Date: 25 December, 1996
From: Janet Phillips, Palmer Station
Janet Philips is Antarctic Support Associates' Area Manager at Palmer Station. Her Journal provides an interesting contrast between her role as passenger on board the "Duke", and the person in charge and ultimately responsible for all health, safety and logistics at Palmer.
MERRY CHRISTMAS from Palmer Station! I once again find myself having arrived on this lovely continent for the holidays. My timing has been a bit amiss this year though, as I missed the Christmas gift exchange which was celebrated a early due to the hectic schedule with (our) the ship arrival on the 22nd. However, there is a nicely decorated and not very plastic looking (though of course it is fake) Christmas tree in the dining area and there is a turkey dinner planned for tomorrow evening.
Interestingly enough, Denver felt much more like Christmas with the occasional snow, the lights so carefully (well, not really) strewn around the living room, the Sunday papers with mounds of store ads., the Christmas concerts and events, and the ever-present decorations, whether at work or out and about.
Today, the 24th, was actually quite warm here at Palmer, up to 44F in fact... downright balmy! In fact, as I type this letter from my room at 9:30pm the sun is still shining in my window and warming me. The snow has melted away from the immediate station vicinity, so a trek to the glacier is required for a white Christmas. It was so pretty today that I've climbed up there twice -- once at lunch, only about 2/3 of the way up to the VLF antenna Stanford has placed there, and the second time after dinner, when I climbed to the top and meditated in the sunshine there... savoring the clear view of the mountains both here on Anvers Island and those on the continent.
It has been strange returning to Palmer so quickly that some of the people I wintered-over with are still here, having continued on with summer contracts. There are also people here who were here the last summer that I was here. So it sort of feels like I never left, but sort of feels like the wrong mix of people is here because many of the old familiar winter-over faces are gone.
Anyway, in general it is good to be here. The hardest part is of course having to leave family, friends, and "mi amor"! I suspect that life here will be so busy that once I'm settled in here time will go quickly, and I will be sad to say goodbye to people here when my three months are up. Such is life, well, maybe better said, such is the life of an Antarctic worker!
I haven't been out much other than up the glacier and around station. I understand there are now some penguin chicks on the nearby islands, and hope to make a trip out there before too long. Apparently some are still in the eggs so this would be a good time to see all the stages. I'll take some pictures if I get out there, though I'm sure there are zillions already in magazines and books.
The Elephant Seals are lounging on the surrounding points and islands, as evidenced by their snorting, grunting, barking, and the general stench that overcomes us if the wind blows in just the wrong direction (which luckily isn't the prevailing wind direction).
The trip here across the Drake Passage was amazingly smooth. (Ed note: for a contrary report on just how "smooth" it was see "Queasy" Deane Rink's Journals, as well as Scott Enlow's report of their time on board the "Polar Duke" during the self-same voyage. What's smooth for an OAE may well be a very bumpy ride for another!) I took a few 1/2 doses of meclazine because there were predictions of stormy weather, but all it did was help me to sleep soundly for close to two days solid. Well, I was up and around for lunch and dinner, did a little e-mail and bird watching, but was mostly overcome with sleep.
Here's a few paragraphs I wrote while on the ship... a bit corny... sorry...
Sitting on the steel stairs and feeling the cold seep through my pants I was so struck with the beauty surrounding me that I didn't bother to stand up. The sea was nearly flat as the ship glided through the waters of the Straights of Magellan, just a few hours from Punta Arenas. Leaving the pier had been exciting for those of us on the ship, though there were few on the pier to share in our enthusiasm. Two carpenters who are staying in Punta Arenas to prefabricate a hut for another project were there, one of our Chilean agents, and a few men in hard hats who had just finished some sort of contract operation involving the ship. Not exactly a "Love Boat" send off, but still exciting for each of us who knew that this was the first step to being bound for Antarctica.
Shortly after we left the pier we were preparing for an announced fire drill so that we could all learn the emergency procedures on the ship. I went to my cabin and waited with my survival suit and life jacket ready... waiting, waiting, waiting for the alarm to sound. I decided to pass the time by looking out the porthole in my room. Though it provides a rather limited view of the world, it was nonetheless a pretty sight of green ocean and land, a desert-like land mass. Saw a few ships in passing, then as I was getting a bit bored with it all, a few Magellanic Penguins swam into nearby view! They were cute little guys and raised my enthusiasm enough to keep staring out the porthole until the drill was announced and the alarm sounded.
(Ed. note: for a video view of the lifeboat drill, a "Gumby" suit, and to meet Al Hickey, see LFA 2 program 1.)
