R/V Polar Duke Farewell Tribute
in the Laboratory for Microbial Oceanography
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A Great Place to be Stuck on your Wedding Day
by Ricardo Letelier
Oregon State University
To be sailing through the Gerlache or Bransfield Straits aboard the R/V Polar Duke is one of the most enjoyable experiences I ever had. Imagine being there, surrounded by calm blue waters and land covered by snow, relaxing after a long and successful journey, without the stress associated with the day to day obligations of a research expedition like the RACER program. It may be as close as you get to the feel of being in heaven, as long as at that time you do not have a bride you love waiting for you next to the altar. I always thought that, in order to avoid this kind of Antarctic related problem, one must allow enough time between the end of a cruise and the next important appointment. But how much is enough? I thought that two weeks margin was enough and I found myself missing this big event during December 1989. At the time I was a Chilean student working with Dave Karl at the University of Hawaii, trying to earn a degree in oceanography. My wife Ina and I had been married by the state of Hawaii early that year. However, because we were both Chileans and most of our relatives lived in South America, we had decided to postpone the religious ceremony until the first opportunity we would both be back home. That opportunity arrived when I had to travel through Chile to get to the Antarctic Peninsula. Hence, we set the date of the wedding for approximately two weeks after the scheduled end of the RACER-2 cruise. One thing I must leave clear is that there is not much uncertainty with regard to the date of your return to South America when the cruise is scheduled to end at Punta Arenas, one of the most austral ports in Chile. However, if your cruise is scheduled to end at King George Island, in the Southern Shetlands, then your return to civilization is at the mercy of the gods that play games with the weather. This is due to the fact that the trip between King George and Punta Arenas is made by airplane and that planes can land on the island only if clouds are not resting on the landing field. Obviously, our cruise was scheduled to end at King George during one of those weeks when clouds seem to have decided to settle permanently on the runway. The main reason why we were scheduled to leave the Peninsula by plane rather than by crossing the Drake Passage aboard the R/V Polar Duke was the fact that a VIP group from NSF was coming for a short visit to Palmer Station. They were waiting in Punta Arenas, as we were in King George Island, for a break in the weather. I called my wife to inform her of the situation and to encourage her not to panic because we still had more than a week of time before the wedding date. The second day after our arrival at King George Island the gods seemed to smile at me when news came from the island that a Chilean cargo plane was ready for departure toward Punta Arenas and had a couple of vacant seats that we could use. Although the visibility was too poor for landing, it presented no problem for taking off. I was already two days behind my initial schedule but, with a little bit of luck, I would be able to be with my wife six days before the wedding date. Tony Amos, our physical oceanographer, and I were chosen to fill those seats. Tony's wife was undergoing surgery at that time and I had the obvious important appointment with my wife and a priest. Our chief scientist, Mark Huntley, requested authorization from NSF headquarters to let us go on the Chilean flight. A few hours later I would be calling my wife from Punta Arenas to tell her the good news. Aboard the R/V Polar Duke we all thought this was a routine request and that NSF would give its OK. My surprise and disappointment were extreme when news came from NSF informing us that, under no circumstances were we allowed to leave Antarctica on a non-U.S. carrier. Apparently, the U.S. National Science Foundation did not like to owe favor to other countries because, given the size and power of this organization, the returned favor would have to be in a larger scale than the one accepted. Hence, using a Chilean carrier by us (even if one of us was Chilean) was out of the question. This response from NSF told me something about the real international collaboration spirit from the perspective of some bureaucrats. Suddenly I realized that the only true collaboration initiatives were those that have the potential to make headlines news. I called my wife to tell her of the setback but still asked her not to panic, but to start looking for alternatives. Her answer was very simple: There were several candidates waiting to take my place and the party would not be lost. Luckily for me, we were already married by the State of Hawaii. Hence, the candidates would have to wait. When I heard the Chilean plane leaving the island I lighted my first cigarette after almost a year without smoking. The following day the American airplane bringing the VIPs attempted to reach the Island. We heard the plane circling a couple of times above the clouds before heading back to Punta Arenas. Finally, my last hopes to reach the wedding on time were buried when, from NSF came the news that the VIPs were returning to the U.S. The R/V Polar Duke was expected to go back to Palmer Station, load the station's trash container, and sail to Punta Arenas. Six days later we would be in Punta Arenas. On the phone my wife seemed calm. She would try to re-schedule the wedding and have everything ready by the time we reached Chile. I cannot say that I was not upset about the situation. Nevertheless, if there was a place to be to lift my spirit up under these circumstances, the place was aboard the R/V Polar Duke sailing across the Gerlache Strait. I have returned to Antarctica several times since and hope to visit again. I know I will miss the familiar silhouette of the Polar Duke. This is due in part to the memories attached to it. However, the Polar Duke seems special to me also for other reasons. There are many research vessels with great crews, but none like the Polar Duke. The crew is just the right size, friendly and always willing to help -- starting with Shorty. It is never difficult to find someone on board when needed and spaces seem to have the right size. In other words, even when missing my wedding, I was feeling at home aboard the Polar Duke. To end the wedding story let me tell you that I was lucky enough to make it back to Punta Arenas where I found out that my wife had managed to postpone the wedding by one week. Some relatives coming from Argentina decided to spend the week sightseeing and were still there when I finally did arrive. I believe we had an informal lovely wedding and for our honeymoon we decided to go camping in the south of Chile. Since that time, and even though I haven't started smoking again, I always light a cigarette when reaching King George Island at the end of a cruise as a reminder of that cruise when I missed my wedding. Next time I am in King George the cigarette will remind me of this episode and of all the great times I collected in my memory while sailing onboard the R/V Polar Duke.