it's that time of season when folks are starting to get a little punchy.
we've been working long hours at the same drudging jobs, eating the same lackluster meals, sharing rooms with the same high-maintenance roommates, working out in a dilapidated gym with the same stinky offenders for months now. everyone's dreaming of their off-ice travels, or simply of home and family and good indian food. tempers are a little shorter, everyone looks a little more haggard.
but this past sunday, we got a welcome shot of emotional caffeine when approximately 450 lucky members of the mcmurdo community were treated to a rare and long-awaited event: a cruise up the sea ice channel aboard the USCGC Polar Sea
in years past, as old mcmurdoites fondly recall, the coast guard icebreakers that make a yearly visit to mcmurdo to break open a channel through the sea ice would also take several hundred people on 'morale cruises' up and down the channel. the waters around mcmurdo teem with wildlife, and sightings of seals, penguins, minke whales, and orcas were not uncommon. these were huge morale boosts for a community that had been working at least six days a week since august or october.
for the last several years, however, a gargantuan iceberg known as B-15 blocked the currents that normally break up the sea ice surrounding mcmurdo station. the ice, instead of flowing out to sea, became thicker and thicker -- much harder to break through than single-year ice. as a result, the icebreakers that came to mcmurdo had their work cut out for them -- breaking a trail to our port. by the time the job was finished, there was no time or fuel to be had for cruises for the community.
but B-15 is no more (see link to scientific article in my earlier post about icebergs), and the sea ice edge this season is less than twenty miles from mcmurdo. for weeks, the buzz around town was: Would the Polar Sea offer morale cruises this season?
on thursday afternoon, I took a bio-break in the ladies' room. when I got back to my desk, my boss said You just got really busy
. dave bresnahan, our NSF representative on station, had just approved two morale cruises for the coming sunday. the captain had agreed to take 200 people on each one. mcmurdo's population was at 932. and it was up to my office to select who got to go.
morale trips in general, and morale cruises in particular, are a tricky and controversial subject. boondoggles, as morale trips are familiarly known, are in short supply. supervisors have the ultimate level of decision-making authority when it comes to who gets to go on them, which can be an incentive to perform well at your job in order to be chosen, but can also be the cause of hate and discontent. although the Chalet is not responsible for choosing the individuals who go on the trips, it receives an inordinate share of the community's ire and frustration because it administers the program. my friend dave puts it this way:
- for every person who goes on a morale trip, fifteen people whine about it.
- people who administer morale trips start to hate the whole thing (see #1)
- 'jokes' about morale trips are not funny to people who administer them (see #1 and #2)
it's true. there IS lots of whining about morale trips. so administering this particular mass morale trip was going to be a very delicate process.
my boss and the NSF rep decided, in what was a truly inspired blast of genius, to select the lucky
400 through a random lottery. my original idea had been to give first priority to those on station who had not yet been on a morale trip this season. however, the wide variety in what is considered a morale trip, as well as the types of morale trips offered and the types of folks eliglible for morale trips, meant that the selection process would have been ungainly, messy and ultimately very difficult to put into practice. so the random lottery would have to be it. no one would be able to claim that the Chalet had played favorites or stacked the deck in favor of certain departments.
we had the recreation department (who has lots of experience with this sort of thing) post sign-up sheets outside their office. the sheets were put up at 5:30 pm on thursday. they would come down at 7:30 am on saturday. so folks would have 38 hours to get their name on the list, thereby allowing everyone -- even night workers, who often get overlooked for such activities -- to sign up.
final count at 7:30 saturday morning: 649 names. I typed the names into an Excel spreadsheet
and eliminated any duplicate entries (which were more a result of friends unknowingly signing each other up than anyone's nefarious attempt to increase their own chances). our local IT trainer, bill, wrote an Excel macro which would then assign a random number to each name. better living through technology.
the lucky ones were 1 through 400. 401 through 500 were alternates. we posted the manifests in the mail hallway, where they were immediately swarmed. my boss, the station manager, groused a little that he hadn't made the list but said it proved that the process was truly fair.
on sunday morning, I went down to the ice pier at 0730 with jane from the recreation department. she was armed with her trusty bullhorn, and each of us had clipboards, pencils (pens freeze up in the cold) and copies of the manifest. the first cruise was scheduled for 0800. there were already about twenty-five people standing on the ice pier, oogling at the ship. I chased them back across the bailey bridge (a movable bridge connecting the ice pier to land) and had them line up A-K, L-Z. folks were arriving in droves, talking excitedly.
once we got the thumbs-up from our coast guard liaison, we started checking folks in. they streamed across the bailey bridge and up the gangway, where they were swallowed up by the ginormous ship. anchors aweigh at approximately 0820. bon voyage!
I went back to sleep for three hours, then woke up to have brunch and get ready to check in the second group of folks for the 1400 sailing. the dining hall was swarming with folks who had just come back from the first cruise. they were positively glowing. people stopped me left and right to express their thanks for my part in putting together the morale cruise, and several asked me if I was on the manifest myself.
