Spring Breaking

Sikuliaq Ice Trials
March 22, 2015

The Bridge in the morning.
The Bridge in the morning.

Oh yes, at some point yesterday I took a shower, and I shaved and I read a great many pages of a book, probably about the time we tucked out tail between our legs and got back out into open water while the engineers put their thinking caps on.

A week of 14+ hour days, not counting before the trip, it felt like a tiny, little weekend for a few hours. Might be the last for another couple weeks.

Snow on the picnic table.
Snow on the picnic table.

This morning, photos of the picnic table with its dusting of snow, a blue pre-dawn horizon, and the warm yellow light of the Baltic room spilling over the crew-made cofferdam. It reminds me of gates on a lock. The ship and crew have seen enough of those this year.

Carin holds a meeting to discuss the upcoming ice operations, specifically to put together a document on procedures, safety protocols, best practices. The crew shares what they’ve seen on other ships. The use of tested safe perimeters, bear watches, bear guards, rescue swimmers, maps designating who will be working where. Writing on windows who’s off boat, mustering to count heads and faces before we pull up stakes.

“If you let scientists wander they will be stupid,” and it doesn’t take stupid to fall in a black hole. Even experienced ice warriors can find themselves in very cold water. Will we get people on the ice using a small boat, a man-basket, a gangway? If one crane is holding on to the gangway, can the other one reach across the deck to lower heavy gear a safe distance away from the ice edge? The port side is better for deploying a gangway and offers better visibility for the Bridge cameras, but if we’re port side to the side, we can’t run the LHS and CTD at the same time as the ice ops. Should we consider parallel ops? “It all factors into risk management.”

The ships reamers help the ship carve the right-sized channel.
The ships reamers help the ship carve the right-sized channel.

Ice operations can last from a couple hours to several (or many) days. What is the ice party required to wear? Float-coats, self-inflating collars, shirtsleeves, helium balloons? Overheating can be as much an issue as hypothermia and frostbite. Who will have radios, locators, GPS units, air horns, pepper spray, ice-sticks, knives, forks from the mess? What emergencies can the bridge broadcast with the ship’s horn? One long blast for a sighted bear, “Will everyone kindly and slowly move back on board.”

Lots of short blasts for a problem with the ice, “Everyone get back here now!” Ring the ship’s bell as redundant in case the horn fails?

Will I find enough time to finish reading this one book and still get a second one in before the month ends as required by resolutions made a long time ago by someone who hadn’t at that time planned to be in the middle of the Bering Sea for much of March and a bite out of April? What do calendars mean out here anyway? A calendar would say it has turned Spring. Probably has — other places. We’ve just driven into a field of ice hundreds of miles wide and flatter than the Great Plains. Today is 0322. That much is important. It’s a first step in keeping the data straight. John’s been writing code in the analytical lab since he woke up. The ship’s job is to ingest data, package it, file it, archive it, and make it available here, there, now, later. He’s building and improving the system as we go.

Not that it’s not important we’ve gone over the equinox. The time of year tells us where whales might be, that a big, bulgy walrus might be a big, bulgy, pregnant walrus, that ice we’re looking for is still farther north

With the sea chest water supply a now well-managed risk, we power up and we drive into thicker and thicker ice. In the bow stores, the ice-crushing music builds to a thunder and evaporates like a mist. For a few moments the light slap of water is almost drowned out by the washing machine next door. I make a note I might/should do laundry soon. We’ve hit a lead, a cut in the ice where the open water is lake water but grey to black. It won’t take long, ten, fifteen seconds and bam, we’re cracking through ice 6, 8, 9, 10 inches thick. Amidships, the ice peels away from the reamers the way cake frosting cracks away from the knife.

The ships reamers help the ship carve the right-sized channel.
The ships reamers help the ship carve the right-sized channel.

I could spend half the day in the bow stores below the anchor chains, recording the sounds of steel smashing its way through frozen ocean — but I’m jumping between firing off remote cameras (and retrieving them), file managing of my own, shooting with the telephoto from the Bridge, shooting with the big glass off the fantail, checking to see what I screwed up earlier, avoiding the ice slick on the deck beneath the work boat, braving the apparent wind as I swap the latest remote cam from the bow rail with a fresh body, battery, and pinkie-nail memory chip.

Tomorrow, drink more. Find more ice.

The Z-drives get fancy.
The Z-drives get fancy.

But for now, we find a sufficiently hardened piece of ocean to go from regular drive mode to practicing letting the z-drives get fancy. Driving through the ice at speed, the Sikuliaq cuts a channel a little wider than the boat, the margins the thin grass shoulders on a country road, or the forest canopy cut neatly square by the largest, frequent trucks. But that’s how the other icebreakers roll. The Sikuliaq has a trick up her z-drives, rotating them so that the props, normally facing forward (it’s a puller not a pusher) point at each other, so directing most of their energy to port and starboard. Just enough power still carries the ship forward at a crawl, but the side-force of the thrusters tears the ice apart. The ship makes not a country road but a parking lot, a roundabout, a four-lane highway. Sikuliaq is an Inupiat word for “first year” or “young” ice. Because there is so much less multi-year ice left over the pole, more and more of what covers the ocean seasonally is this first year ice. This is what the Sikuliaq is designed to work in.

This global class ship can sail any in the world at most times of the year, but its design is king where we are right now. Funny, my body suddenly feels like it’s 0408 and not 0322, swaying on sea legs like we’re on dry land already. Somewhere southeast of St. Mathews Island, we’re hardly moving at the end of a road of our own making.

The brown is algae.
The brown is algae.

Glass of cold water from the mess before going to bed. I have to drink it slowly. Too cold, surprising as the ice machine is broken, a small thing that was not designed for the high seas. At least it gave up the ghost after the ship left the tropics. Now we have to suffer to put a dip net over the side. Luckily Brandon is there to scrape off the algae for ‘experiments.’ In the mess, I read the latest posted notes while nursing the water. I’m taking mine neat. The whiteboard says time-sheets are “due today (for submitting tomorrow).”

The Captain’s note also reminds the crew “FYI” Friday was a university ’holiday.’

Funny that. By which I mean, that’s just fracking hilarious.

Written by Roger Topp

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