Yacht and parts, full size, sloop "Ice Bird", steel / plastic / timber, designed by Dick Taylor, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, 1962, sailed by Dr David Lewis to Antarctica 1972-1974
In this small 32 foot (9.7 m) Sydney Harbour yacht called "Ice Bird", adventurer Dr David Lewis (1917-2002) made the first single-handed voyage to Antarctica in 1972 and continued his voyage in 1974. What makes this yacht significant is that it was not designed for the Antarctic, having been purchased second-hand in Sydney and modified for the purpose. It survived mountainous seas, terrible gales, snow storms and freezing temperatures. It capsized three times and was dismasted twice, thousands of kilometres from any help.
For Dr Lewis's part, his voyages were the most extreme test of human physical and mental endurance, and he epitomises the courageous tradition of Antarctic adventurers and explorers. The author Hammond Innes said it was "Not just another single-handed first, but the greatest small boat voyage into ice since Shackleton's". The voyage is recorded in Dr Lewis's popular and gripping book, "Ice Bird: The first Single-Handed Voyage to Antarctica" and two articles in the "National Geographic Magazine".
Curator, Science & Industry
Built in 1962, it is thought "Ice Bird" was originally owned by Roger Hopkins, a member of the Sydney Amateur Sailing Club, where it was known as "Tirrike". The yacht was purchased by the adventurer Dr David Lewis (1917-2002) and quickly modified for a voyage to the Antarctic.
At the age of 55 Dr Lewis left Sydney on 19 October 1972 to sail alone to Antarctica. At 60 degrees south latitude (the "screaming sixties") he ran into winter conditions which filled his cockpit with snow. A series of enormous gales followed. In the British "Telegraph" his 2002 obituary noted "The pointer moved right off the barometer's scale; the wind rose to hurricane strength, the waves climbed above 15 m high. A roaring wave seized "Ice Bird" hurtling her forward and slewing her to starboard. It exploded overhead and crashed the yacht down on her port side. It wrecked the galley, destroyed the self-steering gear, carried away the life raft and tore the heavy storm jib across. From inside the cabin, Lewis hauled on the tiller lines to try to get the boat running without sail, but mostly she wallowed in the valleys between the waves. His stomach, he wrote, was hollow with fear; the wind now gave off the high scream of a hurricane of more then 80 knots, as the sea grew white. In an instant all went black for Lewis, and he found himself upside down and spinning, with the cabin table coming down on his head. "Ice Bird" had been picked up, cast on to her lee side, and then rolled through 360 degrees to be righted by her heavy keel. The mast had gone, but banged alongside until he could secure the remains. The cabin was wrecked and full of water; it spurted with every roll from a crack in the steel between two portholes. The radio was destroyed, the pump out of action. The strong steel cabin trunk was stoved in. It was 3,600 miles to Sydney and 2,500 miles to the Antarctic Peninsula. Hands numb, frost-bitten and gashed, Lewis bailed automatically for 10 hours. The storm abated, and eventually he managed with much pain to raise a jury mast, and rig a storm jib. Two weeks later, a second hurricane turned him over again. This time he was prepared, and the damage was less, but he cried in near despair."
Some six weeks later Dr Lewis reached his goal and sailed into the American base at Palmer Station, Anvers Island, off the Antarctic Peninsula, on 29 January 1973, becoming the first to sail alone to the Continent. It had taken 14½ weeks. Once it had been hoisted out of the water, the Americans helped repair "Ice Bird" with a new 23 feet 6 inch (7.7 m) mast, self steering gear and repaired sails. Lewis deferred his plans to circumnavigate Antarctica and left there after an offer by "National Geographic Magazine" to write about his research into early Polynesian navigation.
Dr Lewis returned to Palmer in the spring of 1973 and resumed his voyage in "Ice Bird" on 12 December, base hopping to the Argentinean base of Almirante Brown and the British Antarctic Survey Station at Signy. On 24 February 1974 he was caught in an 80-knot hurricane, breaking the new mast and self steering gear and capsizing again. Abandoning the circumnavigation, he made for Cape Town, sailing for almost a month under a jury jib with the mast improvised from the boom, lengthened by lashing on the gaff. The battered little sloop motored into the marina of the Royal Cape Yacht Club on 20 March 1974, to the startled gaze of incredulous yachtsmen.
Contrary to popular belief, "Ice Bird" was not left to rust away in the Caribbean, on the Island of St Thomas in the Virgin Islands. In fact, David Lewis's son, Garry, sailed the yacht back to Sydney from South Africa. In 1982 Dr Lewis donated "Ice Bird" to the Museum under the Tax Incentives for Gifts to the Arts Scheme. It was abrasive blasted and repainted to prevent further corrosion.
David Henry Lewis was born at Plymouth, England, in 1917 but grew up in New Zealand, living at Rarotonga and in the Cook Islands. He had an adventurous childhood, kayaking and mountain climbing and learning the ways of Polynesian people. Back in England he studied medicine at Leeds University and during the Second World War joined the British Army. In 1960 he participated in the first "Observer" single handed trans-Atlantic yacht race, which was won by Francis Chichester.
After the "Ice Bird" voyages, Dr Lewis led more Antarctic expeditions in the 65 ft yacht "Dick Smith Explorer", and undertook research into the navigation techniques of the Inuit in the Bering Strait region. He summed up his attitude to sailing with this quote: " The ocean, to me, I think, has been a pathway to many adventures, many projects, much learning?you want to be at one [with it] and share [its] enormous strength, power, terror and beauty".
Amongst his awards is Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit and "Australian Geographic" magazine's Adventurer of the Year in 1998. Leeds University also gave him an honorary M.Sc. for research into exposure and reactions to fatigue and solitude.
"David Lewis" obituary, Telegraph.co.uk, published 26 November 2002.
"David Henry Lewis" in http://en.wikipedia.org
Lewis, David "Alone to Antarctica", in "National Geographic Magazine", December 1973.
Lewis, David, "Ice Bird: The First Single-Handed Voyage to Antarctica", William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd, Sydney, 1975.
Lewis, David, "Ice Bird ends her Lonely Odyssey" in "National Geographic Magazine", August 1975.
"The sailor who set out to see it all David Henry Lewis, Adventurer 1917-2002" obituary "Sydney Morning Herald", 16 November 2002.