ABOARD CCGS AMUNDSEN – The icebreaker Amundsen is just like any other steamship you’ve been on – except that is crashes through metre-thick ice and all its inner workings are exposed.
Walk the 98-metre length of the ship inside on the main deck and four times you’ll have to step up six inches to pass through emergency bulkheads. Maybe passengers on cruise ships realize such doors exist but they aren’t drilled in how to operate them manually should the power fail.
|Swedish researchers Agneta Fransson and Melissa Chierici of University of Gothenburg pass supplies down one the Amundsen's many stairways.|
Going outside also provides a reminder that you are on a workaday vessel which, when it isn’t ferrying scientists around the Arctic, earns its pay keeping shipping lanes free of ice in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. There are genteel wood doors with glass windows – as on cruise ships – but on the main deck they open into forbidding metal vestibules from which escape is through a water-tight door.
It’s opened by spinning a wheel that engages steel rods at four corners plus the top and bottom, with a satisfying kerchunk. Exiting requires stepping up well over a foot.
There are loads more examples – the long fire axes on the corridor walls, brilliant red pipes with mystifying markings, corridor handholds draped with drying mittens.
For me, however, the most satisfying reminder that this isn’t some namby-pamby passenger ship are the dozen or more yellowing plans that have been lovingly preserved behind glass in frames and mounted on the walls of the two most heavily trafficked decks – Upper and Main.
The drawings were done in the late 1970s when this ship was built at the Burrard Dry Dock Co. Ltd. in B.C. Hand-drawn and hand-lettered, they quietly proclaim the skill of those draftsmen and also the pride which that company took in building well.
The engine room plan is mesmerizing, with neat notations of additions and subtractions from the original design. Even more remarkable are the drawings of the ship’s intestines – the bilge and ballast pumps – and its dual circulation systems -- for fuel oil and fresh water.
The drawings also reveal some of what was lost when the Franklin, the name by which this ship was commissioned, was saved from the scrapyard and converted into a floating centre for Arctic research.
The Franklin boasted a substantial gymnasium and also a “hobby room,” both sacrificed to housing 40 researchers and their equipment. As well the ship originally had cabins reserved for “hydrographers” and “ice observers.” These have vanished too with the loss of some maritime romance in the bargain.
There’s one aspect of the Franklin/Amundsen’s design that doesn’t come across that well in the drawings, both historical and modern.
That’s the stairs. From the bridge to the main deck embraces five flights of stairs, with narrow treads and steep risers. In all, there are 55 steps. Then there are all the stairs outside and a further 15 steps down into the engine room, off limits without special permission.
On the Amundsen many people probably go up and down a thousand steps in a day. I’m sure that I’m managing at least 500. Finally I’m doing the step exercises which the physiotherapists ordered after my hip replacement operation last June.