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R/V Palmer saves Russian Antarctic station Mirnyy

Jan 1, 2003

half rations and expectedto completely exhausttheir stocks in two weeks' time. Fedorov was morethan 1,200miles to the west, in heavy ice near Molodezhnaya station, which also had to be resupplied before Federov could head toward Mirnyy. The Russians considered chartering the Australian icebreaker Aurora Australis, but that ship had already been laid up for the winter and would have to be brought back on line. It looked increasingly like Palmer would have to make an effort to relieve Mirnyy with at least subsistence rations. Chief Steward Ernest Stelly began taking stock of Palmer's store of red beans. On June 3 we received instructions from Ocean Projects Manager Al Sutherland at the NSF that Palmer should try to break in to Mirnyy Station and deliver enough food to keep the station going until Federov could arrive. But, unless the Russians declared a state of emergency, we were to assist on a "minimum interference" basisin other words, make sure that we didn't use so much time and fuel that we couldn't complete our scheduled science mission. I was also told that our decisions on site would be the controlling factor for the mission. We decided to complete the work we were doing on the Kerguélen Plateau and then start toward Mirnyy around June 8. In the meantime I had been in contact with Valery Lukin at the Russian Antarctic Expedition headquarters in St. Petersburg about obtaining a local chart of the Mirnyy area and pilot information from their hydrographic division. We were at a disadvantage without a good chart of the area, especially as we expected to navigate among coastal shoals and islands without any prior experience. One does get used to this sort of problem in the Antarctic, though, since the charts that aren't actually blank are often incorrect. I hoped to take advantage of the Russian experience in the area; they had been sailing regularly to Mirnyy since the station was established in 1956. It was also fortunate that our second officer, Vladimir Repin, was a native Russian speaker, and so we could make full use of primary sources without having to translate. He would also ease communications with the people at Mirnyy. By the evening of June 8 we had completed our work on the Kerguélen Plateau and had begun the transit toward Mirnyy. We were in radio contact with the station, and they indicated that they had very little food remaining for the 38 people there. They said that they had only 60 pounds of potatoes and small amounts of some other items, and they expected to be completely out of food on June 15. I was surprised that there they had so little reserve and wondered what they must be feeling with the isolation of winter bearing down. They were coming down to the wire. We also heard from the station that there were probably 15 or 20 miles of 60- to 80-cm-thick fast ice to seaward from the coast. We asked the station personnel to look into flagging a vehicle route out onto the sea ice as far as possible so that we could speed our rendezvous and save the fuel we would otherwise expend ramming through difficult fast ice. We came to the ice edge on June 9 and proceeded south toward Mirnyy at six to eight knots through 30-cm first-year ice. Once away from the swell of the open sea we began the process of moving provisions from the galley store on the lower level to the 02 hangar deck where it could be spotted easily under the ship's crane for a rapid discharge. All hands turned to and moved tons of provisions hand to hand in a human chain. Over the next several days we would have more than four tons of provisions prepared for offloading at Mirnyy. It was a pretty wide-ranging selection of American food itemsfrom cans of turnip greens to instant mashed potatoes. Some wondered what the Russian crew would make of some items that ended up in the pile of boxes on the hangar deck. As we made our way southward, we received satellite imagery from NIC and a radar satellite analysis from the Russian Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute in St. Petersburg. These showed tantalizingly large areas of new ice and open water to the west of the Shackleton Glacier and Drygalski Island, the two approaches to Mirnyy from the north. Unfortunately, these polynyas were blocked by a band of heavy ice drifting from the east from an area known for persistent multiyear pack ice. If the winds were contrary when we arrived at the heavy ice band, then the going could get very hard. There was nothing we could do but proceed down 93° E to 64° 30' or 64° 50' S and then evaluate the situation regarding the band of heavy ice that extended across our route from Shackleton Glacier. Depending on the difficulty of this ice, Palmer would either try for the polynya located west of Shackleton Glacier or would make for the west side of Drygalski Island, hopefully skirting the heaviest ice and avoiding a shoal area near the island that was choked with icebergs. If we succeeded, we had only to deal with the fast ice on the coast to reach within snow-vehicle range of Mirnyy. During the afternoon of June 10 Palmer encountered heavy ice, and by midnight we were struggling in massively ridged and hummocked ice, with moderate to heavy pressure. It was much worse than I had expected based on the imagery and the radar analysis. From the bridge