SV-2 Wave Glider: a retrieval mission. June 2014.

Tales of Lady Amber: Report back, Voyage 21

Our Story,


Southern Ocean.

There’s not a lot that can be said about the Southern Ocean: big waves, big seas, big winds and big cold! Since iron men in wooden ships first ventured into its waters, it has been feared – a nightmare of wind and water that even the most experienced of sailors reflect on it with stillness in their souls.

Our task: the rescue of a vessel, a vital piece of oceanographic equipment, no bigger than a surfboard, that had gone rogue in this vast desert of water and was steadily moving south to the ice pack where it would be surely lost, crushed… destroyed.

If you want to play in the big stuff, the secret is in the timing – the low pressure systems with wind forces of over 140 km/h march relentlessly from the barren Cape Horn at the tip of South America, angry at being squeezed through the Drake Passage and expand in the freedom of the Deep South Atlantic Ocean. Not a place for the feint-hearted and certainly suicidal in winter!

The date: June 20, two days before mid-winter. We were approached by Dr Sebastian Swart, the senior researcher of the CSIRO- Southern Ocean Carbon & Climate Observatory. “We have a SV-2 Wave Glider that isn’t responding to our commands. We think that the rudder is jammed and it’s drifting South West at about 2 knots. We are not sure how long we can keep up communication with the craft; if we lose comms, we lose the glider.”

I dubiously looked at the weather. Our vessel, the Lady Amber, was built for these conditions and our task over the past five years was just this: the deployment and retrieval of weather and data instruments in the oceans of the world. We have been specifically trained for this and besides, we were also the only research vessel in this hemisphere that could successfully carry out such an operation at short notice. A rescue such as this though, in the Southern Ocean and in mid-winter, is not a decision to be taken lightly. I studied the weather again.

We had a gap, a small one – we would have wind and tide against us going out, but if it held, it would be a good run back. I needed a relatively calm day for the rescue which would be Friday dawn. To make it, we would have to leave now.

Crew briefing: We would be sailing with two technicians, Fred and Sinekhaya from CSIRO (SA), in the hope that the Glider could be repaired on site. They were in for a rather rude shock – on most scientific voyages that scientists or technicians take part; they are given a luxury cabin and only called out of their comfort zone on the approach of the deployment positions.

The Research Vessel Lady Amber is not such a creature: here you work – no work: no food. They watched wide-eyed as they were given details of their watch keeping, cooking schedule, cleaning and maintenance and all the nuances that keep a vessel at sea.

Tuesday was set as the departure and Table Mountain disappeared behind our wake.  Our little vessel welcomed the Cape Rollers, the ocean swell that has travelled to these shores from the Southern Ocean. She feels alive and happy to be free. Our technicians have started their watch and are doing well, actually enjoying themselves, working as part of the team, part of the boat.

The position of the Glider is tracked from the base in Cape Town, as is the position of the Lady Amber, and Fred is updated constantly via Sat Phone. As we plot the Gliders position, we can see it moving south, then south east at a speed of about 2 knots.

Day 2 out, we adjust our intercept, somewhat like aiming a rifle at a moving target; at the position we assume it would be, taking into account the permutation of eddies in that area, only to find that it catches in a secondary eddy and heads off due east.

2.00am on Friday morning, freezing cold outside and in the vicinity of the Glider, but not too close (we don’t want to run it down in the dark), I close down the boat and lie ahull (sails on the wrong side of the boat so she will ‘park’ and slip sideways with the current), while we wait for the dawn.


As the black ominous waves become grey, and the first peek of the sun bathes our little vessel in a golden glow, we get underway; a search pattern with all hands on lookout. We are within a mile of the Glider – a huge area when looking for something as small and as flat as a surfboard with a half meter aerial sticking up. But modern technology combined with sharp, salt burned eyes prevailed. “Got it!” being the only entry in the ship’s log book.

We sailed silently past our quarry as the crew dropped a smoke marker; it makes it easier for the helmsman to position the vessel. A flurry of activity aboard as the workboat was launched and our gantry boom swung over the side for the retrieval. One of the crew, Hilton, went out with the technician to secure the tether, the umbilical cord that attached the two parts of the Glider together and rides some 7 meters below the little craft. They hauled it aboard the workboat. Smiles all round.

The glider was raised aboard, still in the workboat and settled on deck while Fred notified base of a successful operation. I called for a plot to Cape Town as the crew packed and secured the Glider on deck for the journey. With dreams of cold beer and an exhilarating sail back with the wind on our quarter, our brave little vessel, cargo aboard and rescue successful, headed for home.

Peter Flanagan.

RV Lady Amber



What happens in a human being when it is bounded to face the darkness, the stars and the enormous ocean? And what is the driving force that keeps the sailor at sea? From my temporary domicile on the Southern of Africa and I’ve approached Captain Flanagan to find answers to my questions. An answer that seems to hold more than a thousand stories about “life, love and the world around us” as the captain formulates it himself.

