Progress through ice is never all that smooth. When breaking ice continuously, the Healy forces its colossal mass up onto the floe with a maximal 30,000 horsepower before crashing down through the ice. Two-meter thick ice splinters under this force as the Healy plows onward, rising and falling, crushing and churning. The impacts reverberate through the ship. Walls and ceilings shake, cutlery rattles through dinner, unsecured science equipment edges precariously close to the edge of work benches. But we make continuous progress nonetheless. At times though, even this goliath has to resort to an even more blunt method.


A screenshot from the underway navigation screen showing the ships path for one extending period of backing and ramming. At this time we were headed towards the southeast. The ice around the ship, however, was drifting towards the northeast and dragging the Healy with it as it went. The result is this zigzag pattern – relative to the ice the Healy was just going forward and back, but the movement of the ice was dragging us relative to the sea floor to the northeast.

Today we found ourselves in thick, ridged ice – floes that have rafted together and buckled under the strain to form thick, gnarly formations. Tough ridges blocked our path and the thick snow on the surface provided extra drag along the side of the ship. Under these conditions Healy can’t force its way through in a continuous manner. It has to resort to backing and ramming.

Healy backs up a good three ship lengths before the engines roar and the ship steams forward towards the resistant ice edge. As the ship rides up over the ice, the deepest metallic clangs and muffled ice cracks radiate from the bow. The bow soars forward over the ice, but gradually loses momentum. The clangs and cracks subside and the Healy grinds to a halt. We may have only made a few tens of meters. The ship has no choice but to back up once more. Over and over again the Healy repeated this process: backing, ramming, putting on more engines, backing, ramming, aiming for a thinner-looking patch of ice, backing, ramming. At one point, Master Chief Sullivan, the Healy’s navigator, joined the onlookers on the bow. His attitude was an upbeat acceptance of the situation: “It’s just part of doing business – backing and ramming. It is however a beautiful sunny day!”

Our passage was slow. Although some of the science team enjoyed this spectacle, many grew restless at the lack of progress and the loss of time for the science operatons. At our worst the ship moved just 25 kilometers in 18 hours – a little over a kilometer per hour on average. Were it not for the necessary cargo of scientific equipment, our need for food and shelter, and our fear of polar bear attacks, I think some of us fancied that we could have done better on foot.

About The Author

Ben Harden

Ben is a polar oceanographer and meteorologist working at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. He is also a multimedia producer making radio and video programs. On this expedition Ben will be documenting the science and life aboard the Healy in a range of mediums.

One Response

  1. Erin Curtis

    That was breath taking footage..I am speechless and that doesn’t happen often..incredible, thank you for sharing..


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