A Bit About the Ship

This morning I was going to finally write a bit about the ship, to give you all a sense of what our little mobile home for the next month is like. The Nathaniel B. Palmer was built in 1992. She’s 308 feet long and qualifies as an ABS-A2 class icebreaker, capable of breaking three feet of… whoa, what’s that sound? What? We’re…?

We’ve reached ice! Omigodomigodomigod – we’re driving through ice! It’s only pancake ice, irregular loose disks packed together to give the surface an otherworldly, scaly appearance. But it’s ice, nonetheless. Kim and Barry smile understandingly while I bounce around the galley like a kid who’s just been told that school was canceled on account of snow. They seem to appreciate the enthusiasm of a first-timer, and I’m not on the bridge more than three or four minutes before I see that Kim has followed me upstairs, where we’re getting to be quite a crowd. I guess the “first ice” of any cruise is a special sort of thing.

The ice means something else, too: we’re past the convergence zone, and we’re past the circumpolar current. We’re past the Drake.

The plan of the day, such as it ever is, has shifted. The winds last night precluded doing another CTD at Station 2, so our chief scientist decided we’d try to catch it on the way back, and instead make a direct course for the South Shetlands to drop off freshies for a couple of research bases in Admiralty Bay. If I’m reading the charts correctly, we ought to be there by nightfall. No idea who, if anyone, gets to go ashore, but I do believe I’ll be off shift then, so if they need any volunteers to help haul freshies, I do have prior experience. Just saying.

Oh, right – the ship.

Like I said, big ol’ icebreaker. Four engines, two shafts, 13,200 horsepower pushing roughly 15 million pounds of steel. She carries two extreme weather lifeboats (I promise a post about our “abandon ship” drill) as well as a 230 HP closed cabin “survey boat” and a bunch of Zodiacs. Helicopter deck and hangar that nominally could fit two helos, if it weren’t stuffed full of Zodiacs and random bits of science and recreation equipment.

According to the specs, she can house 39 scientists and support staff in addition to a crew of up to 22 for missions as long as 75 days. For comparison, we’ve got 29 scientists and support staff and 20 crew, and we’re only going out for 30 days.

I’m including a diagram below that should give you a rough idea of the size and shape of the ship, as well as the locations of various places I’ve mentioned: the ice tower, aft control, and the elab, where I officially sit.

I spend most of my time in the elab (for “electronics”) which is where Sean, my fellow Network/System Administrator and I have desks, but I get to wander all over in the course of my duties. Also when not in the course of my duties – when things aren’t breaking (which, based on the past couple of days is rarely), I often wander across the corridor to dry lab to chat with Tony, Kim and Cliff, or head up to the bridge to just gawk at the scenery. I haven’t spent much time in the other labs – wet lab, bio lab, the aquarium room or the others, and there are some places on the ship, such as the marine tech workshop, that I still can’t reliably find.

Further forward, right behind the reinforced steel bow, is the galley and mess hall. I’ve been told that, when we’re actually breaking (rather than pushing) ice it’s so loud that you can’t even hold a normal conversation.

My bunk, number 116, is up one level, on 01, along with most of the scientists and support staff. Lack of a usable window aside, I appear to have landed a plum spot. A few doors further forward we’ve got a sauna (unused, as yet), a small gym and laundry room.

Crew mostly lives one lever further up, on 02, which is where we’ve got a lounge with couches, a massive TV and accompanying video library. There’s a semi-separate room at the back of the lounge where the guitars and keyboard live, but my experience is that, since there’s usually a movie going, folks tend to do their musicmaking elsewhere.

Only notable thing on 03 is the big comfy conference room and cabins for the chief scientist and captain. Entirely coincidentally, it’s also the deck you need to get to to board the lifeboats, should that become necessary.

The 04 deck, honestly, is a mystery to me – I think more crew live there, and there’s perhaps a tiny lounge that convention reserves for them, and above that, on 05, is the bridge.

Speaking of conventions, that’s been one of the more fascinating aspects of living aboard: the unwritten do and don’t conventions that are passed along verbally. For example: at the furthest forward table in the mess, the inboard three seats on either side are customarily reserved for the ship’s captain, mates and engineers. And on the bridge, it’s fine to sit anywhere except the captain’s seat. Which one is the captain’s seat? Whichever one he’s slung his knapsack across. No knapsack, and it’s okay to sit.

In some future post I’ll talk about the people on the ship and the distinction between the crew (generally employees of Edison Chouest Offshore, from whom the USAP leases the Palmer), support staff like me (generally employees or contractors under Lockheed Martin) and the scientists we all support. But this post has gone on way too long, so I’ll wrap up and hit “send”. Besides, I want to go back up to the bridge and watch the ice some more.

One response to “A Bit About the Ship

  1. Pingback: Day to Day at Sea | David Pablo Cohn·

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