UAF’s new research vessel launches out of dry dock

The University of Alaska Fairbanks realized a dream over the weekend, with the launch of a new arctic research vessel.  The 261 foot Sikuliaq splashed into a river feeding Lake Michigan in Marinette, Wisconsin Saturday.  The 200 million dollar vessel project is largely supported by federal economic stimulus funding. The ship is owned by the National Science Foundation and will be operated by UAF.    The launch culminated decades of planning and advocacy by the university.

It doesn’t take long for a big ship to go from dry dock to afloat.

The Sikuliaq slid sideways from a steel cradle at the Marinette Marine Corporation ship yard into the Menominee River in matter of seconds, a dramatic splash capping a project that took 40 years to get there.

“One of the things that characterizes us is persistence and that paid off,” Vera Alexander says.

Alexander and fellow UAF emeritus marine science professor Bob Elsner are co-sponsors of the ship, who pushed the project throughout long careers at the university and into their retirements.

“We’d been through three major designs of vessels. Each one went to the model testing and there was no money to continue. But the National Science Foundation supported all of these efforts over the years. If it hadn’t been for them it would never have happened. We were on the final design, we had just about got it ready, when the stimulus monies came along and NSF got a bunch and there we were. We were in,” Alexander says.

Alexander and Elsner’s feelings about finally getting the ship transcend simple gratification.

“I would say that is a fairly honest expression of our enthusiasm,” Elsner says.

The pair played key roles at Saturday’s launch, during which cold, wind and rain reduced the expected crowd, and made it tough for Alexander to carry out the ship’s christening. The first bottle of champagne slipped from her hands and it required a few hits to break a backup bottle over the bow.

“It was really hard, I had these gloves on. The second time was better,” Alexander says.

Elsner had it easier, simply pushing a button that released the ship.  Elsner, a marine mammal biologist who long worked with Alaska Native seal hunters, recounted how they helped him settle on a name for the new ship.

“These guys scan the horizon, and they said ‘well this is first year ice and our name for that is sikuliaq.’ And I though gee that’s kind of a nice name,” Elsner says.

The Sikuliaq is designed to travel its namesake waters, first year ice in the arctic and Antarctic.  U.A.F. Chancellor Brian Rogers says the ship’s capacity will broaden research opportunity.

“This ship is special because it’s ice strengthened. It has the ability to go through up to three feet of new ice in places we have not been able to go before on longer voyages, and to really host a large quantity of scientists–nearly two dozen scientists on board. Wonderful laboratory facilities and the ability, using telecommunications, to communicate with students back in the classroom as well,” Rogers says.

The Sikuliaq is the National Science Foundation’s first new ship since 1981.  During a speech at the launch ceremony, N.S.F. Director Subra Suresh recognized the vessel’s significance given increased focus on the arctic.

“At a time when there is a significant change in recorded history that we observe in Alaska, in the arctic area, significant economic, scientific, and other interests-commercial interests in the arctic, nothing could be more timely than the launch of the Sikuliaq at this point,” Suresh says.

The Sikuliaq replaces the NSF’s retired ship the Alpha Helix, which was home ported in Seward, just like the Sikuliaq will be.  U.A.F.’s Seward based Sikuliaq project manager Dan Oliver says it’s a major step up.

“They used to call the Alpha Helix the Ralpha Helix because it rolled so bad. The Sikuliaq has a much better hull shape for heavy weather conditions. In addition, it has an anti-roll tank system to help dampen out the roll when you get into heavy sea state,” Oliver says.

Oliver says the biggest chunk of the ship’s 12 million dollar yearly operating budget is fuel, and being able to stay at sea increases efficiency.  Oliver is also excited about the Sikuliaq’s sophisticated gear and technology, including the latest in sampling and scanning equipment.  U.A.F School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences Director Mike Castellini says research projects are already in cue for the Sikuliaq’s first season in 2014.

“There’s one already scheduled to go in July and August back and forth across the Canadian border to bring up deep-water fish from that region, which there’s no ship that can do that right now. So the scientists are so excited. In fact, their answer to me the other day was ‘can’t we have the ship tomorrow? Let’s do it tomorrow instead than 18 months from now.’ Everyone’s really chomping at the bit for it,” Castellini says.

The Sikuliaq has a ways to go before it’s ready for full on service.  The ship will remain in Marinette for outfitting and testing before sailing through Lake Michigan, out the St. Lawrence Seaway, and into the Atlantic next year. It will undergo sea trials and then go through the Panama Canal and up the west coast to Alaska.  It’s scheduled to arrive in Seward in early 2014.

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