Iceberg Wrangler | Science | Smithsonian

Iceberg Wrangler

When a million-ton iceberg threatens your $5 billion oil platform, who you gonna call? Jerome Baker

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There are just a handful of people in the world who do what Jerome Baker does—venture out far into the North Atlantic, tie a rope around a rogue iceberg heading toward an offshore oil platform, maneuver a 9,600-horsepower, 270-foot-long boat and drag the 250,000-ton ice cube away before it collides with the platform. If Baker makes a mistake, it might cost him his life and those of his crew.

 

Baker, 48, is the master of the Norseman, a 6-year-old, 4,600-ton ship with a steel-reinforced hull that services the Hibernia oil platform. The platform, which lies almost 200 miles off St. John’s, Newfoundland, drills for crude oil in 250 feet of water and supplies Exxon, Mobil and four other oil companies. Baker and his crew of 10 to 14 men spend most of their monthlong tours of duty steaming between St. John’s and the platform, delivering food and water, pipes and equipment, cargo containers and fuel. (Baker heads home to his wife, Maxine, and three children in Marystown, Newfoundland, for four weeks after each stint at sea.) From February through July, his most important responsibility is watching for the hundreds of icebergs that float down the Labrador Current from Baffin Bay each year as the weather warms. Often as long as two football fields and rising as much as 240 feet above the sea, these bergs drift along a corridor known as iceberg alley, off the eastern coast of Newfoundland.

 

Although the Hibernia platform is stationary and boasts a massive concrete structure designed to withstand being run into by a million-ton iceberg, Baker says the company doesn’t “want anything coming into contact with the platform, even something the size of a piano.”

 

Following the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912 after it hit a half-million-ton berg 400 miles south of Newfoundland, a consortium of North American and European nations established the International Ice Patrol (IIP) to prevent such tragedies. Today, the IIP, which operates out of Groton, Connecticut, sends U.S. Coast Guard C-130 aircraft on patrols over the North Atlantic and supplies information to the maritime community about iceberg-free lanes of travel. A private Canadian company, Provincial Airlines, which is hired by Hibernia and the owner of another oil-drilling company, uses this data to direct a small fleet of two-engine Beech King Air 200s. Observers in these light planes scan for potentially troublesome icebergs. They, and radar operators aboard the oil rigs and platforms, must constantly monitor the bergs; the storm-lashed seas of the North Atlantic often throw them off their projected paths. Just last year, the shrimp trawler BCM Atlantic struck an iceberg and sank within five minutes.

 

Provincial Airlines keeps a lookout not only for fullfledged icebergs but also for “bergy bits,” pieces of ice that have broken off. (Despite their snack-food name, bergy bits can be larger than houses and as dangerous as torpedos.) When the drift pattern of a berg or a bergy bit appears to intersect with the Hibernia platform, the Norseman or its sister craft, the Nascopie, gets a call on the radio.

 

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