It’s a fascinating thing, cruising south in this atomic behemoth, re-tracing our own footsteps by following the broken ice. Slowly but surely we’re picking our way through the floes, while the helmsman scans the horizon, somehow discerning our trail from the myriad other pressure ridges, fractures and current-induced leads. I honestly don’t know how he does it! How can he tell our purposeful trail from all the other natural, false leads? It’s amazing, but I suppose it’s your eyes eventually ‘tuning in’ to what you’re looking for, like whale watching or polar bear spotting. To me though, even after so long spent amongst the ice floes, this frozen expanse is still a wintry maze.
It’s quite educational looking at our path on the GPS display, because although we’re following our own trail in the ice, the ice has of course drifted with the ocean currents, so although we are passing through the same ice floes, these are now in different places. The GPS shows where our original northward route was on the map, while our fresh, southward footsteps are now being drawn and overlaid on these older plots. Our recent movements are displaced slightly to the west, showing how the trans-polar drift in that part of the Arctic Ocean has carried everything in the water, including us and our path, slightly westwards over the last few days. This trans-polar drift moves from the east of Siberia towards northern Greenland and eventually the North Atlantic. It’s very cool to see what I’ve read about translated into a reality with all of those maps of ocean currents being vindicated by the ship’s GPS display. The textbooks were right all along!
The disturbance indoors is substantially less now, as instead of rising on top of two meter thick ice sheets, then striking them with the hardened ‘ice tooth’ found below the water line of the bow and then sinking down into the fresh crack, we’re simply pushing the icy pre-mashed remnants aside. It’s interesting to look at those pieces of ice that have already ‘been through the blender’. After being pushed under the hull many had their top layer of snow removed. As a result, you can see preserved outlines of what’s known as ‘pancake ice’; one of the initial stages of sea ice formation. Newly formed ice crystals, hitherto floating freely in cooling sea water, come together, coalescing and eventually forming small rafts which, through bumping into each other eventually start to look like pancakes or lily pads. Eventually as these pancakes become more closely packed with the progressive freezing of the ocean, joining together to form close-knit sea ice. Then as winter approaches and the air temperatures lower the cold from the atmosphere permeates down into the ice and freezes new water onto the underside of the floes. This means outlines of those initially formed ‘pancakes’ is preserved on the surface, for sea ice ‘grows’ downwards, not upwards. In summer we can now see those original pancake shapes at the surface in many places. Very cool!
Maintenance at sea
Something else that I’ve been noticing this year, are occasional pieces of sturdy ice with huge, regularly spaced gashes in them. These have been caused by the ship’s propellers as large slabs of ice were subducted beneath the breaker’s advancing bow before being carried aftwards, along the underside of the hull, and straight into the incessantly spinning vortices of the ship’s screws, where they have come to grief on the huge, reinforced and ever spinning blades of one of the three propellers. It’s amazing to me that we can hit ice like this without our propellers being damaged. Normally, when working in the Arctic or Antarctic and I’ve hit ice (accidentally or through necessity) the propeller is dented or bent completely out of shape. Those blades may be less than a foot in diameter and made from soft aluminium, but still… Those icy chunks are tiny compared to these floes! Still our icebreaker ploughs through truck-sized slabs with ease. The 50 Years of Victory’s propellers each have four blades, and each blade is around eight feet in length. What’s more: each one is made from hardened, corrosion resistant steel and with the torque offered by a nuclear power plant behind those props… That’s some serious chopping power! But prop blades can still break. Fortunately icebreakers are designed to take this in their stride; it’s possible to change individual propeller blades whilst at sea, ensuring that breakers are as self-sufficient as possible. Each blade can be un-bolted and hoisted from the water using one of the on-board cranes. A replacement is sent down to a waiting (and in my mind very unlucky) diving team who will attach the new blade, using bolts the size of pint glasses. I bet it’s a sight to see! But, nothing like that for us fortunately. Well, not so far anyway. All we need to do whilst cruising southwards is keep the passengers occupied and happy. Fortunately for us this has been quite straight-forward so far as the weather has been clear (until now), enabling us to run helicopter flights almost continuously throughout the day yesterday and so letting people have the chance to get up in the sky in the stunning sunlight. It’s only really from the sky that anyone can really appreciate the sheer scale of this frozen landscape through which we’re moving. It’s vast and seemingly timeless. Well, almost everything. We still have to live within the confines of the clock. In reality there isn’t any need for this, as it is scathingly bright 24 hours a day. In fact we cruise through the kind of brightness that actually hurts! It can be hard to sleep in this kind of environment. Still, we’re aboard a working vessel, and some kind of rhythmic day / night system has to be kept.
