My first experience with sea ice came in 1973 in the Labrador Sea as a quartermaster aboard the USCG Wind Class Icebreaker Edisto.
The sentinels of the polar regions are solitary icebergs, drifting far out to sea. We encountered these guardians of the Arctic long before encountering sea ice.
Arriving at the ice edge for the first time was exhilarating and breath taking. It is a line in the sea where the nature of the sea, the air, and the entire environment changes. It is a place teeming with life, where air is crisp and biting. Steaming into the ice, the sea becomes an ever changing landscape, governed by the size and shape and types of the sea ice. Grease ice, pancake ice, first year floes, multi-year ice, pressure ridges, and many other ice formations that defy description.
The Edisto was built in 1946 and was in her last year of service when I sailed aboard her. She was decommissioned in the fall of 1974. She had cork insulation to keep the interior of the hull from sweating and though only 269 feet long, she carried a crew of almost 300.
We were berthed in triple level bunks in berthing areas of up to 70 men. I was in the operations department and had the luxury of a 20 man berthing area. I was in the top bunk next to the pipes and cables of the overhead.
The Wind Class were shaped like an American football and rolled continuously and vigorously in the seaway and pitched like a hobby-horse in a head sea. In the ice she was in her element and handled well, turning responsively. She was twin screw, single rudder, diesel electric, with six Fairbanks Morse main engines located in three separate engine rooms.
The crew were a bunch of pirates. USCG Group Baltimore was using the Edisto as punishment duty. Any screw-ups or sailors with attitude problems were transferred to the Eddie. This being the Vietnam era, there was no shortage of young men with bad attitudes in the USCG. It was a volunteer service, but many chose to volunteer for the USCG rather than be drafted, so they weren't there all that willingly.
The Eddie was so permeated with drugs (marijuana & hash) that one could get high just breathing the fumes rising out of the forward berthing area at night. The Executive Officer, Commander Kothe, established a night patrol manned by CPOs & first class petty officers that was dubbed the "International Rat Patrol". Every time we stopped at Craney Island, Virginia to fuel up before deploying, dope sniffing dogs were brought aboard to search for pot. The poor dogs were disoriented and scared by the steep ladders descending into the bowels of the ship and the noise and smell and all the pepper the crew had sprinkled on the decks to confound the dogs. It was a low grade war between the youth culture of the 70's and the establishment culture of the career coast guardsmen who comprised the senior personnel aboard.
Even knowing that the Edisto had a reputation as a band of outlaws, I sought a transfer aboard her. I was pulled by the call of the North. All those Jack London books I read as a kid had given me a thirst for adventure and I wanted to see the Arctic. I was bored out of my skull aboard the USCG tug Apalachee. She hardly ever got underway, mostly sitting dockside in Baltimore. So I got a mutual transfer with Charlie Riley, who despised the Edisto and had family in Baltimore.
International Ice Patrol measuring the mass of icebergs with sonar and photography from our two helicopters. This involved getting very close to scores of icebergs of all shapes and sizes.
I even earned the privilege to ride in the copilot's seat on one helicopter flight. The view of the ice fields and bergs and enormity of the horizon and the insignificance of our little red ship below made it an unforgettable experience.
Our next deployment was to the Eastern Arctic on a mission for the Naval Research Lab, gathering acoustic data to assist in the location and tracking of Soviet submarines below the eastern Greenland ice pack. We stopped in Reykjavík, Iceland where some of the crew got in a drunken brawl with the US Navy at the NATO base club in Keflavík.
From Iceland we headed north, closely followed by a soviet spy ship. When we noticed they started picking up our garbage, we started being much more selective about what we threw over the side. Once we entered the ice they could no longer follow us. A few days later, deep in the ice we were buzzed at mast level by a Soviet Bison Bomber. It came from dead astern in the blind spot of our air search radar. After that, we were overflown almost every day by a high level Soviet Bear Bomber. It was an eerie ever present reminder of the reality of the Cold War.
Deep in the ice, the storms of the seas beyond were only felt as a slow undulation of the ice field, causing the ship to roll gently in the ice. In the darkness the ice sparkled and glistened below the light show of the aurora borealis. The aurora was like a psychedelic lace curtain moving in the solar wind, rippling and undulating and changing colors. I stood out on the bridge wing in the 50 below zero cold, looking up, awestruck, while the moisture in my nose froze as I inhaled.
The aurora also produced heavy static discharges and while we were in the deep arctic we lost radio reception. When we finally came out from under it's effects on August 7th, 1974, I headed out on deck and tuned in the BBC on my shortwave radio. The top news was that President Nixon planned to address the nation the next evening and it was thought that he would announce his resignation as a result of the Watergate scandal. This was stunning news since we had heard nothing in the last month and a half. The following evening a group of us bundled up in our parkas huddled around the radio on the starboard side of the ship and listened as Nixon resigned.
