Sunday, August 24, 2008

How you make carpenters happy

These got sent down on the last ship, under "Recreation supplies". What is it? Really, really nice hardwood. Those four planks on the left is a wood called Purpleheart, for obvious reasons. That's not stained, or painted at all. That's the wood's natural color!

The two tall planks on the right are Black Walnut, the pale shorter plank is African Mahogany, and the short brown one, I can't remember what it's called, but it's beautiful and I'd never heard of it before.

Is this their way of apologizing for forgetting to order our plywood . . . ? We had no idea this was coming, but now we're all trying to figure out what to use it for. I think I'll make some USB flash drives out of some scrap bits of it.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

SNAFU! Part Duex

When we last visited our intrepid heroes (You know, us), they (we) were collectively standing around scratching our heads and wondering how the heck the ship was going to make a port call with that bit of fishing line in the way.

The ship had now been hanging out off the point for the better part of 48 hours. The people who were on the ship who were coming to the station desperately wanted off, and the people on station were anxious to get at the red, green, yellow, orange, and brown gold stored in the ship's hold; FRESHIES!!!

Eventually, we all put our heads together, and came up with a plan. A few problems stood in our way, though; Mostly, the weather was deteriorating. Temps were holding steady at 10f or so, but the wind was creeping up to 45mph sustained, gusting over 55mph, with snow still coming down pretty heavily. Combine with all the sea spray, any exposed skin feels like it's getting sandblasted with ice and snow being driven into your pores by the wind.

The first step of this plan, was for the LMG to get as close to Gamach point as it dared, which ended up being a few hundred feet off.

And then, we needed to somehow get a rope from the LMG, to the people standing on the point. No one can throw a monkeyfist (a large knot at the end of a line, often with some lead shot or rocks woven into it for weight) three hundred feet in 45mph crosswinds, let alone with that much line attached to it. So how do we get that line across?

With a rocket.

They missed by, quite literally, a mile. The rocket followed the angle of elevation perfectly, and left 2,000 feet of line dangling into the sky. The wind grabbed all of this line and carried it way down Hero Inlet, with the spent rocket landing just a few hundred feet from our fuel tanks. It turns out that no one on the ship had ever used one of these before, so they had no idea how much it needed to be elevated, or how much to compensate for the wind, etc. That first video was actually taken by our Carpenter, Graham. These next vids, of the second try, were taken by Sean and Carla.

Their second try, they were much more accurate. At this distance, the rocket didn't need to be elevated much, and keeping it lower meant less wind correction was needed. It wasn't perfect; you can see at the end of the video that the line got snagged on the weather station antenna. But we cut it down, and all was fine. We still have the rocket; we plan on making a plaque for it and mounting it in the bar.

Now that we had a line across, the boat attached a pulley and loop of rope to the rocket line. We pulled it over, and attached the pulley to one of the bollards (the big stump thing that we attach the ship's mooring lines to).

So now, we had this loop of line going between the ship and us. The ship then took the motors and equipment out of one of their Zodiac boats, tied it to the line, and used it as a big sled that could be pulled back and forth over the ice.

It actually worked pretty well. The line was hooked up to a winch on the ship, so while it wasn't fast going, it wasn't wearing us out. This did give us a lot of "stand around and be cold" time, though. But when you put a bunch of stressed-out people on a point out in the ocean in a snowstorm and tell them to stand around for a while, they'll find ways of amusing themselves. This involved snowball fights, silly pictures, and a lot of Shackleton jokes.

(yeah, that's me in the middle there, sitting down. Just in case it wasn't already clear, I didn't take any of these photos or videos. Various people did, including Graham, PQ, Liz, Waz, and Carla)

The first things that came across were some humans, and a couple crates of science gear. After that, the most important cargo of all; FRESHIES!

The Zodiac was unloaded via a human chain, and piled everything sort of on shore.

From there, though, it was still a thousand-foot walk along the point back to station. I'm honestly surprised no one broke an ankle or anything, as it's VERY uneven rocks and boulders, covered by three feet of fresh snow. There wasn't much way to tell if where you were about to step would send you sinking down to your waist, or would be firm footing (or worse, the edge of a rock that would send you sprawling). Most of the freshies made it over okay; a we had a potato blowout and the peaches froze (but still made a good pie). There were a couple people who came off the ship, as well as a few boxes of critical stuff, and the silver trunk ((containing a package from my dad and a letter from my Grandma. Thanks!).

