Climb Aboard an Icebreaker

Have you ever looked at a picture of a ship and wondered what it would be like to work on one?

As a youngster, Dennis Coulombe did. "I first became interested in icebreakers when I saw a picture of one in a dictionary," he recalls. Now, he's serving as an officer aboard the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Des Groseilliers (pronounced "day-grole-yea").

An icebreaker is like a blocker on a football team, plowing into ice to open a path for ships that need to get through. The steel plating on its hull is several times thicker than the plating on ordinary ships. Its bow has a unique shape that allows the icebreaker to ride up onto the ice, where its weight then crushes through the floe. Teflon-based paint on the hull helps keep it from getting stuck itself. And its engines are extremely powerful.

Because they can travel to places like the Arctic and Antarctica, where scientists are eager to explore, ice- breakers also are used as temporary floating laboratories.

In winter, the Des Groseilliers usually travels up and down the St. Lawrence River (between New York State and Ontario), clearing paths for cargo ships heading out to sea or into the Great Lakes. In the summer, it sails up to the Hudson Bay and among the large islands above the Canadian mainland, clearing paths for ships supplying remote settlements or carrying ore from mines on the islands.

Freezing cold and stuck

This year, the Des Groseilliers has an unusual assignment. Since October, it has been stuck in a vast ice floe floating in the Arctic Ocean above Alaska, and it will remain stuck until next fall.

Scientists are using the ship as a floating laboratory, hotel, and power station while they study how the ocean, ice, and air determine the Arctic's climate. Off the ship's right, or starboard side, the scientists have set up a research camp. Tent-like huts hold computers and other equipment.

As icebreakers go, the Des Groseilliers is small. It's only 322 feet long. The US Coast Guard's polar icebreakers Polar Sea and Polar Star are more powerful, non-nuclear icebreakers. They are 399 feet long and use diesel-electric motors or gas turbines, similar to the engines on a 737 jet. Soon, the Polar Sea and Star will be overtaken by the 420-foot Healy, launched Nov. 15.

But the grand prize goes to the Russians, whose nuclear-power icebreakers are the most powerful in the world.

Still, the Des Groseilliers can pack a punch.

Chief engineer Robert Grimard takes us through the ship's two engine rooms, where six locomotive-size diesel engines are used to generate electricity for the big electric motors that drive the ship's propellers. The ship carries the designation "heavy" ice breaker, because it can crunch its way through ice 6 feet thick at speeds of 3 knots (about 3-1/2 m.p.h.). Three smaller diesels generate electricity for the rest of the ship.

Mr. Grimard heads up a series of narrow metal stairways and catwalks, climbing up into the funnel. In the days when ships burned coal as fuel, this would have been the smokestack. Now, it's merely a shell hiding the exhaust pipes rising up from the engines below. "Isn't this a great hiding place?" he asks at one point, standing among the exhaust pipes. "When a member of the crew is missing, this is one of the first places I look!"

Cutting a path for another ship can test both captains' skills. Rene Turenne, the Des Groseilliers's captain, says that if the ice is thin, the ship he's helping can stay up to a mile behind him and still make it through. "But when the ice thickens, you have to keep the other ship close to your stern, within a ship's length or two." Otherwise, the path the Des Groseilliers cuts could close up again before the other ship can make it through.

But sailing that close together means the ships must be careful; if the icebreaker hits a thick spot that doesn't immediately break, the ship following behind must avoid running into the icebreaker's stern. Repairs aren't cheap.

No cookies for polar bears

The 8,432-ton Des Groseilliers carries enough food to remain at sea for 140 days, and can produce its own drinking water from seawater. During its time in the Arctic, however, it is resupplied by aircraft flying up from Alaska and landing on the ice near the ship. Keeping officers and crew members happy at sea means keeping plenty of video and computer games on hand (Tetris and Tomb Raider among them), a well-stocked cafeteria (including plenty of cookies and other snacks), VCRs, and stereo systems - including one that broadcasts to the whole ship.

And up in the wheel house (also called the bridge), the captain keeps several rifles and shotguns for the crew to discourage overly eager polar bears they might meet.

So far during the current Arctic mission, the bears have been few and relatively easy to chase off. But officers keep close watch from the wheel house, slowly sweeping the ice camp with powerful spotlights that pierce the darkness of an Arctic winter.

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