wing the ice looked like an aerial view of the Himalayas. It wasn't that the ice was thicker than it ought to have been, but there was a strong westerly set along the continental slope margin that caused the ice to buckle and raft into composite floes several meters thick in places. Thirty percent of the ice field was composed of multiyear floes that served to anchor the mess together. There was no possibility for Palmer to move except by backing and ramming through cracks between small leads tending to the west and southwest. The ice pack was drifting to the west at about one knot. At one point Palmer was jammed between two large floes and could not move forward or astern, but the inexorable pressure on the pack was visibly twisting the floes against the hull. I thought the situation looked bleak, and that there was some risk of being beset for a long period if conditions worsened at all. Capt. Watson and the other bridge officers navigated the ship with great skill, but it looked like we were going only where the ice would let us, which was mainly westnot south toward Mirnyy. Even though Palmer was the only vessel with a remote chance of reaching Mirnyy before their food was exhausted, there was no official declaration of an emergency. Still 1,200 miles away and working under reduced power, Federov was near Molodheznaya, which it had yet to reach, and the charter of the Aurora Australis was given up because of financial constraints in Russia. The people at Mirnyy were down to just a few days' rations, and on the bridge of Palmer I wondered if our resupply was going to be successful. During the midwatch the ship was still laboring at full power, backing and ramming to little effect, while the drift of the pack carried us off to the west. Officially, my instructions from the NSF were to accomplish the relief of Mirnyy without jeopardizing the WOCE cruise. I thought to myself that we might be getting into enough trouble ourselves, regardless of the demands of the science mission. Too much was riding on Palmer's breaking through. We had to keep going if possible, and worry about the rest later. Al Sutherland's "it goes without saying" reminder that the safety of Palmer was my first concern echoed in my mind as I spent most of the night pacing the bridge wings and watching the radar for signs of openings in the ice pack. The route west of Drygalski Island became the primary goal, since working back to the east was impossible against the heavy ice and the inexorable drift of the pack. To add to our difficulty the long dark hours of winter had begun, and this knocked out the availability of radar satellite coverage. NIC investigated having the Canadian Radarsat spacecraft re-tasked so that it could look at our operations area, but the orbital dynamics were such that it would be too costly in fuel. Additionally, the spacecraft depended on solar energy to power its active radar sensor, and where there is no sunlight it wouldn't work. Day after day of heavy overcast also limited the usefulness of the other visible and infrared spectrum sensors, so we had to go on blindly toward what we hoped would be a large polynya between us and Mirnyy. The next day pressure on the ice pack eased somewhat, allowing a little better progress. The lack of fresh reconnaissance was still causing us some worry about the location of the Drygalski polynya, and the orientation of the ice across the route, but there was nothing that we could do but try to force our way to the south-southwest toward the best-guess position of open water. By the end of the day the worst ice seemed to be behind us and we suspected that the polynya lay immediately ahead. The ice pack now contained a major percentage of recently frozen, undeformed ice, typical of ice around a polynya. Our hopes went up for being able to reach Mirnyy, but in the back of my mind was the barrier of ice behind us. It wasn't good being shoreward of heavy ice. A contrary wind could slam the pack shut and blockade Palmer. June 12 found us across the Drygalski Island polynya and at the fast ice edge 14 miles from Mirnyy. We began the long process of backing and ramming toward the station. During the night we could see the lights of the station. Our efforts to bring emergency provisions to Mirnyy made the evening news at home. Early the next morning Palmer was about 10 miles from Mirnyy Station, working through the fast ice that still separated us from the coast. We had anticipated that we would be able to reach the rendezvous point about three miles offshore from the station sometime during the brief daylight period that occurs around noon at this latitude. As it turned out it was pretty slow going through meter-thick ice and packed snow. Our rate of progress was only a little more than 1/2 nautical mile per four-hour watch, and we were burning fuel at a rate of 12,000 gallons per day to make good those few miles. Capt. Watson and the other officers on the bridge accomplished an exemplary bit of tactical ice navigation getting Palmer to this point. Palmer is a strong and capable ship, but finesse, skill, and lots of patience are required when operating in heavy ice. Palmer lacks the horsepower to bulldoze through the ice without regard to strategy. Getting the ship to the coast was no small task. We discussed the possibility of making the rendezvous farther out from Mirnyy with the station manager, but it seemed