Baker, one of 13 children born to a shipyard worker and a housewife, grew up in Marystown and quit MemorialUniversity after a year to enter the nautical training program at the Marine Institute in St. John’s. “I couldn’t see spending my life at a desk,” he says. He rose from deckhand to captain by the age of 30, and first handled an iceberg in 1983. The job, he says, hasn’t grown any easier.
Not that people haven’t tried to make it so. In his 20 years of iceberg work, Baker has seen and heard about many innovative berg-taming techniques. There was the time in the 1960s when the U.S. Coast Guard spread carbon black on several bergs in the belief that the substance would absorb warmth from the sun and melt the ice. Mostly, however, the blackened bergs just flipped over.
In 1985, Baker tried using a powerful water cannon, which worked fine for small bergs but not for large ones. In another experiment, a boat crew tested a remote-controlled vehicle, which was designed to drill holes into an iceberg, insert towlines and then freeze them in place with liquid nitrogen. The rough seas made accurate drilling impossible.
Though Baker has never lost a man, there have been some close calls. Once, in the mid-1980s, the rope got stuck in one of the ship’s two propellers—Baker didn’t know which one. “I had to declutch and do an emergency shutdown of the two engines,” he recalls. “We were being dragged very slowly toward the iceberg. There isn’t a hull strong enough to withstand its being scraped against a berg; if there was, it wouldn’t float.”
About 300 feet from a collision, Baker took a chance, reversing the right propeller shaft. After a few frantic seconds, the rope began to untangle. “It felt pretty good to get out of that situation,” he says.