Alaska, Featured, Maritime, Science

RV Sikuliaq Embarks to the Arctic: Seward’s Research Vessel Underway

by Kelley Lane for Seward City News-
The RV Sikuliaq. Photo: Kelley Lane.

The Sikuliaq, homeported in Seward, has spent most of the month of July at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) dock on the south end of town, sandwiched in between the Alaska Sea Life Center and the Alutiiq Pride Shellfish Hatchery. As the July 4th masses departed, the ship’s royal blue hull began to be talked about around town. The Sikuliaq spends 7-8 months per year underway, ranging from San Diego to the Arctic carrying scientific crews to remote locations to collect data. Although a number of local Sewardites work on the ship, it is rare to have her in port for multiple weeks at a time and it creates a stir in mariner circles.

The Sikuliaq has been docked in a basin that is dredged regularly to maintain its depth, a challenge due to the constant outflow of water and rocks discharged from the Lowell Canyon diversion waterfall. Currently the basin is approximately 35 feet deep, which leaves plenty of extra depth for the ship, which has a draft between 18-20 feet. In addition to the regular draft, the ship has the capacity to lower a transducer centerboard that allows samples to be collected from underneath the ship. In the final 24 hours before departure, the ship will relocate to the east side of the cruise ship dock, with a brief stop over at the fuel dock to top off before their long journey.

The Sikuliaq invited visitors aboard to see her equipment and layout during its time in town. On a partly sunny Friday, a small group of Sewardites, including Seward High School principal Trevan Walker,  was led around the ship by “plank owners” (original crew members) Ethan Roth of Seward and Bernard McKiernan of New York, both of whom serve as marine science techs. The two are University of Alaska Fairbanks employees, who do the majority of their work remotely, while aboard the Sikuliaq. Roth explained the significance of the scientific equipment onboard, methodically touring the group around the 100 foot heated deck and the ship’s interior. Prior to the tour embarking, Boatswain John French had overseen the safe loading of a shipping container that held scientific equipment that will be used while underway. The logistics of getting large scientific equipment to the Arctic are complicated. According to the mariners, the best option for scientific crews is to have their equipment shipped to Seward via barge and loaded prior to the ship’s departure for points farther north.

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A rack onboard the Sikuliaq. Photo: Kelley Lane.

The Sikuliaq is designed to be as self-sufficient as possible, as she frequently is underway and in between ports for more than a month at a time. There is a small hospital, which remains locked when not immediately in use, as it contains medications and sensitive medical equipment. The vessel uses remote medical diagnostics (telemedicine) to diagnose and treat persons on board. Each suite is double occupancy, with bunkbeds and a single desk, as well as a bathroom that is shared between two units. The galley on board serves four meals per day, every six hours, using food stuffs procured through Seward or Nome. The chef onboard hails from Seward, and on the day of the tour was serving “just simple food – a Mexican style meal tonight,” because most crew members were eating their final restaurant meals in town before disembarkation. A tiny wooden dry sauna, exercise room and tv room with comfy couches provide respite for staff and scientists while underway.

The tour finished on the spacious bridge, which is located at the topmost level of the ship. The wide windows and ample instrumentation allow for precision steering, so that scientists can collect data samples from atop glaciers or in front of the ship. The Sewardites on the tour spread around the space, taking photos and reading the nautical charts. The atmosphere was light hearted, with crew members busy stowing gear around the ship in preparation for their upcoming departure. Seward is fortunate to serve as home port to the 200 million dollar Sikuliaq. Crew member Ethan Roth hails from Seward and looks forward to the opportunity to present our community with a recap on their season of work in the Arctic when he returns in November.

Loading Equipment on the RV Sikuliaq. Photo: Kelley Lane.

The Sikuliaq is scheduled for departure on Sunday, July 30th, at which point they will embark for Nome, Alaska. This part of their journey is planned to take six days. In Nome, they will load the remaining scientific materials needed, a few more food items and then continue north to the Chukchi Sea. To follow their progress, a ship track is available at: https://www.sikuliaq.alaska.edu/track/

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