The January Newsletter contains a number of articles about working in the ice. I worked for the United Baltic Corporation back in the 1960s and had the fun of being involved in ice navigation, on a moderate scale, also there is some stuff about the US icebreakers Polar Star and Polar Sea, and something about Sir Ernest Shackleton in the Antarctic and others in the Northwest Passage. And almost by accident, a bit of a view about the House of Commons Transport Committee and the people involved in the Ocean Winner grounding.


The US Icebreaker Polar Star. Photograph by US Coast Guard.

US icebreaker Polar Star has recently been reported to have broken channels through the Antarctic ice in the Ross Sea to the American National Science Foundation’s McMurdo Station. The captain has said that they had to break through 60 miles of ice rather than the 10 or 15 miles on previous years. The ship has quite a history and when it was placed on “reserve status” in Seattle in 2006 it would appear that the US government had no means of resupplying its Antarctic stations since it was the last of the US icebreakers. It was already old having been built in 1976 but obviously it needed to be reactivated and so a number of estimates were provided to Congress for its refurbishment. Keeping it going for a further 25 years would cost an eye watering $400 million, and a ten year extension would cost $56 million; they opted for the latter, bringing the ship back into action in 2013. But it is still the only US icebreaker, capable of dealing with ice in the Antarctic. A sister ship, the Polar Sea has been laid up since 2010 due to what appeared to be the incorrect installation of piston rigs in its diesel engines, five of which seized up. On inspection it was found that the pistons were welded to the bores. Despite plans to scrap the Polar Sea it is still lying alongside somewhere, and its fate is to be determined by Congress at some time in 2017. The US Coast Guard have determined that a replacement would cost $925 million. I was motivated to find out how much the new British National Research Council’s Antarctic research ship is going to cost (I admit typing in Boaty McBoatface) and find that the RRS Sir David Attenborough will cost about $300 million, so it sounds like a bargain.


I was going to try to make this edition of the newsletter one entirely concerned with work in the ice, or voyages of exploration to the ends of the earth – literally, but I have been waylaid by an article in the Nautilus Telegraph which has reported on discussions between the House of Commons Transport Committee and the head of the MCA, Sir Alan Massey. The discussion focused on the grounding of the Transocean Winner, which was under tow by the Alp Forward when the tow parted and it grounded on the Isle of Lewis last August.  The committee also questioned the head of ALP Maritime, the Operations Director of Transocean, and Dave Wells the CEO of Aqualis Offshore whose company did the risk assessment for the tow, apparently including the towing system. The message which the MPs took away from this meeting was that the job had been risk assessed on behalf of Transocean, but no-one could predict such adverse weather in August. The emergency towing system had become wrapped around the rig and so the tug could not pick it up, and an ETV would not have helped since they only had an hour and a half to intervene. Apparently the cost of a wet tow was about $600,000 against $1,400,000 for a dry tow. Actually I think Transocean paid $20,000,000 to recover the rig and move it onward to the breakers. The MCA chief seemed to have used the wreck to justify the failure of the government to properly address the ETV requirement. Come on – surely even a bunch of MPs would realise that there is a lot of difference (in terms of risk) between an unmanned semi-submersible under tow, unlikely to be passing the UK coastline very often, and the likelihood of problems with fully manned commercial cargo carriers hundreds of which are operating within close proximity of our coast on every day of the year. And – since we have many pictures of the rig on the rocks - surely the risk assessment was less than adequate.


A screenshot from a film by Victor Gibson of ships working in the Baltic. 

I had not meant this newsletter to end up containing bits of my personal history, but I suppose after 20 years at sea and a similar period writing marine documentation of one sort or another it has become inevitable, and in my efforts to produce an ice themed newsletter I must, it seems, contribute a bit of my own experience.

