A day on Polarstern

I wake up from the buzzing of my phone. It’s dark in the room and my eyes refuse to open. Whatever, I will sleep a bit more.

When I’m woken again, I don’t feel any more awake than I did the first time. But I know I should get up. I have been sleeping for nine hours – that somehow should be enough. The door behind our room is repeatedly slammed open and then closed, accompanied by running feet and muffled talking. There’s probably whales outside.


I go out in our room and look out the window. Claudia is still asleep, but I know that she wants me to open up the curtains so we get a bit of light in. It’s the Arctic summer, and never really gets dark, but our curtains block out all light. After taking a shower in our tiny bathroom I go out to find some breakfast. It’s noon, and everybody else already had lunch at 11.30. It’s the main meal of the day on Polarstern, and usually consists of potatoes, some meat, sauce and a bit of vegetables. It’s great if you’re into traditional German food. But it’s usually not really my thing. So I go downstairs to the crew’s cantina and fix myself some breakfast. Usually coffee and bread with peanutbutter or pancakes.

Then it’s time to drop by the winch room where Laura and Wilken are working to check up on what’s happening and how their watch has been. On Polarstern cruises, there’s a tight schedule of the different instruments that go in the water to collect the samples. Sometimes everything works out as planned, but often changes occur, so before each watch we need to know what’s going on – and then continuously keep an eye on the plan.

We have divided the watches in two 12-hour shifts, and I share the night shift with Claudia – working from four in the afternoon to four in the morning. In the beginning it was hard to get used to, but as time passed we actually came to like the night shift. On a busy ship like Polarstern, with almost 100 people on board, it’s actually quiet nice to get the quiet night to yourself.

We don’t work the whole 12 hours, only when the CTD goes in – which it often does at night. So I go back to the room, where I spent a couple of hours working on the computer. At home, I usually work remotely on supercomputers through the internet, but on Polarstern this is of course not possible. Instead, I read up on papers that I need to read, and work on my own papers. Later I meet with some of the others for coffee.

In addition to the physical oceanography work we do on board, Claudia and I have agreed to keep an eye on a machine that continuously measures gases in the atmospheric. So I go to the floor beneath the bridge and note how the measurements are coming along. Then I get a small bottle and go down to the working deck, where we take a water sample everyday. Here, all the work is carried out when we are on station, and I chat a bit with the crew before going upstairs again.

Slowly, people are going to bed, and Claudia and I start preparing for the CTD. In the winch room Mine is already writing down a detailed plan for the in-situ pumps that will be attached to the line. Mine works with plastic pollution, and the pumps will measure micro plastics in the water column. We talk through the plan with the crew, and Claudia suits up to go on deck and drive the CTD out. I stay upstairs to turn on the CTD and guide the measurements. It’s all a matter of communication between me, Sebastian who is controlling the winch and the crew on deck – both Claudia, Mine’s people and the deckhand.

Once the CTD is in the water I turn it on, and ask Sebastian to start the decent. On the way down we do stops at the depths discussed with Mine to mount the pumps. In the end the CTD is at depth, 1600 metres, we take the water samples that are planned here and then pull it up so far that the pumps are located in the designated depths. And then we wait. The pumps need to be in for 1.5 hours, so we have time to get a coffee and talk, while we also keep an eye on the bottom depth and the CTD depth. The crew on the bridge always make an effort to keep the ship in the same place for the duration of the station, but there will always be some drift, so we need to make sure that the CTD does not suddenly hit the bottom. Despite of it being in the middle of the night, it’s still light outside, and the mood is good in the room – though Mine is tense, she is always worried that something will happen to the pumps. Towards the end of the pumping, the deck crew go back down to receive the pumps, and when everybody is ready I ask Sebastian to start raising the CTD. On the way up we help each other to keep an eye on the pump depth, so the CTD can be stopped in time for the pumps to come off. And we stop at the designated depths for water samples. As we approach the surface, Claudia starts calling the people who will work with the water samples. They are in bed sleeping, and since we never really know when the CTD will be at the surface, we have a list with people to call. On the computer screen we have plots of the measured salinity, temperature and chlorophyll, so many of the water sample people drop by the winch room to get to know what to expect in their sampling; the physical environment affects the biology, and the biologists may decide to do extra measurements in certain cases.

