Into the ice

Carrying civilians to Antarctica is a bit like taking tourists to the moon. Both destinations are alien to human survival and, like astronauts, those who run ships in the ice-choked austral waters take on a huge responsibility.

Fortunately, both the cruise industry and growing base of willing passengers are awestruck by the grandeur of what lies south of the Antarctic Convergence zone. The big challenge, however, lies in minimizing the risk and maximizing the reward.

The Antarctica cruise ship MV Nordkapp sails through the icy Penola Strait. Below, cruise passengers in Antarctica often transfer to small boats for sightseeing excursions.

Unlike NASA's space missions, the crews aboard the ships that navigate the short southern polar summer are much more autonomous. There's no sequel to Houston's Mission Control Center, and it's the onboard skill and ability of the crew, plus a bit of good luck, that makes or breaks the day. The adventure charter trade comes with a complex set of conflicting objectives. With a mix of adventuresome eco-tourists and wealthy vacationers flocking to the most remote destination on the planet, each voyage is designed to safely provide the adventure of a lifetime.

Not only does "spot on" navigation top the list of priorities, but it must coexist with hotel services and a recreational schedule packed with icy shore landings, close quarters anchoring and 24/7 inshore operation. Such regimes may fit nicely into the cruising grounds that surround Tortolla, British Virgin Islands — but when played out adjacent to where Shackleton was shipwrecked, and where survival can be a tenuous challenge for even seasoned sailors, it's fair to say that the crew running these ships needs to be a significant cut above average.


Recent attention-grabbing headlines such as "Norwegian cruise ship grounded near Deception Island," and "MV Explorer hits iceberg and sinks" have Antarctic access regulators, cruise ship operators and potential passengers concerned about the future of the trade as well as the Antarctic. The last two incidents resulted in prompt, professional rescue missions and all of the crew and passengers were taken aboard other vessels for safe transit home. However, these back-to-back accidents — one a grounding and the other a collision with an iceberg — underscore the challenges associated with voyaging in the most remote and difficult waters on the planet.

A crewmember aboard MV Explorer related how the vessel struck an iceberg a little after midnight on Nov. 23, 2007, and immediately began taking on water, causing wet passengers to scramble from lower deck accommodations. The ice-capable, double-hulled vessel was originally built for expeditionary work for the Lindblad Co. Then under new ownership and Liberian registry, the 40-year-old vessel flooded through a breach in the hull, causing lights and propulsion to soon be lost. The command to abandon ship was given at 0300 and passengers and crew took to life rafts, lifeboats and RIB-type shore boats for a wet, cold five-hour wait for rescue. Capt. Arnvid Hansen, master of MV Nordnorge, the same vessel that had rescued the crew of its sister ship MV Nordkapp the year before, came to the rescue, and all onboard were saved. In a demonstration of truly global communication ability, the British Falmouth Coastguard in Cornwall, England, had relayed the rescue information to U.S. and Argentinean resources. Four ships in the area responded and rescue efforts were coordinated through search and rescue facilities in Norfolk, Va.

{C}Antarctca mariners and cruise passengers can view the continent's unique wildlife, including these Adelie penguins in Hope Bay.

Headlines from the international press focus on the mishaps rather than the scores of safe voyages accomplished by the same ships. The year before MV Nordkapp ran aground near the Neptune's Bellows region of Deception Island, I had sailed aboard the ship, transiting Chile's Patagonia from Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas. On the next leg of the voyage, we left Cape Horn astern and crossed the infamous Drake Passage, arriving under an overcast sky among the icebound islands that border the headlands of the Antarctic Peninsula. In addition to experiencing a cruise of epic proportion, I had a chance to get an insider's view of the how an ice-capable ship runs from engine room to the bridge. The well maintained machinery and exceptionally attentive watch routine on the bridge convinced me that the skilled crew of this Norwegian Coastal Voyages ship was upholding the high standards set by the International Maritime Organization.

From a navigation perspective, these highly maneuverable ice-capable ships are cutting edge examples of a blend of new technology and proven seamanship. They are equipped with modern electronic gear that enhances the navigators' routine. The officer of the watch uses large screen displays of GPS chart plotter overlays and radar images displayed on the electronic chart and digital information system equipment. The bridge offers good visibility and has a very ergonomic feel. Just aft of the helm is a large nav table where conventional paper charts receive regular position plots. This belt-and-suspenders navigational approach is another example of the crew's attention to detail. Having sailed my own boat around the world, I'm no stranger to the demands of navigation, and the blend of equipment and process that shapes the watch routine on MV Nordkapp was quite impressive.

Nowhere, except in a naval battle or the ice-choked Arctic, is the navigator's routine so constrained by uncharted and unfriendly objects. In both polar regions, floating ice reigns supreme, and it's this ice mass, along with the vessel's speed and course, that must be constantly referenced. Ranked in small, medium, large and XL sizes, icebergs (surface ice over 5 meters, or about 16 feet, in height) are the most obvious obstacles to avoid. However, even smaller bergy bits and growlers are of serious concern. The reason for this is that only about 10 percent of floating ice rises above the surface, and a chunk of ice the size of a sports car is really equivalent to a mass the size of a dump truck. Add to this the fact that the smaller bergs and bergy bits are harder to see, and what might have been considered inconsequential can quickly become a significant hazard.