Back in the late 1960s I had done a few deep sea trips with my mate’s ticket, and thought that I had enough sea time in for my Master’s. But when I came to total it up and consult the relevant MCA documents I found that I was quite a bit short. I thought that I might just give the whole thing up and try to find a shore job, as many other seafarers had done, but my mum persuaded me to carry on, and so not wishing to go on a deep sea ship again – ever – I had a look at the companies engaged in short sea trade. Top of my list was the United Baltic Corporation and so in order to emphasise my enthusiasm for joining them I called at their offices which I think were in Mincing Lane, and was givena  job as second mate on the Baltic Trader. The ship was on one of the less popular runs,  calling at a number of northern ports of the UK, as far north as Dundee and as far south as Middlesburgh, and then calling at three Finnish ports, Kotka, Hesinki and Turku..

The Baltic Trader was powered by two former submarine engines linked to a single screw giving it a massive 2000 bhp, and making it a bit more powerful than the least powerful of the Finnish icebreakers.

This was a new world. As opposed to my deep sea experience which seemed to involve mostly not doing a lot except standing on the bridge looking out at nothing, the UBC people were constantly active. The sea routes were challenging, involving transits through the North Sea minefields , sometimes still being swept, and the Skagerrak and the Kattegat or the Kiel Canal, and then in Finnish ports monitoring the loading of the ship and in my case drawing up the cargo plan using carbon paper to make duplicates – no, quintruplicates, after which all but one would be airmailed to UK to get there before the ship did.

Arrivals and departures from port were equally interesting for former deep sea mariners. Instead of spending hours at stations (for non marine readers, the time spend on the bridge and at either end of the ship during port arrivals and departures) everyone was called at the last possible moment because there was a lot to do, and so the crew had to be rested whenever possible. And between the Finnish ports the Mate and the Second Mate would rest and the Third Mate who had then least onerous of the in-port duties would keep the watch, quite often with the captain and a pilot.

As well as the routine tasks necessary during most of the year, things became more interesting in the winter. The various routes undertaken by the UBC ships required different levels of involvment on the part of the icebreakers. Those running to Oulu in the north of the Gulf of Bothnia could expect to be pulled into the notch in the stern of the icebreaker and dragged up through thick ice until they arrived at the port. The ones travelling to what was then Leningrad at the top of the Gulf of Finland would hope to be broken out when required by Russian icebreakers, and the ones going to Kotka, Helsinki and Turku might under the best circumstances actually make it to the port, or if not they would join little lines of ships which had broken through the thin ice until stopped by a pressure ridge. They would then wait for the arrival of one of the Finnish icebreakers.

One of these impressive ships would steam out to what had become a small convoy, rolling slowly port to starboard, and back, a process carried out by the ballast system of the craft, intended to keep the hull free of the ice. It would then head to the first ship in the group and steam at some speed down one side until it reached the last ship then turn on its axis and steam up the other side, so freeing all the ships, it was hoped. Once at the head of the column it would start off for the port and hopefully all the ships in the line would be able to get going and make progress towards their intended destination. Even after this assistance sometimes the first ship in the line would not be of sufficiently high power to make progress even through the broken ice, and so sometimes a ship further back, possibly a bit more powerful than those ahead,  would break out from the column and make at start behind the icebreaker. If the captain of any other ship  had a bit of courage they could pull out of the line and follow that vessel.

Once in port it was then necessary to somehow get the ships alongside, which often necessitated everyone being out in the cold for a number of hours as the ship and the propulsion were manipulated in order to remove small ice floes from between the hull and the quay. The usual technique was for the forward spring to be deployed and then for the ship to be moved in and out, hinged at the bow, hoping that the ice would be pushed out.

One of the surprising aspects of winter in Finland was and, I assume still is, extremely clear weather, with sunny days and very cold nights. In the day the air seemed to sparkle with tiny ice crystals, but we were never in  doubt that it was cold. The cabins had a small vent in the external bulkhead and the proximity to the cold exterior air resulted in a coating of ice on the bulkhead on the inside beneath it. And back in those days the contents of the lavatories were directly discharged over the side so it was necessary to prevent the pipework freezing up. This was achieved by adding salt to the contents of the lavatory bowl before flushing. At the time “Mary Poppins” was in the cinema, and to the tune of “Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down”, I wrote  some alternative words starting off with “Just  a handful of salt helps the excrement go down”.