I hadn't put my name into the hat because I knew if I were chosen there would be disgruntled mutterings about town, and I just didn't want to deal with the fallout. folks told me that I should have as much chance as anyone, but frankly, it wasn't that big a deal to me.
after brunch, I went back down to the pier with lisa (another recreation department person) and the bullhorn. we lined everyone up and started checking folks off. in addition to those who were actually on the manifest, and a gaggle of alternates, there were several people who had just walked up hoping that by some miracle of the universe they would get onto the ship. there were lots of no-shows, but there were also lots of alternates present, so it wasn't looking good for the hopeful walk-ons.
at about 1350, we were checking off the last alternate names. nine spots to go, and still about thirty people standing around looking less and less hopeful. lisa herself was so far down on the alternates list that it wasn't looking good, even for her.
then don, the coast guard liaison, walked over the bailey bridge and beckoned to me and lisa. I thought he was going to ask what the holdup was or something. then he leaned in and whispered, The captain just told me that we can take 250 on this sailing
lisa and I couldn't believe our ears. we had been told for days that the '200' number was unbudgeable. and here they were telling us that it was indeed budgeable -- by fifty.
I wasn't going to question the captain, at least not then!
lisa did a quick count of everyone still standing on
the pier. no one breathed. then she took a deep breath and, with great relish, yelled We're all going!
words cannot describe the gorgeousness of the floating blue chunks of frozen sea, the emperor penguins that poked their head out of the water like loons, the smell of seawater, the excitement of my fellow passengers, the gracious and helpful manner of the coasties, the minke whales that spouted and swam next to the boat, the dozens of seals lounging like so many brown slugs on the sea ice, the color of the sky as we steamed away from the station. so I'm including photos.
you can read more about the Polar Sea here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USCGC_Polar_Sea
the icebreaker's job is to open and maintain the channel, as well as a turning basin out in front of the station (where the ice runway used to be). the channel and basin are then used extensively by other, non-icebreaker-class ships that come to mcmurdo. this season, the lineup includes:
- USAP research vessel Nathaniel B. Palmer, essentially a floating research station
- MV Paul Buck, the fuel tanker that replenishes millions of gallons of fuel used since last february
- MV American Tern, our yearly cargo vessel, carrying everything from frozen chickens to toilet paper.
approximately 90 personnel that arrived on the last C-17 from christchurch are classified as NAVCHAPs - the US Navy Cargo Handling and Port Group out of williamsburg, virginia. the NAVCHAPs have been described as 'combat stevedores,' and their sole purpose while at mcmurdo is to assist with vessel offload, a gargantuan effort involving the movement of hundreds of containers of incoming and outgoing cargo.
the arrival of the NAVCHAPs is traditionally looked upon with dread and fear by many members of the mcmurdo community. supposedly they are an unruly group of booze-swilling, woman-chasing, crotch-scratching, nose-thumbing, door-trying louts that are sent down here by the navy as sort of a last chance to prove their worth before getting kicked out. (that's the persistent rumor, anyway. I've read that it's a volunteer gig, with many more volunteers than spaces. perhaps the locals just need a scapegoat, and NAVCHAPs are a convenient seasonal target.) mcmurdoites also like to blame them for the fact that during vessel offload, the bars are closed and the store does not sell alcohol.
one of my roommates has strong-armed the rest of us into keeping the door of our room locked 24/7 while the NAVCHAPs are in town. her reasoning is that because many of them are housed in our dorm, her laptop and camera are more likely to go walkabout. I see many flaws in her
argument, not the least of which is that thefts occur at mcmurdo every season when the NAVCHAPs are nowhere in sight. the rest of us in the room don't like to live behind locked doors, in distrust of our neighbors, and it rankles us to have to carry our keys around. but in the name of 'shalom in the home,' we'll do it...until the NAVCHAPs leave.
a couple of weeks ago, mcmurdo held its annual marathon. over fifty people signed up to walk, run or ski the half or full marathon, including me. I trained for several months in order to run the half, but my shinsplints kept bothering me. I quit running for the last week prior, hoping they would heal, but when it got to be a few days before and it still hurt to walk, I decided not to risk further injury. I'm planning to do a fair bit of trekking this spring and summer and it just wouldn't be worth it. I was a bit sad at not being able to say I've run a half
marathon in antarctica, but it didn't bother me for long.
I did go to the finish line to wait for delaney and amber, who ran the half and full marathons respectively. go team!
here's a picture of delaney and my boss eric (in the blue hat) at the starting line, and a picture of delaney finishing with his friend lucas.
and here are a couple of pictures of a little adelie guy that wandered onto station. he toddled up next to the health & safety building and just hung out for a while. people were taking lots of pictures of and with him and he didn't bat an eyelash.
someone must have been afraid that he would get hit by a vehicle, so they erected a little impromptu roadblock for him.
and here's a fairly recent pic of me and delaney up on castle rock, with mt. erebus in the background.
leaving mcmurdo in less than two weeks! wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee