ABOARD THE CCGS AMUNDSEN—Put a wrench or a screwdriver down within reach of anybody aboard this icebreaker and they’ll pick it up and fix a piece of equipment or machinery with it.
|PETER CALAMAI PHOTO|
|Research technician Sylvain Blondeau carries out repairs under a water sampling apparatus assisted by Pascal Massot, both with the University of Laval.|
(With the exception of the two reporters/writers, that is, one of whom sometimes has problems merely connecting his laptop.)
You’d expect such mechanical dexterity from the Coast Guard crew on the Amundsen. After all they’re often all on their own thousands of miles from the nearest hardware store, much less the closest repair shop. So if they can’t fix something, it stays broken.
Yet too many people think of research scientists as nerds wearing white lab coats and peering at computer monitors or grasping foaming test tubes.
That outdated stereotype is really warped here on a ship out in the midst of the frozen Arctic Ocean. A walk around the labs shoehorned into crannies and deck containers reveals example upon example of inventiveness with rubber hoses, bungee cords, clamps (plastic and metal), foam board, alligator clips and that reliable stand-by, tin foil.
Sure there are fragile custom-made glass components for air sampling that cost $800 a pop. But there are also passive air samplers cobbled together out of two stainless steel salad bowls, a threaded rod and a few washers and spacers (total cost: about $25).
When the researchers can’t fix something themselves, they turn to the ship’s experts, like the busy electrician Rémi Bisaillon who performs miracles by the hour such as hooking up a 240-volt European air pump that’s 50 metres away from the ship (with distance, voltage drops and amperage rises).
Or the scientists turn to research technicians such as Sylvain Blondeau from Laval University, who works with colleagues Luc Michaud and Pascal Massot. It’s not exaggerating to say that without these three a lot less science would be accomplished on and off the Amundsen.
For example, Sylvain used heaters to unblock a frozen fuel line in the Bombardier BR ski cab, which had died five kilometers away from the ship. He taught himself hydraulics to commission a 10-tonne A-frame winch when the ship sailed before the manufacturers could finish the job. And over the past several days he brought the winch back to life from its winter hibernation on the port foredeck
Perforating the ice to free the ship took its toll on the Amundsen’s population of gas-powered augers and chain saws and it was Sylvain and colleagues who patched up the mechanical causalities and sent them back into the front lines.
Just this morning Sylvain was squirming under the water-sampling apparatus called a rosette to repair a flange, with Pascal assisting. They had to remove the recalcitrant part and clamp it in a vise in the ship’s machine shop.
When a bolt sheared off, they didn’t even swear. That part is now back in working order on the rosette.