Icebeakers

Michael Raffety

2-8-2016

When I was stationed at McMurdo Station with the Navy there were few things to do after the workday at the avionics workshop ended. Dart games and dart tournaments were the big thing.

After first disembarking on the ice runway from the C-121 Super Constellation, the first thing I noticed was sunrise – all day long. The sun in Antarctica just circled the horizon. As the days went on the sun rose higher until it stayed light all day long during the austral summer. Until it melted the snow on Ross Island where McMurdo Station is located.

When it wasn’t 20 or 40 below zero The first thing we did was climb to the top of the 754-foot-high Observation Hill to look at the cross put up in memory of Robert F. Scott’s party that died returning from the South Pole in 1912. The 9-foot cross quotes an Alfred Tennyson poem “Ulysses”: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

Pretty inspiring. Scott’s Hut was also accessible to us just across Shelter Cove. Scott built it in 1902 on his first polar expedition. He and his party died returning from the Polar Plateau in 1912 on the second expedition. Actually called Discovery Hut, it was used as a shelter and storage cache by several other later expeditions. The last person to use the Hut was Ernest Shackleton in 1917. Because Antarctica is cold and dry – very dry — everything is preserved. The remains of fried eggs can be seen on the frying pan. The hut is full of boxes and tins left over from the turn of the 20th century.

The other small adventures were visiting the C-130 crew folks in their canvas Quonset huts on the ice. All the mechanics and airframe people were down “on the ice.” Shop people like myself and the parachute riggers, photographers and journalists were “on the hill” in the “Lifer’s Lounge,” a metal and wooden quonset hut. Every hut, whether on the ice or the hill had its own supply of Carling Black Label beer, dehydrated pork chops and canned chili in case a whiteout prevented us from making the trip “across town” to the chow hall. When the weather permitted we even barbecued steaks outside.

On the way down to visit the people living “on the ice” we would stop at the New Zealand base and admire their huskies they used to pull sleds. Below the New Zealand base was an ice cave that a friend of mine and I dragged a small generator on a sled to with colored lights to photograph the interior.

The biggest adventure I had was when the icebreaker arrived and created a channel in the Ross Sea to Shelter Cove so the supply ship could arrive, unload and then haul off old Douglas C-47s that were no longer being used.

My chief petty officer let me take five days off to ride on the icebreaker Westwind. During the five-day trip the Westwind patrolled the channel back out to sea to make sure ii was clear and icebergs hadn’t closed it off.

I got to watch the activity from the bridge as the quartermaster steered the ship. I just read that the Coast Guard in 2003 merged the Quartermaster rating in the Boatswain’s Mate rating. They probably did that because, except for icebreakers and cutters, the Coast Guard needs boatswain’s mates to operate a whole lot of its smaller boats.

Sleeping quarters on the icebreaker were canvas bunks with very little room between each level. Each sleeping “rack” was so close to each other that I could almost pat the next guy on the head with my feet. That may have been a consequence of being 6-foot 3 inches.

The scenery on the icebreaker was fantastic. It was fun watching Adele penguins pop out the sea onto an ice flow like soap squirted out of one’s hand. When they thought the killer whale or leopard seal had left they would all gather around the stupidest one and push him into the sea. If he didn’t get eaten, then the whole flock would dive in.

The Westwind was built in 1944 and used until 1988. The Northwind, Eastwind and Southwind were all built about the same time and kept in commission until 1989, 1968 and 1974, respectively. All have since been scrapped.

The Coast Guard wants to build two new icebreakers at a cost of $1 billion apiece. Homeland Security wants the Coast Guard to have six new heavy icebreakers. They have no budget for any more than one, which will be in the fleet in 2024.

Russia has 42 icebreakers, many of them nuclear-powered, and is building 14 more.

CAB UPDATE: Yellow Cab of San Francisco, with more than 500 cabs, has filed for bankruptcy. DeSoto Cab has turned in its 204 city cab medallions (costing $1,000 a month) and changed to a limousine service. Cabs are having trouble competing with Uber. Parisian cab drivers Jan. 26, 2015, had one of their periodic anti-Uber riots, blocking access to main roads to Paris and blocking access to the two airports, burning tires.

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