Was a deckhand during Antarctic shipwreck: 30 years later he helped replace it | Polarjournal
Rasmus Nygaard was a deckhand on the MV Nella Dan as it made it to Antarctica in 1987. Photo: Henrik Hartlev Jeppesen
Rasmus Nygaard was a deckhand on the MV Nella Dan as it made it to Antarctica in 1987. Photo: Henrik Hartlev Jeppesen

Rasmus Nygaard was aboard the MV Nella Dan when it ran aground by Macquarie Island in 1987. 30 years later, he was part of the KNUD E. HANSEN team working on the design of RSV Nuyina, Australia’s state-of-the-art Antarctic research vessel.

On the evening of December 3rd 1987, the deckhand Rasmus Nygaard and his shipmates aboard the MV Nella Dan were gathered in the mess watching The Karate Kid 2, newly released at the time. The weather was building up but the ship, sitting at anchor by Macquarie Island in the South Pacific, was relatively calm.

Suddenly, the Danish research and supply vessel chartered by the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions (ANARE), started shifting position in an odd way. Rasmus Nygaard remained seated but some of the other crew jumped up and rushed to the bridge.

“I didn’t know the ship as well as some of the others, but I still thought: ‘what the hell is going on?’” Rasmus Nygaard told Polar Journal. 

Two minutes later the ship was shattered from keel to top of masts. Shivering loud noises of steel against rocks. In the high tide and bad weather, its anchor had been dragged across the seafloor and the ship had now drifted onto the rocky beach. Nella Dan ran aground just meters off the Macquarie Island ANARE research station, halfway between Australia and Antarctica.

It did not look too serious at first when the MV Nella Dan ran aground just meters off shore. Photo: Ted Upton
It did not look too serious at first when the MV Nella Dan ran aground just meters off shore. Photo: Ted Upton

No more Karate Kid

Large waves were now hitting the side of the ship, and the calmness in the mess moments earlier had suddenly turned to drama like in an action movie. The crew had to check the ship for leakages.

“It was a strange sight to see my cabin at the stern of the ship half-way submerged in water. That wasn’t supposed to happen. I had to wade through water to get my toothbrush and my stuff and to get our rescue equipment,” Rasmus Nygaard recollected.

The crew had to make sure that the few passengers who were still aboard the ship on its way to Antarctica made it safely ashore. But their operation was made difficult by the rough weather that was ceaselessly shattering the ship against the rocks, and diesel oil ‘slippery as brown soap’ that was being pressed out of the fuel tanks and vaporised in the strong winds and spray water onto bulkheads, hatches and deck areas.

In the end, after a night of drama, the weather let up. All passengers and crew managed to evacuate and make it safe to the research station on Macquarie Island where they stayed for a few days.

The station was a bit overcrowded but, according to Rasmus Nygaard, the crew managed to ease the mood by making it back to the ship to rescue a crate of beers, some meat and equipment for a barbecue.

“It wasn’t as dramatic perhaps as you would prefer it to be in an article, but it was still damn unlucky. I haven’t watched The Karate Kid 2 since then; let’s say it like that,” he said.

The crew was having a good time at Macquarie Island as they awaited the destiny of the MV Nella Dan. Photo provided by Rasmus Nygaard
The crew was having a good time at Macquarie Island as they awaited the destiny of the MV Nella Dan. Photo provided by Rasmus Nygaard

Spreadsheets and passion projects

The MV Nella Dan had served ANARE for 26 years and had become much loved in its home port away in Hobart, Tasmania. So much so that years later, Australian novelist Favel Parrett has written extensively about her childhood love for the Danish research vessel.

So, as the crew rested for a few days drinking beer on Macquarie Island, they were certain their beloved ship would make it through the trouble.

“We had all an unlimited trust in the Nella Dan. We had been through a lot with her, high seas, ice, love, dramas, and other groundings, so we thought that she would make it through this as well,” he said.

But in the end, the ship was getting old and someone on another payroll decided that she had been too badly damaged to be saved. ‘Spreadsheets and passion projects don’t always go well together’, as Rasmus Nygaard put it.

So, on Christmas Eve 1987, MV Nella Dan was scuttled in deep water off Macquarie Island.

The captain watching his ship sinking on December 24th, 1987. Photo: Magnus Olafsson
The captain watching his ship sinking on December 24th, 1987. Photo: Magnus Olafsson

Penguins as teammates

But while the ship had vanished in the depths of the South Pacific, the community that had flourished onboard remained intact.

The crew in the 1980’s had been a motley bunch to whom the Nella Dan was more of a family and home than anywhere else. Most had lived on the ship for years and years; sailing half the year in Antarctic waters and the other half in the Arctic.

For Rasmus Nygaard, who was 19 years old at the time, and had been on the ship for only a season, MV Nella Dan represented adventure.

“There was a naivete onboard. The world happened right at the tip of our noses. We met the sea, ice and wildlife in a way that as a kid you would only dream of. And this was before a lot of restrictions were forced onto anyone visiting the wildlife. We played football with the penguins. They were great in defence. It was quite a wonderful and innocent time,” he recalls.

It was the type of camaraderie that lasts a lifetime, so after the accident, the Nella Dan-family were without a home. “Most of the crew never sailed again. There were no more ships like it; the adventure had ended,” he said.

A dream of return

Rasmus Nygaard himself sailed a few other ships in the following years before eventually leaving the sea and getting a degree. Ever since, whenever he has met other former Nella Dan crew, bonds have been tight – even with those who were never onboard at the same time. 

One such seaman was Finn Wollesen, managing director at KNUD E. HANSEN, the Danish ship design company. Finn had sailed MV Nella Dan in the mid-80s, and before that his father, too, had sailed on other J. Lauritzen Polar vessels between 1955 and 1970.

Eventually when Finn Wollesen became managing director of KNUD E. HANSEN, one goal surpassed all others: to return to Antarctica.

Finn Wollesen knew by rule of thumb: a new ship will last for about 30 years, and in 1989, the Australian Antarctic Division had launched a new icebreaker, the Aurora Australis.

“Finn simply added 30 years to 1989, so he knew that around 2019 Australia would need a new ice breaker,” Rasmus Nygaard said.

The MV Nella Dan as it looked in its heyday, beset by ice in 1986. Photo: Lex Harris
The MV Nella Dan as she looked during her heyday, beset by ice in 1986. Photo: Lex Harris

Nella Dan II became RSV Nuyina

In 2007, Finn Wollesen took the first steps towards his goal when he started pitching a new project to the Australian Antarctic Division with the name Nella Dan II.

And in 2015, they succeeded. The Australian government had decided to invest around 320 million Euros in a new Antarctic research vessel, and KNUD E. HANSEN won the competition to design it.

About this time Rasmus Nygaard heard wind of Finn Wollesen’s project, and thought: ”this is too much of a coincidence. I can’t let it slip past me.”

Setting up the community Friends of Nella Dan, the storytelling around Nella Dan II and RSV Nuyina soon became a project to Finn Wollesen and Rasmus Nygaard.

Joining KNUD E. HANSEN as Business Development MSSc., they made steady progress on their dream of returning to Macquarie Island for a barbeque.

The state-of-the-art research vessel RSV Nuyina was finally completed in 2021. Since then, it has served as Australia’s primary Antarctic research vessel; just like the MV Nella Dan 40 years before.

The RSV Nuyina that would eventually replace the MV Nella Dan as Australia's main Antarctic research vessel. Photo: Pete Hamsen, Australian Antarctic Division
The RSV Nuyina that would eventually replace the MV Nella Dan as Australia’s principal Antarctic research vessel. Photo: Pete Hamsen, Australian Antarctic Division

The story that came full circle

The community around the long-since-sunk MV Nella Dan is still alive and well. Rasmus Nygaard estimates that around 800 people around the world are keeping its story alive through books, exhibitions, and much else. The group includes both former seamen, station personnel, and researchers, and even residents of Hobart, Tasmania.

According to Rasmus Nygaard, they do it for the shared humanity and special bonds that were created through their adventures all those years ago.

“It has been really rewarding to be part of a story that comes full circle. It is simply just a really great story,” he said.

And last year, the story got even better. During a business trip to Australia, Rasmus Nygaard got to sail for three days with the RSV Nuyina. Now, only one thing is missing for the circle to be entirely closed.

“If I could ever be aboard the ship when it sails to Antarctica that would be quite something. But I can only dream of that. I don’t think I’ll get a salary doing that anyway,” he said.

Ole Ellekrog, Polar Journal AG

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