What Really Happened to the ‘Berserk’?
In September 2017, Outside published a feature about the ‘Berserk,’ a ship that went missing in 2011 off the coast of Antarctica with three men aboard. The expedition leader, Jarle Andhoy, disagreed with the story we published, which contained some factual errors, and with our portrayal of the lost men of the ‘Berserk.’ He also believed that the story left out crucial information about the days before the ship’s disappearance. Outside editor in chief Christopher Keyes interviewed Andhoy and his lawyer, Gunnar Nerdrum Aagaard, to better understand new details the two have gathered, which may help explain what happened to the men on board.
OUTSIDE: As our story related, in January 2010, aboard a craft called the Berserk, you set out from Norway with a crew of five people. In early 2011, you left Auckland, New Zealand—
JARLE ANDHOY: Well, the Berserk had done numerous expeditions before this. Our goal was to retrace the 100-year anniversaries of Roald Amundsen’s successful navigation of the Northwest Passage and his expedition to the South Pole. We sailed out of the Caribbean, from Puerto Rico, in 2006, and navigated through the Northwest Passage. That expedition hit a few bumps along the way, and we left the Berserk in Nome, Alaska. In 2009, we did work on the Berserk in Dutch Harbor and then continued.
Got it, thanks. To clarify: I was referring only to the Antarctica portion of your journey, which started in 2010.
ANDHOY: That’s correct. That year we sailed the Pacific from the Bering Sea down to New Zealand, with a mix of newcomers and some shipmates from the previous trip.
Let’s review who was on board when you left New Zealand. The crew included you, a South African named Leonard James Banks, and three Norwegians: Samuel Massie, Tom Gisle Bellika, and Robert Skaanes.
ANDHOY: Yes, and Bellika was the captain in the Southern Ocean. He had sailed with me in Greenland and through the Northwest Passage, so I knew him very well. Rob was a diver, and Lenny grew up surfing and sailing. They were selected for the expedition after about a year on board.
You sailed south and reached Horseshoe Bay, a body of water near the Ross Ice Shelf, in mid-February of 2011. While Bellika, Banks, and Skaanes stayed on the boat, you and Massie set off on ATVs to travel to the South Pole. Your plan was to reach it, head back to a rendezvous with the Berserk, and sail north. On your tenth day out, a big storm hit. Is that accurate?
ANDHOY: That’s right. And in our plan, safety came first, so I had a line of communication going with Bellika. I was expedition leader on land; he was captain on the boat. We kept in contact and all was good until we got notice about a coming storm the night before the Berserk left its anchorage and base camp in Horseshoe Bay.
Your mission was to reach the pole and get back safely. What was their job?
ANDHOY: To stay with the Berserk and, if necessary, take shelter inside Ernest Shackleton’s hut. [Editor’s note: The hut is from the 1907–9 British Antarctic Expedition, during which Shackleton tried and failed to reach the South Pole. It sits on Cape Royds in McMurdo Sound.] The bay is the safest place for getting shelter from big seas, ice, and winds. The Berserk crew were also making preparations for overwintering if they had to. That involved storing equipment like fuel, food, tools, and shovels.
On the afternoon of February 22, the Berserk’s 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.
Just so I’m clear, why does the first picture prove that men from the Wellington did more than say hello?
ANDHOY: Why would official parties have a picture of the boat in the Specially Protected Area, with a yellow ring around it, together with written statements about lines being tied to land, if these things were not a concern? Why would a navy ship care about a sailboat in Antarctica that was tied to land?
AAGAARD: And again, the context is that, at this point, the expedition was already being investigated by New Zealand and Norwegian authorities who were following its movements closely and preparing the legal aftermath, in our view to make an example of it and ignoring common sense.
When did that investigation begin?
ANDHOY: The investigation started on February 14, according to Norway’s records. In any event, all the documentation shows that there was only one concern: that those guys were there illegally. And they wanted to make sure that all official parties in the area were aware of it.
Let’s talk about the summer of 2012, when you and Samuel Massie returned to Antarctica. Why did you go back?
ANDHOY: Because I was only getting irrelevant answers from New Zealand. I decided I had to go, that I couldn’t gain peace without finding out what I could in regard to what happened to our guys.
When we returned to New Zealand, we were unwelcome, and officials in Norway and New Zealand tried to hinder us from sailing out and issued a deportation order. But we managed to sail out to search for the last traces of the missing equipment and gear that was left at the Shackleton hut.
