ABOARD THE USS HAWKBILL — NASA's mission control has nothing on "Marvin Gardens," the ice camp acting as our submarine's way station.
Two hours out, a chuckle ripples through the control room. Jimmy Buffett's "Changes in Attitudes, Changes in Latitudes" emerges above the hiss on the sub's hydrophone receiver.
It's a welcome-home message from the ice camp after a five-day research cruise beneath the Arctic ice cap. It's also a brief break from the intense watch as the Hawkbill closes on its surfacing point near camp, where it will punch through nearly four feet of ice.
This class of sub is designed to surface through ice. But the Arctic enforces humility. Jeff Gossett, the lead ice pilot on this mission and director of fleet operations for the US Navy's Arctic Submarine Laboratory in San Diego, Calif., says operations up here are never routine. "There's an old saying: An Arctic expert is anybody who's been here less than twice or more than 20 times," he says. "This is my 21st trip, and I still don't think I'm an expert."
0330: (3:30 a.m. military time) Lt. Cmdr. David Fitzgerald calls the camp via hydrophone; 15 minutes later, the camp replies. Surfacing is set for 0600. A sonar beacon guides us in.
0433: We slow to 1/3rd speed and adjust trim for surfacing.
0532: 500 yards out, we pick up Buffett and his band.
0535: 200 yards out, Cmdr. Robert Perry, the sub's captain, quietly takes a seat in the control room as his officers continue the approach. We slow to 4 knots.
0604: Perry orders, "Up periscope." Within moments he exclaims: "There's the X!" It's etched atop the translucent ice to mark the surfacing spot. An arrow on one leg points in the direction the sub should face. We pass directly under the X, check our heading against the arrow, then head out to turn around.
0618: 1,100 yards from the X on final approach, Perry takes over the controls. Diving planes on the sail are locked in a vertical position to prevent ice damage.
0624: 400 yards out, Perry orders, "All stop!" The crew deploys a powerful outboard motor to counter the sub's momentum.
0635: We hover under the X, but currents nudge us toward thicker ice. Perry orders the bow raised 1.5 degrees to protect the sub's prop from hitting ice, then a "slow vertical ascent" - 10 feet a minute.
0638: Perry orders 30 feet a minute, as the P.A. announces: "Vertical surface, vertical surface, vertical surface!"
0640: The ship shudders with a crunch, followed by the scraping sounds of ice clawing at the sail as it rises. In quick succession, Perry orders ballast tanks fore and aft blown of sea water in 2 and 3 second bursts to keep the ship trimmed.
0641: Hawkbill nestles into its frozen berth. A crewman cracks the bridge hatch, sending crisp, fresh air into the sub with an ear-popping rush.