National Geographic : 1970 Mar
Manhattan Makes the Historic Northwest Passage By BERN KEATING Photographs by TOMAS SENNETT CREWMEN CALLED IT A BAPTISM, and indeed it was with hard water. On September 2, 1969, the newly modified S.S. Manhattan, largest icebreaking vessel ever built, turned her huge armored prow toward Baffin Island, into the teeth of the notorious pack ice that has doomed so many ships. All off-watch hands crowded the rails as we entered the pack. By the rule that five to seven times as much ice lies below the surface as above, we estimated the floes ahead as at least fourteen feet thick. The massive Manhattan-aremarkable vessel that had been con verted from a tanker to an icebreaker research ship-bit into the first floe with her Viking bow of steel. It cracked off a half-acre chunk. Tilting it aside with a roaring cascade of green water, the Manhattan sailed on without a quiver. Smashing Straight Into a Mile of Ice As the blocks ahead grew larger, Capt. Roger A. Steward poured on more speed. Gigantic floes cracked and heaved before our charge, huge fragments roaring and plunging as they spun away from our sides. Now we bore down on a massive sheet of ice sixty feet thick and a mile across. The captain called for 10 knots. "They'd better slow down, or they'll punch a hole in her," said U. S. Coast Guard Capt. F. S. Goettel. A veteran of ice patrols near Greenland, he was one of the liaison officers aboard from the United States and Canadian icebreaking services. We gripped the deck rail hard and awaited the shock. The armored bow struck, and a plume of salt spray shot sixty feet into the air. Chunks of ice as big as bulls' heads soared in wide arcs like mortar shells. There was a deafening explosion as the great floe shattered; blocks the size of bungalows turned over and scraped along the ship with agonizing shrieks. Incredibly, the Manhattan trembled less than a city sidewalk when a loaded truck passes. Martti Saarikangas, design engineer of Finland's largest ice breaker shipyard, pointed to the shattered floe grinding by. "This ship," he said, "just broke thicker ice than any ship in history. But before you start planning parties in Alaska, remember that an isolated floe-even a huge one like this-is child's play compared to pack ice under heavy wind pressure. When we get to the western reaches of the Canadian archipelago-that'll be the test." 374 Brief captive in a vise of ice, the United States tanker Manhattanlies locked in the Northwest Passage above the Arctic Circle. Her bow nudges a deceptive "melt pond" -ice that softened into a puddle, then refroze to resemble open water. Mere specks beside the 1,005-foot ship, scientists study the ice pack on foot. Astern, the Canadian icebreaker John A. Macdonald batters her way up to free the tanker. Converted into an icebreaker, Manhattan embarked last summer on one of the epic challenges of all time: to blaze a commercial shipping lane across the top of North America to rich Alaskan oil fields. Doggedly butting her way through, she realized a dream of centuries and joined history's maritime immortals. KODACHROME © N.G.S.