Hard lessons

by Guest Blogger

December 13, 2005

Not many folks elect to put small boats in the water off a ship in the Southern Ocean; Greenpeace is among the few who do. Our ships always carry rigid-hulled inflatable boats with them wherever they go, and we train continually for using them in a variety of seas and circumstances. While the crew on the Esperanza is well experienced in rough weather boat launching, it’s something new for me – although I’ve operated Greenpeace inflatables for years now, this is the first time from a ship.

One particular day earlier last week should serve to give you an idea of the working environment down here, and the nature of “launch and recovery” operations on board. “Launch and recovery” refers to taking the boat off the deck of the ship with a crane, bringing it over the side railing (where we, the driver and one crew, climb in), lowering it down in the water and releasing it after we start it up.

A few days ago we launched in pretty rowdy seas, to do some testing of recent modifications and some driving training. While the launch conditions were not outside what the crew considers safe, it was an eye-opener for me: We just don’t get water like this very often in the Chesapeake Bay!

The launch went pretty smoothly overall and the seas seemed ok. Our first goal was to pick up a few folks from the pilot door. As we came around to make the approach to the pilot door, we had a strong following sea with over 14 foot or so foot waves and the Espy was rolling fairly well. What I didn’t expect was how much chunky stuff the ship has running along her hull: There’s a half-pipe seam below the pilot door that sticks out at least a good 9 inches or so, plus some diagonal bar work on either side of the door. I came along side ok, but when I tried to turn in to hold the boat aside, the solid aluminum bow structure at the front of the boat would catch on some of that stuff and then trouble began. A few times we got hooked up with the ship and then bucked off; another time the ship came down on the tip of the boat’s bowpoint and drove us down, swamping us pretty good. The captain made a course and speed change along the way which eased the wave action some, but it was still very difficult not to get tangled up.

I backed off and gave it a thought, realized that I had to avoid getting the bow too close in, and came around for a second pass. That time, I never made contact with the aluminum bowpoint, and had the boat steady along the pilot door. We were rising and falling at least a dozen feet at a time. Sometimes we were halfway up the pilot door, sending water into the ‘wetroom’ and being only a few feet from our colleagues standing inside, then a second later we’d be falling and the hull of the Espy would rise up and tower above us.

We tried like hell for something like half an hour, but it was never safe enough to load anyone. We finally abandoned the effort and headed over the Arctic Sunrise, about a half mile away, to pick up some dental supplies our doctor asked us to retrieve – on the way there and back we were climbing waves like mountains, literally climbing up one side, easing over and then running fast down the backsides.

When we came alongside for recovery, the sea had really picked up. Despite that, we came onto the painter very smoothly and things were going well. The crane came down and there were some tense moments as we were bucking around a lot due to the waves and the ships’ motions, but we finally snagged the hook and clipped in.

As we were being raised, I noticed the leg lanyard (which connects the driver to a ‘kill switch’ that automatically turns the engine off if the driver falls overboard) was still attached to me and had taken a turn around the lifting strap, preventing me from

moving up to the seat area, the safest place to be during lifting. As I leaned down to take it off, a wave rolled the Esperanza and we sailed out from the railing about 4 or 5 feet. I felt the sensation so I glanced up to see what was happening, but it was too late – we were heading back at the ship hard and fast and before I could duck, the boat hit the ship and I slammed my cheekbone on one of the metal grab handles on the side of the cockpit. It was a solid hit. Jetske, my crewmember, was right on top of it and was telling me to sit down low in the boat, which was indeed a good suggestion at the time. If I’d gone overboard, even in my survival gear, the day could have ended very badly. As it is, I was on deck by noon the next day, pulling aluminum off the bow.

The bosun said something sound to me about the incident. He said, “Experience is a hard teacher: she gives you the test first, then she provides the lesson”. We’ve made the modifications to the boat now, and I can’t wait to get back in it again.

– Nathan

(photo ©Greenpeace/Sutton-Hibbert)

[This update is actually from a while back, but Nathan only recently wrote it up. He’s already been back out training quite a lot since all this. In fact, boat training is going on pretty much every day the weather permits.

The photo is from today. These spiffy bright orange helmets you’ll see our drivers wearing were bought especially for this expedition, and the necessary communications gear to go with them has only recently been installed.]

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