Radar is a big help, but the human eye and good visibility still get top marks. During the summer months — December through February — in the southern hemisphere, nearly round-the-clock light is a big friend to the 24/7 watch routine. Unfortunately, short-lived, gale-force squalls are common, and prolonged bad weather is more than a remote possibility. This is why an important part of every captain's repertoire is the development of "what-if" contingency plans that allow route modifications to be made if and when significant weather intrudes.

Nordkapp's fuel-delivery system powers the MAK main propulsion engines. Ulstein Bergen of Norway manufactured the generators.

In such situations, there are more than navigational issues at stake, and international authorities often need to be consulted in order to gain approval for a change in route.

An ongoing political battle revolves around how much access to Antarctica should be granted to the cruise ship industry. The fragile ecosystem of the Peninsula is the gem of an otherwise ice-clad continent. It is as fragile as the Galápagos and could easily be overwhelmed by an unregulated assault by well meaning tourists. As it stands today, the Antarctic Treaty allows for tightly regulated cruise ship contact, but places some interesting constraints on the process. For example, when vessels are plying Antarctic waters, diesel fuel rather than bunker fuel (high sulfur No. 5 or 6 distillate residue) must be burned. Landings are strictly monitored and controlled, and passengers are briefed on the need to carefully follow exacting rules.

For example, prior to each shore visit high rubber boots are pulled on and every passenger wades through something like a sheep dip that disinfects boots and keeps unwanted fauna and flora from being inadvertently carried from island to island. The wildlife, especially penguins, are nearly as visitor-friendly as the fauna of the Galápagos. From minuscule phytoplankton to large mammal populations, there's a summer frenzy that spans the few short months.

An angry ocean
There's no more challenging body of water to be found on the planet than the Great Southern Ocean, a stretch of brooding dark sea where gale- and storm-bred waves reach the size of three-story buildings. These swells follow a conveyor-belt-like loop as they travel a 360° arc around the Great Southern Ocean. The merry-go-round ride causes waves spawned in the infamous roaring 40s to transition into the towering seas of the screaming 50s. Add large chunks of ice, often many times the size of the ship, and it's no surprise that sea stories from this part of the world are legendary. This is the region where "gray beards" — huge mounds of water with breaking crests — confront north- or southbound vessels with a "beam on" challenge to stabilizers and stability. In short, it's the antimatter to friendly trade wind latitudes, and for this very reason, a siren call that for centuries has beckoned a select group of adventurers.

There is a pot-of-gold natural history treasure awaiting those who do reach the Antarctic Peninsula. The tip of the continent is indeed situated at the end of a storm-tossed rainbow, and its mystique creates a ready market for the growing fleet of ships that ply these waters. The fleeting southern summer is short-lived and anything but gale-free. Regardless, a cruise ship's schedule is set in advance, and when a ship must be in such-and-such anchorage on Tuesday two months from now, a key element in the seamanship equation is threatened. Voyaging by calendar rather than condition is a gamble, well understood by veterans in this trade.

The good news is that the captains of these vessels do their best to weather route, and when conditions are disadvantageous, alternate plans often come into play. During our stint in the waters that lie below the Antarctic Convergence zone, we saw the best weather of the season, even a day where the midday temperature neared the 60-degree mark. Yes, global warming is changing the dynamics in this part of the world, but one of the downsides is that floating brash, growlers, bergy bits and icebergs are in even greater profusion.

Weather volatility is another challenge of the Antarctic summer. One 964-mb low followed another, regularly turning the Drake Passage into a tempest. Cruise ships usually avoid direct encounters with such systems, but weather forecasting data for this region is sparse. On one occasion during our transit we encountered a 50-knot event that blew the sea and snow sideways even though there was no sign on the weather fax chart of what was causing the gale.

The navigation routine aboard Nordkapp was a blend of GPS and digital chart reading, combined with traditional bearing taking and regular position fixes. Careful plotting on paper charts augmented the effective use of modern digital charting software. Radar is a good friend to the Antarctic mariner, but so is the well-lit polar summer. Large icebergs and landmass detail show up in lower light conditions, but smaller bergy bits and growlers capable of damaging the ship are much harder to see.

In comparison to U.S. Navy vessels, commercial cruise ships run with a skeleton bridge crew. But in the case of Nordkapp, I was very impressed by the wheelsman and officer of the watch's shiphandling ability. The crew is accustomed to the three-ring nature of their role, one that includes safe, reliable navigation, inshore maneuvering in order to provide shore landings from small boats, and a safe, albeit slightly adventurous experience for all passengers. The additional challenge linked with running a full-service resort afloat can be daunting, but what really left a lasting impression was how well the crew could stay on the safe side of the line that separates outright danger from adventurous travel.

Modern polar-capable cruise ships offer a taste of the Great Southern Ocean and the ice packed waters of Antarctica with modest risk to passengers. It's a little like swimming with the sharks while remaining surrounded by a strong steel cage. Each passenger develops an affinity for the ship that's more akin to a mariner's sentiment than that of a passenger plying tropical waters on a tour of palm-clad islands. Perhaps it's the raw power of the wind and sea or the pervasive cold that instills a sense of fondness for an inanimate steel hull and the refuge that it affords.

Whatever the cause, it's a palpable measure of human instinct, one that recognizes what's needed to survive. When it comes to crossing the Drake Passage and transiting ice-bound waters — it takes a capable crew as well as a good ship. And as we disembarked in Argentina, we carried with us indelible memories and a lasting appreciation of Nordkapp's very capable crew.

By Professional Mariner Staff