Dances with Elephants

May/June 2003

While the season advanced daily, the grooming tasks were as complete as they could be: The weather refused to cooperate to blow out the ice, below-freezing temperatures continued to refreeze brash, and average temperatures were falling as the sun slowly spiraled toward the horizon. Balancing all, the ships� officers laid an ice escort plan for the two icebreakers and Tern.

Three ships — tens of thousands of horsepower and tonnage — would be close-quarter maneuvering in the confines of the narrow channel and turning basin with little margin for error. During the escort, American Tern would be operating at up to 6 knots no more than 100 yards behind the lead ship — and often much closer — whose task is to open a (very) temporary path through the ice rubble into which Tern can follow. Onboard Polar Sea, structural condition Zebra was set: All watertight doors, hatches and scuttles main deck and below were secured. The consequences of an untimely breakdown or mistake became vividly — and uncomfortably — apparent. We were dancing with elephants.

The plan unraveled almost as soon as it began: American Tern became stuck in the channel, still five miles out. Healy had been leading through an area of particularly high pressure that Tern simply could not punch through. Polar Sea attempted a relieving pass between Tern and the channel edge. The extreme pressures were emphasized as we were compelled to back and ram three times in the frozen brash alongside Tern. As Polar Sea passed Tern�s stern, the beset ship started ever so slowly to put on way. We marked the progress as the ship�s hull inched along the stationary ice brash. The vessel made 50 feet and stopped, stuck again. We knew it would be a long five miles at this rate.

As Healy started the 5-mile run just to turn around, the day went from bad to worse: The starboard shaft shut down, and at nearly the same instant, a steering casualty occurred onboard Polar Sea, disabling us as well.

Plan B

Three hours later, repairs effected, Healy attempted a breakout run only to have Tern advance less than 30 feet from the effort. Polar Sea�s second run had less effect still. Even coordinated efforts — Polar Sea blowing prop wash over Tern�s bow while Healy ran relief — failed; Tern was firmly beset.

With Polar Sea now in escort position, Capt. Miller made the difficult decision to attempt a tow. While Healy again ran the full length of the channel to turn around, Polar Sea backed to within 50 feet of Tern�s bow, and three 12-inch towing hawsers were passed and made up. The captain eased Sea forward — difficult in the uneven ice conditions — while the bosun and deck crew balanced the three towline loads and made them fast to the towing bitts. We throttled up to 50 percent power on the centerline turbine and took a strain on the towlines; Tern already had 90 percent engine load on, going nowhere fast.

Healy began a relieving run, passing Polar Sea first, less than a shipwidth abeam. We surged ahead, and the towlines stretched, shedding water as the tension increased. Each of these lines has a breaking strength of 500,000 lbs; 1.5 million lbs combined. With our captain jockeying the throttles to hold tension, Healy continued past American Tern, relieving enough ice pressure that the beset cargo ship finally started with a jerk. The towing lines sagged, more power was applied, Sea�s props dug in, and we advanced and took up strain.

We were underway. The tow was working! The ships gained speed together, and the catenary looked perfect — in a steel-rod straight sort of way. At 5 knots, we were towing 17,000 tons less than 400 feet behind, and the miles started being shaved away.

What happened next happened quickly. The ice conditions were extremely uneven. Polar Sea encountered a thick brash line and suddenly lost some way; American Tern, meanwhile, was still accelerating in the clear water of our wake. The towlines dropped to the water as Tern bore down on our stern. Our skipper responded with more throttle, but the controlled-pitch propeller took a few seconds to respond. Tern kept advancing, adding more slack to the towlines. When Polar Sea gathered way again, it punched through the thick ice, but the momentum was too great, and in an instant, the towlines were up, taut, stretching. Everyone on the bridge was frozen, staring at the steel-hard lines, as if sheer will could hold them. Water was showering in all directions as all three hawsers stretched to their limits. We saw it and felt it at the same time. A hawser parted, the quarter-ton line recoiling through mid-air like a spent slingshot; Polar Sea lurched forward as if stumbling. With one hawser gone, the others were quickly lost, too.

On the fantail, it sounded like gunfire. When Polar Sea first surged against the tow, the bosun already had his deck crew safely positioned. Bang! With the first shot, the crew hit the deck. BANG! Bang! They looked aft, shocked to see the third towline still intact, stretched to its limit. Bang! It parted. Safe but confused, the bosun inspected the aft deck. What had been thought to be the second towline parting was actually the 14-inch-diameter steel towing bitts crumpling and breaking under the sudden shock strain. One million pounds of force would not be denied.

But we were still moving, though Tern was trailing one ineffectual towing hawser limp from its bow chock. With Polar Sea sometimes less than a boatlength in front, we were making 6 then 7 knots. But the escort still had one drama to endure. As Polar Sea encountered another brash line that slowed the ship, unbeknownst to all but the captain and XO in the aloft conn, the centerline turbine bogged down and refused to respond to bells. This was NOT the time for an engineering casualty. On the bridge, all we could see was the speed dropping precipitously — as low as 1.1 knots — while American Tern, only a few hundred feet behind, bore down still doing 7 knots. As the gap narrowed, Polar Sea was helpless to maneuver, and Miller reluctantly considered sounding the collision alarm for the first time in his career. As if the ship sensed the impending danger, the recalcitrant turbine wound up to full power again. Polar Sea eased ahead, and breathing began again aboard both ships. From American Tern, the radio call came, “Do you know if they sell Hanes in McMurdo?”

Jeff Williams and his partner Raine Williams are midway through a circumnavigation aboard their J/40 Gryphon. When last seen, they were headed west from Australia.

By Ocean Navigator