Friday, March 07, 2008

Vessel - MV American Tern

The American Tern in McMurdo Sound.

Vessel. That is a term that we hear all season. For FNGs (f'n new guys), it doesn't mean that much. For OAEs (old Antarctic explorers - veterans), it means the end of a season. The vessel takes two to three months from its departure from Port Hueneme, CA to reach Littleton, NZ, clear customs, and finally reach us. When it arrives, it is carrying all of our supplies for an entire year. It is also how all of the materials for the new South Pole station were delivered to the continent before being flown to the Pole over the past few seasons.

Refrozen water near the ice pier.

This year the vessel was delayed a week or two because of storms and excessive ice flows on the way down from New Zealand. When it finally reached the ice channel, the icebreaker Oden guided it the rest of the way because the ice refreezes and thickens every night. Sometimes the normal ocean currents, tides, and winds break up the ice during the day, but they don't want to risk anything happening to the ship.

The water by the ice pier was strong enough to handle us throwing rocks at it.

There isn't enough room for the Oden to escort the American Tern all the way into the pier so the vessel has to do a little bit of ice breaking on its own. However, it isn't too much because the Oden was in a couple days before the vessel arrived to break it up. Visually, we had no idea how thick the frozen ice was. We couldn't break it with rocks, but didn't dare test it with human weight either.

The vessel breaks a flat layer of ice.

When the vessel approached the pier, it seemed like it was barely moving but it had no problem moving the ice out of the way. The best part was where the ice was perfectly flat. The vessel would lift the ice like it was a single bed sheet, (picture above - zoom in) that would drape over the breaking part of the bow, and then it would slowly fall away. I'm not sure the picture does the effect justice.

The ice wasn't all flat though. Some larger chunks simply had to be smashed out of the way and that was special in its own way too.

The vessel moves a large pice of ice.

As soon as the vessel is tied up, it is greeted by members of the Navy Cargo Handling and Port Group (NAVCHAPRG) who unload the vessel. The NAVCHAPS, as we call them, have a rough time of it. They come in at the end of the season when the community isn't as welcoming and are immediately thrown into working twelve hour days in temperatures that some of them have never experienced before. It can be shocking, but they handle it well. In fact, with a new leader this year, Michael, they unloaded the vessel faster than expected. They also do operations like this in the Middle East and anywhere else in the world where the US might need to unload cargo.

Some of you are more interested in the official ship information that pretty ice pictures, so we have something for you too. The MV American Tern is one of Military Sealift Command's seven Container Ships and is part of the twenty-eight ships in the Sealift Program. It is 521 feet long, drafts thirty-three feet, displaces 8,650 tons, can move at sixteen knots and carries a civilian crew complement of twenty-one. One of the more amazing things to me is that the ice pier is less than a football field from land and yet it can easily bring a ship in that drafts thirty-three feet. Growing up, we were regularly in harbors where that wasn’t true.

The MV American Tern approaches the pier.

The vessel offload took a week and wrapped up mid-February. Some of my friends left during offload because they weren't essential personnel. The first flights after offload were full of NAVCHAPs. As soon as they were gone, every one else started leaving in droves. From February 15th to the 22nd we moved almost a thousand people off the base and dropped our population from around 1,150 to 206. It was startling. Still is sometimes.

Yesterday was a brilliant day. I decided to run in the gym since I’ve been sick. It felt great. After work, I went to yoga and then headed out to open volleyball. Most of you haven’t had the privilege to play volleyball with me, but as good as I ever was at ultimate or soccer, I’m that bad at volleyball. When I showed up, I told them to put me on whichever team they wanted to make worse. That team promptly lost 15-2, I think and we had one extra person! It might not have been all me. Anyway, everyone was very welcoming and willing to coach me along. By the end of night, I managed to finally get a serve to stay in bounds and even got lucky enough to block a spike!

Because I played so late, I couldn't sleep until all the adrenaline left my system. That kept me up late enough to see my first dose of night in Antarctica! To say it was completely dark would be a lie, but it was dark enough. I'm calling it my first official night.

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