Ice Edge

Sikuliaq Ice Trials
March 21, 2015

Bridge with marine mammal observer and pilot.
Bridge with marine mammal observer and pilot.

Somewhere in the early hours this morning the rolling damped down to a quiet lullaby. Funny how that wakes you up.

The CTD is extended out into the pre-dawn.
The CTD is extended out into the pre-dawn.

We’re at the M4 station. At 8:00 we put a CTD in the water. Out there in the pre-dawn the ice is close. Black skies turn a deep blue before the CTD is back aboard and we’re ready to run more engine and thruster tests in open water. We will drive into the ice until we get to about 3/10ths coverage. Then we will repeat the tests. Then drive farther. Then test some more. See what sort of ice we have ahead of us, see how well we can turn round, see where the design weaknesses are.

The CTD resurfaces on recovery.
The CTD resurfaces on recovery.

This is where we’ll see if our rolling-hull and big, club-like, 360-rotating, fuel-inefficient props do what they say on paper. Drive through a couple feet of ice, stop, and spin the ship 180 right there in our track. When we do that, don’t think of it as pushing with the bow, think of it as leading backwards with a pair of hand-held Cuisinarts under the fantail.

The bow just rides up on top of the ice and crushes it under our thousands of tons weight. The props chop it up into little pieces. No other operating icebreaker can do this. The big boys are powerful with their jet engines and ramming speed, but they go straight in and make big, wide turns. The Sikuliaq is high schoolers pulling donuts around the baseball diamond in mom’s Plymouth — on ice.

Pancake ice and life rafts.
Pancake ice and life rafts.

Impromptu meetings in hallways as we approach the ice. An AB is filing away at something near one of the water-tight doors. The ship is new, so there are thousands of things to make right and it’s a huge, complicated, ocean-going machine, so there are a hundred things that need fixing from last week. There’s an announcement on the PA. We’re about to go through some ice, a thin outer line, a remnant, a thin skim of pancakes loosely collected, melting, being slowly broken up by the wind and waves.

Driving through the pancakes sounds just driving through slush. Think late night driving, windows closed, blizzard, wipers on panic, a heavy-wet-northeastern snow where the tires leave rut walls six-inches deep and your wheel wells fill with ice thick and sticky as crystalized honey. As we drive on, the patches become thicker, denser. The Sikuliaq drives into a patch, then drives back out in an S-turn. The ‘line’ of cleared ice looks like someone has run off the road in the blizzard. Bob says, “Yes, check off that box.” Rob reminds him it doesn’t count, “if you can swim through it.” It doesn’t count until “we can’t sit here talking,” the noise of the ice on the hull is so loud.

Two walrus in Sikuliaq’s wake.
Two walrus in Sikuliaq’s wake.

Perry spots a party of walrus while we’re stopped and spinning the boat around. Where we are, the ice is knitted together, sewn like a quilt and the threads are tiny ridges of snow caught in the joining of the plates where a long, steady wind has swept it. At first Perry estimates perhaps ten walrus in the group. Later it’s clear there are twenty-five or more. The ice here is too thin, too broken for them to haul themselves out. All we are going to see with the binoculars and long, telephoto lenses are tiny heads bobbing up and down in a lead, like a string of tiny black beads along a dark thread of water between ice and ice.

Pancake ice with Bridge.
Pancake ice with Bridge.

Still pancakes, only heavier and unmoving until our thrusters kick them away from the stern the way you might clear a deck of autumn leaves with a garden hose, trying to get under them, flipping them backwards. We kick out a pocket big enough to deploy an instrument through and leave the test at that. We continue to move forward. The ice here is heavy enough, tight enough now, we no longer push it out of the way. As we pass through it, water spills over the plates, cracks it close to the boat. Out a few tens of feet, in small black pools between the plates, I can see the water slosh as our wake runs out under the surface. The ridges of snow are streaked like a desert trying to form dunes — East to West like they have held their orientation for days or weeks.

We are stopped for a moment when a pair of walrus decide to use our path as a lead, a breathing hole. Less than a hundred yards in our wake. We have proof. They disappear in a couple seconds but are caught by more than one camera. They can hold air for ten minutes or so. A crowd waits on the deck behind the Bridge but no one sees where they surface.

View from the Bridge.
View from the Bridge.

We stop. We drop a net to collect some discolored sea ice. Brandon collects algae from the melting ice and begins a culture in the lab.

A meeting of the science team. All the fun and games have fouled our sea chests and limited the water getting to the engines. Nothing is overheating but it’s a concern. This is slush we’re driving through, the sort that clogs wheel wells and you have to stop the car and knock out the blocks of ice before they act like parking brakes. We will pull out of the ice and let the slush melt back out of the intakes. We drive backwards slowly, like we’ve gone too far down the wrong skinny, country road.

There are no straight lines in nature.
There are no straight lines in nature.

A quiet moment in the evening as we turn and leave the ice for the night. In the galley monitor, some of the equipment on the working deck appears to have gone white. It’s snowing. The deck’s heated so it settles only on the buoys and bumpers — and the train wheels and Van Veen grabs, palettes, and lumber, picnic table, the van and the man-basket. There are three short lines of snow on the big hatch to the hold below the working deck. That part’s not heated. The lines look the width between floor joists and remind me of similar lines I once watched fill with snow on the flat, first-story floor of an unfinished house, my house. These things are a work in progress.

Tomorrow we will look for some heavier ice and give it another go.

Written by Roger Topp

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