MSC Chartered Ships MV Ocean Giant, MT Maersk Peary Successfully Complete Cargo Operations In Support of Operation Deep Freeze 2018
By Sarah Burford, Military Sealift Command Pacific Public Affairs
For 63 years, Military Sealift Command ships have made the arduous journey to McMurdo Station Antarctica to deliver supplies and fuel for the remote scientific base.
This year was no different as MSC chartered ships MV Ocean Giant and MT Maersk Peary successfully completed the annual resupply mission Operation Deep Freeze 2018, delivering most of the dry cargo, food and fuel needed for the year at the remote arctic outpost to function.
The dry cargo mission began Dec. 26, in Port Hueneme, California, with the load-out of the MSC chartered ship MV Ocean Giant.
Navy Reservists from MSC’s Expeditionary Port Unit (EPU) 114 coordinated all aspects of the load-out of nearly 7 million pounds of cargo in 498 containers filled will food, mechanical parts, vehicles, construction materials, office supplies and electronics equipment, and much more.
The five members of EPU-114 were tasked with liaisoning with all the parties involved in the load-out which include Ocean Giant’s crew, port workers, stevedores and members of the National Science Foundation.
Using only cranes, the cargo was loaded onto the ships in a specific order which was coordinated well in advance of the mission.
“The ODF mission is very different from any of the other mission/exercise load-outs we conduct over a year,” said Lt. Cmdr. Benjamin Meyer, EPU-114’s executive officer. “The cargo we normally deal with is military vehicles and equipment. Here, things range from sodas and food, to HAZMAT and construction materials. There are significant weight differences between lifts that have to be accounted. The operation is changing all the time because of the very specific order of the load-out. If something is loaded in the wrong order and has to come off, then we have to pull everything off to that point and start all over.”
Ocean Giant departed Port Hueneme, on time, on Dec. 31, en route Christchurch, New Zealand, where the ship loaded additional cargo, before transiting to the ice-pier at McMurdo Station, Antarctica.
On Jan. 25, Ocean Giant arrived in Antarctica and was met by Seabees from Navy Cargo Handling Battalion ONE (NCHB -1) homeported in Williamsburg, Virginia.
The team worked with Ocean Giant’s crew, and the MSC representative, to execute a safe and efficient offload and back-load of various containers, breakbulk, and special lifts. Additionally, close coordination was maintained between NCHB-1 and the Antarctic Support Contract logistics team who managed the loads and stow plans for United States Antarctic Program, as well as the New Zealand Defense Force who assisted with rigging and transporting loads from the pier to designated lay-down areas. NCHB-1 has participated in ODF for more than 60 years. During the first resupply mission, they were known as Special Stevedore Battalions within the U.S. Navy Seabees, also known as ‘Seabee Specials’.
Following the offload, Ocean Giant was loaded with ice core samples that were stored on the ship in sub-zero freezer containers. The ice core samples were delivered to the United States for scientific study. In addition, 1000 containers of retrograde cargo were also loaded onto the ship for transportation off the continent. These include trash and recyclable materials for disposal and equipment no longer required on the station.
On Feb. 1, Ocean Giant concluded its mission and departed the ice-pier. It was followed the same day, by the arrival of Maersk Peary. The two ships passed each other, coming and going in Winters Quarters Bay.
Over the next five days, Peary delivered nearly 5 million gallons of diesel fuel and 500,000 gallons of aviation fuel. This combination of fuels is 100 percent of the fuel needed for the next year’s support of the remote outpost at McMurdo Station.
Each year, with each mission, the crews of the ships and the support teams on the ground face a unique set of challenges. Antarctica is known for some of the toughest and most unpredictable weather on the planet and this year was no different. Because of Antarctica’s geographical location, ships must cross the latitudes 50-70 where storms rage one after the other. Ship captains liken it to, “Running across a major highway with cars coming one after the other.” Even when ships are diverted to another course, chances are they will encounter another storm. Ship captains take it all in stride, and report feeling a sense of adventure and accomplishment when they arrive safely at the ice-pier.
