Feb. 10, 2014. 26′ WC 18′

Hello again.  It has been a bit boring around here in the last 2 or 3 days.

After off-load finished so quickly, less than half of the time I was lead to believe, and then the excitement of the harbor escape, nothing of any merit has really happened.  Except for the All Hands meeting of course.  It was very informative, and in many ways uplifting for those who do this annually.  Things are looking good for next summer season, and continued employment is promised for the old-heads.

By old-heads I mean people who have done this job regularly over the years, as their one and only job.  It is possible to work summer season here, and travel for the rest of the year, as some of the people I have met do.  There is still a vast majority of the world where the American dollar is so strong that renting a house for a month is less than $300. (and sometimes considerably less!)   I have been surprised repeatedly by the number of people who do this.  All ages, all education levels, all with the simple outlook: Life is like a book.  If you only live in one place, you are only reading one page.

I wish I could attribute that quote, but I heard it second hand, and the traveler who quoted it couldn’t remember the author either.  Even a Land-lubbing, Rocky Mountain Homer like me can appreciate visiting the other parts of the world that I find interesting.  I have seen Photographs of some of my friends who have spent weeks or months traveling before they even get home from Antarctica.  Of course New Zealand is a big draw, and Australia is close by, but both of their economies are strong and a bit costly for spending more than a few weeks.  Thailand, Viet Nam, South Korea and the Philippian islands draw a good number of our folks.  Africa and India are so exotic and geographically different than Antarctica that they have an enormous appeal to travelers on their way home.  Certainly anywhere you want to go will be a welcome change to here, and HOME.  One woman in particular did an entire hour long presentation of her travelogue from this past summer.  She rode her bicycle from Norway to Turkey.

Norway to Turkey!!  From the north coast of the North Sea, through Denmark, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, Hungary, and by that point I lost track…but she didn’t.  It was an amazing photographic display and an enticing view of what a single person can accomplish when so inspired.  There were other folks who have spent their time teaching English as a second language in Japan and Korea.  There are five people who work the Northern Hemisphere’s Summer months in Alaska, and when it gets too cold up there, they come down here to work.  Apparently these are the people who have an aversion to sweating:  Which, on a side note, it is very difficult to work up a sweat here.  If you do, it’s because you haven’t left the building all day.

The Supervisor for the Vehicle Maintenance Facility, in charge of all the mechanics on our night shift, is a heavy equipment operator from Wisconsin.  Tim Pare has come down each Summer for the last 5 years, because when winter hits the Great Lakes region, almost all outdoor construction using the big cranes he is used to stops cold.  [Pun intended!]  There is no reason for him to think he should loose money and time because his main job is unavailable.  He applies his many talents and skills to the National Science Foundation year after year to further it’s goals, and makes considerably more money than he would by staying home and waiting for his office to call with minor operations anyone else could do.  He’s a very clever man our Tim.

We have many of the cooks in the Galley with the same basic story.  They have spent a lifetime in the kitchens of Golf Clubs, sporting arenas, major market restaurants, or running family business’s.  They are here to pad their resumes or to learn how to apply their small volume skills to large volume outlets like ours.   Even though there are specific hours for each shift to hit each meal, the Galley itself is open 24/7, and it allows chefs the opportunity to explore new ideas from time to time.  And after all, this is Antarctica!  The name alone makes interviewers intrigued enough to look a little deeper at your resume.

I just have to add this to the blog.  One of my friends here who works in the Galley has the most original reason for coming down here.  I thought surely he was teasing, but he wasn’t.  He is a marathon runner and has finished the 26.2 miles on all but one continent.  He actually signed up for the full four months of service here at McMurdo for the opportunity to be paid to work while he trained for running the Antarctic Marathon.  And my friends think that I’m crazy!  I didn’t even know there was a marathon here until a week before the run when they were asking for volunteers to help with the water tables and mile markers.  I was told that in years past, some people have come down on yachts and specialized cruise ships just to run this race.  That’s some kind of dedication to a sport.

Tim

Not so Fun Run , if ya ask me.

Not so Fun Run , if ya ask me.

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Feb. 9, 2014 26′ WC 17′

So Maersk Illinois has returned to the open water.  The weather calmed considerably after 24 hours and she made her way into the Southern Sea without trying to take on any more of the return product from McMurdo.  The ice pier is beyond repair, and any further port operations will be suspended for the time being.  We do expect the Korean research vessel at some point, but not for another week or so.  With luck, and some cold days ahead, the pier may stabilize enough that we can handle a small science vessel, but that remains to be seen.

This issue was discussed at the All Hands meeting this evening.  Executives from both The National Science Foundation and the Supervision of McMurdo brought the nightshift workers together in the Galley to thank us for all of our hard work over this past season, and to remind us of the greater good we are doing to further scientific research here and all through out Antarctica.  They reminded us of all the special guests we have had visit us this season, and pointed out how things have changed for the better.  This being only the second year that Lockheed Martin has held the contract for serving Antarctic operations, we are learning as we go.  And they reminded us that now that the Higgs-Boson particle has been identified, the next big wave of  scientific research will be taking place here in Antarctica as we further explore Neutrino activity.  While Physics is totally beyond my grasp, except for watching The Big Bang Theory, I understand that the research being done at South Pole has captured the imagination and focused the attention of some of our countries leading scientists.  Now we need the funding to continue the research.  The All Hands meeting offered us a glimpse of what is happening now in Washington, DC and the name dropping began.  I wont mention any names on this blog, as I don’t want to jinx things.  But if the people who’s names were mentioned actually come to Antarctica next year, it will make the arrival of Prince Harry seem perfunctory.

No offense to the Prince…what he and his teams of disabled veterans accomplished in skiing to the South Pole was amazing.  And it did draw a lot of attention to the cause of helping our disabled veterans.  Now is the time for more positive publicity to help draw attention to the research being done here.  And the funding will follow.

Our logo atop this storage drum can be seen from space.

Our logo atop this storage drum can be seen from space.

 

 

 

 

 

Feb. 8, 2014. 16′ WC 2′

Back to the story.

After the linesmen had gathered and released two of the four lines on the dorm side of the bay, the linesmen and Nav-Chaps down on the pier released all of the remaining lines that stabilized the boat at the ice pier.  Nav-Chaps is the term used by the Navy to refer to the sailors who are trained specifically for loading and unloading ships.  Each year a large group of them come down to McM  to assist with the supply vessel and stay at our facility until the ship sails.

The priority is safety first of course.  With the winds increasing as the evening progressed and the weather forecast expecting things to only get worse, the cranes were stowed and the mill vans that were not already aboard ship were staying for the rest of the year.  Now it was up to the Captain to get his ship out of the bay and into open water where he would be safe.  He had purposely left one line on the bollard leading over to the dorm side of the bay so that he could real it in and that would draw the back end of the ship toward the middle of the bay.  Now with the narrow aspect of the ship pointing into the rolling waves, he ordered the last line be dropped and he gunned his engines full reverse.  The Illinois did well at first moving almost half the distance to the point of the rocks where Scott Hut is on the peninsula.  But the tide was too much.  She couldn’t get enough speed, and the squared off nature of the rear of the vessel gave too big a target for the waves.  She was pushed dangerously close to the rocks and the Captain shut down the engines and wisely allowed the tide to push her back into the bay.  The Maersk Illinois ran aground.

Now I am no sailor.  I am simply telling things as I saw them happen on that night.  I listened carefully to the radio conversations between our base camp and the ship’s captain.  I saw the churn of the engines as she tried to power her way into the sea, and I could clearly see from where I was standing that the waves were pushing her back not only into the bay, but sideways toward the rocks on the shoreline.  For this day, she was going nowhere.

The Coast Guard Ice Breaker, Polar Star, had been called to assist in getting the Illinois out of the bay.  When she arrived, the intention was to shoot a line over to the Illinois and use the strength of both ships with full engines to overcome the waves.  But the Polar Star could not get close enough to send a line over.  The waves were so strong by this time – nearly 2am – that even the ice breaker was being pushed around by the tide.  The Captain of the Star aborted two attempts to get close enough to the Illinois because the Star itself was nearly pushed against the dorm side rock formations.  A third try was not attempted.

While it is true the freighter was stuck in the harbor, and her nose was resting on the shore, we can all be grateful that no one was hurt.  The Illinois is not damaged, and when the weather changes she should be able to get back underway.  This was a very exciting and hurried day.  And as you would expect with the horribly strong winds, some gusts up to 50 miles an hour made the temperature feel much colder than is listed above.  With the batteries in cameras freezing up and peoples hands doing the same, we all had reason to call it a day.  The Illinois is fine for now.  And when the weather is better she will be on her way.

Tim.

 Calm before the storm.

Calm before the storm

 

The storm.

The storm.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Waiting orders

Waiting orders

Too close for comfort!

Too close for comfort!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Feb. 7, 2014. 17′ WC 2′

We have had a difficult day today.

The off load is complete: Hurrah!  And the reload of the vessel with all of our scrap metals, trash and unusable equipment was underway until the winds kicked into high gear and shut the whole operation down.  The winds were causing white capped waves to break against the shore and pushing the vessel itself against the pier so much that the Bailey Bridge which connects the pier to the shore was pushed inland several feet.  It was also shifting farther onto the pier as the ice was being pushed under it’s span .  In fact, the width of the water channel separating the solid ground of the bay and the iceberg which is our pier is now considerably reduced.  As in the photo below left is the fuel tanker we received late January.  Below right is the pier under duress of the weather…the supply vessel is just to the right off camera.

Feb. 6.   10pm

Feb. 6. 10pm

Jan. 27,  5am

Jan. 27.  5am

But what’s that you say?  An iceberg for a pier?  Yes.  That’s what I said.  I have known about this since I started line handling, but I thought it was best not to say that until handling lines was all done.  I didn’t want any of you at home to worry about it.  My easily frightened Mom made me promise to stay out of the water while I was here, and I’m doing my best to keep that promise.  I was walking on the water, so to speak.  I’m pretty certain that my very Catholic mother doesn’t want me to say that either.  And yet, the fires of Hell are starting to sound pretty good now that the winter is coming back to Antarctica.  But I digress…

The pier itself is nothing more that a shelf of glacier ice that forms in the bay every winter and is leveled, flattened and cabled to the shore line so that it doesn’t float away.  It is allowed to float separate of the rock formation of the shoreline so that if a ship bumps it, it will give a little and not sink the boat.  It is then covered with nearly a foot of fines.  “Fines” is volcanic gravel the consistency of beach sand, which is then spread all over the surface of the glacial floater so that the true surface of the ice is kept at – or very nearly – below the waterline, preventing the sunshine from melting it.  Sounds ridiculous doesn’t it.  But it works in these colder latitudes where the water temperature itself is so near freezing.  Also, the fines then insulate the ice, strange as that may seem.  I thought the very dark sand would draw the sunlight to it and melt it quicker, but the reality is that only the top 3 or 4 inches if the fines get heated, and the lower 8 or 9 inches maintain their temperature and cool at the surface of the ice creating a nice thermal barrier.  Who’d a thunk?

There is one more advantage to the ice pier, it keeps the boats from getting so deep into the harbor that they run aground.  And when all of the shipping is done for the season you can pretty much ignore it and it refreezes back into the core of the next glacial gathering of ice over the coming winter, potentially making it even stronger for next year. It has worked this way over many Antarctic summer seasons. Until this one.

By all accounts that I have heard, from other line handlers who have spent several years here, (two with 12, one with 15 and one with 23 years experience) the ice near McMurdo bay has never opened up so much as it has this season. The multitude of wildlife that I have witnessed is exponentially higher than in years passed.  That is a clear indication that the area is more accessible.  Also the average temperature at the base has been higher this summer than anyone can remember. While it made for a wonderful working vacation for me personally, it has scared the bejeepers out of those on our workforce who have done this for a decade or more.  I am not the first person to use the term Global Warming during these discussions.

Worse yet: This evening’s storm blew in at just the right angle to push waves directly between the two rock formations that create the natural, deep water harbor which is McM Bay.  The Freighter was being buffeted so badly that they had to stop all crane activity.  Although we had already unloaded  everything we were expecting, we did not have the chance to reload the vessel with all of the return items, the broken tractor, and several refrigerated mill vans full of Ice Core samples.  (Science will be taking a punch in the arm if we don’t find a way to get these back to the States safely.)

We were seriously worried that if the winds grew any stronger they might crush the pier entirely. We had already lost one of the bollards on the seaward side of the ice pier prior to offload, and another was dangerously close to coming loose as of start of day shift Tuesday. We have been fortunate that it has stayed in place till now. So it came as only a small shock when it collapsed into the water at around 9pm tonight. The call out for an emergency line handlers muster went out 5 minutes later, and as I was already working at the VMF, very close to the pier, I went down to help.

I was one of the first 5 people to arrive. Our gathering point was on the shore itself at the top of the embankment looking down on the bay with the pier to the far right, and the vessel to the center.  Very near where the above photos were taken.  I assisted in removing two of the lines that the ship’s Captain requested we drop, so that if the worst case scenario did develop he could simply cut the two remaining lines and gun the engines back out to sea.

So what happened next?  I gotta have something to write about tomorrow…see you then.

Tim

Feb. 6, 2014. 17′ WC 12.

Welcome back.
I did not fall of the end of the earth. I more or less fell into it.  The workload that is.  Off loading the vessel began in earnest after my last blog entry.  Although my team’s first night was very easy, as I had mentioned, we had to wait till the cargo teams brought us any work to do, when we came back into work the following evening, things were well underway.

Temperatures were very cold and it snowed Sunday evening for nearly four hours of our shift.  That was both beautiful and fun because it was early in the shift, and we were all a little giddy to finally be moving and doing the job at a brisk pace.  The heavy cloud cover was a boon in this instance as it trapped the heat – what little there was – close to the ground.  We found after lunch when the snow stopped and the clouds cleared away so did all of the heat.  We were now working at 5′ temperature, with full bellies, and had lost all of the mornings momentum and desire.  It was now a chore.  And one that really took some fortitude.  We kept our positive attitude, but we could see in each other’s faces a bit of reality had caught up to us.  Even the two seasoned veterans on our crew looked a little shocked.  They had had harder, colder, windier conditions.  They had suffered longer delays and broken equipment.  But this was today.  And in this moment they were just as frosty as the rookies.

I hate to repeat myself and say the Government shut down caused us problems, but it is true to a point.  Some of the people who had qualified to work this season where already on rout to McMurdo when the October situation in Washington changed everyone’s plans.  Some people I am with were already in Christchurch, NZ. waiting for transport to the Ice when they were rebounded to the US.  More were already at McMurdo when they found their funding cut and were sent home.  Several of those simply chose not to come back.  In truth, had that force reduction not happened, I would not have made it here at all this year.  So while I have been grateful all season long, I really felt the loss of those people when we were emptying container after container of goods, doing double duty in some situations.

While we were short on personnel, slightly more than half of the size of some of the crews in the past, we made it work.  The supply team was borrowing people from other departments who had teams that work at night.  We owe a huge THANK YOU to both Cargo and Fleet Operations for their teams that stepped up to help us out when we were overwhelmed.  These guys and Gals renewed our spirits just by showing up in some of the worst weather I have yet experienced.  Every little bit helps.  I would be completely rude not to mention the Air Force, Navy and New Zealand  military personnel who all came to McM to assist in the moving of freight from the vessel to the pads…God Bless them all, and I hope that this is the worst possible conditions that these people face in the entirety of their service careers.  I can’t imagine doing your job and getting shot at.

I suppose I should tell you about the temperatures.  I could tell you the names of all of my crew.  I would like to give you all of the poundage we moved to all of the various locations.  But I can’t.  It is all a bit of a blur right now.  12 on 12 off is not new to me.  Neither is working in bitter cold.  I have driven an uncovered forklift in -17′ temperatures with some ridiculously low Wind Chill –  IN DENVER.  But at least I was moving from one building directly to another, nothing like this.  And my assignment was not always driving the Pickle.  I spent far more time writing the names and item numbers of the products on the sides of the boxes as they came out of the mill vans.  Rotation and seniority has it’s place in these conditions just like anywhere else.

It is over now.  The mad rush to finish and clear the boat of incoming goods is complete.  In less than six days.  “We Happy Few” to quote the Bard, can take a minute to breath and be proud of a stellar accomplishment.  If I can squeeze the details out of my Boss later in the week I’ll be happy to give a full report.  For now, just enjoy the pictures of Vessel Evolution 2014.

Tim.

Look at the bulb on her nose.  How low she sits in the water line.

Look at the bulb on her nose. How low she sits in the water line.

Look again at the bulb and the empty vessel water line

Look again at the bulb and the empty vessel water line

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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This fits in there?

This fits in there?

Just enough.

Just enough.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Elvis at work

Elvis at work

Indispensable Elvis

Indispensable Elvis

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Irrepressible Sonia!

Irrepressible Sonia!

Tiny powerhouse.

Tiny powerhouse.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ready to roll

Ready to roll

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Snow day cloud cover.

Snow day cloud cover.

Clearing sky, falling temps.

Clearing sky, falling temps.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I can't count that high.

I can’t count that high.

But wait...there's more!

But wait…there’s more!

Feb. 1, 2014 17′ WC 0′

The Big Goose Egg.

We hit zero degree this morning for the first time since I have arrived.  I thought all my life that Antarctica was just a massive frozen waste land you would have to be mostly nuts to even want to explore much less plan on living here for any length of time.  But God Bless the engineers and the mechanics and the brave people who have worked smart and hard at creating the equipment, clothing and the housing it takes to make this wilderness accessible.  I have seen the penguins and seals.  I have walked the ice and played in the snow, and I have heard the music of the wind whipping through the warehouses.  And I have felt the cold.  The long sustained cold.  And I have learned to appreciate all of it.

And now I begin to work in it.  Using the stout, sturdy equipment, wearing the heavy, warm clothing, and living in a much more comfortable environment than some of the ski resort hotels I have stayed at over the years.  And especially the food in the Galley; it is so much better than I had expected.  In spite of the long days and heavy lifting I have gained weight during my time here.  (Sadly it s not all muscle, but let’s pretend for now.)

Today was the first day of the Supply vessel off load.  The Maersk Illinois was slowed by foul winds late yesterday which delayed her arrival until 6pm rather than noon.  Our supply team rallied up in the Galley pad at 6pm regardless of the landing’s time change, and began to sort all of the paperwork that details the products to be found in each box, on each pallet, within each mill van.  And that took quite awhile.  There were four of us sorting through the enormous stack of paperwork sifting it down to the individual packets representing each mill van’s contents.  That will save a lot of trouble when the product actually gets here.

There was ample time to walk the 100 yards over to the cliff and look down on the vessel as they tied her to the pier.  I then took a couple of pictures of the parking lot we have commandeered into the storage area for food stuffs that don’t need special handling immediately.  As luck would have it two of the first vans taken off the ship were frozen foods, and fresh vegetables, which meant that Elvis and I got to start our day before 10:30pm and I had my first ever mill van emptied without any damage to the product in 45 minutes!  That’s not a record by any means, but it is a personal best for me, and I’m gonna enjoy it!  Until tomorrow when I intend to smash that record and set a new one.  That makes me Happy!

And then we waited.  And we talked, and we told stories, and we sent some of the crew for additional paperwork, and we sent some of the crew to assist in the storage room at the coffee shop, and we sent some to get more coffee and when each of those groups came back, we talked some more…and we waited.  We are, at this juncture, totally at the mercy of the crane operators aboard ship.  We can only work whatever they send us here at the Galley pad.  Oh they sent a huge amount of stuff to our teams at different locations around base, but we waited…  With a little luck, we will have warmer weather tomorrow for what will unquestionably be a much harder workday.

Below are pictures of Elvis, The Maersk Illinois, and the parking lot I will call my office for the next 10 or so days.

Much more tomorrow.  H-B-J!!!

 

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Jan. 31, 2014. 17′ WC 6′

Yes, I think I can safely say that Summer is over. I haven’t left the office without a coat and hat for the last 4 days, and even when the sun is shining right on you, the wind is swirling about to find you. And it does.
The Vessel arrives today at noon, and for work reasons I will not be involved in docking it. As I have mentioned in one of the earlier blogs I was afraid I may have taken on more than I can chew with a 9 hour night shift and then handling the lines on a broken sleep schedule. That has proven to be the case. I have officially turned in my pager this morning because I will need sleep prior to the 12 hour shifts we will be working in my department over the coming 10 or 12 days. I did my job as a linesman quite well for a landlubber, and it made me sad to write the note to the Michael Davis, our Tower man and Line Supervisor, but I’m sure he’ll understand. Almost all of the other lines people are day shift. Those who are not are also not in supply, so their individual workloads will not be affected by the coming flurry of supply team activity. Still, I wish them luck, and I wish I were there.
Starting at 6pm tomorrow Elvis and I will become the best of friends because I have been assigned to the unloading of shipping mill vans at the Galley Pad. The Galley, as you know is the name of the dining facility here at McMurdo Base, and it has to receive and store all of the food not only for the coming winter staff, but for the following summer season before the next Supply ship arrives. There are fresh vegetables and fruits delivered to us on flights bringing in people and equipment all summer long, but those are small quantities and they disappear very quickly. What I will be handling will be full pallets of pretty much everything you can think of to run a kitchen. Almost all of the product that has been pulled together at our dispensary in California will be packed into large cardboard boxes made of triple thick cardboard called tri-walls. They are approximately 4′ cubes that cover the entirety of a standard shipping pallet.
These are then loaded into the mill vans two high and two across and will likely hold as many as 36 pallets each, but I’ll confirm that tomorrow when I continue the blog. The ship itself is bringing supplies to all of the departments from electrical, plumbing and carpentry to Scientific research equipment and necessary hospital supplies to my favorite, Car, Truck and Tractor parts for my Home Boys in the Vehicle Maintenance Facility.  And are we ready for that!  This late in the season we are running very low on some of the basics:  We’re entirely out of baling wire, and down to the last case of duct tape.   HAR-har-har.

More tomorrow.  Not even a big bowl of ice cream will keep me from going to bed right now.  Well…maybe just a crater cone of ice cream, and I’ll take it to my room.

Tim

Photos tomorrow, I promise.