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Antarctica 2012: Aurora’s Heart, Home Away From Home


I often find myself musing over the importance of scale. A pebble seems insignificant until you try to push a shopping cart wheel over it. The sun warms the earth and provides fuel for countless organisms, but constitutes only a tiny pinprick in the dark fabric of the universe. Our ship is capable of providing food, as well as personal and scientific accommodations to 116 expeditioners, but satellite photos reveal it to be a tiny orange dot in a sea of white.

The Aurora is particularly impressive when viewed on this scale, as is any vessel capable of moving around the coast of Antarctica. It is easy to understand why even the Aurora sometimes has trouble getting around simply by considering the forces required to break or push congregating ice aside.

The weather has closed up most of the gaps in the ice pack around us. We are making very slow progress indeed. At one point we rammed the ice 263 times in a 24 hour period, typically with gains of only a meter each time.

The pack has tightened even more today, causing concern that we may soon be unable to move at all.

We have discussed having an ice station here, even though the ice around us is not ideal for most scientists aboard. This possibility depends entirely on the weather and our ability to move the ship into a stable position alongside a reasonably suited floe.

Fortunately there is always more work than time, so we haven’t succumbed to boredom. We have remained busy with data analysis and lab work, but we have all been desperate for a change of scenery. This change came with the welcome announcement that we would be allowed to tour the engine room.

The tour was awesome! Most of the tour sights were explained before we entered the ship’s underbelly. Once we descended it was too loud to hear anything over our required hearing protection, so the description below is largely based on memory. I would like to provide apologies in advance if I make any technical errors.

The hallway filled with noise as we entered the previously off-limits door.

The engine control room allows monitoring of the entire ship’s mechanics from a central location. Heavy duty lights and switches belie the sophisticated control and monitoring mechanisms in place. Systems can even be set to run automatically, notifying crewmembers or engineers of problems by sounding an alarm in individual quarters.

Take a right turn out of the control room and we prepare to descend into the bowels of the ship. 

Entrance requires passage through the boiler room, which was my favorite part of the tour. Our guide referred to the boiler as the heart of the ship, an apt comparison. Dowsed in war paint, the boiler carries the image of a ghastly fish painted to match the Aurora herself.

The fish is depicted with skeleton exposed, about to devour a penguin. The subject and color scheme seemed to constitute a severe warning; it may as well have been painted in flame and bone.

Painted above the skeletal ichthyoid is Kipling’s “M’Andrew’s Hymn,” a fitting homage to the mechanics that drive us. Space is too tight to take a proper photo of the boiler, so I’ve stitched together several photos. They give a proper look at the fish, but result in artifacts around it.

A small viewing window glows orange. A closer inspection reveals blue and yellow dancing flame, licking the inner boiler chamber. The bold heart ceaselessly boils, burning to oppose the icy wilderness without.

I hesitate for obvious reasons to compare the Aurora to the Titanic. I have seen diagrams of the Titanic entering its ice riddled grave. I have even seen part of the recovered hull in a museum. In spite of its splendor and size, the Titanic doesn’t seem to me as mighty a ship as the aging Aurora.

These very different vessels share at least one common trait: both ships were built with more than one hull. The Aurora has a layer of protecting tanks surrounding her outer hull, each of which is fitted with a pump.

Although unlikely, no water should enter living quarters if the ship were to run into an icebreaker or a nasty growler. The tear would fill a tank that could then be emptied by pump. Alternatively, the incoming water could be used to fill corresponding tanks on the other side of the ship to even out the change in buoyancy. Fortunately there is another keen difference between the Aurora and the Titanic. Unlike the Titanic, the culture among the captain and crew prevents our travel in periods of low visibility.

While we all hope to quickly arrive at our next destination, safety will always trump speed.

The Aurora must do more than just stave off icebound threats. Protection and comfort in rough seas is evident in all facets of the ship’s design.

Shelves have lips, chairs are tethered to the floor, and tables have recessed areas for condiments. Coat hangers have bungee cords to hold garments in place, the beds have built in straps, and cabinet doors all latch in place.

Watertight doors are shut and latched while at sea.

I have previously discussed life aboard a moving vessel, but our circumstance could be much worse. The Aurora has a form of onboard stability control that minimizes the effects of the ocean. A set of ballast tanks counter the roll of the ship. Compressed air forces water to move around these tanks. The water movement is timed to match the ship roll frequency, effectively dampening much of the ship’s sway. This both protects and provides comfort to those aboard. This system can be heard while at sea, whining like singing whales, and making long staccatos of hollow wooden thumps.

Stability control ballasts minimize the effects of the ship’s roll.

In another surprise comfort, each cabin aboard has its own restroom. I was expecting a group shower circumstance, which would have been much less accommodating to those experiencing seasickness. All toilets and showers have stainless steel grab bars. Grab bars are important in the shower in mild to moderate seas, but in a really high sea sitting down is advised.

All showers have detachable heads to allow a sitting shower position. Even in our moderate passage I managed to get shower water all over the toilet and floor. Fortunately the bathroom floor has a drain, and the door sill is both waterproof and several inches high.

