Thanks to Pete Marx for this information
Labrador underway in open pack ice Aerial shot of the Lab backing up after a charge at ice
I joined the heavy icebreaker Labrador in 1969, a ship with strong family connections. My Uncle commanded the ship when she was a naval vessel and I was to serve in her three times, first as Ordinary Seaman, then as a Cadet, and finally as Second and Third Officer. The ship was disposed of in the late 1980s. I still have a piece of her rudder stock.
The chief memory of my service as an Ordinary Seaman was cleaning out the seaman's washroom. I had the job for months and every morning would repair to the heads and work myself and a largish area containing toilets, sinks and showers into a complete lather. I took the job seriously, mostly because it was detested by the more senior people and I would be left alone, but also because it was winter and I could spin the task out so that it occupied most of the morning and could thus avoid the really tedious business of chipping rust on the upper deck in the rain, a job that could eventually drive you mad.
Cleanliness is next to safety on a ship and I viewed this job as a chance to put this notion into action. Equipping myself with a complete array of industrial strength cleansers I would whip up a nice little chemical stew and splash it about with gusto on anything that even remotely looked like a place where germs could gather; deck, bulkheads, toilets, sinks, you name it and I covered it with a substance that would disinfect, deodorize, peel paint, and forcibly cure haemorrhoids all in the same breath. I used gallons of really hot water and after a bit a nice chlorine-based fog would form about three or four feet off the deck. The toilets would get special treatment and I can guarantee that if you ever sat on one of them before I had rinsed my special blend off there was a very good chance you'd leave most of your reproductive organs and a fair patch of skin behind. At least, that's what happened to the Carpenter's Mate one forenoon when he came in for a quiet smoke and a bit of a think. He had no sooner touched down than he rocketed out of the toilet stall clutching his nether cheeks and making garbled mewling sounds.
The Labrador was a massive squatty thing - short, deep draft, with a huge beam, and a powerful diesel electric propulsion system. There was a chunky superstructure containing the bridge, the officers accommodation, a stubby little funnel, and a helicopter hangar. The ship had the air of a repressed bulldog and vibrated with power and purpose. When her main engines were running and blue diesel smoke belching out of the stack she was an impressive piece of business. You could stand on her decks and feel the power throbbing underneath you. However, she had more than her share of quirks, could roll on wet grass, and had truly byzantine accommodation.
Over the years she had been visited by a number of marine architects, each with a mission to make her more tolerable to live in for extended periods of time. This was no easy job, because she was originally designed as a Canadian naval variant on the US "Wind" Class icebreaker, built in the spartan wartime US Navy tradition which of course Canada then had to outdo. The result was a ship into which men and machinery were crammed without serious regard for the effects on humans of prolonged voyages in ice. As crew members voyaging into the north, we all shared a certain association with those who sailed with other great arctic explorers. Henry Hudson had his crew go 'round the bend on him and many who sailed north in icebreakers followed similar paths. You can get a little wingy looking at ice all the time, or if you spend enough hours in your bunk listening to the roar of six huge diesel engines over the truly horrendous cacophony that breaking ice makes, less than 3 feet from your head on the other side of the hull plates. Over the course of several months the continuous onslaught of noise, coupled with a tendency to lurch and pitch unpredictably, meant that icebreaking weeded out the marginally crazy, leaving only the truly weird or those so committed to seagoing in whatever condition that they might as well also be certified.
I ramble. The accommodation refits that had been inflicted on the ship were designed to ease somewhat cramped living conditions and so lighten the load that we had to bear, grinding through 10/10ths ice under full power en route to some particular task. The results were a tribute to bureaucracy, poor planning, and general stupidity. It was simply appalling: instead of the cabins getting bigger they got smaller and more chopped up, and the communal washrooms got larger and larger. The one on the officers deck became like a large porcelain ball room with the john placed in athwartships, in solitary splendour right in the middle of the room.
Now the Labrador, like every other icebreaker ever built, was designed with an egg-shaped hull so that she could ride smoothly in ice and would rise when the ice came under pressure, much as an egg will lift. There were no permanent underwater projections like bilge keels to moderate the roll, and roll she could. Icebreakers are built to be stable under all but impossible conditions: they have enormous reserve stability and so roll very quickly. It was not uncommon to move through an arc of 40, 50 or even 60 degrees every 10 or 15 seconds for days on end. You could get accustomed to it in a variety of ways: wedging your mattress, always holding on to dinner plates, and placing things like binoculars in the sideways axis so they could not roll. Apart from an enormous fatigue from holding on and bracing yourself life was pretty much tolerable, until it came time to use the damned john.
For those of us who count the Rite of the Morning George as an indispensable ingredient to the start of a good day, a trip to the john when the ship was rolling 30 or 40 degrees either side of the vertical was a distressing event, most certainly not calculated to clear the mind and so prepare one for whatever the day or the hour demanded. In bad weather or in a beam sea, planning for the Morning George had to begin several minutes in advance of nature's urgent call, and God help those who suffered from involuntary peristalsis. First, one braced oneself in the doorway and calculated the ballistic trajectory required to reach the john in the middle of the room without careening into the washing machine or impaling oneself on the ironing board (the john was so large it doubled as the officer's laundry). Timing the trip nicely, to occur as the ship passed the vertical, you disengaged and launched yourself off into space, slipping and sliding on the porcelain floor tiles toward the john. If the washing machine had managed to disgorge suds on the deck, as it usually did, well, faut de mal: there was an excellent chance you'd end up rolling back and forth in a welter of soap suds and the Second Officer's long underwear. If you got there before she began her reverse roll, well and good. However, if your aim was off but you were still standing, there was nought to do but resign oneself to a headlong flight into the shower and a nasty bit of business with the shower curtain.
Once in position, your business would seem to be a fairly straightforward proposition. However, there was nothing to hang onto, no handles, no grab rails, no not even a towel bar to keep one in position. The only thing to do was to grasp the toilet seat with both hands and press both feet firmly on the floor as the vessel hurtled from side to side. Being hunched over like this, I often imagined that it was just like being in a space capsule. I doubt that even the legendary John Glenn in the early Mercury space flights had such a time performing his basic bodily functions. To this day, when I think of some of my times in the Labrador, I have a vision of the ship's constipated officers braced grimly on the john like latter day quasimodos held in position by huge "G" forces, performing desperate valsalva manoeuvres as the ship rolled violently across Davis Strait.
As with most icebreakers, the Labrador had a full complement of unconventional characters. There was the cook who liked to hold long soulful conversations with the frozen carcasses in the meat freezer, the radio operator who heard voices and signals from a part of the universe we were not yet familiar with, and there was Milton, the second engineer. A brilliant but wildly eccentric individual who had stood too long beside the thundering engines and who gradually began to slip away into another world.
Milton was a mechanical genius and could perform the most delicate surgery on the inner workings and hidden mechanisms of a massive Fairbanks-Morse Diesel when lesser men would blanch at the thought. Unfortunately, his mind moved so quickly and directly that he left little time for reflection and analysis between problem recognition and solution. His solutions, while elegant, were sometimes the cause of maritime nightmares. In any one four hour watch down in the forward engine room he was known to have cut holes in water tight bulkheads and to reroute piping and electrical cabling in a drive to solve the problem that had suddenly swum into his mind. It got so that the engineer who relieved him was never too sure what he would find on taking over the watch: Milton might just have decided to move all the main engines ninety degrees, reverse the polarity of the generators, or completely redirect the main fuel lines. After a while a discreet word was passed and Milton was never again left alone on watch.
The man really was terribly eccentric. He owned a farm somewhere on Nova Scotia's Eastern Shore on which he was clearing land. One day he paid cash for a brand-new Volkswagen with one of his enormous overtime cheques. Bringing the car back to the dealer about a week after the sale, the salesman was dumbfounded to see Milton drive onto the lot with a beetle that looked somehow thinner and longer, with the body all crushed in just forward of the rear wheels. Milton said that there seemed to be something wrong and, as the Salesman goggled at the wreck of the brand new car, explained that he had spent a happy week pulling tree stumps with his new VW and could he please have some warranty work done to straighten out a pesky little bend in the frame?
