On Playing Squash In Antarctica

By Ramon C. Barquin

An elated Ramon Barquin fulfilled his dream of playing squash in Antarctica— okay, the dream was to play on all seven continents—when he reached Neko Harbor...and the Gentoo penguins.
An elated Ramon Barquin fulfilled his
dream of playing squash in Antarctica—
okay, the dream was to play on all seven
continents—when he reached Neko
Harbor…and the Gentoo penguins.

How did it feel to hit a few squasballs in the ice and snow, dressed in my all-white regalia under the suspicious glare of five penguinsWell, it felt great! This is the squash story of my life since now I can finally say that I have played the game in all seven continents.

I’ve been playing some form of squash for well over half a century. I first played real squash at MIT in the 1970s and took to the game with a passion. Having grown up playing “squash” in Havana, it was a surprise to discover in graduate school that what we played in Cuba was not really squash but something called “frontenis,” a game fashioned from Spanish jai-alai, but played in a smaller court with a tennis ball and a tennis racquet (check out this link to see frontenis in action—http://www.you- tube.com/watch?v=awudhUqczbM&featur e=related). Once I picked up the real game it became a life-long addiction.

After MIT we moved to Chappaqua, NY, and joined the Saw Mill River Club team. Some of my teammates from those days were Bill Barhite, who later went on to be the coach at Vassar, and Jim Wynn, who had played for Harvard in the ‘60s with later national champion, Vic Niederhoffer. I played in tournaments all over New York and also played on business trips to Canada.

Then I was off to Asia. As one of my foreign assignments with IBM, I spent four years living in Hong Kong with responsibilities covering almost twenty Asian countries. This was 1980 and, as a consequence, I had to convert to the international game.

That change proved virtually painless since Hong Kong was such a delight for squash players in those days. When we rst moved to the “Crown Colonythe family stayed at the Hong Kong Hilton and I started playing just across the road at Victoria Barracks—then headquarters for the Gurkha Battalion that protected Hong Kong prior to its 1997 handover to China. My first squash partner there was B.BSingh, a Sikh porter at the Hilton, who same come out one morning with my racquet attached to my briefcase.

Southeast Asia, in general, was great squash territory. I could play just about anywhere I went—but if a country had ever been part of the British Empire, you knew there was a history of squash in that land. Hence I played my way through courts high and low in places like Sri Lanka, Singapore, Malaysia and Bangladesh.

But the other Asian countries also offered great squash. To this day I fondly recall the fascinating spectacle of the sights, sounds and smells of Thailand hitting me as I crossed the Chaophya River dressed in my squash gear to play at the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok on their courts across the river from the hotel proper. And playing squash at the Polo Club in Manila with Bong-Bong Marcos, the son of then dictator Ferdinand Marcos, under the watchful eyes of his bodyguards.

Working for IBM for over 20 years took me around the world frequently on business trips. I always traveled with my squash gear and made a point of finding courts. In Latin America I played a lot in Mexico and occasionally in the South American continent proper in Peru, Colombia and Argentina.

Travel to Australia and New Zealand in the 70s and 80s was great and I played in Sydney, Canberra and in Wellington with some IBM colleagues who were also keen players.

And in Europe I managed to play in both the U.K. and Spain during that time.

Port Lockroy, in Antarctica, is home of the British Station operated by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust.
Port Lockroy, in Antarctica, is home of the British Station operated by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust.

I’ve not played much in Africa since iwas never part of my business beat; but I did have the opportunity to play on two trips while on vacation. The first time was in Kenya, at a country club outside Nairobi, and then in both Johannesburg and Cape Town, in South Africa. My games in the latter city were at a court in the Mount Nelson Hotel where the lights were coin activated—and they would go off abruptlywith no warning whatsoever, when thtime was up. As you can imagine, it was quite disconcerting anoccasionallresulted in some wild finishers to a point.

My last 20 plus years have been in the Washington, DC, area. Initially I joined the Washington Squash Club, walking distance from the World Bank, and home to many international players. I never returned to the hard ball.