Once the CTD is back on deck it is secured, and our job is over for now. The next is Nicole who measures plankton in a net. It’s early morning, and it’s time for Claudia and I to go to bed.




Steaming northwards through the Norwegian Sea

The Norwegian Sea is calmer than the Baltic had been during our three week summer holiday, and we are now steaming steadily northwards. People are busy preparing their gear for the first station and finding their way on the Polarstern.

Polarstern usually spends our summer in the Arctic and our winter in the Antarctic, with relatively short stops in Bremerhaven in between. This year, two cruises have been carried out in the ice covered area north of Svalbard already, and two additional cruises are planned in the Arctic after our cruise has finished.

Before the ship leaves Bremerhaven in the spring, everybody who will carry out research during the season will pack their gear in boxes or containers and have it put onboard. On Polarstern, everything is stored in such a way that the gear needed at a specific cruise will be stored in an accessible part of the ship. So when a cruise starts, everybody has to locate their storage area. Unfortunately, there had been some miscommunication, and it turned out that our container had been put in storage for the next cruise leg – with the opening right against a wall, and on a deck were containers can only be moved when the eight containers located at the deck above are lifted out of the ship. Luckily, the main instrument we are using, the CTD, is already in place, and the container mainly contains spare parts.

Our group is responsible for measuring salinity and temperature in the water column, and additionally for taking water samples that will be used by other groups to determine nutrients, chlorophyll, species composition and other things that I am not fully aware of.

Our cruise is a so-called “Hausgarten” cruise. The Hausgarten is an area in the Fram Strait where the state of the ocean has been measured by the AWI for many years. As the Fram Strait is one of the main gateways to the Arctic Ocean, these longterm measurements help us understand how the inflow into the Arctic is changing.


Towards the Fram Strait

As the plane approached Tromsø, we could see the rugged coast line below, with the islands of Lofoten clearly standing out. We landed in bright sunshine, marveling at the beautiful landscape around us. The trip had started at three in the morning when the sound of my alarm clock woke me up, and at four, before the sun had risen, a bus with passengers still half asleep left the Alfred Wegener Institute and headed for Hamburg airport. In Oslo our group met up with those who had flown from Bremen, and soon we were on our way towards Tromsø where the research vessel Polarstern was waiting.

We spent the night in a hotel at the water front, and in the morning I had the opportunity to take a walk along the harbor and across the bridge that connects the island with the mainland. The sun was shining brightly and the scenery absolutely breathtaking.

A bus picked us all up and drove us the short way to the fuel dock where Polarstern was waiting. Inside, we found our rooms and I found out I would was in a room with Laura and Claudia. I never even new that Polarstern had rooms for more than two people, but ours was really nice, with a section for use during the day and a section with beds that was somewhat closed off, making it easier to sleep while others are awake in the main room. This is great because the ship continues working during the night, so those on the night shift will have an easier time sleeping during the day.


It turned out that we would have to stay at the fuel dock until early evening, so we took the opportunity to go back to Tromsø for a couple of hours. It was Sunday, so the only stores that were open were the souvenir shops and the cafes. Laura got a thermo cup with northern light on it, and Claudia got a present for her husband. We went to the Polar Museum, which looked pretty small, but had elaborate exhibitions of the Norwegian early explorers like Nansen and Amundsen, and it displayed the story of the hunters who would over winter on Svalbard to hunt for walrus, polar bear and seals. Crazy lives they had. They had a shop selling books about the Polar ocean, but I didnt find Nansens books about the Fram expedition, which were bought by my great grandmother and I now have at home – it turned out that they were part of the exhibition inside

In the evening Polarstern started moving slowly away from the dock, and soon we were steaming out between the beautiful and majestic Lofoten Islands in the midnight sun. Most people were on the deck above the bridge, but it was cold and windy, and soon there was only a few people left. We entered the Norwegian Sea around midnight and continued northwards towards Svalbard and the Fram Strait.