There was no way we were getting the heavier cargo off, and by this time it was 8pm, so the LMG left to do some fishing a few hundred miles to the south. It's supposed to come back tomorrow, though, with a load of fish . . . and we still have no way to tie it up. I have a feeling it's going to be a LOT of 5-gallon buckets with fish in 'em being hand-carried.

I'm trying to think of a good way to wrap this up, but words are kinda failing me. So just enjoy the pictures, and, um . . . yeah. I'm goin' to bed.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


As I've mentioned before, this station is resupplied by the LMG, the R/V Lawrence M Gould, a 230-foot icebreaker that ferries people and cargo to and from the station and Punta Aranus, Chile. It generally visits once a month or so, to bring in new people, take off other people, resupply us, and often putter around for a few weeks doing 'Science!' in the waters up and down the peninsula.

Well, the ship did arrive, as scheduled, on August 18th, at around 15:00. But we couldn't tie it up to the pier. This is as close as it would get (maybe 500 yards away);

I've tried to figure out the best way to explain this whole situation, and I've settled on a "Q & A" method. Whereas I propose the questions that you no doubt are asking, and then answer them.

Q: Why couldn't the LMG tie up?
A: Because there was a rope in the way.

Q: Huh?
A: Last week, one of the science teams decided to lay a 900-foot line out into the harbor, tied off to the peir. This line has, scattered along it's length, about 50 fishhooks and traps, with various sorts of bait on them (or something). The line is weighted at various points so that the hooks are at various depths. It stretches out to sea for most of it's length. Of course, they didn't ask the station manager, or boating coordinator if they could do this, or even tell anyone about it until the day the ship was going to try and dock.

Q: Okay, so why does this mean the ship can't dock?
A: As you can see from the first time-lapse video I posted, the ship has to reverse up to the dock. This would probably get this fishing line tangled in the ships propellers.

Q: Won't the massive props make mincemeat of the little fishing line?
A: It's not your average fishing like. It's braided high-strength nylon with a 1/8" steel core. Strong stuff. And while this line would in no way damage the propellers, it would get wrapped around the prop shafts, and could/would get ground into the shaft seals and bearings. Which is very, very bad.

Q: Why is that so bad?
A: Well firstly, ships are expensive. But also, we're 700 miles away from the nearest dry dock, across the roughest seas in the world, in the dead of winter. If something like that went wrong, a shaft seized or a seal gave way . . . it would be bad. Very bad. Thta isn't something you fix with a torque wrench and duct tape.

Q: Okay, so . . . why can't you pull the line out of the water?
A: Because within the last week, the wind has shifted to come out of the west/southwest, and blew a ton of sea ice and icebergs into the harbor. And then it got cold, we've been hovering between 5f and 10f most of the week. And the wind hasn't dropped below 35mph for a week, and at times has pushed 60mph. Long story short, the line is completely ice over. Like, four feet of ice.

Q: Can't you get in those zodiac boats and pull the line out from the other end?
A: The whole harbor has actually frozen solid. All the sea ice and icebergs that got blown in have solidified into mostly solid mass.

Q: Can't you get the ice out of the harbor somehow?
A: The LMG tried turning around and using it's propwash to break up the ice, but the wind just blows it all right back into the harbor.

Q: So what have you been doing?
A: Standing around and waiting, mostly.

The ship got in on the 18th. And for most of that day, it simply sat a few hundred feet off the pier, while communications went on between the ship's captain, engineer, our station manger, our boating coordinator, Denver HQ, the boats owners (Raytheon doesn't own the boat, it's leased from the owners), and the Prime Minister of Argentina. Okay, I lied about the last one. But everyone was talking to everyone, and therefor, nothing got accomplished. By the end of the day, the decision was made that the ship would pull out into deeper waters for the night, and we'd deal with it the next day.

