The U.S. Navy Military Sealift Command (MSC)-chartered container ship MV Ocean Giant is currently conducting cargo offloads in one of the most remote and challenging environments on the planet; McMurdo Station, Antarctica.
The operation is part of MSC’s annual resupply mission in support of Operation Deep Freeze, the Joint Task Force support for Antarctica mission to resupply the remote scientific outpost.
Seabees from Navy Cargo Handling Battalion (NCHB) 1, based in Williamsburg, Virginia, are working around-the-clock offloading the cargo which consists of containers and various breakbulk equaling over six thousand tons of supplies such as frozen and dry food stores, building materials, vehicles, and electronic equipment and parts were loaded onto the ship for delivery to McMurdo station. The supplies will provide nearly 80 percent of the items needed for survival over the severe arctic winter over period when the station is cutoff from the rest of the world. The Cargo Handlers work with Ocean Giant’s crew, and the MSC representative, to execute a safe and efficient offload and backload of a variety of cargo. Additionally, close coordination is required between NCHB-1 and the Antarctic Support Contract logistics team who manage the loads and stow plans for United States Antarctic Program, as well as the New Zealand Defense Force who assist with rigging and transporting loads from the pier to designated laydown areas.
Ocean Giant’s mission began in late December in Port Hueneme, Calif., where the ship was loaded with cargo. From Port Hueneme, the ship sailed to Lyttelton, New Zealand where they took on additional cargo and then transited to Antarctica.
With its remote location and inhospitable climate, traveling to Antarctica is challenging for even the most seasoned ship captain. For Capt. John Hawkins, Ocean Giant’s civilian master, this was no exception. According to Hawkins, as you get close to Antarctica, icebergs appear. There is an ice belt, where In the space of a few hours, can go from a few scattered “bergy bits” to an expanse of smalls flows for as far as the eye can see, eventually requiring help from the ice-breaker Polar Star.
“Once we entered Antarctic waters, you could almost feel the excitement on board. Everyone was looking for that first Iceberg as the days became longer and eventually the sun never set,” explained Hawkins. “We slow steamed through what can only be truly appreciated by being there. Seals and penguins seemed only curious as we slowly and quietly passed them by as they sat atop their ice flow islands. Their raised heads and lazy stares saying, you’re not from around here, are you?”
In years past, Ocean Giant would have arrived at the ice-pier at McMurdo Station; a structure made up of rebar and frozen seawater, where cargo offloads were conducted. Due sever damage, the ice-pier was unavailable this year, so Ocean Giant delivered a Marine Causeway System. The 65-ton pier consisted of ten, 24 foot, pre-assembled pieces. Six string units were assembled on deck placed into the water and then and joined into two sections. These sections were attached to the others to form the final pier.
According to Hawkins, offloading the sections of pier presented challenges for the ship’s crew. The main issue was moving the large and heavy pieces with shipboard cranes. As the pieces swing over the side of the ship, the weight can cause the ship to lean over or list. To counteract this, Ocean Giant is designed with an Anti-Healing system. The system is comprised of onboard water tanks and pumps that quickly move huge amounts of water from one side to the other in order to maintain balance and stability. As the vessel begins to lean one way, the water is pumped to the opposite side and keeps the ship upright and stabile.
MSC ships operate in a wide variety of climates and conditions around the world, but nothing like the unforgiving environment of Antarctica. Conditions at McMurdo Station can vary from day to day. One day it could be in the mid 30’s and then -20 Fahrenheit with gale force winds the next.
Aboard Ocean Giant, the 27-member crew has one mission, cargo offload, and with the importance of delivering supplies to Antarctica, operations move forward, despite the weather.
“Cold weather operations create their own set of challenges; things can freeze, workers can get cold, decks can get icy, hydraulic fluids and fuels can get thicker, and machinery in general just prefers a more moderate climate,” said Hawkins “ We deal with cold by providing proper climate rated clothing and training, so we can be as prepared as we can.”
Hawkins also noted Antarctica’s remote location as a challenge. Antarctica has no readily available communication grid, which means no cellular access and limited access to the Internet. The simple act of making a phone call becomes a challenge that requires the use of a satellite phone system that can be unpredictable and sketchy at best.
“The thing that many may not consider is that people have become so used to having; communications and access to information that used to be at their fingertips with their mobile phones. Your mobile phone doesn’t work down here (Antarctica). There is limited access to Internet, so you can’t easily check your email or your bank accounts,” said Hawkins. “For someone used to texting a friend or checking out Facebook with their phone, it can be a rude awakening.”
Despite the challenges, the cold and the remoteness, the small number of people who make the trip acknowledge that it is a unique opportunity that most people will never have. For the crews of the MSC ships and the MSC professionals on the ground at McMurdo Station, the experience includes the professional aspect of a cargo move in one of the most remote and unforgiving places in the world; something that challenges their knowledge base and skill sets unlike any other mission.
“For me personally, it gives me the career experience of polar operations that I may never have gained otherwise,” said Hawkins. “Being here has opened my eyes to the challenges and possibilities of this part of the world. Experience, especially unusual experiences, always make us better prepared for future operations.
Upon completion of their cargo offload, Ocean Giant will load containers of retrograde as well as ice-core samples for scientific study, and return to Port Hueneme.
Operation Deep Freeze is a joint service, on-going Defense Support to Civilian Authorities activity in support of the National Science Foundation (NSF), lead agency for the United States Antarctic Program. Mission support consists of active duty, Guard and Reserve personnel from the U.S. Air Force, Navy, Army, and Coast Guard as well as Department of Defense civilians and attached non-DOD civilians. ODF operates from two primary locations situated at Christchurch, New Zealand and McMurdo Station, Antarctica.
By Sarah Burford, MSC Pacific