Good Friday

Sikuliaq Ice Trials
April 3, 2015

I got some sleep last night. Given it’s 8:30 and the lab is near empty, others are also getting sleep, or the 01:30 science station last night knocked everyone out. My head is just far too clear this morning, like it’s bruising for a challenge.

Carin just erased half the Board of Lies. The dominant words are now ‘TBD’ and ‘Maybe’. ‘Weather depending’ also figures prominently. I stepped outside a few minutes ago and the wind is gusting, the snow is blowing, and visibility has dropped like a fog. The ship has started to roll in a way, that if I didn’t know better, I’d say we are sitting in open water (but then we’d be rolling a whole lot more). Once every five minutes we jerk against something. Feels like a mooring rope, sounds like a Coliseum’s worth of ice and the audience is screaming for us to try and cut our way out.

I am strangely awake this morning. Annie must have swapped the coffee I normally drink for an espresso and a (insert your favorite energy drink here (because I wouldn’t even try the ones called ‘Battery’ in Finland last year (just on a lark, because when in other lands…))).

Sea ice mosaic.
Sea ice mosaic.

Outside the ice is fractured like it’s been sat on by an earthquake, like it’s been fed (insert your favorite energy drink here), and not unlike the small windrows mosaics I shot from the Bridge yesterday afternoon, only on a much, much larger scale. The ice swells are significant, and the big reason the ice sheet has been shattered like someone dropped a pan of toffee on the way out of the galley.

The day’s not even started but as Rob put it first thing, “The weather won.” It’s already won. The best we can do is look for a decent floe and perhaps the weather will have shifted a bit when we get there, or tomorrow, or the next day. Who are we kidding? We can still work off the boat, but the weather will keep us off the ice. Instability, low visibility, the fact the toffee pan is bending with the eight foot swells I don’t need time-lapse or my imagination to see. Everything is moving again.

The warning on the Board of Lies is to start securing everything down. Upstairs a sign in the mess says, “That swell in the ice means it’s going to suck. Saturday, Sunday tie everything down. Monday, Tuesday transit to Dutch.” This boat rolls and the winds are picking up. As long as we’re surrounded by ice, things are tempered greatly. Reminds me again of airplanes and turbulence and air pockets and careening through space. Even better — an old wooden roller-coaster where you get jerked and rattled side to side without the kindness of the machine banking into the turn, which would soften the blow, lead you to believe it was meant to do this.

I will miss this next week. I will miss it when I set my coffee down on the table on the back deck of our house in the forest and stare at it, not trusting the moment, because something’s wrong, and my inner ear will wonder how the liquid stays level and the mug doesn’t slide right off the table for no apparent reason. Not everything needs to have sticky feet or a non-slip pad to keep it in place. The table does not need a lip to keep cutlery from skittering off to the other side of the kitchen. All the walls do not sport handholds, and you can load up your arms with laptop and book and coffee mug and open the front door with your free pinkie because the door doesn’t weight 300 pounds, requires muscles to lock, and won’t come swinging back at you suddenly because gravity is changing directions like a confused compass needle.

rt_blog_264All the once solid floes have seem to have been ripped apart by the winds and the swells. Everything is jagged tiles for the last two hours. Are we looking for a good floe? Yes, but there’s not much hope right around here. Maybe if we find a place the swells haven’t gone to work on so effectively. To the east. Deeper into the fleet.

The weather loosens tongues. Suddenly everyone’s free to talk about home. A week from now many of us should be trying to catch a plane out of Dutch Harbor. Questions. Who made sure they already submitted for the Permanent Fund Dividend? Who already did their taxes? Who is flying out the day after we are (supposed) to get back? Everyone knocks on wood. There’s getting back to port on time. There’s being flights that day. There’s making connections. You can’t really think about it too much. Three weeks, even four weeks at sea for those starting from Seward, and this is when you most want some guarantees that things will go smoothly at the end — no lies, no TBDs — and yet what happens now is as much at the mercy of the elements as every gone before, maybe more-so, coming at the end. We had some very nice days.

We’re still a week away, but the wind and weather have shut down most science today, forcing everyone to think a little more about being tired, about being tired with a new book, the latest card game, preloaded laptop movies, Sewardopoly, Rock’em-Sock’em Robots! A day of not working the deck and the Bosun says he feels just as tired. You know the weather’s a little socked in when Liz and Sue are checking email in the Main Lab and are not on the Bridge looking for birds and seal and walrus and whales.

The ice out there looks like bad, cracked skin, but the great big snowflakes are pretty, whipping across the deck and melting on the windows.

Terry gives the science team a tour of the engineering control room.
Terry gives the science team a tour of the engineering control room.

Terry, the Chief Engineer gives us a tour of the platforms below the main deck. We have to wear earplugs but Terry’s done this many times. He makes himself heard. The spaces on the platforms are tight but you can see how everything can be got to, valves and sensors changed, pumps and motors taken apart and replaced. Everything is labeled and numbered. Reminds me of a Terry Gilliam movie. “Have you thought about your ducts?” I’m certain all these ducts and pipes are necessary aboard ship. Mostly certain. The labels have a calming effect when Terry mentions there are 130 miles of wiring inside the 261’ vessel. We talk about it afterwards at dinner.

Brandon Hassett and Rob Rember walk between two of Sikuliaq’s four diesel engines.
Brandon Hassett and Rob Rember walk between two of Sikuliaq’s four diesel engines.

The engineering department aboard ship (8 people) take care of something akin to an apartment building (so starts the analogy), with air-conditioning and heat and domestic water plumbing — add seawater plumbing and waste management (incinerator) and sewage treatment and a power plant (4 diesel engines) and propulsion (motors and thrusters (3)) — and potable water production (up to 6000 gallons per day) — with all the at sea ‘can’t afford to head back to port just because such and such doesn’t want to work today’ maintenance. When there’s an issue with one of the engines, you take it offline, crank it up on the lift and fix it. That little problem with the sea chests clogging with ice we saw earlier in the cruise hasn’t been an issue for a week because of a work-around involving buckets and hoses and an unplanned redirection of heat within the ship. When the ship goes into the yard a proper solution will be found but for now, the staterooms, the labs, the mess, are all just a little bit warmer than they would be otherwise. The mission goes on. Yay, tomorrow’s a weekend and a holiday.

rt_blog_262
Watching a movie in the lounge/conference room.

Things will be different in the morning. We hope. The entire ship is like a bed in a cheap motel. Or Terry’s got a diesel-powered hot-air popper in the basement. The kernels are hammering against the floor. Where there are movies there’s popcorn, and during the credits the chairs in the lounge all start sliding one way and then the next.

— Roger Topp (UAMN Head of Exhibits, Design, and Digital Media Production)

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