A secondary part of the USCG Healy’s mission was enacted just a few days ago, when we diverted our scientific activities in the northern Chukchi Sea to go rescue a trapped sailboat. This sailboat, the Altan Girl,had managed to make it about 50 statute miles north of Barrow, AK before it became stuck.
Us on the science side (and the bored side) didn't take long to find the blog maintained by the captain (and only passenger), is a Turkish-Canadian citizen attempting to sail the Northwest Passage in a self-built aluminum sailboat. While it contained no clues about his whereabouts , rumors flew, largely surrounding the nature of his existence, intelligence, and Soviet spy leanings. Most turned out to be false. Regardless, the sailboat had drifted over 12 miles into the pack ice. On the 7th day, still unable to move, Healy diverted our mission for the 250 mile, 20 hour trek through the pack ice to Barrow.
The most interesting part of the entire experience (for us, in our warm and comfortable ship, “prevented” from working due to the urgency of the mission) was the speed. According to the pamphlets scattered throughout the ship, Healy is designed to “break 4.5 feet of ice at 3 knots, continuously”. Divide the 250 miles by the roughly 20 hours it took to get to him, and you’ll see why running through 5-6 feet of pack ice at 11 knots was so fun.
An icebreaker going through ice sounds a little like an airplane going through extreme turbulence, and the feeling on board is the same (though no ups and downs, of course). The mess hall on Healy is at the bow and the outboard side, so you can hear and feel the massive chunks of ice being crushed and hurtling past your head just only a few feet away. Pushing it like this caused the cycloconverters, which transmit power to the engines, to break down about once every two hours, necessitating a full stop, 20-30 minutes of repair, and then a rapid acceleration back up to our cruising speed.
6 hours later, we reached the open water, the Coast Guard boarded and examined the ship, and the Altan Girl was set free to Barrow, complete with an official Healy hat and a bag of apples.
The cost of this excursion (fuel, salary, maintenance costs) are borne by the person who is paying for the ship time, so Science was a bit unhappy for the material cost and lack of science getting done. The captain of the Altan girl, though, couldn’t have been more pleased.
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Oceanographer, Mathemagician, and Interested Party