Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Captain Jim Takes Helm of Icebreaker

July 3, 2017

**News Flash**

Captain Jim Takes Helm of Icebreaker

Now imagine my surprise when I hear a loud knock at our cabin door, which continues on without interruption. I finally get up and run to the door thinking there is some type of an emergency, only to find my charming wife standing there with a big grin on her face wearing a Russian Officer’s Hat. She promptly takes the hat and places it on my head while announcing that she has made arrangements for me to take control of the helm of the ship for 10 minutes! Needless to say, I was speechless. Lisa had just attended a charitable auction for the benefit of several well-known international funds which seek to protect the polar bear. She had apparently been the successful bidder on a package which would allow me to drive the ship for 10 minutes. Let us just say that it cost more than a dollar or two, but she was certain that this would be an experience of a lifetime for me, and something that she wanted to do for my benefit!!

Later at dinner “Captain Jim Taking the Helm” is all our little table could talk about. Everyone wanted to be there when I got to drive the ship, and so I made arrangements with the Expedition Leader to be on the bridge this morning at 9:30 AM. What I thought would be a low-key event instead turned out to be something quite different. A ship-wide announcement was made at 9:15 to the effect that at 9:30 “Captain Jim would take control of the vessel,” and that anyone who interested, should come to the bridge. Let us just say that my quiet little affair suddenly got ratcheted up – big time!

Everyone from my table met at our cabin at 9:25, and together we all walked up to the bridge where we were greeted by the Captain himself in full dress uniform. I was wearing the Officer’s cap Lisa had given me the night before on which the Captain had autographed his name on the brim in gold ink. He escorted me to the helmsman’s position, while all around the bridge large crowds of people began to arrive wanting to get a picture of this momentous event. After a few moments of explanation, the Captain signaled the officer at the redundant set of controls to turn the helm over to my position. All of a sudden I was actually driving the most powerful nuclear icebreaker in the world. With 75,000 horse-power behind me, I was plowing through the ice as if it was cheese. The Captain pointed out how we could use the open waters and pools to increase our speed, and I quickly got the hang of what was required. At one point, I made a comment that there was a huge lag between my input and the ship’s response, to which the Captain with a sly grin replied, “Well you are not driving a car you know.” Around me people were trying to snap my pictures until finally some of the staff had to push them back so that I could enjoy my moment. Many people seemed to think that they too could grab control of the wheel, and things were about to get out of hand.

The Captain allowed me to drive the ship for over 20 minutes, and I will truthfully admit that during that time I was actually sweating. It was not easy keeping the ship in the channel provided by cracks in the ice, nor was it easy to anticipate the delay in the control inputs and the momentum that such a huge ship carries with it. The Captain stood to my left side and frequently had his arm around my shoulder in a fatherly stance. He very calmly fed me suggestions and directions. Immediately behind where I sat was his personal assistant Irina. She was also his translator, who made sure that each of us understood the other. When my time was up, I turned to the Captain with a big grin to shake hands only to be awarded with a small official pin designating me as a “qualified helmsman.” At that point, I could not help myself, and so I asked for one more favor, “Could I please be allowed to blow the horn?” The Captain thought for just a second, and then took me to the side of the control panel, where he indicated a toggle switch and nodded his head with a smile. I managed to blow the horn on this huge vessel several times, at which point I raised my arms in joy as everyone on the entire bridge and down below on the bow, raised their hands in a raucous roar. What a morning I had!!

All the while this was occurring, unbeknownst to me, the ship’s photographer was recording the movement of the ship through the ice. She had set up a camera someplace atop the bridge and left it to record the entire event. Meantime, I did not know that she herself was on the bridge, and was frequently taking photographs in front of me. In a very nice gesture, she later offered to give me all of those pictures if I could provide her with an empty USB key. I cannot wait to see her photos.

As if I had not had enough excitement for one day, about an hour later the ship spotted a mother polar bear with her cub in tow. The Captain was able to move the vessel fairly close before the bear became spooked and started to walk away. But I did get a few good pictures.

During the day we had been sailing south towards the western shores of Franz Josef Land. You may remember that on our trip north, I had mentioned that Franz Josef Land is a Russian National Park comprised of 192 uninhabited islands. Going north, we had passed the eastern islands, but now on our return, since we had made such a timely voyage to the north, we actually had almost 2 days to explore the western landscape.

As if this day has not already been full enough, just before dinner the sky cleared and we entered a realm of unsurpassed beauty. All around us were magnificent mountains and snow-covered islands. Some of these islands had bands of mist still floating at about mid-level, thus permitting you to see both the top and bottom of the mountains, but not the middle. The reflections across the water produced some outstanding pictures, and of course with the ever present sun, it was a truly magnificent sight. As a pilot, I was struck by the cloud formations. We had what are known as “standing lenticular clouds”, which I have been taught denoted strong winds across a mountain ridge. These clouds, however, were so high in comparison to the height of the mountains that clearly some other phenomena was at work. Also for only the second time in my life, I saw what I would call a spiral cloud. The only other time I had seen this was in Punta Arenas, Chile. A member of our expedition team was kind enough to explain to me that these types of clouds are formed above certain types of glaciers, and that she, too, had seen the spiral cloud only in the two locations that I mentioned.

At this point, dinner did not seem very important, as I was taking pictures right and left out of our room. Obviously the expedition leader came to the same conclusion, since he announced that dinner was being delayed, and that he was immediately commencing helicopter operations to fly out over the beautiful ice filled waters. Once started, helicopter operations take over four hours, which meant that beginning with the first flight at 7:30, the flights would go on until almost midnight. During the entire time of the flights, the ship continued to move slowly forward. It was announced that we would be sailing through this magnificent area all night long, and for those of us who chose to go to sleep, any time that a polar bear or walrus was spotted, they would make an announcement to wake us up.

Lisa and I had had such a full day, that we succumbed to the idea of a good night’s sleep. We both went to bed somewhat partially dressed, on the off chance that there might be a sighting, which would cause us to run down four flights of stairs to get a picture.

So what we thought would be a rather quiet day, has turned out to be one of the most momentous in my life. I do not think that I will ever forget the feeling of actually standing at the helm of one of the most powerful ships in the world while cutting through ice. I may have just been Captain for a day, but I will have the memory for a lifetime. After all, life is about moments, moments one right after the other.


No comments: