Deane Rink - December 24, 1996

    From: Deane Rink, aboard the R/V Polar Duke

(Deane is Video Producer and leader of the LFA 2 field team.)

Days on the Duke

Continual seasickness, exacerbated by trying to type while waves roll over the fantail, make time-saving devices like clipped phraseology and occasional abbrevs. imperative.

You'all may have noticed that, after rather voluminous correspondence during first half of my Antarctic trek, there's been a drop-off in quantity over recent weeks. (ed. Deane was working out of McMurdo on another LFA-related project, including documenting the search for meteorites out in the Allan Hills.) This all due to transition from McMurdo side of continent to Palmer side, on the Antarctic peninsula just below South America's fabled Cape Horn. I flew the great circle route (McMurdo-Christchurch-Auckland-L.A.-Miami-Santiago-Punta Arenas) in four forgettable blurry days around 12/11-15 and arrived at Punta Arenas in Tierra del Fuego with most luggage if not brains intact. Spent three days in this once-lovely, now decaying port town, preparing to sail on the Polar Duke in one of its last great Antarctic runs. (Duke's 10-year charter ends in mid-'97 and it will be replaced by a new research vessel, the L. M. Gould, chartered out of Louisiana, run by Cajuns but designed to ply Antarctic waters for the next couple of decades for NSF) Duke will probably end up working Arctic waters out of Newfoundland, though it is Norwegian-owned and crewed.

Finally we sailed about a week ago, and spent the first two days crossing the infamous Drake Passage, where Atlantic and Pacific Oceans converge, choppiest waters in the world. Being the brave soul, I decided to try this crossing without chemical aids to combat seasickness, and ended up . . .mucho nauseated, unable to type, unable to read, unable to eat, unable to sleep, but I got very good at lying in my cramped bunk (Are Norwegians all 5'6" or what?) staring at the ceiling, rolling with the gentle swells until the next pang of nausea hit, and I had to limp to sink or bathroom to, well, you can guess. Now of course this was made even worse by the quality of the food the Chilean cooks serve up for their Norwegian masters. If it ain't hot salsa, it's lutefisk, about the foulest, oiliest, grimiest food known to man (of course, maritime man is a very different breed, something I've learned painfully over the course of more than a few nautical ventures over my life's dappled span).

Finally we hit the inner passage, the Bransfield and Gerlache Straits that run the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula, and things calmed down enough for me to be able to occasionally stroll the decks and take in the fine scenery. About a day north of Palmer Station, we stopped to retrieve sediment traps that were left there a year ago, something made possible by radio transponders and GPS location-marking, since these traps are submerged 100 meters under the surface, collecting falling detritus of once-living small organisms. Each trap is anchored in place by a series of six flotation buoys, that don't really float, but instead keep the traps at the desired depth despite changes in current, etc. I went out onto the fantail to watch this activity and was recruited into operating the streamer winch line, taking my cues from the marine science tech who stood, roped off for safety, at the edge of the stern, directing the complicated pulley operations. My streamer winch was one of three mechanical devices used to get the traps; there were also two cranes operated by the Norwegians, all rigged up with block and tackle pulleys.

We were hauling in polypropelene ropes that had been in the waters for a year, and right at the time we had the six flotation buoys (all plastic, about the size of a large watermelon) at the apogee of the crane's reach, just as the trap itself was rising from the waters, the rope snapped, sending these six unguided missles crashing down onto the fantail, shattering the glass transponder works inside them all over the deck. These buoys missed the six or seven folk on the deck by inches, and caused me to worry that my inexperience on the streamer winch had somehow caused the mishap. Fortunately no one was hit by these falling bodies, just a good scare, but it left tensions frayed between Norsemen and Americans, between deckhands and scientists, between old salts and rookies like myself. The next day, the stentophone in my room boomed out a command to be present in the ship's lounge for a post-mortem (read: trial at sea) on what happened. I went, still not knowing if my actions had in any way contributed to this accident and near-tragedy, and participated with about seven others in a thorough assessment of what had happened. I breathed a sigh of relief when it became clear that it was the crane operator who had failed to see the hand signals by the on-deck activity coordinator and had pulled his part of the polypro rope too far, stretching it beyond its saturated breaking point. Gary, the on-deck coordinator, knew that yelling at him at the moment of impact would have just made the situation worse, so waited till this post-mortem session to air his grievances. Part of the problem was that Gary had to be directing the operation on the fantail while simultaneously talking by radio to the bridge, as the ship's manuevers were also a critical part of the sediment trap recovery plan.