And this leads me to Antarctica.

Squash was not my first sport. I competed in Judo internationally for many years and even managed to be a judge at four different Olympics. But squash has given me much pleasure, and it has allowed me to make many friends in many places. Furthermore, I had the great pride of seeing my son, Nick, be on the Trinity College team that won the national intercollegiates during his senior year in 2002. Yet as my legs start to run out in matches against young whippersnappers, I thought of at least acquiring bragging rights by being able to say that I’ve played squash in all seven continents.

A trip to Antarctica had been something I wanted to do for quite some time. This holiday season it finally came to pass as mdaughter, Elisa, and I went on an expedition to the Antarctic Peninsula. Aboard a Russian ship we sailed for two days across the rolling Drake Passage before reaching the Shetland Islands. There, on Deception Island, I got my rst shot at playing squash in the cold Antarctic.

Whalers Bay, an abandoned Norwegian  whaling  station,  presented the opportunity to actually hit against something resembling a wall. Several large tanks remain there that were used to store whale oil and fuel, and had a smooth surface of modest curvature providing a reasonable front wall and allowed me to volley a ball four or five times against it. I was able to take my first shots playing squash in Antarctica.

Victoria Barracks, home of the first squash court in Hong Kong, is now the location of Hong Kong Park with 12 air conditioned courts.
Victoria Barracks, home of the first squash court in Hong Kong, is now the
location of Hong Kong Park with 12 air conditioned courts.

But technically speaking, Whalers Bay was in the Shetland Islands and I wanted to be able to say that I’d played on the continent proper. That opportunity came when we made a landing at Neko Harbor. Now, landing anywhere in Antarctica does not mean arriving at a pier with a nice walkway onto the pavement of your destination. No, a landing at Neko Harbor meant climbing down the ladder along the side of the ship and boarding a rolling zodiac in a strong surf and piercing wind; and carrying all the necessary gear that the expedition leaders demand you wear and bring for minimal comfort and safety…plus two squash racquets and two balls in the backpack.

Once on shore I explore for a spot where I can disrobe and actually “play” some squash. I’d fantasized with finding a smooth ice wall at the foot of a glacier as a makeshift court. I even brought that extra racquet in case I could entice another madperson into a game. No such luck. The best I can do is find a spot on a rock next to a penguin rookery that allows me to get out of my parka, my fleece, my waterproof pants, my gloves, and two pairs of woolen socks. Then off come my Wellington boots as I put on my squash gear in the snow under the watchful eyes of the penguins. And off I go to meet my destiny. Squash in all seven continents…or death by pneumonia.

The Antarctic Open is on. I manage to play around by bouncing the ball on my racquet a few times so that photos and videos can provide proof that I’ve done it. Rules are simple: How many times can I bounce the ball before losing it. Twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen. I win!

Barquin was finally able to “play squash” in Neko Harbor, Antarctica.
Barquin was finally able to “play squash” in Neko Harbor, Antarctica.

A smile on my face and the feeling of accomplishment as all of a sudden the piercing cold reminds me that I’d better put on some warm clothes in a hurry.

Back on the ship, the expedition staff is still perplexed. Why would you ever want to go through that? Who in their right mind would want to play squash in Antarctica? By the way, who else has ever done it? Now a heated discussion breaks out among some of the polar veterans about whether there has ever been any squash played in that frigid wasteland. They suggest I ask Commander Atkinson when we get to Port Lockroy.

Port Lockroy is a British station operated by the United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage and Trust. Its manned by three people and headed by Commander Richard Atkinson, a Brit veteran of Antarctic ventures. I ask Atkinson whether he knows of anyone ever playing squash in Antarctica. He says no, and writes down a statement to that effect in a small Port Lockroy information brochure.

Back on the ship the discussion continues. No ones ever heard of a squash court in Antarctica, but to a person they agree that if there is one it would be at the U.S. research base in McMurdo Sound. (The National Science Foundation informs me that there isn’t one.) They suggest I send a note to the Guinness Book of World Records. I’m thinking about it.