McMurdo Shipping News

Antarctica's flag
Antarctica » Antarctica » McMurdo Station
February 6th 2005
Published: February 6th 2005
Edit Blog Post

Greetings from sunny and scenic McMurdo Station, which as the locals say, is located very near to Antarctica. CHECK OUT PHOTOS 1 and 2.

The US Naval Ship Paul Buck arrived at the McMurdo Ice Pier on Wednesday January 26 and began unloading 6.1 million gallons of AN-8 and JP-5 diesel fuels. (Ships, airplanes and the power plant use these fuels.) This is very good news as without the fuel, the winter population of the station would have been reduced from the current planned level of 235 people to 4 - 20. Of less consequence to Deborah and me, but of more consequence to the US Antarctic Program; all of the upcoming 2005/2006 summer science season would have been cancelled, except for that supported by Palmer Station. Fortunately this did not come to pass and we now have a full gas tank.

Now that I have told you the end of story, where should I begin?

What's the Ice Pier? The Ice Pier is the man-made floating iceberg here in Winter Quarter's Bay, the deepwater port at McMurdo. (It is not coincidental that McMurdo is located near a deep-water port.) Several of Scott's expeditions anchored in Winter Quarters Bay during the heroic age of Antarctic exploration. Scott also built a hut on the peninsula adjacent to the pier. (Scott was not always the brightest bulb in the fixture, even if you overlook bringing ponies to the ice, which the Orcas found quite tasty, but seem to have otherwise been a bad idea. The hut is an Australian Outback design and is designed to keep you cool inside when it is hot outside. So why was that design such a good idea here? I digress.) The pier is designed so that ships can anchor to it to unload and load. It also provides the ships something to ram into when they try to dock. You can see the Ice Pier in some of the photos below.
It has been several years since the sea ice broke and floated away from this part of McMurdo Sound. The ice is 17 feet thick or more in most places. This ice is called "multi-year ice" for obvious reasons. Blame for the ice not leaving these past few years has been placed on an iceberg called B-15A. Icebergs are rather defenseless, so B-15A has not cleared its name. (Recall that an iceberg was blamed for sinking the Titanic, when the real cause was Titanic hubris on the part of the captain.) Nevertheless, in this case, B-15A is probably guilty as charged. B-15A is not an ordinary iceberg. When B-15 broke free from the Ross Ice Shelf in March of 2000 it was as large as Jamaica. B15-A, the largest remaining segment, is still 75 miles long and the largest floating object in the world. Since that time it ran aground on the north side of Ross Island and changed the flow of relatively warmer water from the Southern Ocean that melts out the fast ice in McMurdo Sound. B-15A has moved further west now and is now about to run into the Drygalski Ice Tongue, unless it runs aground first. (Ice tongues are pretty neat. They occur when a glacier flows into the ocean, floats, but does not break up. When surrounded by sea ice they do not look much different than the sea ice, but its possible for the sea ice to melt out, leaving a tongue of ice that can extend for miles into the ocean.

CHECK OUT PHOTO 3: Mt Erebus, with its eponymous Ice Tongue in the center of the photo. It looks like a flat smooth hill extending towards you. The rougher looking sea ice surrounds it. I took this photo through the windshield of the helicopter the other day.

CHECK OUT PHOTO 4. As you can see from the recent Terascan image, B-15A and a few other bergs have nearly closed access to McMurdo Sound. If C-16 rotates and meets B-15K, well, it’s gonna mean a long walk to food for a few thousand penguins now nesting on Ross Island and a lot of head scratching on the part of the US Antarctic Program. (Note all of this would be easier if I could have included my annotations on the photo identifying these features.)

You can see more images of icebergs in the Ross Sea by going to:

In December, the USCG Polar Class icebreaker the Polar Star began breaking through 80 miles of fast sea ice to reach the pier. By following the ship channel from prior years, the Star cut a channel through the weaker and thinner first year ice and avoided the stronger multi-year ice. This all went much better than expected and the Star arrived ahead of schedule
at the pier. (“(Fast ice is ice that extends from shore toward water and is anchored to the shore or shallow water. I think the term may come from the German word “fest” which means “fastened to” or “attached to”, but I am not sure.)

CHECK OUT PHOTO 5 of the USCG Polar Star moored to the Buck at the Ice Pier

Unfortunately the Star had serious mechanical problems and sat at the pier for a couple of weeks leaking oil while a team of California divers arrived to perform some underwater welding repairs. The repairs stopped the oil leak by the hubs, although some other problems still exist with one of the three turbine engines and a couple of the diesel engines, if rumors are to believed.