By: Nanna Amalie Dahl

On lady Amber

It is Friday afternoon in Cape Town, South Africa. The sound that meets me is the noise from the mini buses untiringly honking their way through the city as if they were afraid that for a brief second one would forget about their existence. A car with loud music followed by 200 dancing pedestrians stops the traffic and there by also my walk through the city and down to the harbour, where I am supposed to meet with Captain Flanagan (Skip).

When I finally arrive – a bit delayed – I realize, that my delay most likely has not been noticed. In opposite to the city, time at the harbour seems to run in it’s own pace, which at least today does not seem to be that fast.

In apprentice as a human

Since 2009 Skip and his sailing boat ‘Lady Amber’ has been sailing the world for the project ‘Argo’. The project aims to place floats in the ocean where no other ships are sailing. The floats measure the temperature of the water and other data that allow scientists from all over the world to analyse and create knowledge around the global climate changes. Along the science project the boat also serves another purpose. It’s a trainee program for youngsters between 18 and 27 who need to “learn to be human” as Skip formulates it. The program is neither a charity program nor is it a luxury trip for the rich: “The richest people they’ve got it all but they don’t want it”, explains Skip, whom originally is Irish. “The middle class kids on the other hand, they rarely get any chances. So I take them onboard where they learn about teamwork, cooperation, the power of the wind and the will of God – if one believes in that. When they cross the equator they’ve learned more things than they ever would in a school. They start out as tadpoles but end as shellbacks. They get out on the other side as useful human beings”, he explains, eagerly, and adds, that it is alone at night that one finds oneself.

To look yourself in the eyes

It seems, that becoming able to look yourself in the eyes and to act from who you are is the strongest vision both for the youth program as well as for life as a sailor. For a moment our conversation has stopped until Skip breaks the silence by asking, if he can tell me something. The situation given, that we are in the middle of an interview, I of course answer with a “Yes”. So he tells me about that day, where he came home from a ‘bad operation’, took a 3-hour shower and looked at himself in the mirror. What he found was that the guy in the mirror was no longer congruent with the guy, he wanted to be.
Before I get the change to ask into this story, that seems to hold the answer to how it all started, Arran (Skips son) walks in. As he joins the conversation I ask why it is necessary for the younger generation of today to be ‘re-humanized’? Rapidly, father and son agree that life at sea is an alternative to the television as well as it is a return to necessity- and- action driven behaviour. Skips adds, that life is so short and that one has to do what he or she wants. He exemplifies this with a story from when he was 11 and hitch hiked from Cape Town to Pretoria in order to learn how to horse back ride.
In relation to the youth program it seems to be a matter of finding out where one has the capacity to do that little extra. “The Youth is our future. So someone has to do something”, he says. I answer with a smile and a thought on all those places in the world, where I know that “learning by doing” is the mantra behind the youth development programs.

Addicted to the ocean

In the mean time it has become dark. What started as a rather formal conversation around a sailing boat, a project and a rather unusual man became a long discussion around re-humanising, the three pictures in the mirror and an encompassing passion for the sea. Before I return to the streets and the sounds of the city I pick up all my courage and ask how long Skip and his son think, I would last at sea? Arran looks at me, estimates and answers thoughtfully: “You have absolutely no experience and you talk way to much”, he says, honestly, and I find it hard to disagree. To my great relief he adds: “But you seem pretty stubborn and pretty clever after all”. “1 ½ year – If you last for the first month that is”, is his final conclusion. Though he strongly recommends my never to try it out which Skip agrees to by adding that “You become so addicted that you stop functioning on land”. But why then use a whole life including Christmas day and all other Holidays on the ocean?, I ask. “Because you become human”, Arran answers. “And because you can’t help it”, Skip adds.


“Thank you so much for the opportunity awarded to us and our learners.  PetroSA through its Community Affairs department would like to extend a heartfelt appreciation for inviting our learners to your Outreach programme on the 30th November 2013.  We wish to again say thank you.”

On November 30th, 2013 the research vessel Lady Amber hosted an open day and outreach programme in collaboration with a GLOBE and PetroSA initiative to introduce young people, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds around Cape Town to oceanographic research and conservation.

Captain Peter Flanagan delivered a lecture and presentation on the Argo Project, oceanographic research and the pressing need for ocean science and conservation. The lecture was followed by a keen question answer session and a tour of the vessel and the instrumentation on board.

The Lady Amber wishes all the best to those future scientists we had on board!

For more information on the Lady Amber’s collaboration with GLOBE Africa read her latest blog post here: Lady Amber Partners with GLOBE education program. 


Mauritius collaborates with RV Lady Amber for 2013!

“The Ministry of Education has established collaboration with Lady Amber Research Vessel in favour of students of secondary schools so that they will be provided with real time date through Argo. In this context, in January 2013,some 80 secondary schools will be engaged in this programme with the vessel. Participating schools will be able to use data like readings of water temperature, movement of current, density and weather to enrich the present curriculum in Marine Biology, Science, Mathematics and other related subjects like Geography and Agriculture. These data will be useful in the study of climate change and climate prediction”

Download pdf version of article here: 2013-01-04The changes for 2013 _ Defimedia
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