Military Sealift Command Chartered Ship Arrives in Antarctica in Support of Operation Deep Freeze 2018

The following blog post is the second in a series highlighting MSC’s role in Operation Deep Freeze (ODF) 2018. The purpose of ODF is to provide logistical support to the U.S. Antarctic Program via Department of Defense assets. MSC has supported ODF since McMurdo Station was established in 1955, providing supplies and fuel to scientists operating from the remote base

Military Sealift Command-chartered container ship MV Ocean Giant arrived safely at the ice-pier at McMurdo Station, Antarctica, following a one day delay because of weather, and is currently conducting cargo offloads. The operation is part of MSC’s annual resupply mission in support of Operation Deep Freeze, the Joint Task Force Support for Antarctica mission to resupply the remote scientific outpost.

Ocean Giant, whose mission began in late December, with a loadout of dry cargo in Port Hueneme, Calif., is delivering 490 containers and various breakbulk equaling nearly 7 million pounds of supplies such as frozen and dry food stores, building materials, vehicles, and electronic equipment and parts. Following the offload, 450 containers of retrograde as well as ice-core samples for scientific study, will be loaded onto the ship and returned to Port Hueneme.

Military Sealift Command chartered ship MV Ocean Giant arrives at the McMurdo Station, Antarctica ice-pier to begin cargo offload in support of Operation Deep Freeze 2018.

Seabees from Navy Cargo Handling Battalion ONE (NCHB -1) homeported in Williamsburg, Va. are working around-the-clock offloading the cargo. The Cargo Handlers work with Ocean Giant’s crew, and the MSC representative, to execute a safe and efficient offload and backload of various containers, breakbulk, and special lifts. Additionally, close coordination is required between NCHB-1 and the Antarctic Support Contract logistics team who manage the loads and stow plans for United States Antarctic Program, as well as the New Zealand Defense Force who assist with rigging and transporting loads from the pier to designated laydown areas.  NCHB-1 has been participating in ODF for more than 60 years; the first being when they were known as Special Stevedore Battalions within the U.S. Navy Seabees, also known as ‘Seabee Specials’.

Seabees of the Navy Cargo Handling Battalion ONE work around the clock to offload the cargo from MV Ocean Giant.

Cargo missions are nothing new for MSC. They are the backbone of our support to the Navy and to all the service branches.  MSC ships operate in a wide variety of climates and conditions, but nothing like the unforgiving environment of Antarctica.  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.  Luckily, the seven hour flight will be packed, so the body heat will keep you warm, and you’ll get to know the people you will be living and working with for the next month or so.

“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.”

Personnel crowd into Air Force C-17 planes for the flight to McMurdo Station, Antarctica in support of Operation Deep Freeze 2018.

For the ships coming into the ice-pier, there is another challenge; Mother Nature, and she is angry this time of year. Because of where Antarctica is located, 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 come 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.

“This was the greatest adventure, and the proudest moment of my 15 years of being a mariner,” exclaimed Capt. Timothy Arey, Ocean Giant’s master.

Working condition at McMurdo Station 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 who winter over the average temperature is -59 degrees Fahrenheit.

“On Jan. 22, it snowed,” said Larry Larsson, MSC’s representative for the ODF mission. “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.”

Seabees from Navy Cargo Handling Battalion ONE offload cargo from MV Ocean Giant in support of Operation Deep Freeze 2018.

 

Personnel working in Antarctica anticipate harsh conditions and plan accordingly. Everyone is bundled in heavy winter clothes, and exposure time is 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. Ocean Giant is delivering 80 percent of the supplies needed for the year on Antarctica.   With no supplies coming in once the summer window has closed, the supplies delivered by the MSC ships are vital for survival through the long winter on the most isolated continent in the world.

“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. ODF operates from two primary locations situated at Christchurch, New Zealand and McMurdo Station, Antarctica.

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