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$200 million Alaska-based research vessel prepares to get its feet wet

Ben Anderson
Photo courtesy UAF

On Saturday, the $200 million, 261-foot-long research vessel Sikuliaq -- operated by the University of Alaska Fairbanks -- will finally get its hull wet in the waters off of Marinette, Wisc. For nearly two years, the ship has been getting from-the-ground-up treatment at a shipyard there. It will finally find its way into the water this weekend at a launch and christening ceremony. 

That doesn’t mean the ship is ready for action, though -- it’s still less than 80 percent complete. After that, it faces months of testing. It won’t even find its way to Alaska until the end of 2013. But Saturday’s ceremony is a big step forward, and it highlights the progress being made on the ship, which is being funded primarily through the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, better known as the stimulus.

The ship, when finished, will also fill an important gap in American research capabilities; it’s the first vessel devoted to research that will have a double-reinforced hull capable of icebreaking. The name itself, Sikuliaq, is particularly fitting; it's an Iñupiaq word meaning "young sea ice."

In recent years, the Arctic has become a hotspot for research, but there has been a serious gap in the availability of scientific vessels capable of negotiating the harsh and often icebound environment.

“Prior to 1999, there was no science vessel even capable of going into the ice,” said Terry Whitledge, a professor of oceanography at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “So there’s been a large pent-up demand for the past 35 or 40 years to go do Arctic research, and really no access.”

Whitledge, who also wrote the original proposal to the National Science Foundation that resulted in the Sikuliaq being built, said that the only real option for researchers currently is the Coast Guard icebreaker Healy. The Coast Guard, however, often has a different agenda and other obligations than a researcher aboard the ship.

“I had a friend who went out for 60 days and never got one sample, because it wasn’t really a priority,” Whitledge said. “He got back here and was pretty frustrated. (The Sikuliaq) will not have those constraints. Its first order of priority will be science.”

UAF will be in charge of operating the ship, while expenses will be covered thanks to a grant from the National Science Foundation. The foundation is also putting up the remainder of the construction cost, after the $148 million provided by the stimulus. The University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System will determine which expeditions get to use the new vessel for their research.

Dan Oliver is the project manager for the ship’s construction, well-suited to the role after a nearly three-decade career of shipbuilding and icebreaker operations in the Coast Guard. Oliver is also the director of the Seward Marine Center, where the Sikuliaq will eventually be homeported once it arrives in the state.

After the ship is put in the water, there will be plenty of work yet to do, Oliver said, including the installation of internal systems. Then the ship will have to undergo extensive dockside testing before being lifted back out of the water to paint the bottom. After that, it will further test and calibrate its various research and surveying systems off the New England coast and in the deep Puerto Rico Trench before finally making the long trek to Alaska.

Oliver expects the ship to arrive in Seward in December of 2013, and its first trip into ice to come in late spring of 2014.

Oliver said that the launch ceremony is both a good thing and a bad thing -- bad from the construction side of things, but good because it allows the public to see the progress being made on the ship.

“From a project management standpoint, I would tell you it’s just another step in the process,” Oliver said. “From the visual standpoint, it’s very important for people to see the ship and that it’s all worth it.”

“Work does slow down a little bit in the week leading up to the launch, though,” Oliver chuckled. “It’s a bit of a distraction in the shipyard.”

That distraction should end once the ship finally takes a dip in the chilly waters off Marinette on Saturday. There will be a christening ceremony with the UAF Chancellor and the director of the National Science Foundation on hand.

One Fairbanks composer has even created a theme song for the ship, dubbed “Song of the Sikuliaq.” UAF journalism student Robin Wood created a photo slideshow of composer Emerson Eads's inspiration for and recording of the song.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com