Where to go on a sailing holiday

I asked Runa what she likes best about sailing. “I don’t like sailing!” was the answer. This is something we practice with her – to notice the good thing that happens and not just remember what you didn’t like so much. So I asked her again, there must be something nice about sailing, right? “Maybe walking the little paths on Nordbjerget” she said. That was on Anholt last year. We talked a bit longer, and it turned out that we she really likes is exploring a new place. I like that too. Arriving somewhere and go out and see the place you ended up in. Actually, I like it so much that I’m dead set on not visiting the sailing grounds south of Funen, which I have visited plenty of times with my parents throughout my childhood.

Esben and I want to take some overnight trips to see if we can make it work and to get a bit further away faster. Since our base is currently in Bremerhaven on the west coast of Germany, it would make sense to go somewhere around here. But we honestly don’t find the sailing great here – always having to pay attention to the tides, either on the North Sea, or in the shallow channels behind the Frisian islands.

So we thought about going to Scotland. But that required somewhat nice weather for the kids not to hate us forever. But as the departure date approached, and we saw one low pressure system after the other building up in the North Atlantic we came to accept that we would be visiting the Baltic once again. This time we aim for Bornholm.

Light in the cave – or painting the interior

Dark teak interiors are valued in the Danish boating community – strange since we all seem to favor  light Nordic design. Chip-Chip has been owned by people who have loved to sail, and to sail far. Consequently, countless screw holes in the teak reminds us of long forgotten instruments, storing containers, fire extinguishers etc. And the interior is somewhat worn. Practically it doesn’t really matter, but still…

So we decided to start painting and varnishing in the v-berth. Esben sanded it down in early spring, and I did the research on varnish. Big topic apparently. We ended up going with Epifanes for no particular reason. But spring was cold in Northern Germany, so it took forever before could get started. In the end I decided that 5 degrees would have to do for varnishing, which meant that I could only apply a new coat after 48 hours, so the five (I think) coats took a while. After spending hours taping up the newly varnished surfaces, we started painting. We used Hempel’s Multicoat coat paint, which was okay – but it needed five coats to cover the wood completely.


Our head (toilet) is original and made of metal covered in flaky paint. We took it home to see if it could be saved, and in the meantime I continued to paint and varnish the little room to help make it a bit more inviting. I think I succeeded!

It was quiet an effort to get the sanding, varnishing and painting done, and the main cabin was still waiting – once started we would have to finish. But in the end we decided to go ahead. So Esben spent his last two days off after easter sanding everything down. Then he left to work in the UK for two weeks, and I could start the task of varnishing and painting. I ended up going every day for a couple of hours, and did a bit each day. The kids and I decided that we wanted to surprise Esben by telling him that there was no way I could do any work while he was away – and then when he came home everything would be finished. In the end I didn’t manage for that deadline, though, but finally everything was done. It was awesome!

We are really happy having finished this project. The boat is so much lighter now – and we can write draw on all the green surfaces, they were painted with chalkboard paint.


Restoring the teak seats

“STOP PULLING THE WOOD!!!!” Mattis jumped when I started screaming at him. It was summer and he had been playing in the cockpit, and was checking out how the seats were made of marine plywood with a teak coverage. Only problem was that the teak coverage was basically paper thin and peeling off. And while it’s not really a big issue, it’s not aesthetically pleasing, and if the teak is not fixed, the marine plywood below would slowly be damaged by the water creeping in.

So we asked my dad if he would let us work on the seats in his workshop during easter. That way he could give us advice on how to proceed while we were working, and we had the local boat builder down the road for extra advice and for materials.

By measuring at the location of the hinges, we figured that the old teak pieces had been 5mm thick originally, and we then asked the local boat builder to cut a teak plank into small pieces. We wanted to take the old seats apart and use the old teak as templates for the new pieces, and after much work we finally had the marine plywood, a pile of old crappy teak an the side pieces kinda preserved.

It took forever, but finally we started building the seats up again. We used Sika 291i sealant, both for gluing the teak onto the plywood, as well as for the joints.

