Thursday, July 13, 2017

Riding The Ice

June 29, 2017

Before being allowed to go below to the engine room, we were provided a detailed briefing on our ship and how exactly it operates in some of the harshest environment on our planet. I did come away with a couple of interesting facts: The front hull of the vessel is shaped very much like a spoon so that as it plows through the ice, it literally rises up onto the ice, and at the same time pushes it aside. The steel at the front of the vessel is 55 mm thick or almost 2 ½ inches of hardened steel. In addition to the shape of the hull and its thickness, the ship has a few tricks up its sleeve for allowing it to slide up the ice. One of these is that from the bottom of the ship under certain conditions it will a blow large amounts of air under extremely high pressure. This escaping air will quickly form bubbles in the water surrounding the hull, and as they float to the surface, they will provide a kind of lubrication allowing the ship to glide more smoothly through the ice filled waters. The vessel’s normal cruising speed is 18 knots, although it is capable of up to 21 knots. It can maintain its normal cruising speed up to an ice thickness of slightly under 9 feet presuming that the ice is basically smooth. I can bear witness to that statement being true this morning since during the night we had had almost constant ice. I did eventually find the channel on the television that I suspected had to be there which shows us a map and our speed. Indeed, our ship is pretty much maintaining 18 knots and is plowing through the ice like a knife through butter. Occasionally, if we hit a patch of ice which is thicker, our speed slows down, but just as quickly, we returned to our 18 knot cruising speed. It is an amazing sight to behold, and even more amazing site to experience viscerally. Of course, it helps that the ship has three propellers pushing us forward.

In the very center of our ship is the nuclear core. As it was explained to us, this is the most heavily protected structure on the vessel. It produces heat which in turn is converted to steam which in turn drives giant turbines which in turn produces electricity for the electric drive motors. It might sound simple on paper, but to actually go down below and to witness what is involved in making the ship operate is quite another thing.

We started our tour at the back of the vessel by walking down several flights of stairs until we were actually witnessing the hydraulic systems that operate the rudder. From there, we continued forward and down until eventually we were standing on the bottom of the ship almost 9 meters below the waterline. Besides the noise of the giant turbans, I was struck by how cool the engine room was maintained. Large amounts of cold air from the outside were brought in so that most of the machinery was operating in normal temperature conditions. We continued our walk forward into all compartments of the ship. As we walked by the reactor core you could feel the heat radiating off the walls. Eventually we climbed up what seemed like an impossible number of stairs before the conclusion of our tour. While I was exhausted from all of the descending and climbing, I was absolutely fascinated to finally have an opportunity of seeing the interior of the working ship!

Before walking up another four flights of stairs to our room, I needed a restroom, and so I stopped at one of the public facilities available in the hallway. When I turned around to flush, I found that the toilet had no mechanism for that. Instead it had a long black hose which was about 4 inches in diameter which was running from a pipe. On the wall there was a black handle which appeared to put water through the hose in order to flush the toilet. In all my years I have never seen such a mechanism. Of course, I am game to try anything, the only problem is I am not strong enough to turn that black knob, and so I admit I left the deed to someone else. Course I might mention that I found the John and it had been used before me, so that person must have had the same problem.

The ship has a policy that if we spot either whales or polar bears they will make an announcement over the public address system day or night. Yesterday we had an opportunity to stop for several polar bears, but most of them were at some distance from the ship, and none seemed particularly curious enough to approach the vessel. However, what you should know is that there was another announcement this morning just as I was entering the dining room. I did not have my jacket, and I did not have my camera – both of which were four levels above. So I shrugged my shoulders, and said what the heck I will have breakfast instead. It turns out that was a really dumb call. There was a polar bear outside, and it was right next to the ship. People came back in and showed me photographs that they had taken on their iPhone no less that were absolutely wonderful. I guess I am just “gonna” have to start carrying my camera with me no matter where I am on the ship. We also stopped for whales once or twice, but none of those were apparently great sightings and at the time I was someplace that I could not get to my camera.

Yesterday we entered the Western regions of Franz Josef Land. This is an area of 192 uninhabited islands which constitute the only Russian National Park in the Arctic. On our vessel, we have four Park Rangers to both monitor our activities, and also to serve as bear guides in the event we are successful at some point in making a landing on our return from the North Pole. The ship did, however, make a stop at Northbrook Island in order to offload six scientists and their 3000 pounds of gear. They will spend the Artic summer conducting research, and then at the end of the season they will be picked up.

Last evening the ship pulled into solid ice and stopped. After that they announced that they would commence helicopter operations at 9 PM, and as I mentioned in my blog yesterday, it will take over four a half hours to complete the operations once started. Lisa and I were fortunate to be in the first group to enjoy this opportunity. Our six minute flight took us along the front of the nearby glacier. First, we went in one direction, turned, and then came back the other direction giving everyone in the helicopter an equal opportunity to photograph the glacial face. While that was exciting, what I had really hoped for was to be able to take a photograph of our ship as it set locked in the ice. Unfortunately in our six minute ride my side never got to see the ship, whereas on the return Lisa was able to get such a photograph. They did tell us that time permitting, they hope to have another two or three opportunities for us to do helicopter sightseeing. All things considered this is a real bonus in any event.

As we are beginning to encounter heavier ice, and it is becoming difficult not only to stand, but to try to type or believe it or not even to dictate. I think I will take a pause, come back later to report on how we are doing during the day. I will point out that when we started our trip at Murmansk we were on the 79th latitude. Our goal is to reach the North Pole, which is 90° of latitude. Today I see that we are currently at 82°, thus we are making good progress.

Back at you later.


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