Reverse osmosis filtering system.

The ship generates purified water using reverse osmosis filters, and distilled water using evaporators. Between the two we apparently produce 35 metric tons of water each day.

Toilets are driven by a three stage vacuum system. The first stage consists of a massive compressor. The second stage has a large macerator to grind solid materials. The third contains bacteria stages that break down organic material both aerobically and anaerobically. The waste water from this system was described as essentially clean.

Vacuum compressor for toilet system.

Massive titanium blocks are used for heat transfer from engine coolant to sea water, similar to the radiator in a car. Titanium is used for its strength, heat transfer coefficient, and its resistance to chemical erosion.

The incoming seawater is too cold to be used directly, and is warmed before entering the titanium cooling blocks. By varying the amount of pre-heating the outside water undergoes before entering the engine the engineers can control how much cooling the engine undergoes, making it possible to keep it in an optimal temperature range.

We have two diesel engines aboard, a V12 and a V16.

V16 on the left and V12 on the right.

Another view of the engine room.

If you look carefully at the top photo, you will see some of the valve covers have been removed from the V16. Apparently an inspection showed part of our camshaft to be out of required specifications, so we repaired it while at an ice station. The camshaft for these engines is segmented to allow for easier repair. I’ve also included a picture of the camshaft to be replaced (below).

The engine smelled of warm oil, sparking memories repairing my own car and of spilling a little oil while topping off a warm engine. To my surprise the engineers said they often can tell if something is wrong before alarms sound, simply because the engine room will smell funny. I asked if it smelled like burning before trouble. They said it on rare occasion did, but more frequently the smell was simply a change from the normal. I was also told that mugginess or vapor in the air is an early sign of trouble.

Rather than requiring spark plugs, the fuel in diesel engines ignites under its own compression. This doesn’t work when the engine is very cold, so most diesels have a set of glow plugs to warm the cold engine. The designers of the Aurora chose to omit glow plugs, instead designing the boilers to provide cold engine warmth. The cooling system is used to warm inactive engines as well as cool running ones. For this reason the partially disassembled engine still warmed the air around it, and was comfortably warm to the touch.

The engines share a single gearbox that drives the rear prop. The engineers can disable one of the engines to save fuel, or for maintenance or repair.

The driveline leading to the prop always runs at a constant rate.

Constant speed driveline.

 Pressurized lines run down the center of the driveline to changes the pitch of the propeller fins. This mechanism is used to alter how much forward or reverse propulsion we have. Apparently in very cold weather the passageway that houses the driveshaft develops icicles from the ceiling, and ice sheets on the walls.

In addition to our controllable pitch propeller we have two stern and one bow thruster. Unlike our propeller, our thrusters are variable speed. They allow the ship to turn about, and can be used to keep an unfrozen pool behind the ship.

Our ship has no starter motor as it would require too large a motor and spare, as well as a battery with massive current draw available. To start the engines we use pressurized air tanks. The pressurized air is valve controlled into the pistons to start the engine rotating, at which point fuel is added until the engine sustains itself. This mechanism for starting is very clever, as the engine can be started as long as there is fuel available and the massive heart of the aurora still boils.

The two diesel engines can be fed from a pair of linked diesel fuel tanks.

Each can hold approximately 1 million liters. On this expedition both tanks are feeding the engine, but during station refueling one tank feeds the ship and the other is set aside for station fuel. Unlike the ship’s diesel, the station fuel will be altered for use in the Antarctic. Diesel fuel normally has a small amount of wax in it, which is removed and replaced with a small amount of antifreeze. This prevents the station’s fuel from freezing or having wax fall out of solution in the cold weather.

Oil is used to lubricate the ship, but the Aurora doesn’t require oil changes. Rather than changing out the oil, the engine oil is purified periodically by being run through a centrifuge.

This allows the separation of small metal shavings, water, and coolant that has leached into the oil, as well as any other impurities. Strictly speaking our engine oil is topped off periodically as a small amount is burned, so over a very long period of time the oil is in fact replaced.

There are six full time engineers that tend the engine. They work in pairs for 8 hour shifts, and rotate which shift they work every two weeks. I understand they like this arrangement. Apparently they typically work alone for longer shifts that require alarms be monitored from quarters. They said this trip has included a lot of uninterrupted sleep, which has been appreciated.

I haven’t yet pursued this story, but I have heard the Aurora spent some time with guns aboard her deck. I understand she was hunting down poachers and enforcing fishing policy in the southern seas. I would love to learn more about this period in her history, and plan to do some additional research upon my return.

The Aurora is impressive indeed, regardless of the scale on which she is judged. I hope I have been effective in conveying how impressed with her I am. The Aurora may be a tiny dot amid miles of ice, but she is an engineering marvel. She fosters learning, supports our work, and provides warmth, safety, and comfort. A behemoth, she is bold and well steeped in the history of the wild southern seas. She stands, heart boiling, in orange emblazoned defiance of the cold, wet, raging chaos outside. She is beautiful.