Heidi Zemach for SCN (with help from Nancy Erickson)
A large cross section of the Seward community turned out for an event at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Marine Science Center in Seward Monday afternoon to celebrate the launch in Marinette Wisconsin the previous Saturday of the R/V Sikuliak, a global class research vessel with ice-breaking capabilities that will eventually be home-ported in Seward. The event also marked the 25th anniversary of UAF’s School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences.
People who had spent decades, or at least many years working on the project, and those who fondly remember the former Seward-based research vessel Alpha Helix, were genuinely moved to be attending the celebration, even without the new ship actually being here. Most had missed seeing the launch in person, but a video repeated the spectacular launch, and the sight never failed to fascinate, as people watched the impressive 2,757 long ton, 261-foot steel ship race sideways down its runway and into the water, tipping first far to its starboard side, then far the other way before finally righting itself like a toy boat tossed into a bathtub.
“It was spectacular,” said Jean Bardarson, Seward’s vice mayor, who attended the actual launch. “It’s huge… so much bigger than you’d have thought.” Anticipating the big initial rocking and rolling, the ship yard had to tie everything down inside the ship, she added.
“It’s going to give us a sense of pride, a boost of morale,” said Mayor David Seaward, as he welcomed the audience. He introduced Tom Smith, the longtime former marine science center director who retired in 2006, before Dan Oliver, currently the Sikuliak project manager took the helm in 2007.
Acquiring the support and funding for the project has been a long process for almost anybody associated with the marine center, Smith said. “This ship has almost been a career, and a lot of people put a lot of work into it,” he said: When I got here it was a dream for many years, then it became a hope, then it became a dream, then a hope again,” Smith said. The work will continue, and intensify in the year ahead as they outfit the ship from top to bottom, train and hire a permanent crew of 20. “I’d like to wish them luck, and wish the Sikuliak smooth sailing throughout its career.”
Jennifer Elhard, the center administrator, will continue procuring items needed for the ship—everything from its scientific equipment to toilet paper. Everything purchased is being shipped to Seward, where it is then unpacked, and repacked, and loaded into six shipping containers to be transported to Wisconsin. The Sikuliak will be outfitted next spring and summer in Wisconsin.
A third-story will be added to the ship meanwhile, and she will be tested further for about a year in Lake Michigan. The ship has a one-year warranty by its builder, so it will likely remain close to Marinette for a while in case additional work is needed, Elhard said.
UAF will take delivery of the ship next July, and will maintain and operate it on behalf of the National Science Foundation under a cooperative agreement. The Sikuliaq will head to the Bering Sea in April 2014 to see how she performs in ice, and to train the crew, according to Dan Oliver. Funded science will begin soon after.
The marine center has installed two new mooring dolphins to the Seward Marine Center’s 150-foot dock to accommodate the Sikuliaq’s length, creating a tie-up similar to that of coal ships that dock here, Oliver said. The berthing plan is to use that dock during the summer months, when the cruise ships are in, then move it over to the Alaska Railroad Dock where electricity and water are available, once the cruise ship season ends in September. The University is also funding expansion of administrative spaces in Seward, and an electronics lab for marine scientists.
The Sikuliak will remain home-ported in Seward until at least 2016, at which time there will be another bidding process. This will allow Kodiak, the major contender for the ship, to make another bid to homeport it there, Elhard said. Of course Seward can bid, too.
“This is very exciting,” said Stephanie Moreland, who worked at the UAF center for 15 years, and clearly has fond memories of the hands-on research she did on board the Alpha Helix, from 2000-2005. That research ship was home-ported in Seward. It was sold in 2007. But unlike the Sikuliak, and all but one federally-funded ship, the Coast Guard Cutter Healey, the Alpha Helix did not have ice-breaking capabilities, which was really the motivation for the new ship. “It’s just fantastic to see, and fun to see it come together,” Moreland said.