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Dispatch 17: Logistics on the Louis

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Peter Lourie

October 7, 2016

Nathan Whiffen, Logistics Officer on Canada’s largest icebreaker, has been working aboard the Louis off and on for the past five years.  He oversees the financial administration, material management and hotel services on the ship. “Each year prior to going to the Arctic our ship partakes in what we call a ‘pre-Arctic’ operation where we prepare for our Arctic season, which actually begins at the end of the previous summer. Every year we take our orders; we see what parts we need, what equipment we’re going to carry, and what science programs we have for the year.  We gel it all together into one big program to see what we’ll need to get us through the Arctic season, because as you know in the Arctic we don’t have much opportunity to resupply.  If we run out of anything, we’re basically left without.”  Nathan’s job is to make sure the Louis’ clients and crew have what they need to make it through the season, from May to November.

The Louis will take up to 400,000 dollars’ worth of provisions before leaving for the Arctic.  That’s a lot of stuff, hundreds of thousands of pounds of stuff in fact.  Nathan says it would amaze people to see the shear amount it takes to run a ship like this.  And the Louis is unique.  A lot of icebreakers in the fleet have a crew of 20-30 people, but when the Louis is doing its science program in the summer season, it can hold as many as 80-90 people.  One summer there were 97 people aboard!

As Nathan says, “Fifty pounds of potatoes doesn’t really go far, one meal for supper, half a pound per person.” One meal could be 90 ten-oz steaks.   And consumables, toilet paper, soap.  “We’re loading 20-30 thousand dollars of stuff like that, and when you’re talking about parts and fluids and stuff for the engines you’re talking a million dollars.”

On top of that, the Louis might take 3 million dollars worth of fuel when she leaves for the Arctic. 

Nathan says all this takes teamwork.  And they have an excellent team aboard the Louis--the engine room, the deck department and the logistics department.  “Logisitcs kind of feeds the other departments.  We’re a small component but we’re needed.”

Icebreakers in the past mostly just broke ice. Now icebreakers have more of a support role because “as we know, and as you can see on this trip, the North is having less ice year after year.”

One of the things that makes a logistical officer’s job a bit tricky is that “what people are eating now has really changed. A lot of the clientele in past years were meat and potato and deep fried eaters.  Now our client base is more about healthy eating, nutritious eating and well-balanced diets.  That changed the whole aspect of how we store the food.  When we leave for extended periods of time we have to plan our menus around this by using our freshest produce first to get the most out of it and as time goes on our menu revolves around what we have left.”

Sometimes what is planned is not what the clients or crew are eating. Having a great team of cooks, however, makes Nathan’s job easy.

He does other logistics aboard, too.  Hotel services for clients, for example, includes having a steward come into a client’s cabin, dust, make the bed, clean up, keep things tidy.  He says, “We’re like the ‘host.’”  To keep up morale aboard on long voyages, “we try to plan events and activities, ticket draws, bingo. Because when you’re away from home and family for long periods of time, it’s the small things that make life aboard a ship better.  Games, poker, the week-long murder game that’s going on now.”

Nathan says that all year round, the crew is like a family with a routine and assigned tasks.  Then there’s some variety when the supernumaries arrive. “When we get new people aboard like the JOIS scientists, it helps break the routine and the monotony, and gives a fresh taste in the air; you get a new perspective on things, hear new stories, which also lightens the mood aboard ship.”

Trip lengths

“When we’re down south around Newfoundland, Atlantic Canada and the Gulf of St. Lawrence, our trips are usually 28 days, then we go home for the next 28 days and another crew comes aboard. As the summer comes and our Arctic season opens, we’ll do between 5- and 7-week trips.  A typical Arctic trip is six weeks.” 

Nathan admits long trips in the Arctic can be challenging because communication isn’t the best.  Interaction with family and friends and the outside world is sparse.  “A little sat TV and some email but these can be sketchy.”  He says it’s sometimes tough to go to sea for this long. “Not only for you but also for the family left behind to pick up the slack.  At home it helps to have a good support base to allow you to do your career.”

I can tell this trip has been a little more difficult than previous ones for Nathan because his five-year-old girl cried for the first time when he said goodbye.  On the other hand, the ship is heading south now, and home is right around the bend, or, I should say, Passage, as in Northwest Passage where John Franklin’s HMS Terror has just been found!!

To learn more about Peter Lourie click here.

Last updated: October 7, 2019

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