Tick Tock: Time keeping in the Arctic
The crew work on a watch system that rotates every few hours, adhering to a 24-hour clock. On the bridge, three officers will normally share the watches, each taking charge for four hours at a stretch, meaning their lives consist of four hours on and eight off, their work contract which here, lasts two months. So what time zone to you operate under? Ships move all over the world! To solve this, in Russia all trains, planes and ships operate to Moscow time, wherever they are. This means if you look at a train timetable in Siberia you need to convert this time from Moscow time to local time, so as to be sure of catching the train! This is a simple, if for visitors a somewhat deceptive, way of managing logistics in a country which spans nine time zones.
So, our ship, like Russia’s trains, runs to Moscow time, the same as Murmansk time, so our crew transition easily to and from the ship on port days. However, just to complicate things, our team and our passengers tick over on a different clock face. We live two hours behind the rest of the ship, so we’re all actually on GMT +1. This is possible thanks to the 24 hour daylight, which means that you can essentially make up any clock system you like, but why change it?
In theory, if the passengers and the expedition team are always two hours behind the ship’s crew it means that the kitchen staff and hotel department don’t have to get up at five am so as to prepare breakfast for eight am. They can get up at seven, and still have three hours to play with before having to get everything ready for passengers to wake up and be at the buffet counter for what they think is eight o’clock in the morning! This also means that the galley isn’t being used to feed the 160 crewman and the 120 passengers all at the same time. The crew can be fed first – either breakfast, lunch or dinner – at their allotted time, and then meals can be prepared for the passengers afterwards, two hours later but, for all intents and purposes at exactly the same time by each group’s respective clock. Make sense? Hmmm…
This system of two time zones on the same ship works, but can be tiring. It means that as we approach Murmansk we have to revert to Moscow time, meaning our days get that little bit shorter as we move the clock forward by an hour a day for the two days preceding our arrival in port. That’s all very well, but very often the last few days of any voyage can be quite… festive. And so, those shortened days have a way of making themselves unexpectedly longer. And then, once the new passengers have embarked we have to turn the clocks in the other direction, moving both our own and the new group’s watches back two hours. They’ve all just travelled from around the world, and we’ve just had one of the busiest days of the voyage calendar – changeover day – so an extra two hours before bed can be hard to swallow.
You might wonder if passengers just stop paying any attention to the clock at all, what with it being daylight all the time, and yes, it does get odd at times, when you feel entirely awake at 12 midnight and the sun is blazing overhead. You sip a whisky out on deck, under the glow of the Arctic skies, and wonder what the need is to go to bed at all. However there isn’t much chance as we run everything to a strict daily rhythm, starting with breakfast and then strictly scheduled helicopter operations, presentations or lectures, mandatory briefings etc etc… The latter are necessary for safely working around choppers, polar bears, zodiacs or any of the other adventurous things we do, and if people don’t come to these briefings they can’t take part in all the fun bits of these trips! So, however tempted anyone might be to just slip off the clock, we impose a structure making sure that everyone marches to the same diurnal drumbeat. When you live and work on a ship things have to happen on a schedule.
Speaking of which, I’m due on the bridge soon to start my polar bear watch.