Tuesday, February 05, 2008

the swedish are coming!

last month, the swedish icebreaker Oden steamed into the ross sea en route to mcmurdo station. for the last two years, the swedes have been hired by the NSF as the primary icebreakers, whose job is to open a channel in the seasonal sea ice surrounding mcmurdo so that the annual fuel tanker and resupply vessel can get to the station. this job used to be filled by the US coast guard with one of their two icebreakers - the Polar Sea and the Polar Star. however, there are myriad costs built into the price of hiring the coast guard vessels -- for example, upkeep and maintenance of the gargantuan ships (compared to the small Oden) and training costs for the crew members, who are required to participate in things like homeland security training. the price of hiring the swedes is but a fraction of renting the coast guard. like shopping for furniture at IKEA, getting the Oden to break ice is a good deal -- neat, stylish and practical.

on board the ship, along with approximately twenty salty crew members, were about twenty-five scientists. these scientists were along for the ride to perform 'science of opportunity' on the way to mcmurdo, and once they got within helo distance of our station, the plan was to helicopter them off and send them north with their scientific samples and data via C-17.

because these grantees (and one cook who had a medical condition) would be coming off the ship and spending some time in mcmurdo prior to the flight north, they needed to be briefed on certain information, just like any other arriving pax. every arrival brief needs to contain the following USAP tidbits:

what number to call in an emergency (911, just like in the states)
touching or harassing the wildife is a big no-no
no smoking indoors unless you're in a designated smoking area
you must have your laptop screened by the IT department for viruses before you plug in
don't download copyrighted information or anything offensive once you do
don't be a poopyhands -- please wash your hands before going into the galley
etc., etc.

I must have been living right, because the day before the Oden was to burp its scientists out onto our shores, I got a phone call that I was headed to the ship via helicopter to perform their arrival briefing.

I hurriedly doctored my existing powerpoint presentation (weeding out a lot of the stuff that is only pertinent if you're staying at mcmurdo for an extended length of time) and ran home to put on my ECW gear and grab D's camera. the NSF station manager had asked me to get some shots of the ice channel from the air, and delaney has a sweet pentax that would be just the thing.

the Oden had already broken a channel about ten miles into the sea ice and had stopped to let us board. there were several of us -- the point of contact for vessel operations, two guys from the science cargo department, two guys from the hazardous waste department, a helitech, and me. in addition to scientists, the ship would be offloading scientific samples, waste and lots of gear. mark and doug would ensure that the haz waste was properly contained and labeled. same for michael and keith with the scientific cargo. jena would weigh all the passengers and calculate the flight load of each helo trip. and once my arrival brief was delivered, I was cheap labor along for the ride.

we whup-whupped out to where it sat perched on the edge of the channel and touched down delicately next to it. they had set out a little ladder for us to climb up to the deck.

we got out of the helicopter, walked over frozen sea ice and clambered up in our bunny boots. a blond middle-aged woman welcomed us aboard and showed us where to stash our snowy boots and hang up our coats. the floor was smooth parquet and the lighting was warm and homey. there were still christmas decorations up, including a christmas tree in the galley. the floor felt smooth and clean under our stocking feet and there were good smells coming from the kitchen. we would be there for lunch, and were informed that today was spaghetti day.

some of the framed prints -- of leaves and flowers and trees -- hanging on the walls looked vaguely familiar. I realized that I had seen them on sale at IKEA in seattle.

a few minutes later, all the scientists had been mustered in the galley. I introduced myself and the reason I was about to make them sit through a short presentation, and launched right into it.

my spiel only took thirty minutes, but it would be several hours before I could board a helicopter back to mcmurdo. there were only two helicopters allocated to shuttle scientists, all their gear and baggage, and us back to mcmurdo, and they were going to have to make several trips. so we relaxed, ate some spaghetti, marveled at the cleanliness of the ship (the kitchen was so clean you could walk around in it barefoot), helped schlep baggage out to the deck so it could be lowered over the side with a net and crane, and took photos.

by mid-afternoon, everyone but the mcmurdoites had been ferried back to mcmurdo. we climbed aboard, strapped on our helmets, plugged in our radios, and lifted off. the pilot let me sit up front this time, and dipped this way and that so I could get views of the seals lounging on the sea ice.

just another day at work.


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