Last modified: Thursday, February 06, 2014
EDITOR’S NOTE: The author, an emeritus professor of geography at the University of Massachusetts, says he was inspired by the January rescue of passengers from the Russian vessel MV Akademik Shokalskiy to recall his Navy experience in Antarctica, including his ship’s “besetting” in the Antarctic ice pack.


At 0900 hours one fine morning in June 1962, I conducted some 30 classmates in the Navy hymn “Eternal Father, Strong to Save,”­ a role assigned to me as the only Glee Club member among the graduates in the Yale University Naval ROTC program.

Feeling rather dashing in our dress whites and military hair cuts, we were commissioned as ensigns, the lowliest officer rank in the Navy but still earning a salute from a veteran petty officer as we filed past.

Unlike my classmates who chose flight training, destroyers, submarines, or the Marine Corps (some of them later serving in Vietnam), I requested assignment to an icebreaker and, not surprisingly, my request was granted.

Three weeks after graduation, the Navy icebreaker U.S.S. Edisto departed Boston Harbor for Labrador and Greenland with me on board. This unorthodox choice of duty was in fact a byproduct of my father’s infatuation with the Arctic, where he twice ventured on natural history missions aboard the schooner Bowdoin with the renowned explorer Donald B. MacMillan.

My two years aboard Edisto took me north to Labrador and Greenland for two summer seasons. Between those deployments, we headed south to Antarctica via the Panama Canal and New Zealand — an epic eight-month voyage in the wake of Captain Cook, Scott, Amundsen, Shackleton, Byrd — and at times, Captain Ahab.

I was duly “baptized” in crossing the Arctic Circle, the Equator and the Antarctic Circle in one year.

For me, 21 years old when it began, this was a time of intense challenge and rapid growing-up. I sailed 40,000 miles to and from the ends of the earth. I learned how to “con” a ship as “officer of the deck,” how to command crew members twice my age (while learning from them what I was supposed to command them to do) and how to drink beer in a foggy Labrador Bay while circling the ship on a landing craft (alcohol being banned on the ship itself but not its boats). It was a time of high adventure interspersed with periods of utter boredom, or the other way around.

Edisto was built just after World War II, the last of seven “Wind Class” icebreakers designed to support military and scientific missions in polar regions. The ship was 269 feet long, 63 feet wide, and weighed about 6,500 tons fully loaded. She was powered by six 2,000-horsepower diesel engines harnessed to two electric motors which drove the ship’s twin massive 15-foot propellers. The lower face of the bow angled sharply sternward to allow the ship to ride up on ice flows, breaking through them (sometimes) with the ship’s weight and forward momentum. The ship’s company included about a dozen officers and 220 enlisted crew members.

After two months in arctic waters, we returned to the Boston Navy Yard to prepare for the long deployment to Antarctica. Like sailing ships of yore, we departed in October 1962 for a long and dangerous voyage of unknown duration. We rounded Cape Cod and steamed down the East Coast to the Caribbean, sleeping on deck in the tropics. We passed east of Cuba one sultry night and continued to Panama and the Pacific. Only a week later, the waters we had just traversed became the focus of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but we were out of touch with world news and learned about it only when we reached New Zealand.

Refreshed, refueled and reprovisioned after five days in Christchurch, we steamed south past Campbell Island into the 3,000 miles of maritime hell between New Zealand and Antarctica. The Edisto, which could roll in a flat calm, careened through 90-degree arcs as we crossed the “Roaring Forties,” the “Furious Fifties” and the “Screaming Sixties” (referring to latitude south of the Equator). The ship heaved, bucked, rolled and shuddered as thunderous seas reached as high as the radar above the bridge. Edisto was sealed up like a submarine with no one allowed on deck for any reason. Bridge watches were spent clinging to handholds and radar stands.

Unappealing meals were consumed, if at all, at tables equipped with retaining wires to prevent chairs from toppling over backwards. Sleeping was practically impossible in heaving bunks, except for those salty mariners who provided themselves with hammocks in the sailing ship tradition.

Of course, the further south we went, the colder it became. After crossing the Antarctic Circle, breaking seas began to form a mantle of ice on all exposed surfaces, adding tons of weight above the water line and making the ship roll even more violently. Ten days out of New Zealand we finally reached the South Polar ice pack, a girdle of floating sea ice extending up to 60 miles from the Antarctic coast.

Once we entered the pack, the ship finally leveled off and the crew poured out on deck to breathe fresh air and begin de-icing the topsides.

However, we soon experienced the Antarctic equivalent of “out of the frying pan and into the fire.” No sooner had we regained some semblance of normality in the pack ice than we became stuck. Still 50-some miles from our destination at McMurdo Sound, and far out of reach of any rescue ship, we were entirely on our own.

