Breaking the Ice

Breaking the Ice

A century after Roald Amundsen's voyage in the search for a Northwest Passage, Alvo Martin '51 followed the same spectacular route on a Coast Guard icebreaker and research ship.

By Robert Gillespie

For six weeks last July and August, before heading west from Thule, Greenland, and entering Lancaster Sound on the 1,500-mile transit of the Northwest Passage to Alaska, the Healy worked along the far northern tip of Greenland, sweeping the ocean floor with sophisticated Seabeam sonar to generate pictures revealing bottom relief, slope and depth contours. Mapping identifies continental shelves and ocean basins where currents interact and enables comparison with earlier sonar findings recorded by submarines operating in the Arctic Archipelago.

Martin boarded the ship in late August, at Thule, on the northernmost coast of Greenland. Two months earlier he'd been invited to the Healy's change of command ceremonies in Seattle and met up with former shipmates. "I was on the Healy having a nice time. Maybe I said to somebody that my L.L. Beans were packed and ready," he said. Nobody had to shanghai him for a second crack at the Arctic.

The U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker and research ship Healy, during its Northwest Passage voyage. The ship can ram through ice eight feet thick.
Heading west from Thule, the Healy continued mapping the seafloor and began initial studies of major freshwater fluxes that exit the Arctic through the Nares Strait and enter the North Atlantic between Greenland and Ellesmere Island. As the ship transited the Northwest Passage on its way to map the seafloor of the Bering Strait in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas north of Barrow, Alaska, naturalists "counted noses" of birds, seals, polar bears and whales for comparison by future investigators.

Even with a dozen oceanographers, geologists and biologists aboard ship, the Healy's mission was only partly scientific. The ship's transit of the Northwest Passage commemorated the 100th anniversary of Amundsen's voyage, a historic feat that invited Martin to write up comparisons of the two expeditions. The articles were available on the Coast Guard public affairs Internet site ( under Northwest Passage).

"To help earn my keep," he said, he produced human interest stories about a region that "remains one of the least known places on earth." Amundsen's ship, for instance, the Gjoa (pronounced Ur'ah), was a 70-foot, 47-ton herring fishing boat carrying a crew of seven. Only with the help of a 13-horsepower two-cylinder steam engine was the vessel able to wiggle through ice floes in its voyage through the Northwest Passage. Compared with the fragile Gjoa, the Healy braved conditions a good deal less challenging. Powered by a 30,000-horsepower engine and built with an ice-crushing 1 5/8-inch steel skin, the 420-foot Healy displaces 16,000 tons, a heft that explains the ship's 29-foot draft.

"Healy can bust through ice four feet thick while steaming at a speed of several knots," Martin said. By backing and ramming, "you can punch through ice pressure ridges up to eight feet thick. She's really a tough nut."
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