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Polar Mail

May 5, 2009

Hey there, Healyonauts!

After reading Kris Swenson's comment in the May 1st update, I was left with the impression that falling through the ice might be a more common event than I thought. Has anyone actually fallen into the water during an ice station on this trip?

Steven Roth,
Silver Spring, MD


Dear Steve:

Nope—hasn’t happened. Well, one day the ice cracked and water came up, but nobody fell in. Ned Cokelet, an oceanographer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, fell in the water last year, so the other day at lunch I asked him what it was like.

“I was walking along and just punched right through up to my armpits,” he said. “I caught myself on my elbows." It all happened fast. "I have no idea how I got out.” There was a crack in the ice, it turned out, that was covered in snow.

“I had the MSD 900 and so I was quite buoyant,” he said—that’s the suit that scientists have to wear to work on the ice. “I’m a believer in those things now.” The suit is waterproof. It has little booties on the end of the legs, and the only places where water could theoretically get in are at the wrists and neck, which are very tight. After he fell through and got back out, he went back to work.

Helen Fields

My knowledge of sea-going ships comes entirely from cliches and stereotypes. How little do I really understand? I assume you don't make anyone walk the plank, but are there crew members responsible for swabbing the deck and battening down the hatches?


Dear Jason:

Well, I asked around, and it looks like your stereotypes and cliches are mostly right. I’ve definitely seen crewmembers mopping things, and I close hatches all the time, but I went to boatswain’s mate Patrick Kimmel to check on terminology.

First, swabbing the deck. Yep—those things we call “floors,” they call “decks,” and those things we call “mops,” they call “swabs.” Crewmembers are responsible for cleaning their own spaces; the engineers swab the engineering spaces, the people who cook the food swab the galley, and so on.

As for battening down hatches, there are watertight doors all over the ship, some in the wall and some in the floor. If a hatch is closed when you get to it, it’s your job to close it when you’re done with it. These hatches keep flooding or fire from spreading, so it’s not a good idea to go around propping them open. (If you want to latch open a door that’s normally closed, you have to let the engineers know so they can enter it in a log.) “Batten down” is kind of an old-fashioned term, though, says Kimmel. “Usually we just say ‘secured.’”

So, I said, nobody walks the plank anymore, right? “Well…not lately,” he said, ominously. I probably shouldn’t give him ideas.

Helen Fields