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Iceberg Wrangler

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

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“For a smaller bit,” Baker says, “I back up to it and use prop wash” to push it into a current that will take it away from the platform. Big bergs are something else again. “We get close to them—maybe 100 feet,” he says. “The berg is like a piece of glass, full of cracks. Something could break and come off at any time. In the nighttime, you might have projections sticking out of the side of the berg that you can’t see. All these things are in your mind.”

 

To round up an iceberg, Baker uses lengths of polypropylene towropes up to 1,200 feet long. “When the rope goes out, it’s eight inches thick. It’s only an inch thick in places when it comes back,” he says. “The rope looks like a camel’s been chewing on it.”

 

Wrangling an iceberg sounds simple enough: just pay out a length of rope; if you need more, shackle another to it, then another, until the iceberg has been completely encircled. “You just steam around the berg and come back,” Baker says. “A seaman with a grapple catches the other end.” Then, add a wire towline (to weigh down the rope in the water so that it does not slip off the ice), steam away, and with any luck you’re home free. But it’s not so easy in practice.

 

Icebergs have a nasty tendency to turn over and slip out of towropes; some have hidden undersea projections that cause chaos when the bergs flip. (A towrope from an overturned berg may sport a tangled knot six feet high.) And a flipping berg can generate large waves. Which is why Baker likes to keep a half mile or so of open water between the Norseman and any berg he’s towing. And talk about slow motion.

 

“We can spend up to three days towing a big berg,” Baker says. Pulling a 250,000-ton berg, the Norseman can barely manage one knot (and the ship may need ten hours to build up to even that speed).

 

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