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Nature Through the Eyes of an Ice Navigator


The nature was, perhaps, always beautiful with its blend of diversified geographical features – the vast expanse of ocean, the endless chasm of seabed, the insurmountable mountain peak, the topsy turvy valleys, chilly hot desert or milky white ice. It is we unfortunates who can’t feel it because either our senses have gone numb or because our brain is pre-occupied and shielded with the electronic image of the present world transmitted through our eyes when they are open and a photocopy of above even when they are closed. That is why perhaps the word ‘perhaps’ serves as the rightly used preposition.

Having said that, blessed are those opportunes who get an opportunity to feel the nature from the core of their heart, from the deepest of their senses and to the wildest of their imaginations. Blessed are we seafarers.

But, no pleasure in life comes unaccompanied by the struggles. Navigating in ice is one such example. The very first sight of ice brings with itself entire gamut of feelings, excitement for the debutants, warning for the experienced, romance for the lovebirds, thrill for the flamboyant, fear for few but hope for the optimists.

Navigating a ship in ice is not easy. Conditions are tough out there. Air temperature may range anywhere from zero to minus forty degrees. The whole sea is covered with a thick layer of ice and no water is seen anywhere. In such cases, continuous monitoring and care needs to be taken for long hours. Engines have to be on continuous maneuvering. Speed has to be adjusted depending upon the ice thickness and type – full ahead for soupy layer of ice giving a matt appearance called grease ice, half ahead for flat floating pieces known as ice cakes and maybe slow ahead for circular pieces of ice with raised rims termed as pancakes. No empirical formula, as such. It has to be the discretion of captain based on experience and recommendations. In such situations, ice radar helps but not all ships are equipped with such equipments.


Moreover, additional lookouts may have to be posted. And yet, the possibility of getting stuck in ice more often than not can’t be neglected. If a layman were to see this, it would be ridiculous for him to see how a small ice breaker moves so freely in ice compared to a ten times larger vessel stranded for help. It looks such an easy job when the icebreaker passes the ship at very close range breaking the ice underneath and causing the ice on shipside to drift towards the space created thus clearing the ship’s path.

Furthermore, in temperatures below minus twenty degrees, life becomes pathetic for the mooring gangs posted at their respective stations with a hope that the ship berths quickly. But to their bad luck, it sometimes takes more than an hour to close that final ten metres separation between the vessel and the berth even after assisted by three tugs and an ice breaker which is continuously on its toes to avoid any ice formation and re-formation in the path of the vessel.

Among the other problems faced by seafarers are cargo and security watches for long periods of time in unsheltered areas, sometimes uninterrupted by a break. Conditions become even worse if it is windy. Under such situations, while continuous walking to keep up the body heat poses a slip and trip hazard, standing idly may decrease the body’s resistance. It becomes very difficult to maintain the highest safety standards when the brain becomes semi paralyzed in its thoughts, hand becomes numb and eyes blue.

The very thought of this might seem scary to even the most intrepid seafarer of all times. But tough, as it may seem to every other human being, isn’t the case really for these seamen who have adapted themselves to these conditions to the extent that they have become a part of the natural ecological cycle. The seafarers are, indeed, one of the most gallant and resolute brand of creature ever produced by the Mother Nature.

Contributing Author: Rohit Lal, 2nd officer, merchant navy, working on oil tankers, part time writer. [email protected]

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