Like an automobile caught in a snowdrift, we tried to ram the ship forward and back with all our six diesels pushed to their limits. No progress. After rolling our hearts out for the previous two weeks, we now tried to force the ship to roll by pumping fuel and water from tanks on one side to the other and hanging boats overboard on davits. Dynamite was inserted into the ice near the bow and exploded. A lot of ice chips flew around but the ship didn’t budge.

Someone suggested that the entire crew move to one side and jump up and down in unison. Still no progress. Would we have to abandon ship before the fuel and food ran out — like Shackleton in 1914?

Fortunately, after a couple of days the ice pack loosened its grip and we resumed bashing our way towards the principal U.S. Antarctic base at McMurdo Sound.

During the busy summer season, McMurdo was and is the logistical hub for the outlying scientific stations scattered around the continent including one at the South Pole itself.

Unlike the high-tech complex of today, the base in 1962 was a motley collection of orange thermal huts providing living and working space for 200 scientists and support staff during the summer season. During the dark months from May until November, these dwindled to a few dozen who “wintered over” with no sea or air connection to the outside world.

McMurdo’s iconic backdrop is the 14,000-foot Mount Erebus, an ice-sheathed active volcano that shimmers and simmers against the blue skies of the Antarctic summer. Closer at hand, we often encountered seals slumbering near open leads in the pack ice. Most entertaining were the swarms of smaller (12-inch tall) Adelie penguins, and their solemn big sibling, the Emperors. All penguins are irresistible and they provided comic relief frequently during our long hours and days of ice-bashing.

A port too far

We never actually reached McMurdo. We broke our way to within a few miles of the base but could get no closer due to the thickness of the ice pack.

Also, the air strip serving the cargo flights from New Zealand was on the ice near shore, and we didn’t want to plow up the airport. With no piers and water far too deep to anchor, we remained “at sea” for the entire five months between departing and returning to New Zealand. Occasionally, we would tie up to the pack with ice anchors and let the crew play football and drink beer. Bridge watches continued nevertheless and we officers of the deck had only one night in four of uninterrupted sleep.

We rendezvoused with two other icebreakers near McMurdo: our Coast Guard sister ship Eastwind and the somewhat larger and clumsier Glacier (self-described as the free world’s largest icebreaker). For weeks, we operated as a trio of oversized tugboats, hauling supply vessels 60 miles into McMurdo and back to open water.

When we first arrived, the McMurdo inhabitants were very cold. An ill-fated experiment with a “pocket nuclear plant” had proven useless and the base was almost out of diesel oil. They laid an emergency pipeline out to an ice-strengthened tanker which we had brought as near the base as possible. Unfortunately, the pipeline leaked and untold amounts of petroleum spilled into the pristine marine ecosystem. Helicopters flew back and forth between the ship and McMurdo, bringing mail and supplies and giving the captain and senior officers opportunities to go ashore. However, such privileges did not extend to lowly ensigns. I would never have set foot at McMurdo but for a stomach ache. Thinking I had appendicitis, the ship’s doctor ordered me to be flown to the base clinic. Fortunately, I recovered before they operated on me and I had a few hours to wander around McMurdo and chat with some of its personnel.

Accidents were common in those unpredictable conditions. One bright sunny “night” we were directed to turn around a cargo ship called the Arneb and tow her up the channel to open water. Someone who must have flunked high school physics directed that we pull Arneb’s bow around while her stern was held steady by a tow cable to a bulldozer on the ice pack. But a 15-ton bulldozer is no match for a 6,000-ton icebreaker and a 10,000-ton cargo ship. As our wire cable to Arneb went taut, both ships began to drift forward, dragging the bulldozer towards the edge of the pack. The driver frantically paid out all the cable and leaped for his life as the big yellow machine dropped into a couple thousand feet of water. Luckily for the Arneb, an alert crew member cut the wire with a blowtorch at the last minute (at great danger to himself) or the dozer’s cable would have lacerated the ship’s stern, possibly sinking her.

Sometime in mid-February, as the pack thinned and the resupply season wound down, we were no longer needed for channel maintenance. For the next month or so, we were assigned to the dreaded activity known as “ocean stations.” We left the pack ice behind and steamed from one point to another as selected by two oceanographers who had “dropped in” by helicopter. At each station we stopped for hours of exhausting, stomach-churning rolling while the scientists lowered their bottom sampling gear and hauled up cores of sediments and marine organisms.

As February wore into March, the sun dipped below the horizon for the first time in months, and pack ice began to form once again. At last, we steamed north across those stormy seas, gaining warmth as we approached New Zealand in its autumn. Our nearly five months below the Antarctic Circle set a new record for modern naval deployments in the region. Upon tying up in Christchurch’s port, the ship’s crew organized a whale of a party.