The 2011-12 McMurdo Shipping Season

the Green Wave unloads at McMurdo, February 2012
February 2012...the cargo vessel Green Wave unloads cargo onto the Modular Causeway System (William Henriksen, Antarctic Photo Library)

Well, let's just say, to start with, that this sealift might not have happened, for several reasons. The first and perhaps the biggest one...the Swedish icebreaker Oden was used in the 2010-11 season, but difficulties began to come to light several months later, when doubts arose about its availability for 2011-12. And while that issue was being resolved...it turned out that the ice pier wasn't...enough of an ice pier, so a substitute had to be found. Read on...

On 9 May, NSF announced that the Murmansk Shipping Company, which had contracted to provide the icebreaker Vladimir Ignatyuk for the 2011-12 and future seasons, had advised that the icebreaker would not be available in the future. Here's the "Dear Colleague" letter from Scott Borg, NSF director of the Division of Antarctic Sciences. At the same time, NSF put out a contract information request, seeking availability of an icebreaker. (There was no reported response, but on a historical note, this information request included an attachment (MS Word document) including a map and a detailed history of the US Antarctic program icebreaker support from the IGY to date). On 28 July, Karl Erb, director of the NSF Office of Polar Programs, formally announced the situation to the science community: "...unless we can find and engage a suitable replacement by mid-August, we will have to implement contingency plans that would curtail activities in the near term...." What happened? Because of Swedish domestic complaints that ships had been caught in the Baltic Sea ice during the northern 2010-11 winter while the Oden was at the other end of the world, the charter arrangements for 2011-12 were cancelled by the Swedish government. This story was picked up in July by Popular Mechanics. What would be curtailed? Well, field camps and other activities requiring significant air support, among other things...and Pole could close as early as 5 February. Karl Erb's full announcement was made in this "Dear Colleagues" letter.

As for the US Coast Guard's two 1960-era icebreakers traditionally used in the Antarctic in the past...the Polar Star was midway through a major 2-1/2 year refit, and the Polar Sea was laid up pending decommissioning (although as of October 2012 the decommissioning was on hold). The lighter 11-year-old Healy began a major 7-month Arctic science cruise at the end of May. So there were are. Several items of interest...a 7 July 2011 op-ed by retired Coast Guard RADM Jeffrey M. Garrett which outlined the current American icebreaker status vs the rest of the world...focusing primarily on the Arctic...this 27 May Coast Guard press release which outlines what the Healy is doing...and a January 2011 Coast Guard audit of the "Polar Icebreaker Maintenance, Upgrade, and Acquisition Program" (or lack thereof). Remember that in 2004-05 when the big icebergs were causing problems, contingency plans were being made to curtail the season...and the Russian icebreaker Krasin was chartered to assist the Polar Star.

15 August 2011 was supposed to be the deadline for icebreaker announcements, but not all deadlines get met. Fortunately the talking and negotiating continued...a few days after the deadline, NSF OPP director Karl Erb was quoted that negotiations were underway with the owners of two foreign icebreakers. The 19 August issue of Science, published this news article "U.S. Icebreaking Woes Threaten McMurdo Resupply, Research Plans" (actually the title said it all, but to view more than the summary you needed to have a subscription or pay for access, sorry). He "hoped to tell the community in a couple of weeks that we have a resupply ship lined up..." according to the article. Meanwhile, here is what he said at the 28-29 July National Science Board meeting about this issue.

Thursday, 25 August 2011 (US time)...NSF officially announced that they had engaged a Russian icebreaker for the upcoming season! Yes...here's the press release; also a letter to participants was posted on the NSF OPP web site. let's go break some iceThere was a one-year letter contract (with renewal options) with the Murmansk Shipping Company (source of the copyrighted photo at right), for the use of the Russian diesel-powered Vladimir Ignatyuk. This vessel was originally constructed as the Arctic Kalvik in Victoria, BC in 1983, and was sold by Gulf Canada to Murmansk Shipping in 2003. Briefly, it's 289 feet long, with a beam of 58 feet, draft of 27 feet, displacement of 4,234 tons, and a maximum speed of 16 knots (more stats and a schematic layout). Other coverage...a 26 August Antarctic Sun article...this 29 August AAAS/Science Insider article, and a 26 August Russian press release from Ria Novosti. A similar sister vessel, the Terry Fox,, also used by Gulf Canada, is now a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker.

(On 5 October 2011, the NSF sole-source justification for the Murmansk Shipping contract was published on the GSA contracting site. A history of the procurement activity was provided...the result is that contract for use of the Vladimir Ignatyuk for an estimated $5.66 million this season, with two one-year option periods. Here's the Google translation of the 31 August press release from Murmansk Shipping).

Meanwhile, on 3 August 2011, the Military Sealift Command (MSC) awarded the contract for charter of the cargo vessel for the next few years...to Waterman Steamship Corporation...the Alabama-based division of multinational shipping firm International Shipholding Corporation (ISC). $10 million per year (fixed price !?) for a maximum of five years of resupply trips to McMurdo and Thule. Here's the updated link to the news item, this comes from MM&P. (The contract award announcement (is listed on this page, scroll down a bit). After the award, Waterman reflagged the Cyprus-flagged ice-rated cargo vessel Federal Patroller giving it a historical name...the Green Wave (!) Here are photos of the vessel from Google Images. On a historical note, ISC got its start in the shipping business in 1947 when the then-New Orleans-based company purchased its first vessel, a surplussed WW2 Liberty Ship that they renamed Green Wave...honoring Tulane University. Note that this vessel never ventured to Antarctica and is NOT the same one that we are more familiar with. In 1984, the MS Woermann Mira was purchased by the Navy for the Military Sealift Command (MSC) and renamed...Green Wave, and it made its first appearance at McMurdo at the end of January 1985. So the 2012 vessel is at least the third one by this name, and the second one to visit the ice.

More shipping news involved the tanker. On 1 July 2011, a MSC contract was awarded to Maersk Line, Limited (MLL) for charter of a modern US-flag ice-strengthened tanker to deliver fuel to McMurdo (and Thule) over the next few years (Maersk press release and some information about the company). This will replace the old MSC tankers that have been used up until the 2010-11 season; the T-5 tankers have been retired, partly due to old age (earlier MSC press release) and partly due to the new international regulations banning heavy fuel oil from Antarctic waters. And on 30 September 2011, Maersk officially renamed the ice-class double-hull tanker Maersk Peary. The 591-foot, 38,200 DWT (deadweight tonnes) vessel, formerly the Jutul, was built in South Korea in 2004 and flagged in the Marshall Islands. She was officially reflagged into US registry on 19 September (press release from MLL and a (Tanker Operator article). She left Norfolk on 1 October 2011, her next voyage was to resupply McMurdo in January.

Whew. After all the efforts to obtain the three vessels required for the annual McMurdo resupply, one would think that the difficulties were over. Not. They were just beginning. The sealift also required a pier at McMurdo to handle the offload. The old one used in 2010-11 had been damaged, and it actually was blown out to sea in a winter storm (2 December 2011 Antarctic Sun article about its disappearance and recovery). So work on a new one was begun. But...too much warm weather and bad weather prevented its proper completion; it was too thin to support the cargo ship offload. So...the engineers spent some time figuring out what to do. The result..after the tanker visit, it was towed out of the way, and pontoons were used for cargo offload. Where did the pontoons come from and how did they get there?

That is all part of the next chapter in the story...