|PETER CALAMAI/TORONTO STAR|
|The initial wave of evacuees from the Amundsen huddle on the ice in a General Alarm drill. Several score more would join after checking lifeboats and manhandling the ship's helicopter out of its hanger.|
ABOARD CCGS AMUNDSEN–The claxon sounded its seven short and one long blasts right on schedule at 2 in the afternoon. If it had been a real General Alarm someone would likely have slung me over their shoulder and bundled me rapidly off the Amundsen icebreaker.
But since it was merely a drill the Coast Guard crew and scientists indulgently allowed the old-guy reporter to edge down the ship’s gangway, picking my way so slowly you’d have thought that the humongous Baffin boots (guaranteed to minus 60 C) came with stiletto heels.
I tried rationalizing that the ship was riding higher in the ice – and therefore the gangway was at a much steeper angle -- than when I managed the same feat far less tentatively in 2004.
And later, Captain Lise Marchand kindly agreed that the Amundsen was light on fuel and would ride higher. But she also agreed, with a smile, with my analysis that four more years and 20 extra pounds probably did not help my ability to quickly evacuate a ship supposedly threatened by a fire.
Another lesson which the drill brought home is the vulnerability of the cozy ship that is home to 40 scientists and roughly the same number of crew. When you’re onboard it’s a self-contained community offering warm beds, three hot meals a day, both satellite and closed-circuit TV, Internet access, lounges, a workout room (claustrophobic through it may be) and your name printed on a card outside the cabin door.
But when four score individuals are huddled on the ice for almost an hour, guarded against polar bears by several men with guns and against the cold only by their parkas and Baffin boots, you appreciate just how fragile is the bubble that protects us from hypothermia, frost bite and possibly death.
The nearest help is at least a hour-and-a-half flying time away and the planes that would come usually hold about 15 passengers.
If there were a real fire, lives would depend on whether the ship’s personnel could put it out quickly. If not, the crew would have to get the emergency supplies down to the ice right away. And an overweight, arthritic 64-year-old would have to move a lot faster.