We put sika on the seats, added the teak carefully with dividers in between them, and then put compression on while they dried out. Once dry (so the next day), the protruding teak pieces had to be cut off, and then it was time for the side pieces. These were cut out individually, using the old pieces as templates, and then glued and screwed onto the seats. Finally we added sealant to the joints. To avoid having sika everywhere, my dad told us tape it up; you sand the sealant off afterwards, but it penetrates the wood and leaves a slight color that is not directly visible, but you sense it anyways. So the tape went on. The last day, we worked late into the night, but finally had four finished seats to bring home. Now we just had to sand them.

In the end it was not easy getting the hinges back in the right place, but we managed and now have lovely seats. But most importantly, we learned how to work with teak, so next time we can do it ourselves – just need to invest in some nice tools first…


Installed! Now we just need to fix the rest of the wood…



2 steps forward and 500 back

“That was a long holiday, don’t you think?”. The kids agreed, we had been on Chip-Chip forever, sailed across miles of water, and were ready to go home.

In reality we had arrived less than two days earlier, and only ventured down the other end of the harbour to buy fresh fish for dinner. The plans were much bigger Friday morning; Esben would fix the cockpit drain quickly Friday afternoon, so that we could leave with the outgoing tide Saturday morning and visit one of the Wadden Sea islands. But then the drain didn’t fit, and after a trip to the nearest major marine store it became evident that it wouldn’t be a quick job.

Whatever, we could fix it Saturday morning and still get a nice sail in the afternoon – except that the job took too long, so once it was finally finished, we took the boat out for a 1 nm trip to the next harbour, sailing with the genoa in next to no wind. It was nice nevertheless, the kids got an ice cream, we bought fresh fish for dinner and we even had time for dinner on the way back.

Since it was the pentecost weekend, we still had time for an overnight visit in one of the nearest harbours. We just needed to do final adjustments to the new standing rigging on Sunday morning before leaving. Esben went up the mast in the new Topclimber, and as he began adjusting the first spreader he yelled to me: “We’re not going anywhere! The end piece is broken”. I didn’t believe him at first, but then he leaned to the side and showed me how he could wiggle the piece like a loose tooth. By then we had enough, took a couple of pictures of the culprit, backed up the car and went home for lunch.

We did, however, come back a couple of hours later to try out the banana boat, which we bought secondhand online sometime during the winter. We bought it without having ever sailed one before, but figured that if it didn’t work out for us we could just sell it again. Esben took the kids for a sail, but we’re so far not completely convinced if we should keep it.


The topclimber is pretty handy

And now that the weekend has ended, we’re trying to find a spreader end piece for a 47 year old mast. So far it’s not too encouraging, but hopefully we will find a solution, hopefully before we’re planning to go on summer holidays – Esben already suggested that we just remove the mast and make a trip down the Dutch rivers. Somehow I would much rather go sailing – with sails.

You would think that we would have learned by now that you can never count on anything going smoothly on an old boat. But I guess not…

It’s much easier rowing with the wind

Getting rid of old stinky mattresses

We really like our little boat, but even Esben and I have to admit that the smell it has inside is not great. It’s the kind that you don’t notice straight away, but as you come home and have showered you realize that everything you brought back kinda still has that smell. It’s probably a mix of diesel, old sweat and dirt. I tend to not find it too bad because it reminds me of sailing in my childhood, but when we had some the mattresses in our bedroom for a while it became really obvious. Something needed to be done.

We started with the mattresses. Partly because of the smell, and partly because they had become somewhat thin over the past 46 years, and just needed to be replaced. After a bit of googling, I realized that a sewing machine is not that expensive compared to paying for new mattresses, so we invested in a SINGER Heavy Duty 4423, some sunbrella fabric and closed cell mattresses. And with some help from sailrite I got started on the v-berth. We cut the mattresses with our biggest knife, it didn’t exactly look professional, but it was alright. Despite of not having used a sewing machine since I went to school, it all came together alright, with the help of the sailrite videos.

