Self-contained world on a ship

March 13, 2009

When a car breaks down, we bring it to a mechanic to fix the problem. The mechanic diagnoses the problem, acquires the parts necessary to fix it, then does the work for us and delivers a fully-functional car in the end. When something breaks on a ship, it is not as easy to bring it somewhere to get fixed. A ship that is dead in the water from some malfunction cannot easily get back to a port, and in our case, we are days away from any land or ports. The Nathaniel B. Palmer carries enough parts to replace everything that could break on it, and the personnel to repair it.

Engineers and mechanics can completely rebuild the ship’s engines from existing parts. The ship also has a complete machine shop for building any custom parts. In the hold (a large storage area in the aft hull) are gigantic propeller replacements, in case a propeller gets damaged by ice. This is one of the few repairs that cannot be done while out at sea. Instead, the massive propellers (each of four pieces is over 4 meters tall) are replaced while the ship is in dry dock. Due to the Palmer’s size, a special type of dry dock, called a graving dock, is used. When dry dock repairs are needed, the ship motors carefully into position over special blocks below the ship. Doors are closed behind it and the water is drained. Once the graving dock is drained, the ship is left sitting on the blocks so people and machinery can move around and beneath it to make repairs. Propellers come in many different sizes and configurations, so the Palmer carries its own set.

The ship is self-contained in other ways, too. The water we drink, the food we eat, the laundry and linens, and the parts we need for the science research must be produced onboard or brought onboard for us to use while out at sea. In the case of food, the ship brings extra—from a few months to up to a year’s worth of canned goods—in case it gets trapped in the ice and needs to sustain people for longer than expected. Not being able to get more food once we’re out at sea also means that when we run out of chocolate, we’re out for the rest of the cruise.

Maria Vernet gets a cup of coffee at

Maria Vernet gets a cup of coffee at “Cafe Vernet” on the ship. Photo by Ron Kaufmann.

—Amanda Kahn