Colin at the North Pole

We’ve now been to the Geographic North Pole for the first time this season. Ninety degrees north; a point on Earth from which every way is south and where all lines of longitude converge so that you can literally walk around the planet in only four or five strides.

There is no night and no day at the geographic pole, for with all the Earth’s time zones converging at this single point on the globe it can be whatever time you choose. But, working on GMT+1, we arrived at the pole at around nine in the morning. The ship’s bridge crew counted us down towards the top of the world over the course of about an hour, closing slowly from eight nautical miles to five, then three, then two… Finally, after considerable effort, the bridge’s primary navigation display read: 90°00′.000. We had made it! The top of the world! Any further forward and we would be heading for Alaska!

Roundabout

Bringing a ship to the North Pole, and I mean the EXACT North Pole, is actually something of a feat, and I mean that. We’re in a nuclear icebreaker after all! This achievement is special for several reasons: firstly, although the pole itself doesn’t shift, the ice through which we trundle does. The Arctic Ocean’s frigid frosting moves under the combined influence of ocean currents and wind, shifting position at a rate of several meters per hour. This means that as soon as you’ve found the exact North Pole you’ve just as quickly lost it as your floating frozen world slides inexorably away across the freezing depths. I think this problem was nicely described by Wally Herbert, who is widely credited as being the first man to have genuinely reached the geographic North Pole. He said that trying to stand on the exact pole was:

“…like trying to step on the shadow of a bird which was circling far overhead.”

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Navigation also becomes more difficult the closer you get to your goal. The reason for this is a little harder to explain. First imagine that you’re driving a very long truck along a very narrow road in a city centre. Everything would be fine in just so long as you didn’t want to make a sharp turn. When you need to turn you would suddenly find that your truck was just too long, and the sides and back of the vehicle would become stuck against the buildings on either side of you. To turn, you would have to wait until you reach somewhere more open, like a large roundabout. Driving a large icebreaker in thick ice is a little bit like this. The ship moves forward with relative ease, but trying to turn sharply when you’re flanked on either side by the fractured faces and steep pressure ridges of the thick sea ice you’ve  just ploughed through…it’s extremely difficult. Normally, to make tight turns, the ship needs either to wait until she hits open water (or thinner ice), or  stop altogether and make a five or seven point turn. Doing that in your mum’s hatchback is one thing. In a 160m nuclear icebreaker it’s another altogether! So, essentially, you want to be approaching the pole on the right course from the outset.

The problems presented by these restrictions in manoeuvrability are increased by that the closer you get to the pole, the more severe the adjustments need to make to correct your course. As the planet’s lines of longitude converge the spaces between them decrease from continent sized to a couple of meters. So, according to the on-board GPS and navigational instruments, mistakes of only a ship’s length can require course corrections of tens of degrees.

Haywire

Hopefully this paints a suitably complex picture of the challenges the ship’s captain has to overcome to bring his 120 expectant guests cheering to the planets northern axis. And as people started going a little crazy, so did the tech! Most of the handheld GPS units we were carrying had a suitable technological panic attack as they approached the top of the world, realizing at the last minute that they simply WERE NOT programmed to display a ‘9’ in the first column of ‘position’ digits. Then, as we slipped momentarily past ‘freak-out degrees’, the poor little portable positioning packages had to figure out why we’d suddenly travelled 180 degrees of longitude in a matter of seconds! Quite a few displays switched straight to ‘searching for satellites’ at that point as they tried to establish what the heck was happening. It was quite amusing.

Parking the Ship

Eventually we made it to the pole, bringing the ship’s GPS antenna to within1.8m of that special point on the planet’s surface. But we not only wanted to arrive at the pole… We wanted to get off the ship and have a walk
around on the ice as well! This proved problematic. On the previous North Pole visits I’ve crewed we were able to find good, solid ice very soon after arriving at ninety degrees north. This time it took the ship over three hours to locate an ice floe large and thick enough to accommodate the ship. Time and time again as I stood on the fly bridge, I watched as we crept slowly into a large pan of drift ice, only for it to suddenly crack under the force of the ship’s advance. Not ideal! We needed a floe that would support us, like a giant axe struck securely into a colossal log. We didn’t want to split the log, merely secure the axe.

It seemed that the ice around the pole, on this occasion at least, simply wasn’t thick enough! In fact, by the time the ship had finally found an ‘anchorage’ that the captain was happy with we had split and smashed our way more than eighteen nautical miles southeast of the pole. But, the last thing any of us wanted was for everyone to disembark onto floating ice only for that ice to open up and swallow us into its watery Arctic stomach. Finally, the captain was happy, the engines were stopped and the gangway lowered. The anchors were dropped (onto the ice) adding an extra bit of purchase onto the mobile crust. The captain even deployed an ice bollard, which I’ve never seen done before. This involved someone going out onto the ice with a huge drill and sinking a deep hole. Into this hole a large pole, measuring some four meters by thirty centimetres was sunk. A stout line was then looped out from the bow of the ship and around the bollard, adding one more tether, helping keep us safely in

our snug self-made docking facility. Very clever!

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And that ladies and gentlemen, was that! We were there, at what the Russians often describe as Shlyapa mire (Шляпа мире) ‘the hat of the world’ in English  and a there was a full day of festivities, food and fun, to follow, but I’ll save that for another time. For now, the ship is bashing its way south again, following as close as possible our previous broken path. Our next stop will once again be the Arctic Archipelago of Franz Josef Land; back into the heart of Russian bear territory.

Cheers for now, and speak again soon!

Colin