Friday, August 12, 2016

Adventure classics: Home is the sailor, home from the sea

Surface at the Pole

by James Calvert
At first thought, if a submariner wanted to surface at the North Pole, it might seem simpler to do it during the summer when ice melt lakes called polynyas sometimes offered breaks in the Arctic Ocean’s frozen surface. That was the hope of James Calvert, commander of the USS Skate, who chronicled the historic voyages of one of the earliest nuclear-powered submarines in his 1960 volume, Surface at the Pole.  But although the Skate was able to surface numerous times during its initial August 1958 voyage as it circled the pole, the goal of surfacing at the actual geographic North Pole eluded it. At least for a time.

Sir Hubert's memorial at North Pole
Not able to surface during the comparatively balmy arctic summer? How about trying it during the depths of a polar winter? And how about accomplishing a lifelong goal of one of the world’s most ardent adventurers, Sir Hubert Wilkins?

An Australian by birth, polar explorer Wilkins was the first to fly a plane in Antarctica, was knighted for his exploits, and served as a consultant on polar clothing and equipment to the U.S. Army. In 1931, he made the first attempt to reach the North Pole by submarine. Unfortunately, neither his vessel, an aging, pre-nuclear U.S Navy submarine he renamed Nautilus nor his equipment were equal to Wilkins’ ambitions. After sailing further north than any previous ship had accomplished under its own power, and days of negotiating the polar ice pack, he was forced to return.

But nearly 30 years later, his dream was still alive. He visited Calvert after the Skate’s return in October 1958.

“Now that you have everything you need to do the job,” as Calvert recounts Wilkins’ admonition, “you must go in the wintertime.”

“I was startled,” Calvert writes, “but knew what he meant. Every bit of submarine exploration in the Arctic had been done in summer, when polynyas are abundant. In winter they would be frozen over and open water nonexistent or very difficult to locate. . . (then) he sat for some time with a faraway look and a half-smile. . . On the first of December I learned of his death from a heart attack.”

Early in 1959, the Skate was sent back to the Arctic Ocean to investigate the feasibility of winter operations. And to fulfill the final request of Wilkins – having his ashes scattered at the North Pole, by submarine.

Would a surfacing during the Arctic winter even be possible?

Possibly, if the Skate’s sail, the vertical structure that housed its masts, antennas, periscopes and ventilation pipes – vital to its safe operation – could be strengthened enough to serve as a battering ram. “Could they stand the splintering shock as (a) three-thousand-ton ship drove them into the ice?” Calvert wondered.

In March 1959, the Skate had reached the North Pole again, beneath the surface of its frozen sea. “There was no sign of a skylight,” Calvert writes, using the name given to areas of ice thin enough for light to show through, although with the sun still below the horizon there would be little light at best. Hours passed while the ship searched for an opening before finding a trace of thin ice, “so small we could see the whole area at a glance through the periscope, outlined sharply by the . . . floes around it. . . (at last) with a sickening lurch we hit and broke through.”

The Skate had reached its goal.

Raising the flags of Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States from the Skate’s masts and periscopes in the midst of a stiff gale, the crew held red flares in the darkness to give Calvert enough light to read the service for burial at sea. The sprinkled ashes “quickly disappeared in the half-darkness and the swirling snow. . . Sir Hubert Wilkins had reached his final resting place.”

(After the death of Wilkins’ widow, Suzanne Evans Wilkins, at her request her ashes also were sprinkled into the sea at the North Pole, this time under brilliant summer sunshine.)

(Next Friday, Adventure classics continues an August of adventures at sea with Edward Beach’s Around the World Submerged: The Voyage of the Triton.)

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