Milton had a morbid fear of drowning, a fear so overpowering that he would brood and dwell on it for days at a time. He checked and re-checked the supply of life jackets and was always an enthusiastic participant when we practised emergency stations. His abandon ship station was in the port lifeboat and he could normally be found there well before the emergency signal was given. Indeed, there was a school of thought that said Milton had established a temporary summer residence in the bows of the lifeboat and would retreat there to sulk after one of his more bizarre mechanical experiments had been over-ruled by an already exasperated Senior Engineer.
Milton's cabin was part of an isolated little colony of cabins way down in the bowels of the ship, aft of the main propulsion generators, and just over the two huge propeller shafts. This was the lair of helicopter pilots, ice observers and Milton: not a place that regular people ventured unless on one of those periodic raiding parties the watchkeepers would sometimes mount to locate lurid reading material. It was, I think, a product of Accommodation Refit Number 2, the one where the architect had broken down and taken refuge in a gin bottle when faced with the task of making a zoo into a rabbit warren.
Over time, Milton became convinced that he would be trapped in his cabin and be unable to reach the lifeboats if the ship began to sink. The fear became so real that one day he took matters into his own hands and went ashore to buy his own personal life raft. Other crew would purchase elaborate sound systems and huge rocket-like automobiles with their pay, but Milton bought a commercial six man inflatable life raft packed in a canvas valise. The raft was the kind you see advertised in obscure marine trade journals with strange model names like "Fearnaught" or "Saviour." The ads always had a wet and frightened mariner leaning out of the raft's canopy opening, holding a flare and looking beseechingly at the heavens. Milton stowed the raft under his bunk, positioned so that he could grab it in an emergency and manhandle it to the upper deck. One supposes that the plan was then to inflate the raft and sit in it, munching survival rations, lighting off flares, and drinking distilled water, waiting like King Canute to be carried safely off by the water as the ship sank.
Now, like most mariners, Milton liked his rum and on occasion was prone to take rather more than was good for him. One evening, as the ship lay alongside a wharf after a particularly stressful trip into the Gulf of St Lawrence, Milton tied one on. He consumed and consumed and pretty soon became comatose, passing out in his cabin. Who knows what demons roamed in his mind but, when he awoke in the pitch black cabin, he became seized with the notion that the ship was sinking and that the moment had come to deploy the life raft. Nipping out of bed in his shorts and T short, Milton dragged the raft out from under the bunk and, once again making a direct connection between problem and solution, inflated the raft. The only problem was that the raft was still inside the cabin, the cabin was very small, and Milton was slowly and inexorably being pressed up against the wall by this huge orange and black thing that was now hissing and inflating rapidly. Flailing wildly, Milton now found himself trapped inside his cabin by a fully inflated six man life raft, complete with blinking strobe light, solar still, a sea anchor, parachute flares, and a week's worth of Class B Survival Rations.
We were never certain how long Milton remained mashed up against the wall of his cabin. Probably not long, but long enough to realize that the only way out was to chew into the raft and deflate it. So he began to gnaw away on rubber and canvas and eventually, with energy borne of rum and fear, reached the inner edge and broke through. The raft was inflated by considerable air pressure and the air now began to vent rapidly out the hole that Milton had chewed. So did all the talcum powder that was used to line the inner surfaces of the raft to prevent them from cracking. Milton really couldn't move his head very much and so the only thing to do was to close his eyes and squint into this jet-like blast of powder and stale compressed air. Eventually, the raft deflated enough for Milton to make good his escape. He staggered onto the upper deck in his white undershorts and T shirt, looking like a demented Japanese No Doll that had been caught in a wind tunnel. His face was a ghastly pearl white, its uniformity broken only by two black eyes, now round with fear. His hair, stiff with powder, stood straight back from his head, as if he had been sitting in the slipstream of a jet. Gabbling incoherently through powdered lips he was taken gently away to the galley for a cup of calming tea.
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© 2009 USCG Lightship Sailors Association International Inc. Larry Ryan, President [Email]