One of the pleasures of the south Finland schedule was travelling between the ports in a channel kept clear by the constant movement of ships along it. In places there were wooden bridges, which would be pushed across in between the passing of the ships, and at the pilot stations the pilots would come out on a  snowmobile and would board by climbing a ladder put down onto the ice.

So, there must have been some disadvantages of working under such great condition, and with such a level of interest. There were. UBC worked strictly on the basis of recruitment from the pool, so if you signed off, although you would probably get another company ship, it might not be the same one which made people on the good runs cling onto them, and the pay was absolutely terrible.


The Endurance just before it disappeared under the ice. 

Sir Ernest Shackleton, maybe as famous an Antarctic explorer as Captain Scott, very nearly got to the South pole first, but was forced to turn back due to problems with time and sustenance in 1907, and possibly more famously undertook a voyage in a small boat from Elephant Island, a rock on the edge of the Antarctic ice, to South Georgia then actively being used as a whaling station. Shackleton was a former merchant navy officer, who after his first voyage with Captain Scott had become fixated on the business of Antarctic exploration. But while his heroism and leadership is remembered, and his management style is taken as an outstanding example today, his personal failing are mostly overlooked. Even at the start of the first expedition of which he was the leader his ship, the Nimrod, was towed for 1600 miles by a New Zealand based steamer, mainly because the poor old Nimrod was not quite up to it; there had been miscalculations on the consumption of coal. The ship was also overloaded, but no-one worried. It seemed to be a risk worth taking. Shackleton was also picky about who he judged not to be pulling or have pulled their weight. During the 1916 expedition the Endurance sank on October 24th and the crew took to open boats, sailing the 300 odd miles to Elephant Island. Those who the “boss” did not like were taken off pay at that time, since they were effectively DBS, Distressed British Seamen. Others, of whom the boss approved were kept on pay until they were rescued. Although being on pay did not actually guarantee payment and some of the crew were never paid at all. Even so some signed on for the 1921 expedition on which Shackleton was to die of a heart attack in South Georgia, and to be buried there. He left debts which amounted to an equivalent of £1.5 million at today’s prices, and had been in debt ever since his first expedition, since he did not prove to be as good a business man as he was an expedition leader. And even though later his main income was giving lectures, he quite often would give away his fees, rather than settle any of his debts, or pay his crew. This might be seen as generosity, but others might consider it just another way of looking good in public.


The icebreaking anchor-handler Kigoria in 2003. Photo: Captain Gijs Dijkdrenth

I was recently sent a copy of a PowerPoint presentation by Captain Gijs Dijkdrenth about a transit of the Northwest passage by the Kigoria (once the Kigoriak of Beaudrill) and a couple of lesser icebreaking supply vessels, in order to carry out a towing operation in Alaska. It is striking stuff, but obviously carried out with some ease on a ship with an icebreaker bow and 23,000 bhp available. And while everybody is aware of the privations endured by the explorers in the Antarctic in the early days of 20th century, we are less familiar with the attempts by explorers in 19th century to transit the Northwest passage. The Franklin expedition in which the whole crew of two ships were lost and subsequent expeditions in order to discover their fate are relatively well known, but back in the 1820s Sir William Edward Parry also attempted to make it across to the other side of the world but was unsuccessful on two occasions, once leaving HMS Fury as a wreck on what was to be named, Fury Beach. In 1829 a later Royal Navy expedition on the Victory (Not the one in Portsmouth) commanded by Captain James Clark Ross, was trapped in the ice and the crew after years (literally) abandoned their ship and walked 200 miles to Fury Beach where they refurbished the Fury’s boats and set sail for open water, where they were picked up by a whaling ship. The crew of the Victory were given double pay for the entire four years, even though they were not actually in the Navy 

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