Leiston/Benhall: Revells owner Anton Bowring joins Sir Ranulph Fiennes on The Coldest Journey

A TEAM led by veteran explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes sailed from London last week at the start of an ambitious Antarctic expedition, of which Suffolk businessman Anton Bowring is co-director. EADT business editor DUNCAN BRODIE visited the expedition ship ahead of its departure, as it took on its unusual cargo within site of the office tower blocks of Canary Wharf.

EXPLORER Sir Ranulph Fiennes is on his way back to the Antacrtic for what he has described as “the last great adventure”.

The expedition, named The Coldest Journey, involves making what would be the first on-foot crossing of Antarctica, via the South Pole, during the southern hemisphere winter.

Co-leader of the expedition alongside Sir Ranulph is Suffolk businessman Anton Bowring, owner of Leiston-based removals and storage firm Revells, who first became involved in providing logistics support for the intrepid explorer more than 30 years ago.

It all began when Anton, keen to continue a marine career in the polar regions after working as an iceberg researcher for the oil industry, asked for a place as a deckhand on the Transglobe expedition, in which Sir Ranulph and Charles Burton planned to circumnavigate the earth via both poles.

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Sir Ranulph replied that he was welcome to a place on board if he could find them a ship, and a crew, at no cost to the expedition budget.

Anton, as it happens, is a descendant of Benjamin Bowring who in 1811 founded the shipping and insurance business which came to be known as C T Bowring & Co (and which at one time owned the Terra Nova, the whaling ship which carried Captain Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole in 1910).

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He approached C T Bowring & Co for help and, through a partnership between the company and the American insurance broking firm Marsh & McLennan (of which it later became part), a vessel formally used by the British Antarctic Survey was secured for the Transglobe team, and renamed the MV Benjamin Bowring.

Over the next three years the expedition team successfully completed the first longitudinal circumnavigation of the globe and it was on arriving back into the UK that, needing a “day job”, Anton took on the Revells business. It was something of a departure from his maritime career, which had also included working from Woodbridge-based Small Craft Deliveries.

However, he has maintained links with Sir Ranulph – together they run the Transglobe Expedition Trust, a charity which supports young people to undertake inspiring expeditions with scientific, educational or humanitarian goals – and he has been involved in the planning for The Coldest Journey from its inception in 2007.

Having set sail from London on Thursday last week, the expedition team is due to reach the Lazerev Sea in Antarcica in mid-January when work will start on creating a base camp close to the runway at Novolazarevskaya.

The overland journey is due to start on March 21 (the equinox representing the official start of the Antarctic winter) with the trek to the South Pole due to take around 84 days and the onward trip to the finishing point by the Ross Sea a further 61 days.

Besides Sir Ranulph, the “ice team” – the six members of the expedition who will undertake the actual crossing – includes Richmond Dykes, Rob Lambert, Brian Newham, Ian Prickett and Spencer Smirl.

A two-main ski unit, dragging kit including ground-penetrating radar, will lead the party to check for crevasses.

They will be followed by a landtrain made up of two modified Caterpillar D6N vehicles, each towing a caboose (one providing living accommodation and the other containing scientific equipment) together with fuel sleds.

The team members, who will be equipped with heated clothing and hi-tech communications to protect them against the elements, including temperatures of minus 70 degrees Celsius or lower, plan to cover an average of 35km a day, with one day in three being allocated as reserve to allow for rest or bad weather.

Having completed the traverse, the team is due to reach Captain Scott’s camp at McMurdo Sound around September 21, almost exactly six months after setting off. They and their equipment will remain there until being picked up by the expedition ship in early February 2014.

All this, however, is to run ahead somewhat as Anton’s first task for The Coldest Journey, as with the Transglobe Expedition more than 30 years earlier, was to find a suitable ship.

It was clear that, as was the case with the MV Benjamin Bowring, an older vessel would be required for reasons of affordability. However, the ship would need a rather greater cargo capacity, given the need to carry the two Catterpillar machines, the only vehicles suitable for the attempt, and it would also have to comply with the environmental standards required of vessels entering Antarctic waters.

One by one, potential candidates were ruled out, as fundamentally unsuitable, in too poor a state of repair or simply too small.

One ship of which Anton was aware was the SA Agulhas, a scientific vessel owned by the South African government which he had first seen moored alongside the MV Benjamin Bowing in the Antarctic during the Transglobe Expedition.

