Experienced captain behind the wheelhouse for a trip to Antarctica

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Ti Gong

Xiao Zhimin, newly appointed captain of Xuelong 2, in the wheelhouse

Adventurous sailors have been exploring both poles of the Earth since the turn of the 20th century.

The first diesel-electric icebreaker was the 4,330-ton Swedish ship Ymer in 1933. Advances in technology have made modern icebreakers, including the Chinese Xuelong 2, far superior.

The Shanghai Daily spoke to Xiao Zhimin, captain of the ship, as he prepared for the country’s 38th expedition to Antarctica.

Xiao, 36, who works for the Polar Research Institute of China, returned to Shanghai in September after the country’s 12th Arctic expedition and its seventh. Scientists monitored Arctic seawater and ice, microplastics and other aspects to learn more about climate change and ecological protection.

Xiao was a member of the 2019 maiden voyage to Antarctica aboard the Xuelong 2, the first polar icebreaker built in China. Prior to that, he sailed this ship’s predecessor, the Xuelong, on five expeditions.

“The Xuelong 2 is one of the best ships in its class in the world,” said Xiao.

“While Xuelong was made in Ukraine and later redeveloped in China, Xuelong 2 is more versatile and integrated in its search functions,” he said. “It has strong icebreaking capabilities, allowing us to venture into some of the most heavily icy seas. “

The vessel is 122.5 meters long and 22.3 meters wide, with a draft of 7.85 meters and a displacement of 14,000 tonnes. It can sail up to 15 knots with a range of 20,000 nautical miles on a single load of fuel.

It must refuel every 60 days and is the first polar research vessel to have two-way icebreaking capability. It can break 1.5 meters of ice plus 20 cm of snow at a speed of 2-3 knots in either direction, allowing it to navigate any polar zone.

Xiao and his colleagues participated in the design and construction of Xuelong 2, optimizing it for its long assignments.

“The heated rooms on the ship are quiet due to the reduced vibration and noise in the design,” he said. “This is important for researchers who work day and night and need a good rest.”

Sailing for up to six months straight and living in the coldest places on Earth, providing top-notch accommodation, good meals, medical services and entertainment are essential, he added. .

About 100 people participate in each Xuelong 2 mission, including 40 crew members and 60 scientists. From the ship, they can stay in touch with their families most of the time, but not always.

“In the Arctic, the internet is not available above 80 degrees North, so we sometimes have no signal for two to four weeks, during our two to three month mission,” Xiao said.

“In Antarctica, only a few areas are left out by satellites, so we usually have a few days without internet during our six-month mission.”

However, in an emergency, iridium communication is available anytime and anywhere to contact people in China.

“We never lost contact during our missions,” he said. “It shows great progress over the past decade. When I first sailed in the polar areas, communication with my family was much more difficult.”

Navigating the icy seas of the polar regions is in itself a tall order. Xiao and his crew have to navigate the terrible westerly winds, which the commercial ships try to avoid.

“We have to be very careful in the navigation of the ship to avoid cyclones,” he said.

In the polar regions, there is also no nautical chart ready.

“Icebergs change position all the time,” he said. “At high latitudes, the ice is denser and thicker, forcing researchers to work at tremendous speed in order to reduce the chance of the vessel getting stuck. “

Xiao said there had been few instances during their polar quests where lives were in danger, but he recalled a high-profile rescue of a Russian ship stranded in Antarctica by Xuelong in 2013. Xiao was working as a second on the ship at the time.

Xuelong received a distress call from the Russian ship, the MV Akademik Shokalskiy, on the morning of December 24. There were 74 people aboard the stranded ship.

Due to very unfavorable weather, no icebreaker was able to approach. Eventually, a helicopter launched from Xuelong managed to rescue the sailors.

“In the vast frozen world, we are alone as there is no earthly support available, but we are also always ready to help others, as they are for us,” said Xiao.

During missions to the poles for the past 12 years, Xiao has seen an increase in the melting of Arctic ice, but not necessarily in Antarctica.

“The frozen areas of Antarctica change from year to year, making it difficult to tell if the overall amount of ice is reduced,” he said.

Xuelong 2’s crew is made up of experienced crew members from Xuelong as well as new recruits, the majority of whom are under 35.

“I am proud of my work,” Xiao said. “It is an honor to join the important missions for my country.”

Xuelong 2 will depart for Antarctica on November 23.


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