The next day came (August 19th), and still, no one had much idea what the hell do to. A station meeting was called, and we all put our heads together to try and determine a course of action. Pulling the Gould up to the peir just isn't going to happen while this fishing line is in the way, and we have shit that needed to get off the boat, and people that needed to get on (science stuff). Including freshies. We ran out of lettuce and fresh veggies a few weeks ago, and have maybe two days worth of milk left.

To top it off, the weather took a turn for the worse. It stayed cold (7f) and windy (35mph sustained/50mph gusts), and added a little bit of snow. And by a little bit, I mean three feet. Literally. It started snowing at around 4am on the 19th and still hasn't stopped at the time of this writing (although it has lightened up some).

It is getting late, though. I'll continue this tomorrow with heroic tales of what we eventually did. (Hint: it involved rockets)

Friday, August 15, 2008

Last week, the same guy who'd made the time-lapse video of the LMG docking and unloading decided to make another video, this time of us using a skytrack to move a new milvan into position. Unfortunately, he made one critical mistake; he told me that he was making it beforehand.

And given that I have some sort of inability to let someone take a picture or video without messing with it in some way, I cannot be held responsible for my actions in this.

(That's Webster who actually came over to me as I was doing that skating thing just before I turned to the camera, she asked me what on earth I was doing hopping around on one leg and holding some weird pose for ten seconds at a time. No one else really noticed. I think they're used to me doing strange stuff at random times)

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


This post is intended to be a sort of "fill-in-the-blanks" article, about the nuts-and-bolts of how this whole system that I've managed to get tangled up in works.

As everyone knows, I'm working as a Carpenter's Helper at Palmer Station, in Antarctica. This station is one of three year-round United States stations on this continent, the other two being McMurdo Station (south of Australia) and South Pole station (at the geographic South Pole).

All three stations, as well as a couple of research vessels and some temporary bases, are part of the USAP, United States Antarctic Program, which is funded almost completely by the NSF, the National Science Foundation. And while the NSF provides grants/pays the scientists, it doesn't directly handle the actual grunt work of building, maintaining, and running the stations. That's farmed out to a defense contractor, in this case, Raytheon. They're the ones who actually hired me, and who I get my paychecks from. Or, more specifically, a tiny division of Raytheon, the RPSC. Raytheon Polar Services Corporation.

The majority of Raytheon people here on the ice work on contract basis. We're hired for a specific amount of time, typically between 4-8 months, to do a specific job, and that's it. However, many of us sign up for contract after contract, with short breaks in between. This isn't the most stress-free employment. It's basically a job where you have to re-apply, re-interview and be re-hired a couple times a year. And because the name "Raytheon" is the epitome of a hulking, huge, clumsy and mind-numbing corporate bureaucracy, this isn't as simple as you'd think. I won't get into the details of Raytheon's hiring system, all you need to know is that it's insane, absurd and pathetically inefficient.

Contract lengths vary based on season and station. Here at Palmer, we have year-round access, so contract start and end dates are very flexible. Most contracts are either short-term (1-2 months) or for a season (6 months). Because we're not a large enough station to justify having some specialties (like a plumber, or refrigeration specialist, or welder, or fire systems tech) here full-time, when projects need a specialist, they're hired for just a month or two at a time. Most contracts though are for either a winter (March-September) or a summer (October-February).

The other stations are a bit different. South Pole can only be accessed for a narrow part of time, from about October through February. So summer contracts are about 4 months, and winter contracts are 8. Some jobs, higher-level supervisor positions, are sometimes hired for 12 month contracts, doing a summer, then a winter. This is to give the people a good idea of how things work there over the summer before they're sealed in with little to no outside assistance for the winter.

McMurdo station is often accessible from early September until late February, so the contract lengths there are a bit more even, summer vs winter.

This sort of flexibility in work is offset by the obvious lack of job security, as I recently found out. It makes it very hard to make long-term plans.

But for all the floybles, a heck of a lot of people come back season after season. Some only do one stint here, true. Typically it's the people with the really horrible jobs, DAs (Dining Assistants. Dishwashers, basically) have very low return rates. But it tends to suck many people in. This strange place, it leads to a life that has a good bit less stability, any a lot less sanity. It seems to have turned a lot of people here into nomads, wanderers, and severed their connection to reality.

