The joke around here is that we have three priorities when doing research 1) Look good 2) get the data and 3) be safe. We actually take safety very seriously and as we sit through our numerous safety trainings, pilled high in safety gear often smile and say “Safety third!” In reality the priority order is reversed. Dead scientists can’t analyze data so…..(better safe than letting your rival complete your work and take your glory)
Our safety preparations start before we ever leave town. On our last day in port we visit a statue in a square in the center of town. The statue is tribute to the explorer Magellan and features a figure known as El Indio. El Indio represents the now wiped out population of native people who assisted Magellan on his explorations of this region. Tradition has it that if you rub (or kiss) his toe you will safely return to Punta Arenas.
This year many of us had pretty severe flight delays, so our usual port rituals were cut short. We all made sure to visit Indio and ask for a safe trip.
Once we are aboard the ship and pushed off from dock the real safety program begins. We start with a safety “briefing”. The briefing takes about two hours as it covers heaps of material. It is by no means brief. We hear about the many ways the boat can injure us. In rough seas banging doors can amputate fingers and hands. Roughs seas also make it easy to fall down the stairs. We have a saying on the ship- “A hand for you, and hand for the ship”. We never go up and down stairs with two full hands. One hand is always on the hand rail.
After that, we learn about all the safety gear that will keep us alive in the event of an emergency at sea. In the winter there are very few boats at sea. It would take days for rescuers to reach us, so we need to keep ourselves warm and dry until help can arrive.
Everyone is issued an emersion suit. Assuming your head does not go under water, these are waterproof suits that fit over your clothing. The suits keep you dry. You clothing keeps you warm. You end up looking like Gumby
Even in an Immersion suit floating around in the Antarctic all exposed is no fun. So we have fully covered life boats. These things are waterproof, have engines, will shelter us from storms…and make us puke our guts out. We have 53 people on board. Each life boat can hold 75. We leave no one behind. The life boats are insanely uncomfortable. We sit on hard benches and use webbing harness to keep us secured. This would be really important if the boat started rolling violently in bad weather.
One last “safety feature” is that when transiting near-shore channels , we use a Pilot. The waters in these areas can quickly change depths and ships can become grounded. We use a professional pilot- someone who knows these water ways very well- to safely guide the ship out of the channel. The pilot boarded the ship in port and exited once we reached an area that is easier to navigate.
So it might get windy and crazy out here, but we will be safe.