All the passengers mustered on the deck near the big crane, carrying our survival gear as instructed. Because the drill was announced, we were all there promptly and dressed properly for the event. Al Hickey, the MPC (Marine Projects Coordinator & senior ASA person on the ship) split us into two groups to learn more about emergency procedures on the ship. The group I was in (those berthed on the Starboard side of the ship) first went to learn about the lifeboat.
The ship's crew had lowered the lifeboat into the standard boarding position and the Chief Mate helped us to climb aboard and get a feel for what the survival mode would entail. The seats are flat wood, and there are enough seatbelts for about 50 people in this little boat. It's about, oh, 20-25 feet long and about 8 feet wide. We all crammed into the seats at one end to get the true sense of just how crowded it could be. The life boat is actually a sealed unit, so has sides and a roof so that the whole thing can roll over and still not get wet inside... thus the seatbelts.
There is an engine, steering wheel, and enough fuel for 24 hours at full speed. We were then shown all the emergency supplies on board... water sealed in aluminum/plastic packages similar to the little bags of juice the kids like to take in their lunches these days; 75 kilos of bread, 45kg of "food" per person; 4 parachute flares; 2 smoke signal flares; a radio which can be powered via winding a handle, rather than battery; oars; a signal beacon; compass; antennae for the radio; and one seat out of the fifty was a toilet seat which would somehow do a direct discharge into the ocean I assume. Pretty grim stuff really... it would be a miserable way to spend much time... though certainly (?) better than simply plunking into to the frigid waters. I presume the "will to live" would be limited with fifty seasick people thrashing against one another in heavy seas.
Okay, on to the less grim... then we learned about the survival suits, otherwise known as Gumby suits, because they are rather formless. The suits are made of bright orange fabric, which I think is just thick neoprene, but is supposed to be waterproof. We tried the suits on and learned about all the gadgets and tricks... make sure to secure the velcro straps around the ankles so that your feet don't become super buoyant with trapped air... make sure you know how to inflate the little pillow which surrounds you and keeps you better afloat in rough seas... check the whistle... make sure you understand how to turn on the salt water activated light by pulling the tab that's tucked under the pillow (and very difficult to get at once inside the suit)... make sure the strap around you is secured so you can be easily lifted by the lift ring on your chest... use the extra strap to latch onto the ring of the person nearest you (as a bigger orange blob is easier to find)... make sure to zip the zipper all the way over your chin and secure the flap over your face which makes it difficult to breath (this is so when you jump in the water you don't flood your suit and defeat the purpose)... and be sure to roll it up properly for storage to maintain the condition and ease donning the thing should you have to. Well, maybe this isn't much less grim after all...
Then we finally ended the safety briefing with a tour of the ship. We saw the various emergency exit hatches, the fire suppression water pump, the water pipes, hoses, and valves for the fire fighting system, the fire alarm pull stations, the emergency plans and ship layout, the fire extinguisher locations, and that's about it.
After all this it was dinner time and I was quite hungry. Enjoyed the dinner of fish, french fries, brussel sprouts, asparagus, salad, and cantaloupe.
Then I headed for the deck to soak up the view and remaining sunshine. Many had the same idea and we were all out there for a while. I stayed longer and finally sat on the cold steel steps to rest my legs a while. Just as I was thinking of going in, once again I was encouraged to stare around longer when I saw and white & black dolphin swimming along side the ship. It wasn't a long view, but it was just amazing to see this creature speeding along side us just under the surface of the water. The bright white caught my gaze, and I'm sure the look on my face as I stared would have been good for a part in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest".
Luckily I was alone on deck, so enjoyed my awe in solitude! I finally gave in to my numbing behind and came inside to write. I'll sign off now on Wednesday evening at 10:30pm, and pray for similarly calm waters in the morning as we approach the Drake Passage.
Well, as I gaze out my window on a Christmas Eve, enjoying the sun and the view of the local islands, calm waters, and bits of ice floating in the waters, the sounds of snorting Elephant Seals, and the glacier calving now and then, I have romantic visions of Christmas at home (which has many meanings to me now). The luminarias in New Mexico and yummy foods like green chilies and Christmas tamales, the tree (though there may not be one this year) in Mom & Dad's living room in California and the homey cheer and scents of the holiday, the corny but still cherished Mitch Miller's holiday sing-along record, the ringing bells of Salvation Army Santa Claus' on every block and the occasional hot pretzel stand and the big FAO Schwartz window full of fascinating toys in New York City, the "Around the World Race" and gift exchange at South Pole, and the cozy warmth, twinkling lights, and glow of a fire with loved ones in Denver. I hope that you all enjoy the holidays in whatever places you find yourselves this year!