The dock 4 of Puerto Madero, today houses not only one of the last exponents of the well-known “Sarmiento” squad; but also part of Argentine history in Antarctica. The corvette ARA “Uruguay” with its 43.36 meters in length is impressive in the tourist circuit of the city of Buenos Aires, but its majesty is given by its feats, its miles sailed and its crew.
Today marks the 118th anniversary of that day when the Argentine Navy unit set sail from the Port of Buenos Aires heading south to rescue the Antarctic expedition of the Swede Otto Nordenskjöld. The scientist had set sail on December 21, 1901 aboard the Antartic with the aim of recovering the knowledge that remained guarded by the ancient southern ice and that would contribute to the progress of humanity. Among the crew was the Argentine Navy Frigate Lieutenant José María Sobral, who at 21 would become the first national Antarctic.
The Swedish expedition, in its defeat to Antarctica, had to face severe climatic attacks, mainly in the navigation between the Malvinas and Isla de los Estados. The first encounter with the ice happened in the area of the South Shetland Islands where the harshness, solitude and wild beauty of the Antarctic landscape constantly surprised the crew.
Their advance was stopped by the ice fields, so they decided to place the site in the vicinity of Cerro Nevado, to begin the installation work for the winter station. The ship deposited on the lonely island of Snow Hill the six expedition members who would winter there and began the return.
After a year the “Antartic” returned to look for the expeditionaries, but imprisoned in the ice, it sank slowly, destroyed by the pressure of these. Thus, the crew was left to their fate and under the command of Captain Larsen, they advanced walking over the frozen field to Paulette Island, where they built a hut. On the other hand, the six inhabitants of Snow Hill had to spend another year in the ice.
Meanwhile, in Buenos Aires, in the absence of news, the Argentine government decides to listen to the action plan entered by Captain Larsen and Dr. Anderson before setting sail. In the document the rescue plan was designed in case of not receiving news from the expedition members on April 30, 1903.
Thus it came to the point of thinking how to carry out the rescue plan, and the main question was in what. Despite the policies of sovereignty over the southern seas, Argentina did not have suitable vessels to navigate through the ice. The first option was to buy a whaler, but it was undervalued because of the costs. So it was decided to recondition an old gunboat called “Uruguay”.
The shipyards of the Argentine navy were the ones who faced the challenge of achieving the objective in a short time. By September 1903, society became aware of who would be the man who would be responsible for commanding the rescue operation. It was Lieutenant Julián Irizar, a former naval attaché in London. His recent presence abroad allowed him to make contact with the main geographical associations in the world to collect information on polar travel.
The work of adapting the corvette “Uruguay” for the Antarctic mission was reflected in the newspaper “La Nación” in a note on the eve of departure. “In addition to the iron hull, a wooden lining has been placed, and the space of those has been filled with chopped cork, to isolate the heat. So that the friction of the ice masses does not damage the hull, a 6-millimeter sheet of steel has been placed externally, from the water lines up to 6 feet below.
Another publication that constitutes a historical record of the moment in which “Uruguay” undertakes its most important feat is the magazine “Caras y Caretas”: “(…) at 2 in the afternoon, the ship began to move slowly, dragged by the tug Watchers. The public, who for a long time had been contemplating the preparations for the departure, from the piers burst into enthusiastic cheers and applause, the cheers being renewed when the gunboat headed into the northern channel without the aid of the tugboats. At that moment, on the command bridge, the gallant figure of the Chilean officer Boonen Chandler could be seen next to Commander Irízar, who was performing the functions of assistant to the chief; and shortly afterwards Uruguay left at half force greeted by thousands of white handkerchiefs that were waving wishing a good trip (…) “(“The expedition to the Polo – Partida de la Uruguay”, Caras y Caretas Magazine)
Thus, October 8, 1903 remained in the annals of Argentine history as the day the navy undertook an unprecedented mission. An Antarctic feat that would mark the beginning of a sovereign tradition in the southern latitudes marked by the safeguarding of life at sea and the development of science.