Tanker ships require relatively calm seas and low winds to safely navigate to the ice-pier.
On Feb. 1, with the silhouette of Peary in the distance, all eyes were on the weather. As the tanker ship made the approach to Winter’s Quarters Bay, the winds were registering 20 plus knots, and the captain was radioing in, “Sorry guys, I’m not going to attempt an arrival in these conditions.” Keeping safety in the forefront, a pause was taken. Within an hour, the winds had dropped to 15 knots and the ship was on its way to the pier.
For workers arriving by air, just getting to the continent is a challenge. There are no commercial flights to McMurdo Station. Those that arrive from the air must take a series of flights to Christ Church, New Zealand, where they board a military flight on a C-17 or C-130. Military flights are far from the luxurious experience of a Virgin Atlantic airliner. No movies; no reclining seats, no flight attendants serving drinks and snacks; if you are lucky enough to get a place on a flight to the “Ice”, it’s bare bones accommodations, sling seats, with only the snacks you carry on yourself.
“The first thing I look forward to once arriving to Antarctica is that first big intake of air as we are departing the airplane. It is amazing to me!” said Larry Larsson, MSC’s representative in Antarctica. “The smell, taste and feeling of natural air, with no man made pollutants; it’s pristine. You almost feel perfectly healthy. It’s like you’ve been infused with a natural adrenaline.”
For everyone, whether on a ship’s crew, or working on shore, the weather conditions at McMurdo Station are always a factor and can vary from day to day. One day it could be in the mid 30’s and then -20 Fahrenheit with gale force winds the next. The workers consider these conditions a blessing. After all, it is currently summer in Antarctica, for the scientists work there over the winter, the average temperature is -59 degrees Fahrenheit.
“On Jan. 22, it snowed,” said Larsson. “Snow is nice for just one day, but it’s not very conducive for safe cargo operations. Snow makes for very slippery conditions, nothing good can come out of snow and cargo operations. Accidents can happen anytime anyplace, we all need to be extra cautious when Mother Nature adds a degree of difficulty to an already difficult operation.”
Personnel working in Antarctica know the reputation of the continent, anticipate harsh conditions and plan accordingly. Everyone bundled in heavy winter clothes, and exposure time was limited, but no matter how much planning is done, nothing can prepare you for the South Pole environment.
“When you walk outside, the wind finds that area that you thought you had covered with your coat, neck warmer, gloves and stocking cap. Immediately you realize it’s going to be a shockingly cold walk to work,” said Larsson. “It was so cold; my head felt like I had taken a large bite out of a snow cone and I got a massive ice cream headache. My mouth went burning numb and seconds later my head was pounding.”
Despite the arduous conditions and long working hours, the professionalism of the team shines through, and the mission goes on.
“By tomorrow all the glitz and glamor of being in Antarctica will have worn off and we all will have to take a real gut check to reach down to work through the constant coldness,” explained Larsson. “That’s when we realize that we are here to support a very important mission and be in the history books as one of the very few that have set foot on the continent Antarctica.”
Every person who participates in the ODF mission walks away with their own experiences and their own reasons for making the trip. For some, this will be their only mission. For others, it’s an annual trip to a place that keeps them coming back. For Larsson a twelve-year veteran of ODF, it is a series of milestones that begins with the first piece of cargo being loaded onto the ship in Port Hueneme. It’s meeting new people, problem solving to get the ships in and offloaded on schedule, getting the ships home again and getting the crews the recognition they deserve for a job well done.
“I really can’t name all the things that I touch or assisted other departments with,” said Larsson. “At the end of each season, when I’m ready to get on the C-17 to fly back to Christchurch, I actually feel like I really have made a difference, and that’s why I continue to return each year.”
Operation Deep Freeze is a joint service, on-going Defense Support to Civilian Authorities activity in support of the National Science Foundation (NSF), lead agency for the United States Antarctic Program. Mission support consists of active duty, Guard and Reserve personnel from the U.S. Air Force, Navy, Army, and Coast Guard as well as Department of Defense civilians and attached non-DOD civilians.