that we were separated by a no-man's land of ice that was thick enough to slow Palmer down to a crawl, yet not thick enough to support the heavy Russian tracked vehicles that they would need to transport the four-plus tons of supplies back to the base. It would be necessary for them to make a careful reconnaissance of the ice before committing a vehicle to coming farther out toward the ship. The situation was something like determining to drive a truck out onto a frozen ponda reasonable thing to do in the right conditions, but a misjudgment would have unfortunate results. The weather became more of a concern as well. Down here snowstorms can come suddenly, driven by gale-force katabatic winds blowing down from the polar plateau. The driving snow could suddenly reduce visibility to zero. The farther the ship was from the station, the more difficult it could be for the vehicle to cross the featureless ice between the ship and the station. We could provide navigation guidance with the ship's radar and radio tracking systems, but even so it would not be so safe to be caught in a whiteout on the sea-ice, especially if the ice were to crack. We decided to continue ramming our way closer to the station for another day if necessary, and the station personnel would work outward toward the ship, surveying the ice and establishing a route for a vehicle to follow. I found this a little frustrating since we could see the station from the ship's bridge, yet mutual progress toward a rendezvous was very slow. By the afternoon we had closed the gap to eight miles from the station, and the ice was getting even thicker. Not so good for our rate of advance, but at this point it was thick enough for the Russian group to reach the ship with a tracked vehicle. It was a surplus armored personnel carrier. In retrospect, I think the Mirnyy people saw the lights of Palmer so close at hand, and just decided to go for it. They covered the last three or four miles at full speed, with the caterpillar treads throwing a rooster tail of snow into the air behind the vehicle. The initial meeting was long-awaited on both sides. We'd watched the gap slowly closing for days, anticipating. But like other encounters of this sort that I've experienced when there isn't a common language, it seemed a little restrained. Exciting, yet at first we could only wave to them out on the ice and try out a few mispronounced Russian words of greeting. I can hardly imagine what it was like for them meeting us after being at the station for so long, but I suspect it was pretty overwhelming. Palmer's bright lights and orange and yellow paint scheme probably appeared pretty extravagant in the bleak Antarctic icescape. We brought the group of six or seven people on board the ship using a personnel basket rigged to the main crane. When they had been set down on the after deck our Russian-speaking second officer made introductions all around, and we exchanged Antarctic handshakes. This is a peculiar ritual that I've encountered most everywhere I've been in Antarctica one can't shake hands until all handcoverings have been removed, no matter how cold it is. It seems to be a feature of all cultures on the ice, this mode of handshaking. I have seen colleagues meeting unexpectedly engage in a veritable frenzy of bear-mitt, glove, and liner ripping-off so that they can shake hands properly. The plan that we arrived at for completing the mission as quickly as possible, while the weather and visibility were still good, was that we would discharge a small quantity of supplies for the light vehicle to transport to the station, and the Russian team would evaluate the possibility of sending out a heavy snow tractor after a second look at the route. The work would go on through the night if possible, with the ship breaking in a little farther while waiting for the next vehicle to run out. Contingency plans were made that, if the weather were to close in while the vehicle was near the ship, we would stop the operation and accommodate the Russian crew on board until the weather was good enough to proceed. Afterwards we took a few moments to exchange small items such as philatelic envelopes (suitable for collection) with the ship's stamp on them, lapel pins, and small items of clothing like scarves and hats. Stamp and envelope collecting is a very popular activity on the Russian stations. In fact, the only items discussed on the radio in the days previous to our arrival, aside from the provision resupply, was whether we had any cover envelopes and a ship's stamp on board. After all the planning and days of work getting the ship close to the station, the final transfer of the provisions went off without a hitch. We had gotten close enough that the Russians could put one of their 30-ton overland traverse vehicles on the ice. We loaded the machine with the all of the remaining provisions and then invited the tractor crew on board for a little more swapping of envelopes and hats, and some dinner, and then the relief of Mirnyy was completed. As we were hoisting the Russian fellows back down onto the ice one of them remarked, "We've already been away from home for 18 months, and now they bring us enough food for another whole year." But he had a big smile on his face. n Kevin Wood is a licensed mariner who sails aboard the Sea Education Association's schooners Corwith Cramer and Westward when not working aboard Palmer.