Transcript for The Voyage of the Lee, segment 10 of 21


Operation Deep Sweep marks the first time the U. S. G. S. Marine Geology Branch has ventured to the Antarctic. The reasons are these - to collect scientific data in one of the world's largest continental shelves and least-explored regions and to understand the geologic framework and history of the southern oceans. Given the severity of the weather and the relative inexperience of working in this frozen environment, it is not surprising that it is at this point in the voyage that Operation Deep Sweep runs into serious trouble.

First there is growing concern about the ability of the Lee to physically get into McMurdo. U. S. Navy weathermen report that the sea channel is becoming thick with wind-pressured brash ice and that the thermometer is dropping. An arrival one week earlier they say would have made all the difference. February first, a Wednesday - the Samuel P. Lee appears at the outer edge of the ice front, six miles away from McMurdo base. She is to rendezvous with two other vessels - the Southern Cross, a supply ship, and the U. S. Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Sea - for escort into McMurdo Sound, but the Lee has, because of bad weather, arrived late, missing the other vessels. Now she has to wait twelve hours for the icebreaker to return to escort her in. During this time, the weather worsens, and the ice channel becomes choked.

We have just returned from a helicopter flyover, and we suddenly have great concern. The ice is much thicker than we thought. It's very difficult to determine the exact dimensions of the ice when we're several hundred feet above the sea, but we did see several seals, and we're estimating that the thickness of the ice varies from five to ten feet. Furthermore, the extent of the ice laterally is such that, as the Coast Guard cutter cuts the ice, no blue water exists behind, just the large blocks of ice breakup and flow immediately behind in the wake of the Coast Guard cutter. The reason why this is a concern for us - the plan was to bring the S. P. Lee in immediately behind the cutter. The problem, however, is that, although the Lee is ice-strengthened in the bow, it is not strengthened, and it is not protected in the area of the prop, and so there's concern that ice moving laterally could come in and do damage to the prop.

All eyes are on the Polar Sea as she circles around the Lee, trying to cut a ragged channel through the ice. The maneuvering takes several agonizing hours. The Lee is stopped dead in the water. The attempt by the Polar Sea fails. The Lee is freed from the ice immediately surrounding her, but she now faces a channel to the shore which is quickly closing up. The Coast Guard skipper decides that the Lee simply does not have the power to churn through the ice to McMurdo. The transfer of food, fuel, and personnel will have to be made at the ice edge in the open water. The Polar Sea comes alongside and spends the night refueling the Lee.

The next morning, February second, the U. S. icebreaker finally transfers the Wilkes Land leg of Operation Deep Sweep to the base, and the new team of scientists and technicians come onboard.