She was rather larger than required for The Coldest Journey, and therefore likely to be too expensive, even with a sponsor “on board”, and there was, in any event, no indication that she would be available.

However, in 2009 it emerged that she was soon to be replaced by a new vessel and, with a major sponsor for The Coldest Journey having been found, in the form of banking group Standard Chartered, an approach was made to the South African government.

Initially, there was no response and the future of the SA Agulhas remained uncertain. Early this year, however, it emerged that she was to become a cadet training ship operated by the South African Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA) and a fresh approach brought an invitation for Anton to go to Cape Town.

SAMSA agreed to charter the ship to the expedition on condition that it could continue to run its cadet training scheme. This dovetailed perfectly with the expedition’s own objectives which, besides the core challenge of a winter crossing of Antarctica, include scientific and educational goals.

Crossing the Antarctic in winter will provide a unique opportunity to collect scientific data and the expedition team will carry out a variety of tests, including mapping the height of the underlying landmass using new GPS techniques, sampling surface snow to establish patterns of water vapour transport cross the ice sheet and sampling for bacteria capable of withstanding the extreme cold.

On the education front, the stated aims of The Coldest Journey is “to inspire a generation of schoolchildren across the Commonwealth to become the scientists, engineers and leaders of tomorrow”.

A wide range of teaching resources has been produced, matched to the demands of the curriculum in England at Primary and Secondary level, with more to be added as the expedition progresses.

Although the emphasis is on science and engineering, the material is suitable for a host of other subjects, including English, Maths, Geography, History, Technology/Design and PSHCE (Personal, Social, Heath and Citizenship Education).

An interactive map will enable students to identify the current position of the ship and the expedition team, and over the coming months there will be live feeds from Antarctica, including interviews with Sir Ranulph and the crew, and real science data collected on the expedition ship and by the traverse team on the ice.

The education liaison officer on the expedition is Jill Bowring, Anton’s wife (who he met and married during the Transglobe expedition when she was working as the ship’s cook), will be filming on-board the ship, as will the ice team during the Antactic crossing,

The materials are available through a pasword-protected website and the hope is that they will be used by thousands of schools across the Commonwealth. There is a one-off fee for two years’ access but sponsorship support will be available in some cases. For further details, visit:www.thecoldestjourney.org/home/education/ .

Last, but by no means least, the expedition has a charitable objective, with a goal of raising US$10million for Seeing is Believing, an international initiative which is tackling avoidable blindness.

Seeing is Believing is a collaboration between the International Agency for Prevention of Blindness and Standard Chartered, the lead sponsor of the expedition, which together have set a target of raising US$100m by 2020 and The Coldest Journey aims to be a major contributor to this total. Every time someone makes a donation, Standard Chartered will match it dollar for dollar, or pound for pound.

Anton, now 62, who lives at Benhall, near Saxmundham, says he has been struck by the generosity of sponsors in their support for The Coldest Journey, particularly given the challenging economic climate.

He adds that he and Sir Ranulph, 68, have complementary skills.

“Ran’s skill is that he is the most superb traveller in these conditions and he is an extremely dogged man. He has an extraordinary determination,” he says. “I am a completely different person. I do the administrative things and I have spent a lot of my working life at sea, so that is what I have to offer.

“We are very good friends. We have travelled together on expeditions and on holidays. Most recently we were in Lapland doing things with the equipment and I got quite bad frostbite because I was taking photographs, so I do suffer some of the perils of the sharp end.

“Ran looks after the tricky bit getting across the ice, and I look after the marine bit, which is getting them there and getting them back again. It is quite an operation to get all this equipment there and to pick it up on the other side in such a way that there is no evidence of the expedition. It is a pristine environment and we want to keep it that way.

“I do get on to the ice but I won’t be doing the travelling bit. I don’t think I would like it much. I challenge anybody to like it. It is an incredibly daunting task when you are talking about temperatures of -70C and to think your deep freeze at home is only -17C. It is impossible to breathe and to work in those conditions without being very specially prepared and equipped.

“There are all sorts of things that can happen, and that is why we have been planning for five years, so that we can make sure that all those things that can go wrong are mitigated for. The chances of it failing are ever-present but you do everything you can to make sure those chances are minimised.”

n For more information about the expedition, and its scientific, educational and charitable objectives, visit www.thecoldestjourney.org.

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