A big splash: Four Decades and two bottles of champagne later, UAF’s Sikuliaq launches in Wisconsin

Robin Wood/Sun Star Reporter
October 16, 2012

Marinette, WIS. — In 1973, professor emeritus Bob Elsner wrote the original proposal for an ice-capable ship. Saturday, Elsner’s dream came one step closer to completion during the Sikuliaq’s official christening and launch.  Now, after nearly four decades of hard work, multiple proposals and designs, Elsner said the important thing to do is prepare for the research that will take place on the Sikuliaq.

Professor Emeritus and co-sponsor of UAF’s Research Vessel Sikuliaq speaks to the crowd during the official launch ceremony at Marinette Marine Corporation Oct. 13, 2012 in Marinette, WIS. Robin Wood/Sun Star

Elsner and co-sponsor and professor emeritus Vera Alexander shared the honor of launching the 261-foot Research Vessel Sikuliaq at Marinette Marine Corporation in Wisconsin. After the first bottle of champagne slipped from Alexander’s gloves, crashing to the pavement below, she broke a replacement bottle across the ship’s bow. MMC workers moved Alexander to a safe distance. Then Elsner pulled the trigger that tipped the National Science Foundation-owned and UAF-operated vessel into the Menominee River.

In less than 10 seconds, the Sikuliaq slid down the launch ramp and entered the water at a roughly 60-degree angle before snapping back, bobbing up and down like a cork in a Jacuzzi.

“The ability to get there,” excites School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences Dean Mike Castellini. Castellini said he’s equally excited about the two-way interaction capabilities that will enable real-time conversations between scientists and people all over the world. “It’s a whole new dimension to it,” Castellini said. It’s a different world from the days before modern satellite technology. Castellini recalled communication difficulties during his own science expeditions.

Though it’s in the water, the Sikuliaq is not scheduled to begin its voyage to Seward until July 2013. It will then be another six months before scientists will begin research. Research will include taking core samples directly from the ocean floor, mapping floor terrain up to depths of 4,500 meters using state-of-the-art, multi-beam sonar and conducting fisheries studies. Getting time aboard the vessel will prove difficult for aspiring researchers. Dan Oliver, former commanding officer of the United States Coast Guard Cutter Healy and Sikuliaq project manager said there’s already a backlog of projects.

The Sikuliaq can move through ice up to two and a half feet thick. Still, it will  avoid multi-year ice. “It just doesn’t have the horsepower,” Oliver said.

Winter operations will be limited in areas north of St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea. However, joint expeditions into thicker ice will be possible in conjunction with true icebreakers, such as the Healy.

The first ice-capable research vessel owned by the National Science Foundation derives its name from an Inupiaq word meaning “young sea ice.”

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