But if someone really wants to work down here that much, it's doubtful they had much affection for reality in the first place.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Again . . .

IMG_6091 (Large), originally uploaded by tsaven.

Anyone reading this is probably going to get really bored of the constant posting of sunrise/sunset photos.

Just for the record, this image is not edited or retouched in any way. That is really what the sunrises look like here. That strange sort of half-rainbow thing doesn't last very long, and it's actually harder to see with the naked eye then with the camera. But it sort of moves across the sky over the course of a couple minutes, we only get it when the sun is at just that right angle behind the glacier.

Monday, August 11, 2008


On days off, or just whenever you happen to have free time during the week or whatever, one of the ways that you can get off-station for a while is to go for a wander on the glacier that sits behind our station.

Our station is on the tip of a peninsula, and about a 1/4 mile walk east through and area of rocky hills and small ponds nicknamed "the backyard", you'll get to the base of the glacier, which at that point just looks like a massive white hill. Hiking about half a mile up gets you high enough that you can walk around a large section of cracks and cliffs, and head down onto another peninsula just across the bay from our station, Bonaparte Point.

So, this Sunday, I packed up my camera stuff, dressed warmly, and headed out for a hike with Sean, our electrician, and Amber, our instrument tech.


That's Amber and I, I'm in the tan. I think this was after we'd gotten to the top of the glacier and were headed downhill to Bonaparte. Most of the pics here I took myself, obviously the ones with me in them, Sean or Amber took.

The line of black flags are the limits of where it's safe to go on the glacier. Every few months the GSAR (Ground Search And Rescue) team goes out with sounding equipment and things and searches for any new large cracks or crevases, and moves the flag line.


This was after we'd made it down onto Bonaparte, we hugged the glacial wall heading down to where the sea was frozen next to the glacier. We had a specific destination in mind.





An ice cave. The size is very hard to convey; my widest lens is only 17mm, and on a crop-sensor camera such as mine, that gives and equivalent focal length of 28mm (Full-frame digital SLR cameras are still in the $2200+ range).

But if you ever need something that makes you feel really, really small, this is a good place to come. The lip of that cave measures almost three stories above the surface.


We would have wandered in farther, but we weren't exactly sure about how solid the ice was.



Looking out of the ice cave. Um, actually, we never went into the cave, if anyone asks.


After we had enough gawking at the really big hole in the really big chunk of ice, we wandered down to the peninsuala.

That would be home on the other side of the harbor.

And, after a little bit more wandering, we found a couple people asleep on the ice. These people were just like us. Only a bit fatter. And lazier. And they had fur.

This would be a Crabeater seal, I think.

Eventually, we got to the point, or as close as reasonable. It put us directly across the harbor from the station. So close, yet the end of a roughly 3 mile hike.

We figured it was a decent time to take a break. So a sit, and some munching granola bars and drinking water. God, I feel like such a dirty hippy.

And, of course, taking what we call "Hero Shots". Which are the pictures we show to people back in the states that make us look way cooler and braver and more awesome then we actually are. Such as this:

Me, the cool hardass antarctic explorer! Really, I think it's just that anyone looks cool with a sash or something going diagonally across their chest.

This is Amber doing what we call the "Antarctic Ninja" look, with the neck gaiter and hat pulled together to leave only the eyes.

Anyway, eventually we heard on the radio that one of the rec boating teams had dropped off Diane, our cook, a little west of us on the point, so she could hike back to the station. We hung out for a bit longer, and eventually, we spotted her off in the distance, and we all headed back to the station together.

Looking back at the ice cave where we had initially been. That little black dot at the top of the glacier is someone skiing. This place is big.

Walking back, we came across yet another seal. And I had to take a bunch more pictures. Because he was really cute.

For the most part, though, we were a bit quicker going home. The wind was starting to pick up, and we were heading into it. Me having the long legs and endurance, I quickly started to out-pace the others, especially when we started heading back up the glacier. So of course, I took a couple shots of the others in comical fight-off-the-wind poses.

I'll wrap this annoyingly long post up with a couple pictures looking back at the station from up on the glacier.

Yeah. Those cluster of dots left of center is our little bubble of civilization.

This place is big.

And we are really, really small.