Cleared, I was happy, but left wondering how I, a landlubber at best, got recruited into operating a winch I had never touched before, by reading hand signals from busy deckhands, signals that I had never seen on the streets of L.A. before. The actual answer is simple; I was standing closest to the winch when the operation began, and like everybody in a dangerous situation (of which the Antarctic holds many and it becomes second nature to pitch in with enthusiasm, even if without the necessary skills), was expected to throw my heart and soul into whatever action was deemed necessary to make that situation work.

That hurdle having passed, we finally landed at Palmer Station, which will be my home for the next six or seven weeks. But I could only stay for six hours, as the Polar Duke was sailing southwards to Rothera, the British Antarctic Survey research station, and this cruise, on which I am now on (we debark at Rothera in 2 hours) would be only three days before heading back to Palmer and would accord us an opportunity to film the Duke cutting through thick brash ice, passing by gigantic icebergs that never seem to get as far north as Palmer, etc. It has been worth the extra seasickness; the scenery has been spectacular, and we have rolled off over two hours of irreproducible scenics from the bridge and decks of the ship.

Of course, the cameras were not rolling when the most spectacular sighting was made, by Tony Amos of UTexas. He happened to be on deck when a huge berg "turtled," or rolled over due to its inherent instability in the water. The roll over created a giant wave that actually swamped the Duke's lower deck, making us heedful of the warning that we shouldn't pass too close to these big, majestic bergs because one never knows when they will tip, calve, or break into lesser parts.

There's a rule at Palmer Station that one must never take zodiacs (the small inflatable boats that we use for local travel there) closer than 200 meters to the ever-calving glaciers on Anvers Island that surround the embayments near Palmer. Now I know why, and will respect this rule, even if I sometimes treat other rules as approximate guidelines to be skirted when necessary. Indeed, most of the rules of the sea, including blind allegiance to the whims of a captain, are a lot more understandable in the light of the inherent dangers that lurk therein, in the light of the harshness of a sailor's life, so much different than our coddled, protected creature-comforted lives on land. (This even gives me new insights on my Dad, who spent three of the war years on a destroyer in the Pacific; I never understood why he wouldn't talk of those days, when I as a kid wanted all his tales of adventure. Now I know. He had to endure the rigors of maritime life under military hierarchies -- more strict than my Norwegian experiences, I'm sure -- while the enemy was shooting at him and running kamikazes and torpedoes his way. It was not a favorite experience of his life, and he didn't want his only kid enamored by the romance of the sea, a courtship that is more celebrated by landlubbers in books than it is by working seamen on the waves)

Speaking of which, about six hours ago, we crossed the Antarctic Circle, which always creates a hazing ceremony for the first-timers, and Scott, my cameraman, though he has spent two years below the Circle on land in McMurdo, has been informed that that doesn't count, he will be a part of the hazing ritual along with a couple of others. One more strike against the Order of Neptune. Scott is protesting that he must be able to shoot this arcane ritual, but if I know my Norwegians, these protests will fall on deaf ears, and Scott will be crawling through garbage and enduring sea water, icy and bracing, thrown over him as he stumbles through this marine version of the gauntlet. (And for all of you who might wonder, yes, I have crossed the Antarctic Circle on a vessel before, and am therefore entitled to sit back... rather than be tortured, this time).

Well, boys and girls, that's all for now. Hope you all have a happy holiday and celebrate it sensibly but joyously. We on the Duke will drop anchor at Santa Claus Island (bet you didn't know where he really came from) for Xmas and our alcohol-free zone of a ship will cease its rules for a day as we eat a feast, drink copious toasts, and long for our loved ones back home.

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