CAPTAIN HAMILTON’S IMPECCABLE INSTINCT FOR THE ICE
Jason Hamilton navigates the USCGC Healy through waters that other captains would fear about as much as a hurricane. If he makes a mistake, help is thousands of miles away. But how do you actually read an ice field? How do you cleave a wall of icebergs? And how do you stay on track in the polar winter? id reached out to an icebreaker captain on his way back from an Arctic mission…
I “t feels like an earthquake, when around 16,000 tons of steel are hurled against a mountain made of ice at about 8 miles per hour,” explains Captain Jason R. Hamilton, who has been living in earthquakestricken California for a long time. The 420-foot-long U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker vessel Healy shudders, as if it were about to lose this fight against the formidable field of ice. Mingling with the cracking, bursting sound of the ice giving way is the deep rumble of the broken pieces scraping along the ship’s hull. The colossus moves ever more slowly before suddenly groaning to a halt. Silence. On deck, the raging – 20°F squall drowns out the four engines churning deep in the engine room. Their 30,000 hp is not enough. Still, the maneuver is a success: Healy is now a few yards closer to its goal…
HOW DO YOU SPLIT AN ICEBERG?
The critical moment is now at hand, as Hamilton exposes the vessel’s Achilles heel to the Arctic Ocean: In a procedure known as “boxing,” Healy reverses for two or three ship lengths every 20 to 30 minutes to build up a running start for ramming. But when the ship is in reverse gear, the propellers and rudder at its rear are unprotected against ice and can sustain major damage in a collision.
“Sometimes we have to hammer into a towering 10-foot-tall ice wall created by ice floes to get through,” explains Hamilton on his return trip from an Arctic expedition, during which he spoke to id by phone from the bridge of his ship. The whole thing works like felling a tree: Always aim sideways and make the notch bigger with every stroke, otherwise an ax—or a ship—can get stuck. There are places where ice reaches 40 feet down into the ocean. “At that point if a storm came, you’d need a week to go 2 miles,” says Hamilton.
But such a dangerous ride is the exception rather than the rule, as it can place people’s lives in danger. And if Captain Hamilton and his crew cannot get through, no one else can. They are the last best hope: Despite what expedition photos may show, the Arctic Ocean is always in motion.