AT THE HELM CCGS AMUNDSEN—For 20 exhilarating and anxious minutes yesterday, I got to steer a 6,000-tonne icebreaker knifing through the Arctic ice floes.
|Photo by Amundsen captain Lise Marchand|
|Peter at wheel -- Star science reporter Peter Calamai stares ahead intently as he tries to steer the icebreaker Amundsen on a steady course.|
Like most things that you watch experts do, it was nowhere as easy as it looks.
The anxiety was mostly on my part. The Amundsen’s captain Lise Marchand, who was taking my photograph, remained her usual placid and reassuring self.
The real helmsman on that watch, Vincent Gagnon, stood beside for a few moments to emphasize some of the trickier points of the job but soon wandered off.
Then it was an aging reporter alone against the hostile frozen Arctic Ocean.
(So long as you forget about the captain, quartermaster and another bridge officer, not to mention Vincent and his replacement Eve Guilbault who later took back the wheel.)
For anyone who knew what they were doing, this would have been a cakewalk. The Amundsen was retracing a path it has broken earlier in the day through relatively thin ice. We were making a mere 2.6 knots (“slow ahead”) to give scientists and crew time to clean up from a messy coring of bottom sediments. No one wanted that mud tracked back to our home berth in the ice. There was very little wind.
All the amateur helmsman had to do was keep the Amundsen centred in the already broken track. It’s not as easy as it sounds.
Remember the old joke about stopping the Queen Elizabeth II liner? Start before you know you have to.
Well it’s true with a 98-metre-long vessel as well, even one that’s just puttering along well below the potential top speed.. When you turn the wheel everything happens in slow motion.
|PHOTO BY AMUNDSEN CAPTAIN LISE MARCHAND|
|Vincent Gagnon, one of the Amundsen's real helmsman, keeps his gaze on the ice while Star science reporter Peter Calamai looks down to check the ship's bearing on an engraved brass scale on the wheel.|
The problem is that it keeps on working. I can’t remember whether the correct term is understeer or oversteer but you crank the wheel 20 degrees to port and the bow of the ship just keeps going straight ahead. Then, slowly the whole mass starts to swing left. Before you realize it, however, you’ve pointed one of the Canadian Coast Guard’s Class Three icebreakers right into an endless vista of unbroken ice. Maybe not that thick ice, but an awful lot of it.
Crank back frantically to starboard and wait anxiously for the response. Again, in slow motion, the bow swings back towards straight ahead … and then keeps on swinging, so now the ship is crunching along the right-hand margin of the path cleared that morning.
So for the first 10 minutes or so, the Amundsen slalomed its way south of Banks Island in the Western Arctic. If any of the other crew or scientists not on the bridge noticed, they were kind enough not to say anything.
Once the vessel was going more or less in a straight line, I got cocky and began chatting about photographic gear with Captain Marchand who, like me, shoots with a Nikon D200 single lens reflex camera.
The ice floes had other ideas. Something nudged the side of the ship (or maybe one propeller whacked a frozen chunk) and suddenly we were doing a marine imitation of a dog walking, at a five-degree angle off the perpendicular.
I’m fairly sure of that statistic because the person at the helm faces a panorama of electronic information displays, at least three showing the ship’s bearing. That bearing is also engraved on brass circles down at the centre of the wheel. Strangely I found myself looking more at that old-fashioned display more often than the modern LED readouts.
After 20 minutes I asked Eve Guilbault to please take over the task. Already my shoulders complained about keeping them tensed and my eyes ached.
Real Coast Guard wheelpersons may have to keep their concentration at a peak for an entire four-hour watch and often operate in the foulest weather. Whatever they’re paid, they earn every penny. And more.