Usually the USCG sends two icebreakers to McMurdo. However, the USCG is now part of the Department of Homeland Security. With the department’s mission focus, supporting the National Science Foundation and US Antarctic Program is about as low on the list of priorities as bringing an ice cube tray to McMurdo was for me when I was packing to come here. With the thick sea ice, it was doubtful that one Polar class icebreaker could make a shipping channel all on her own, even if she stayed healthy. (It's one thing for the icebreaker to make it to the pier, it's quite another to make a shipping channel that is 6 - 8 times as wide as the cargo or fuel ship and keep it free enough of brash ice that a ship can get through it.) Just when it looked like the US Antarctic Program may fall victim to the War on Terror, the Russians came to the rescue. NSF contracted with the Russian company FESCO (Far Eastern Shipping Company) of Vladivostok, Russia, to bring an icebreaker down to help the Star. Being good Capitalists, FESCO appointed Mr. Artur Chilingarov, the President of Russia Polar Explorers’ Association and recipient of The Hero of Soviet Union award, to coordinate the operation. (You probably already knew this about Artur, but I did not.) This choice seems to have paid off as the Krasin has done very well and will likely be hired again next year for a lot less money than the USCG wants for a polar class icebreaker.
(FESCO also owns the icebreaker turned cruise ship Kapitan Khlebnikov. If you have $12,000 - $25,000, you can book an Antarctic cruise of a lifetime and see lots of cool places that the big cruise ships cannot reach, such as scenic McMurdo. For more information on the Khlebnikov, check out . or Quark Expeditions
So while the Star was unceremoniously leaking oil into the pristine Antarctic waters, the Krasin was steadily steaming south. True to form, the Krasin reached the ice edge as promised and proceeded to have no trouble reaching McMurdo via the channel the Star had cut a few weeks earlier.

CHECK OUT THE PHOTO 6: Krasin moored to the Buck in Winter Quarters Bay

Shortly after arriving in the channel, Captain R. A. “Mack” McCullough of the Star, Captain Kovalchuk of the Krasin and the National Science Foundation held a meeting to plot their strategy. (Captain Kovalchuk speaks English, dresses in a suit and tie, and looks like a businessman.) The Russians have much more experience towing ships with icebreakers than the US does. For that matter, they have a lot more experience getting ships through ice than the US does, period. At the Russian Captain’s suggestion, the Star and the Krasin sailed through the
channel side by side, with one vessel a little ahead of the other. This pushed the brash ice to the sides of the channel and allowed the Buck to follow closely behind through relatively little ice with no problem. The Buck did get stuck a few times and the Krasin cut her free. I am not sure what happened next, but it seems the Star let the Krasin and the Buck continue on without it, thinking progress would be slow enough for it to catch up again and turned back north to work on the channel some more. However, the Buck followed the Krasin into the Turning Basin. From there, the Buck continued on her own the last half mile to pier with the Star nowhere in sight and the Krasin waiting attentively in the Basin. I watched the Buck sail through the Turning Basin and up to the pier. She was moving very quickly even as she pulled alongside the pier, or should I say, rammed the pier? The only thing that stopped her was running into 100 feet or so of fast ice. It was quite impressive when this happened. Ice chunks and water flew about and the ship came to a full stop in the space of a few feet. Kinda like hitting an iceberg, I guess.

CHECK OUT PHOTO 7: Paul Buck moored to the Ice Pier with Krasin and Star in the Turning Basin. Mt. Discovery is in the Background some 50 miles away

Within a few hours of the Buck ramming the pier, the McMurdo Fuelies (as members of the Fuels Department are known) had their hoses attached to the ship and were pumping happily. Within 48 hours, the pumping was complete and the Buck began to take on seawater ballast for the trip back to Australia. A day later, the Krasin towed her from astern to the Turning Basin where the Buck turned around and then sailed north behind the Krasin and the Star. (As you can see from the photos, Winter Quarters Bay is like a parking space against a building. If you go nose in, you have to back out. However, when a ship backs out, her propellers are very exposed to the ice and subject to damage. Therefore, the Krasin towed the Buck to where she could turn around.)

The Buck reached the edge of the fast ice almost exactly when the cargo ship the American Tern did, heading south. The Tern, which is really quite a rust bucket, easily made it to the pier with help from the Star and Krasin. Under cover of night (but not darkness as we still have 24 hour a day sunlight), she tied up at 3:30 AM. Off load began immediately and will continue non-stop until completed and the Tern is reloaded with 12 month’s worth of garbage, recycling and used equipment for resale. (Yes, you too can bid on and purchase the cast offs from the US Antarctic Program.)

So, barring any unforeseen problems, the 2005 McMurdo Shipping season will end in a little over a week with none of the drama associated with the 2003 season. The ships will depart, the channel will freeze over once again and all the summer people will leave on planes that bring down the last mail and fresh food that we will see for six months. We will stand on the deck of the Chalet when the last plane flies low overhead and raise champagne glasses as it dips its wings and disappears to the north. This rather romantic scene is then followed by 235 people glancing nervously about while taking stock of the other 234 people they will be spending the winter with, and silently hoping Raytheon’s background investigations prevented any axe murderer from spending the winter in our midst!