We sailed to Scotland and spent 5 days in Leith. I took leave and stayed with my stepfather's family in Edinburgh and explored that wonderful city. The ship returned to Baltimore and shortly afterward was decommissioned and I was transferred to the Northwind which was undergoing a refit. While aboard the Northwind, I met Joe Gnagey who came to visit some of my shipmates. He gave us a slide show of photographs that he had taken in the Antarctic while sailing as a QM on the Northwind. His amazing photos showed a continent of white wilderness, the footprint of great explorers such as Shackleton and Scott, and the amazing creatures that made their home there. It fascinated me and kindled a desire in me to some day see the Antarctic for myself.
I was discharged from the Coast Guard the following summer and moved to the Seattle and went to work for NOAA for about five months and then attended college at the University of Idaho. After a year at the university I finally decided I really wanted to be back at sea and I re-joined NOAA, eventually finding myself as a quartermaster aboard the NOAA Ship Davidson doing a chart adequacy survey of Yakutat Bay, Alaska. Every couple weeks we would sail to Juneau to replenish stores and have some R&R. I went hiking up into the woods above the Mendenhall Glacier. It was quiet and beautiful and wild. I ate blueberries along the trail and spent the night in an open shelter listening to the wild night sounds around me.
The following day as I hiked out past a camp ground parking lot, I noticed a pickup truck camper with Idaho plates from the county the University of Idaho was located in. I knocked on the window and struck up a conversation with the owner. He was a geologist recently graduated from the university who was working for a minerals company prospecting in Alaska. He invited me to have a beer with him and his friends at a saloon in town. As we were shooting the breeze and sharing a pitcher of beer, one of the other geologists told me about a company that hired people to work in the Antarctic. He said he thought they had a boat that went down there too. So armed with only the name "Holmes & Narver" written on a bar napkin, I headed off with my head buzzing with excitement.
The following morning before the ship sailed back to Yakutat I was at the pay phone armed with my bar napkin and a pocket full of change. I called dozens of people at the National Science Foundation, Holmes & Narver and finally they referred me to a small California company called Nekton, Inc. They ran a small ship called the Hero that ran to the Antarctic under contract for the NSF. As incredible luck would have it, they needed an AB Seaman for the Hero. I had them mail me the application care of general delivery at the post office in the village of Yakutat.
Two weeks later I was on my way to Talcahuano, Chile to join the R/V Hero.
The Hero was a 125 foot wooden hulled motorsailor built in 1968 by the Harvey Gamage shipyard in Maine. She was sheaved in tropical greenheart wood with steel plates along the waterline. She was designed along the same sort of lines as Fridtjof Nansen's ship the Fram. Very heavy oak frames, round hull, no keel. She was equipped with sails primarily to help reduce the rolling caused by her round hull and to be used in case of loss of propulsion, for sailing.
When I arrived, she was in the drydock in the ASMAR shipyard in Talcahuano in southern Chile. When I came aboard I was introduced to Captain Pieter Lenie. Capt Lenie was already a legend and was a very colorful character. Born in Belgium, he first went to sea at age 14, leaving Belgium when the Nazis overran his country. Lenie survived WWII when the ship he was sailing on was torpedoed and blown up and he ended in the freezing water. He had a very dry wit and at times it was hard to tell whether he was joking or serious. He was once asked by a visitor: "Captain Lenie, who owns Antarctica?" Lenie hesitated only a moment before replying, "I own it. . . . It belongs to me." That was typical of Lenie.
We spent two months in the yard. It was very hard on us in the crew. We went girl crazy, chasing women and partying in town. We had to be off the streets before the curfew each night or Pinochet's troops would arrest you. So we shacked up for the night in cheap fleabag pensiones for the night with whichever girl we were with and come dragging back to the ship in the morning, much the worse for wear until it was quitting time and then we went back to the discoteca for another round. Amazingly we all survived 2 months in Talcahuano. Though not without our share of self inflicted wounds and minor social diseases.
We met the Chilean pilot at the entrance to the Beagle Channel and he took us as far as Puerto Williams where he disembarked and then the Argentine pilot boarded and took us into Ushuaia.
This was contested territory. The Chileans and the Argentines were disputing three uninhabited islands at the entrance to the Beagle Channel, Picton, Lennox, and Nueva Islands.
Due to their strategic location south of the Beagle Channel and facing the Atlantic Ocean, the islands were claimed by both Chile and Argentina, causing a serious border conflict. Picton, Lennox and Nueva granted Chile possible claims on part of the Atlantic Ocean, several other islands including the Falkland islands and of a larger part of Antarctica. Also, gold and oil had supposedly been found. The two countries agreed to submit to arbitration by the United Kingdom's Queen Elizabeth II. The Queen had ruled in favor of Chile a few months before we arrived and the Argentine government refused to accept the ruling and relations between the two countries was very tense. Both countries had brutal military dictatorships and trouble was brewing.
