the last documented meeting between the Wellington and the Berserk, the Berserk left its anchorage.

After all these years, do you know why they left?
ANDHOY: No, and from a seaman’s perspective, it is completely illogical and irrational to leave a safe anchorage and the hut on land to put your nose into a forecasted Force 12 storm in the Southern Ocean. But that’s what the timeline shows they did. In nature, you never leave shelter from a storm, but I can’t judge the captain’s call without knowing what was said and done before he made it.

All of the paperwork from the official side prior to the accident proves that the main focus of New Zealand and Norway was to make an example of an expedition that, to them, was not welcome. I don’t know what kind of pressure had been put on our crew to leave. I believe the biggest error here is that people in Norway’s and New Zealand’s administrations have focused on bureaucratic gray-zone rules in the Antarctic Treaty instead of on the security of the missing men and the expedition.

GUNNAR NERDRUM AAGAARD: I should mention for context that when the Wellington made its visits, the Berserk expedition was under suspicion of having moored in an Antarctic Specially Protected Area (ASPA), and they were being investigated for committing this alleged crime.

Thanks, and we should explain to readers what those areas are. The nations that make up the Antarctic Treaty parties—54 in all—have designated a number of locations on the continent that have special environmental, historical, or wilderness value, and it’s a crime to enter them without approval. In your case, the treaty parties claimed that it was illegal to anchor in the safe anchorage area. You were charged for this in Norway, but it turned out that Horseshoe Bay was not an ASPA site after all?

So are you saying that because of this investigation—
AAGAARD: We don’t know. We did later learn that the vessel’s position was monitored on a daily basis by satellite, that the Norwegian Polar Institute was preparing a case against Jarle, and that the institute received assistance from Antarctica New Zealand and the National Science Foundation, among others. All of this had happened or was happening when the Berserk was anchored in Horseshoe Bay. The alleged illegal ASPA mooring was taken out of the court case against Jarle right when he was asking questions and demanding access to information. We still have not received the official information from this crucial time period—from the end of the day on February 14, 2011, to February 22.

Perhaps all this lends credence to the theory that, if the men aboard the Berserk were under investigation, maybe that was communicated to your captain, who thought that, even though a storm was coming, he’d better leave?
ANDHOY: We don’t know exactly what was communicated, because that’s the exact time period where we can’t get information. What we do know is that we were not welcome in the area and that they didn’t want us there. Staff from the New Zealand Scott Base said that directly to me. And from documents provided in court, we know that Norway asked New Zealand to monitor and report on the expedition’s movements. And that after the shipwreck, New Zealand officials knew details of how the ship was tied to land in a way that they said was illegal. So the visit by the New Zealand Navy was about something more than just cheering them on and providing cigars, which is how they’ve described it in the media. We have requested the official logs from the ship, and we have only received an unreadable version from one of several logs—the bridge log—that starts on February 22.

AAGAARD: And this version starts with the distress signal, so it’s from after the accident.

ANDHOY: The only things we have from that period before the storm are one picture from the Wellington, which was published in the news media, and another we later received from a Wellington crew member.

Yes, I’m looking at them. What are these pictures of?
ANDHOY: The one sent to Lenny’s sister shows the Berserk in Backdoor Bay, with a circle drawn around it. This shows that the officials on the Wellington had an interest in the Berserk. We also know they documented its movements.

The other is from the Wellington. It shows its crew, alongside the Berserk, talking with Bellika. You can also see Robert in the hatch, in between these guys, filming the incident. And there’s Lenny at the helm. This picture is the last image from the Berserk when the men were alive.

Our position is that we demand truth, transparency, and documented logs and communications from official parties to see what actually occurred. I mean, parents have lost their sons, and I have lost three good friends. The ship was lost. The government of New Zealand has the information from the last days of them being alive, and there is really no good official excuse to hold the documentation back any longer.

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