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Dispatch 14: Icebreaker History & Today's Mooring Deployment

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Peter Lourie

October 4, 2016

The first modern polar icebreaker the Yermak was built in England under contract from the Russian Navy at the end of the 19th century, 1897 to be exact, just two years after Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen made it farthest north to 86 10’ to within 230 miles of the North Pole.  The Yermak was so well constructed, it wasn’t fully decommissioned until 1963, 6 years before the Louis was built! Our icebreaker is 47 years old now, but the Yermak lived to 67! From everything I’ve seen onboard, the Louis is definitely in the same class of icebreaker longevity.

Learn a bit more from our Beaufort Gyre website about icebreakers and Arctic exploration history

Here’s a little icebreaker history (full disclosure: it’s from Wiki):

Early Icebreakers

Even in the earliest days of polar exploration, ice-strengthened ships were used. These were originally wooden and based on existing designs, but reinforced, particularly around the waterline with double planking to the hull and strengthening cross members inside the ship. Bands of iron were wrapped around the outside. Sometimes metal sheeting was placed at the bows, stern and along the keel. Such strengthening was designed to help the ship push through ice and also to protect the ship in case it was "nipped" by the ice. Nipping occurs when ice floes around a ship are pushed against the ship, trapping it as if in a vise and causing damage. This vise-like action is caused by the force of winds and tides on ice formations. Although such wind and tidal forces may be exerted many miles away, the ice transmits the force.

The first true modern sea-going icebreaker was built at the turn of the 20th century. Icebreaker Yermak, was built in 1897 at the Armstrong Whitworth naval yards in England under contract from the Russian Navy.  The Yermak was able to run over and crush pack ice. The ship weighed 5,000 tons, and its steam-reciprocating engines delivered 10,000 horsepower. The ship was so well built that it was only finally decommissioned and scrapped in 1963, making it one of the longest serving ice-breakers in the world.

In Canada, the government needed to provide a way to prevent flooding due to ice jam on the St-Lawrence River. Icebreakers were built in order to maintain the river free of ice jam, east of Montréal. At about the same time, Canada had to fill its obligations in the Canadian Arctic. Large steam icebreakers, like the 80 meters CGS N.B.McLean (1930) and CGS D'Iberville (1952), were built for this dual use (St-Lawrence flood prevention and Arctic replenishment).

At the beginning of the 20th century, several other countries began to operate icebreakers. Most were coastal icebreakers, but Canada, Russia, and later, the Soviet Union, also built several oceangoing icebreakers of around 10,000-ton displacement. 

(stay tuned for a little more icebreaker history)

First Mooring Deployment

A full day of mooring recovery was followed by a full day of mooring redeployment.  Moorings are amazing things when you think about it.  A long line (thousands of meters long, in fact) hung with sophisticated instruments and various kinds of floats on either end for later recovery are moored to the bottom of the deep Arctic Ocean for a year or two.  The DMM profiler (see photo of tubular device being hooked onto the line by Will Ostrom and Bosun Bill Galliot, two guys who are always working outside!) can run up and down the line as it is programmed to do at various intervals taking measurements, and storing this information on a tiny 2-Gig compact flash card, retrieved by people like Jeff O’Brien as he did two days ago.  Once the retrieved profiler from the mooring we got back yesterday is reprogrammed (sometimes it might have to be replaced), it is placed back into the sea at a fixed location.  These are very long days for the mooring team and support crew!

I got some great footage of the whole recovery and redeployment phases, but it took hours and hours of standing around waiting for the dramatic parts like the anchor going in first along with the small yellow floats that will act as a safety net if the giant yellow sphere at the other end doesn’t release for some reason when it is triggered for recovery.  I have nothing to complain about; my waiting around was easy compared to the hard work of the crew. Never have I seen people work this well together as a team; the process appeared seamless, and always always there was plenty of good cheer no matter how much it snowed or rained or both.

To learn more about Peter Lourie click here.

Last updated: October 7, 2019

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