What did you find?
ANDHOY: That all our gear had been removed. There was nothing left—and penguins in Antarctica don’t carry fuel barrels! There was also no trace of the lines used to connect the Berserk to land. At Scott Base, they said it had been shipped out, but it was actually stored in a container right there.
And what have you learned about the rescue mission that happened in 2011, after the Berserk’s beacon went off?
ANDHOY: First of all, we’re extremely humble and thankful to all the good people who participated to search for and aid the Berserk crew. The Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand picked up the Berserk’s emergency beacon on February 22, and it subsequently contacted the Wellington, which stopped searching a short time after the mayday signal went off and couldn’t make it to the accident area because of bad weather. Two other nearby vessels—the Steve Irwin, the flagship of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, and the Professor Khromov, a Russian passenger cruise ship—assisted.
The real heroes in that saga were the captain and crew of the Steve Irwin, and Rescue New Zealand for its coordination efforts. The Wellington stopped searching on February 23, and the Steve Irwin—a small boat that was able to cover large areas because it had a helicopter—went head on into the storm. They did everything they could to search for the Berserk, and words cannot describe how thankful we are. Searching in that area, in those conditions, is extremely hard. It was the Steve Irwin that found the Berserk’s life raft, about 45 miles north of the location of the original beacon signal.
From the New Zealand side, the Wellington said that they tried to help, but they have been completely closed about the relevant matters prior to the accident. Several times we’ve reached out requesting logs, documents, and pictures, but the only official answer we’ve received is that they have no pictures or documentation. Which is nonsense, because they have shared it with the media, and parts of their information was used in court.
In New Zealand, what’s your legal recourse at this point?
AAGAARD: We’ve started a process to involve the national ombudsman. Basically, New Zealand’s ombudsman is like an independent third party that you can approach to make requests, file inquests, or launch inquiries against the government. If that doesn’t get results, the only path left is litigation based on official information acts and regulations concerning data that’s being stored by the New Zealand government.
I understand your position—three of your friends died, and it seems to you that the authorities were only concerned with the legal aspects of your trip and not about the causes of the tragedy. What I would ask is simpler: Why didn’t you get official permission to be there in the first place?
ANDHOY: By law and by definition, sailing in the Southern Ocean is not limited—that’s why these waters are legally called the high seas. And on my search expedition to Antarctica, I knew that Norway would never give me a permit to go, because officials required insurance that does not exist. So it’s like putting you in checkmate. You have to apply for a notice or a permit, but in order to get that permit you need insurance, but you can’t get it.
Does that also apply to setting foot on the continent and anchoring?
ANDHOY: Sailing and setting foot—those are different things. The moment you go on land in Antarctica, you’re under a different set of rules that demand a different kind of insurance. You can get insurance for the accessible places on land in Antarctica, but it is expensive.
At this point, what do you think happened to the Berserk?
ANDHOY: I do not want to speculate about what happened. I want to find the facts that we know the New Zealand government has. In this case, I really feel it’s unfair to judge the missing crew for leaving a safe anchorage before we have received answers to the essential accident questions we know New Zealand possesses, and know the circumstances. The official documented chain of events will enlighten us about the missing crew’s last days and whereabouts—and why they chose to leave.
After a shipwreck, it’s normal to ask what happened and why. But in the case of Tom Gisle Bellika, Leonard James Banks, and Robert Skaanes, those questions have been ignored by official parties. Instead they’ve focused on permits and insurance. There are three sets of parents wondering what happened to their son, and instead of getting answers they got a statement: “They were there illegally.”
The problem is that the Antarctic Treaty parties that were involved with the Berserk had a blind focus on gray-area environmental regulations. Instead of being respectful, the strategy was to shut the door and run an administrative case to enforce environmental matters in the most remote part of the world, based on Norway’s information about illegal activity. The guys on the Berserk were anchored in one of the most hostile areas in the world. Instead of doing what I would say is normal, man-to-man behavior in a wild spot, they used a cold-shoulder strategy and offered no assistance. This is not how you should behave in nature with fellow humans.
In Norway, based on pure decency, if you have a cabin in the mountains and someone was to find themselves threatened by weather or in distress, it is common courtesy to offer them shelter. In the Berserk’s case, I’m criticizing the people who followed bureaucratic procedures instead of offering courtesy and basic decency.
Until we have received the truth, and the official documentation that New Zealand authorities possess, these matters will not be put to rest.