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New icebreaking research vessel launched in Wisconsin

MARINETTE, WIS. — Vera Alexander worried the champagne bottle wouldn't break. The professor and dean emeritus of the University of Alaska Fairbanks' School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences served as a co-sponsor of the UAF research vessel Sikuliaq, which launched here Saturday. That meant she was the one to give the ship's blessing then crack a bottle of champagne against the bow.

Rain alternately spit and fell in windy sheets at the shipyard of Marinette Marine Corp., which held the christening and launch of the $200 million-plus ship. The National Science Foundation will own the Skiluliaq, but UAF will host and operate the vessel. About 1,500 people attended the event, including several dozen UAF staff, NSF director Subra Suresh and hundreds of shipyard workers and their families.

"Take a look at this crowd that comes out in this weather," said emcee Terry Etnyre, vice president of marketing and strategy for MMC. They're "very much similar to where the Sikuliaq is going to be stationed, in Seward, Alaska."

It would have been difficult to tell the difference between Seward and Marinette on Saturday, from the Gortex-clad crowd to the spreading puddles on the pavement. The prevalence of Packers gear — Green Bay is just 55 miles south — was the only clue.

"We've been working here for months," said Ken Stevens, who spent days painting a mast on the ship and arrived more than an hour before the event with his family in tow. "It's a big job. That's for sure."

UAF Professor Emeritus and ship co-sponsor Robert Elsner wrote the first proposal for what would become the Sikuliaq in 1973. Elsner and Alexander recognized that scientists tagging along on Coast Guard ships, where science comes after official duties, offered limited opportunity.

"We are an Arctic school," Elsner said. "It's important to have access and to study the seas, the inhabitants and their character."

Previous ship proposals never made it past the design stage. This time, $140 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, better known as the economic stimulus, helped foot the bill.

"It was a very rocky proposition over the years, but our persistence paid off," Alexander said.

The persistence of Saturday's crowd was rewarded when Alexander moved to the top of a ramp positioned next to the bow of the ship. "May God bless this ship and all who sail on her," she said. Then, the bottle of champagne she so worried wouldn't break slipped from her wet, gloved hands and fell to the ground.

A backup bottle, however, broke with ceremonial aplomb.

Moments later, the Sikuliaq slid sideways from its steel cradles and splashed into the Menominee River with a spectacular 60-degree list. It ricocheted back, then bobbed like a massive cork in a Jacuzzi as the crowd cheered and snapped photos with their phones.

The launch of the Sikuliaq marks an important milestone for UAF, as well as for the National Science Foundation, which hasn't commissioned a ship since the mid-1980s. The Sikuliaq replaces the 40-plus-year-old research vessel Alpha Helix, which is now retired.

"NSF likes a balanced fleet," SFOS Dean Mike Castellini said. "Without anything that can work in higher latitudes, it wasn't a balanced fleet."

The vessel's name came courtesy of Inupiaq hunters who worked with Elsner. On a seal hunt near Barrow, Elsner mentioned the need to name the ship. "These guys scanned the horizon," Elsner said, "and said, 'This is first-year ice, and the name for that is sikuliaq.'"

The 261-foot ship's reinforced double-hull can plow through up to two and a half feet of sea ice, host remotely operated vehicles and collect sediment samples directly from the ocean floor — all while maintaining a satellite hookup with classrooms across the county.

"A schoolchild in Florida can log on and say, 'What's the Sikuliaq doing today?'" Castellini said.

That scenario is a way out. The Sikuliaq is in the water but only about 70 percent complete. Internal systems go in next. After that comes a series of tests on the water. Around July 2013, the ship will set out across the Great Lakes, through the St. Lawrence Seaway, down the East Coast, through the Panama Canal and up the other side of the continent. Plans call for the ship to reach its homeport of Seward in January 2014.

Scientists already have begun booking the ship for research.

Still, getting research time on the vessel may prove difficult. Dan Oliver, former commanding officer of the United States Coast Guard Cutter Healy and project manager for the Sikuliaq, said there's already a backlog of projects. In queue are a number of expeditions utilizing two state-of-the-art, three-dimensional systems capable of mapping sea floors at depths of 4,500 meters.

"We have a beautiful ship," Alexander said. "It was beautiful in concept. It was beautiful in design. And it's now beautiful in its final form. It's going to serve us well for many, many years."

Lynne Lott teaches journalism at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and Robin Wood is a senior at UAF majoring in journalism. The preceding report first appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner and is republished here with the authors' permission.

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