Digressions (AKA additional reading for no extra credit):

The Krasin was built in 1976 in Helsinki, Finland and is named after the most famous Russian Icebreaker of the same name. The Krasin uses GASOIL DMA to run its engines. Go here for more info on her: The original Krasin was built in 1916-1917 by Armstrong-Whitworth & Co., Newcastle upon Tyne, England. During WW II she was outfitted with guns and escorted Allied ships. More than 60 books were written about the original Krasin. She is now a floating museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.

The Krasin is 442 feet long with a full load displacement of 20,190 (long) tons. It is electrically powered using 9 diesel engines; total rated at 36,000 Shaft horsepower (shp), with 3 screws, a maximum open-water speed of 19.5 knots. The Russian press releases (click and search on “McMurdo”) say the Krasin is more powerful than the Star, even with all her engines working. The Russian press releases do embellish a little when they speak of “rescuing” McMurdo, but in general, they seem more accurate than FOX NEWS, but that strictly a personal observation.

By comparison, the Polar Star is: 399 feet long, 13,190 tons, 3 screws, 18,000 shp with diesel electric power, but 75,000 shp with gas turbines. (Rumor has it that the turbines are from DC-10 airplanes, but this is unconfirmed.) The Star is also said to be able to break 21 feet of ice. Click here for more info on the Star or Perhaps you are content just to know that each of the Star's three shafts is connected to a 16-foot (4.9-meter) diameter, four-bladed, controllable-pitch propeller.

Since the Krasin is heavier and less powerful than the Star, Captain Mack Star underestimated her icebreaking ability. However, after a few days of watching the Krasin, Mack had newfound respect for the Russian vessel and the skill of her crew. Icebreakers can plow straight through an amazing amount of ice. However, once the ice gets too thick, the ships start "backing and ramming". As the name implies, they back up, get a running start and throw themselves onto the ice. The prow of the ship is designed to ride up onto the unbroken and then crush it with the weight of the ship. (In this regard, I heard they can pump fuel into the bow once it’s on the ice to increase the weight and crush the ice.) They also have a bubbler system that somehow puts air under the ice, but I am unsure how this works. If need be, as was the case in 2003, they will break ice 24 hours a day. It causes quite a racket on board, sleep is well nigh impossible unless you are a Coastie. If you are a poor McMurdo GA (aka General Assistance or day laborer) and this is your one morale boosting adventure of the season, you will quickly long for the good old days when you were cleaning out the oil/water separator that drains from the floor of the heavy equipment repair shop. But I really digress.

When the crew of the Krasin was given shore liberty at McMurdo, Deborah and the store staff were more than happy to sell them bottles of Razmatazz, Root Beer Schnapps and Midori (all alcoholic beverages that no self respecting McMurdo alcoholic would purchase!) The Rootbeer Schnapps seems to have been the favorite. (It must be noted that Razmatazz, Midori and Rootbeer Schnapps have been in inventory for 10 years or more. It’s a badge of honor for a store employee to sell a bottle a month, let alone 20 in one day.) Mariners are mariners, whether they are Russian or Americans: The crew of the Star also bought alcohol in the store and drank it in the bars. It seems they even tried to sneak it aboard their “dry” ship. Many were caught: Captain Mack issued 15 “Article 15s” to crewmembers, all for alcohol violations. Considering there are only 138 crewmen aboard the Star, it was a sizeable portion of the population.

So, what about the Rust Bucket? Here is a photo of her being offloaded at the pier. (The Krasin is tied up next to her. You will notice a white hose running from shore to the Krasin. The Russians asked for a few hundred thousand gallons of fresh water as they consumed more than planned while crossing the hot tropics. Our guess is that their rainmaker system failed and they are unable to produce fresh water. No worries though. We have plenty of it.)

CHECK OUT THE PHOTO 8 The American Tern and the Krasin at the McMurdo Ice Pier

American Automar operates The American Tern (T-AK 4729) under contract with the American Military Sealift Command to deliver the sea cargo for the US Antarctic Program. The Tern is an ice-strengthened container ship, built in Rostock, Germany by Neptune in 1990 to Finnish Ice class 1A specifications. She has a length of 521 feet, a beam of 76 feet, 33-foot draft and a displacement of 17,350 long tons. She can make 16 knots with a crew of 21 civilians. This year, the Tern has 516 containers (AKA Milvans or cans) and 111 pieces of break-bulk for a total weight of 10,012,800 pounds of cargo.

The February 3 NSF press release with the shipping status can be found at

And in case you were wondering, the high temperature yesterday was 25F, the low was 18F and the peak winds were measured at 18 knots. The next sunset occurs 21 February at 12:38 AM. The next sunrise occurs just a few minutes later.

And finally, for obvious reasons, the Safety Outdoor Lecture (SOL) was renamed the Outdoor Safety Lecture (OSL).


Tot: 0.065s; Tpl: 0.021s; cc: 5; qc: 38; dbt: 0.0113s; 1; m:saturn w:www (; sld: 1; ; mem: 1.2mb