Sailing into the Ice

Dec 5, 2018

The Arctic Ocean is so beautiful in the late summer and early fall, but can be deathly cold & unpredictable. Having a well-prepared, self-sufficient team is critical when it comes to marine safety and emergency response.

We had sailed from the port of St John’s, Newfoundland on August 21st, and were heading toward Resolute, Nunavut, on the six-deck, Canadian Coast Guard Ship (CCGS) Henry Larsen, high-endurance, multi-tasked icebreaker. Onboard as the Health Officer, I was looking forward to another safe Arctic mission on the 100-metre-long ship.

CCGS Henry Larson at the ready. (Photo by Theresa McGuire)

Henry Larsen is well equipped with additional transportation equipment and emergency vessels that included a Bell 429 helicopter, two new lifeboats, two hydrographic survey boats, a Zodiac Fast Rescue Craft, a metal barge for scientific technical work, and a variety of inflatable rafts.
In addition to assisting in scientific research, the Canadian Coast Guard’s expanded mandate includes marine SAR (search and rescue), icebreaking, supporting and maintaining marine communications and navigation, and even responding to environmental pollution. We are always ready for the wide range of search and rescue calls, which can come from vessels in distress or downed aircraft.

If you’re working on a Coast Guard vessel, you’d better be comfortable working in unusual environments and working independently – and that’s also true for any health professionals on board. As a former army nurse and now occupational health nurse specializing in workplace health and safety, I enjoy these missions immensely with a full scope of nursing practice and a supportive crew to assist if needed. Sick bay on the Larsen is also well equipped, with oxygen, emergency airways and medications, sutures, defibrillator and ECG, and trauma and mass casualty kits all at the ready.

Sick Bay on the Henry Larson (Photo by Theresa McGuire)

As mentioned, the Arctic Ocean can be unpredictable, and the Canadian Coast Guard certainly practices what it preaches when it comes to marine safety and emergency response. In advance of departure, emergency, fire, lifeboat and evacuation drills are done and immersion suits are fully inspected and tested for personal size and wear. Life-jackets are inspected and maintained regularly, and are always worn when boarding, travelling in Zodiacs and survey vessels, and in the helicopter over water and ice.

Polar bears were seen frequently on this voyage. (Photo by Theresa McGuire)

Just a few days into our trip, we were called to Bellot Strait for a SAR distress case – some sailors had been stranded on an ice floe overnight. Their sailboat had been crushed and sunk in heavy ice, there was a fast current and, to make matters worse, the entire area was frequented by polar bears. Several attempts had been made by other commercial vessels to assist, with no success due to the heavy ice and currents.
Not knowing for sure what to expect if they were found, I had prepared a trauma kit, a hypothermia kit with warmed moist air, oxygen and IV solutions, and warm bunks in hopeful preparation for their rescue.

On this foggy, rough-weather day, it was a huge relief when our helicopter returned with the two exhausted and chilled sailors. Fortunately, they were uninjured and in stable condition. I monitored them for several hours as they recovered from their emotionally and physically exhausting ordeal. Eternally grateful for their timely rescue, they had helped save themselves by having a life raft, warm clothing and life vests – and an emergency beacon device to send a distress alert. It was their portable red emergency flare that permitted the pilot and rescue specialists to see their flare. They would otherwise have been invisible on the ice in such thick foggy conditions. They spent a few days on ship with us until they could be safely returned to the Resolute airport to head home.

Dario Ramos and Pablo Saad from Argentina pose with Theresa
before returning to Resolute after a successful rescue from rescue specialists on board CCGS Henry Larson.

It was a heavy ice season in many parts of the Arctic, with steady requests for ice escorts and break-outs for expedition cruise ships and cargo vessels who provide annual sea lifts of supplies and fuel to High Arctic communities. I am always amazed at all the various types of ice and icebergs, ranging from thinner first year ice to vast thick sheets, to huge ice boulders and chunks that can pile up and require the ship’s bubbler system to reduce friction and improve icebreaking capability.

Smashing our way ahead of other less-ice-capable vessels is a rough and noisy ride, but it is reassuring to be on a strong icebreaker with seasoned officers and navigation and engineering crew on constant watch. Even in more clear areas, the sea states vary constantly, from rough to calm and all colours of blue, grey and turquoise depending on the weather.

Eureka! We made it! One of the cargo vessel escort missions required the Larsen to travel all the way to the Eureka Weather Station. At 80°North, it was a brand-new destination for me. It reminded me of the surface of the moon, with gigantic musk oxen and huge snow hares hopping around on the barren surface.

Eureka Weather Station. (Photo by Theresa McGuire)

Another ice escort mission brought us to Beechey Island, a darkly memorial place where Captain John Franklin had overwintered in 1845 with the HMS Terror and Erebus. All 128 crew members perished, and it was somewhat eerie to see how remote and desolate the area is, knowing there had been no hope of rescue for the sailors on the tragic expedition. Those two British ships were found in 2014 and 2016, in collaboration with local Inuit, Coast Guard and Parks Canada divers and archeologists.

The second portion of the Larsen’s voyage was a flurry of ice escorts back and forth through Lancaster Sound, Bellot Strait, and the Gulf of Boothia.

Throughout the trip, we had anchored briefly in local communities in Pond Inlet and Resolute, but the vast amount of time at sea was spent actively sailing and escorting through ice and snow squalls.

Search and rescue was always the top priority, followed by the numerous ice escorts, and science work placing and removing technical equipment in key study areas, and measuring ice and current conditions. I’ve been travelling throughout the Canadian Arctic for several years now, and this was the most ice, and the most polar bears, I have ever seen, as we worked our way back south to Foxe Basin and eventually to Kuujjuaq, Quebec for the crew change on September 26th.  

– Theresa McGuire is very proud of the great work done by the Canadian Coast Guard and looks forward to many more sailing missions in the years to come.