The North Pole – one cold, dark night…

Puffer - Arctic Ice[1]

In a previous life, I served as a submarine officer in the U. S. Navy.  Life on a submarine is far less glamorous than a Hollywood movie would make you believe.  There is a tremendous amount of training: months of classroom education, hours and hours of practical hands-on experience, practice drills and evolutions, limitless exams and inspections.  These are all to ensure that our nuclear-powered submarines are operated effectively and safely.

However, on a fast-attack submarine after all the training, there are interesting operations and ports-of-call that can be very exciting and memorable.  One submarine excursion stands out in my memory and not many people have experienced it – a trip to the North Pole.

My experience occurred over two decades ago.  Not all submarines can operate for extended periods under the polar ice cap, but the one that I was assigned to was designed for such operations.  Our mission was scientific, as we traveled up the North Pacific, through the Bering Strait, and across the Arctic Ocean.  During this voyage, we made accurate recordings of the ocean’s bottom and other topographical features.

While in the Arctic Ocean, we surfaced through the polar ice cap dozens of times.  Ideally, we would surface through the ice in locations that had ice of suitable thickness to support our personnel and equipment.

However, on one day etched clearly in my memory, we surfaced at the edge of the ice cover and then maneuvered to moor against the ice.  It took some time to get a 300+ foot long steel tube in a secure position.  By the time we had tied up along the ice, it was late and dark out.  It was October, and the land of the midnight sun did not have 24 hour sunshine.

The rest of the crew retired for the evening, but I had the watch as Officer of the Deck (OOD) through the night.  My position was at the top of the conning tower, about 25’ above the surface of the ice.  I was in charge of the sub’s watch team and the safety of the submarine.  However, we were moored and not going anywhere, other than drifting with the ice, so there really wasn’t much to do.

Because the Arctic ice cap is very dynamic, the ice is always moving.  Our Commanding Officer was concerned that a large sheet of ice might slide over the submarine’s hull in the night and cause damage or worse, pin us in place.  This would prevent us from submerging and returning home when our tasks were complete.

My role on the conning tower was to keep a watch on the ice.

The problem was that it was wicked cold out.  There was a slight breeze.  Because it was overcast that evening, not a single star was visible.

It was the darkest, coldest, and most boring thing I ever had to do in my Navy career.

That was the longest six hours in my life.  At the end of my shift, a dim sunrise was commencing, and the ice had not moved one iota.  I was grateful to get below and thaw out.

This two month expedition is probably where I first fell in love with coffee.

What did I learn from this experience?  What profound wisdom have I gleaned looking back over the decades?

Not much.

It was cold.  It was dark.  It was boring.  I learned that I don’t like cold, dark places with not much to do or see.  I need sensory stimulation – sounds, sights, physical activity, and a variety of them all.

This is how most of us are wired.  Yet, when faced with challenging circumstances, we adapt.  We always try to make the best of a difficult situation.  Sometimes it is just biding out time until the next shift arrives.  Sometimes it is making positive choices to change our circumstances or eliminating negative events or people from our lives.

How about you?  What have you learned from the most boring experience of your life?

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About John Forrest