When we moored to the stone quay in Ushuaia, we were met by Tommy Goodall who maintained the warehouse for the Hero. Tommy and his wife Natalie own Estancia Harberton some 85 km east of Ushuaia.
Harberton is the oldest estancia (ranch) on Tierra del Fuego. It was founded by Tommy's great grandfather, the Reverend Thomas Bridges and his wife Mary Ann Varder in 1886. Bridges was the adopted child of an Anglican missionary, whose family left for the Falkland Islands when he was just 13 years old. He arrived in the Tierra del Fuego, age 21, where he worked also as a missionary before being granted land by President Roca in recognition for his work with the archipelago’s indigenous peoples. Haberton is so named after the village in Devonshire where his wife was born.
Palmer Station. The staff at Palmer had wintered over and were anxiously awaiting their reliefs. We sailed down the Beagle en route to the Drake Passage, the wide open stormy body of water between Cape Horn and the Antarctic Peninsula.
Crossing the Drake in the Hero was thoroughly unpleasant. The ship rolled and wallowed and pitched and corkscrewed, belched diesel fumes from the fuel vents, and in general made me sick as hell.
The going became more difficult as we often had to back and ram to get through the dense icepack. My bunk was in the bow and as I lay in my bunk I could listen to the ice sliding by and my bunk shifted and shook as the captain rammed the ship into the ice.
We finally got within three miles of Palmer Station and encountered fast ice. We were forced to await the arrival of the RRS Bransfield, the ship of the British Antarctic Survey that was bringing supplies for Palmer.
While awaiting the Bransfield we amused ourselves playing soccer on the ice and at one point we cornered an Adelie Penguin between 3 of us. I got too close and it growled and lunged at me, grabbing my pant leg in it's beak and beating me with it's flippers. The Bransfield finally arrived and started breaking up the ice in the bay, opening a channel to Palmer Station.
The unofficial mascot of Palmer Station was Yaby. He was a South Polar Skua (named YABY for his band colors Yellow, Aluminum, Blue, Yellow) known to Palmer Station residents since he was first banded in 1975. He was a notorious scavenger. On one occasion when the station crew was having a BBQ, Yaby swooped down and stole a steak right off of the grill. While the crew were remarking about what balls that bird had to steal their steak, he swooped down and took another.
After replenishing Palmer, we headed north towards Ushuaia with the departing station crew aboard. We beat our way across the Drake and into the Beagle and back to town.
While we were in Ushuaia, I was pressed into service taking the renowned ornithologist Dr. David Parmalee and one of his graduate students out in a Zodiak inflatable boat to go look at birds and gather samples out on the islands in the Beagle Channel. We examined nesting areas for Skuas, Shags, Terns, and Patagonian Geese and encountered a rock covered with sea lions. As we turned back towards Ushaia, a sudden chubasco swept down the channel. I guided the zodiak steadily upwind as the waves built and the spray whipped our faces. I kept my nervous passengers calm, telling stories and jokes. I finally made it to the shelter of a small cove on Bridges Island where we spotted an empty shepherds shack. We took shelter, started a fire in the little stove and heated up some Yerba Mate I found in the cabin.
Bahía Buen Suceso had arrived and was unloading military trucks towing howitzers. The tensions with Chile over the three Islands had gotten worse and now the two countries were on the brink of war.
The trucks headed down the road to Tommy Goodall's place and set up gun emplacements at Harberton, taking aim at the Chilean Navy town of Puerto Williams on the other side of the Beagle Channel. Over the next day several flights of Argentine jet fighters landed at the Ushuaia airport.
Things came very close to a shooting war, until the Pope sent an emissary to negotiate between the Gen. Videla and Gen. Pinochet, the respective dictators of Argentina and Chile.
However, the same bellicose militaristic attitude prevailed and eventually resulted in the Falkland Islands War with Britain five years later in 1982. The Bahía Buen Suceso was strafed by British Harrier fighters in the Falklands and later captured and used for target practice by the Royal Navy and sunk.
Ernest Shackleton and his men took refuge after the wreck of the Endurance in 1916. We were taking shelter from a storm, and there in the lee of the island we were buffeted by 85 knot winds. Looking out at the inhospitable ice covered island it really gave me empathy for the incredible hardships those men endured before finally being rescued.
Dirty War", a period of state-sponsored violence against the Argentine people and left-wing guerrillas that lasted from 1976 to 1983 and was carried out primarily by Gen. Videla's military government. Around 20,000 people disappeared or were killed and 60,000 were tortured during this dark time in Argentine history. I felt the chill of the repression on the streets of Buenos Aires. Troops and heavily armed police in blue battle helmets were everywhere, driving around in Argentine made Ford Falcons. It was as I imagined 1930's Germany was under the Nazis. I was relieved when I finally boarded a plane bound for Miami the next day. After 6 months in South America and the Antarctic, returning to Seattle was quite a culture shock. It made me appreciate so many things I had taken for granted. It was good to be home.....