The Martin Bergmann vessel set to overwinter again in CamBay
“It is a risk because it's basically unprecedented"
Here’s something you could do, but might not want to try: overwinter a boat in the Arctic.
The new research vessel, the Martin Bergmann, named after the late director of the Polar Continental Shelf Project, who died in the 2011 Resolute Bay air crash, plans to spend a second winter in Cambridge Bay doing exactly that.
You can still see the former, blue-and-white fishing trawler parked at the Cambridge Bay dock, where a light illuminates it in the growing darkness of winter.
A private, non-profit foundation, the Arctic Research Foundation, acquired the vessel, which is based out of Cambridge Bay and managed by former colleagues of Bergmann, 55, who was passionate about the Arctic and Arctic science.
The 19-metre (64 foot) ship, with a capacity of 12 passengers and crew members, contains a laboratory, winches that can be used to lower scientific equipment in and out of the water, as well as more food and fuel storage space, water makers, and enough power so that the boat can be self-sufficient for up to three weeks at a time.
But for the winter, all the water and gas has been drained out, the windows have been boarded up and all exhaust pipes removed. The ship remains attached to the dock by sturdy iron mooring lines.
“It was a huge risk to base our operations out of a northern community, and especially to overwinter a ship of this size in the ice, as we are doing,” foundation project manager Oksana Schimnowski recently told Nunatsiaq News.
“It is a risk because it’s basically unprecedented. Or those who try it, don’t do it for very long. There is a very small history of ships overwintering in the Arctic, or for that matter in the ice, and so we have to rely a lot on either much older information to assist us in guiding our operations for overwintering, or no information at all.”
That experience from the past can be discouraging.
Early European explorers, like William Parry and John Franklin, wintered over their vessels with disastrous results:
• Both Franklin’s ships the Erebus and the Terror had become trapped in the Northwest Passage late 1846 and stayed that way one and half years. In April 1848, the 105 remaining survivors deserted the ships, but no one survived and the ships were lost to the ice and sunk; and,
• During 1913 Canadian Arctic Expedition’s rendezvous at Herschel Island, the Karluk became trapped in the Arctic pack ice and, after drifting for several months, was crushed and sank in January 1914. Of the 25 aboard the Karluk, nearly half died, either during the attempts to reach land by marching over the ice, or after arrival at the temporary refuge of Wrangel Island.
But no similar human disaster can affect the Martin Bergmann because there’s no one on board during the winter.
And other ships, like Coast Guard icebreaker, the Amundsen, and even small sailboats, have managed to overwinter in the Arctic, without problems.
But there are still dangers.
Last winter, during the Martin Bergmann’s first winter in Arctic waters, the vessel suffered damages to its motors that cost more than $100,000 to repair.
“This is not a typical, nor an easy, environment to prepare for,” admits Schimnowski.
For winter of 2012-13 the Martin Bergmann’s crew positioned the vessel at a different angle from the dock.
“We believe this will work better based on the winds that were experienced before freeze-up last season. There also may be fewer tidal stress fractures at play on our vessel, though we don’t believe those were really an issue last year,” Schimnowski said.
To minimize damage, the Martin Bergmann’s team also consulted with experts who recently produced a study, called “Overwintering of barges in the Beaufort — Assessing ice issues and damage potential.”
In the report prepared for Beaufort Regional Environmental Assessment Program, engineers Anne Barker and Garry Timco from the National Research Council of Canada say there is “uncertainty concerning the damage potential for structures that may be left to freeze-in… particularly those that contain petroleum products.”
The authors conclude that a key factor in minimizing the likelihood of damage and limiting moving pack ice is to find a sheltered spot, with a limited area of ocean over which the wind can blow and produce waves.
But during the spring ice break-up, depending upon the location, ice-crushing forces can still break mooring lines and potentially damage a vessel, they say,
The team involved with the Martin Bergmann hope to avoid that expensive scenario in 2013.
In 2012, repairs also cost them two weeks of their planned six-week trip for Parks Canada, which is trying to locate Franklin’s ships — the same two that proved so unsuccessful at overwintering.
Other researchers on board the Martin Bergmann carried out seabed mapping, which will result in changes to how other ships find their way.
“Everyone’s building on each other’s knowledge,” Schimnowski said.
But she said some still point to the Martin Bergmann as a “silly little boat,” that’s over its head working in the Arctic.
“We still face many nay-sayers on a regular basis who feel compelled to tell me that ‘any work you need to do on the ship is too expensive in the North,’ or ‘major work cannot be done with the vessel in the ice or water’ or ‘this is crazy,’”she said.
“I hear the last one a lot.”
But the Martin Bergmann remains in Cambridge Bay, Schimnowski said, where it’s fully certified by Transport Canada and ready for annual operations.
“Now, things are not easy, and I’m not by any stretch saying it’s cheap. But it’s certainly not impossible,” she said.
“It takes a community of people who believe in us and believe in what we are trying to achieve. The folks planning for the future High Arctic Research Station (set to open in Cambridge Bay in 2017) are certainly impressed and are watching our success closely.”