The shop had sent us mor of the sunbrella fabric than we ordered, so I managed to make the mattress for Runas bed from the same fabric – nice, sunbrella is not exactly cheap.

For the dinette we wanted a thicker type of fabric and ended up ordering a grey sunbrellay, which turned out to be really nice, and easier to sew than the v-berth fabric. The sewing machine did great, and all in all we’re really happy that we took on the project. But I have to admit that I now understand why it’s so expensive to get this work done professionally; it takes a long time and it’s not easy.

The project ended up costing 1200 euro, sewing machine included. It would have been a lot cheaper if we had not chosen to use sunbrella, but hopefully it will last us for a long time. And hopefully it will take a while before they take on that familiar smell of diesel!

Polarstern in Bremerhaven

“But where were the polar bears?” We were all on our way back to the car after visiting AWI’s ice breaker, the Polarstern – and Mattis has learned enough about my work to know that Polarstern equals ice and snow, which apparently equals polar bears. But they were not there. We did, however, see a helicopter, labs, sleeping quarters and even a film with penguins – but no polar bears.

For the past couple of years my work has focused on modeling the the Arctic Ocean biogeochemistry, and this summer I will probably participate in a cruise between Svalbard and Greenland. This area is called the Fram Strait, and it’s one of the main gateways to the Arctic, where AWI has monitored the water for several years to help explain how and why the Arctic Ocean is changing.

So when the Polarstern opened its’ doors for the public this weekend, we waited in line for the kids to see where I will go this summer. We actually had to wait in line for 2.5 hours… But Esben and I took turns in the queue, while the kids went around with the other one to check out the many activities. We saw ROV’s filming and taking samples under water, talked to the scientific divers and decorated a Polarstern bag to bring home with us. And for lunch Runa chose a bratwurst of course, we are after all almost real Germans.

And finally, after going through a metal detector and becoming registered we were allowed inside the Polarstern accompanied by our new friends from the long wait. It was nice to show the kids where I worked the last time I went and where I will be this summer. And we talked about the many different nets and machines, had a look in a microscope, saw the helicopter and even the air balloon, which the kids know from a book at home. Esben noted that the bridge had even more instruments than Jensine does, which is rather impressive, and it was cool for them to see where many of the pictures from the Polarstern have been taken.

It’s been five years since I last went on a cruise on the Polarstern. Back then my work focused on modeling Southern Ocean biogeochemistry, and especially the trace metal iron, and I was lucky to go on a 10-week cruise from Cape Town in South Africa to Punta Arenas in South America. My group was responsible for measuring chlorophyll and particulate organic carbon on the way, while others measured nutrient concentrations, oxygen, salinity, temperature etc.  All in all, it gave an overview of the conditions in the ocean when we were there and helped understand how the physics controls the biology to some degree. Apart from the interesting science, it’s quiet a privilege to go to such a special place as the Southern Ocean, and I am sure the next cruise will be another great experience.

Finally in Bremerhaven

From where we live there’s only 50 km to Cuxhaven where we had left Chip-Chip. But the sail to Bremerhaven is about 60 nm because of the shallows that extend far out along the coast between Cuxhaven and Bremerhaven. Our average speed is around 4.5 knots, so 60 nm is pretty far in one day. And then there are the tides. We would have to take the last leg of the trip on a day when high water in Cuxhaven took place early in the morning so we could go out of the Elbe with the current – and also in through the Weser with the current.

We had talked to people from the local sailing club and found that we would have to do the trip two weeks after leaving Chip-Chip in Cuxhaven. As fall was approaching, the days were also getting shorter and colder, and we didn’t really fancy arriving in the dark.

So off we went in the train. For some reason we had brought our cooling box home when we left Chip-Chip the last time – and forgot to bring it again. So once we had taken a walk in Cuxhaven and eaten lots of ice cream, Esben went out to find some ice for the ice box that some previous owners have luckily installed. In morning we were ready to go out of the harbour through the bridge at 8.00. But at 7.40, a tour boat asked on the vhf to get the bridge opened early, so we were suddenly in a hurry; turned on the motor, threw off the moorings and quickly called the bridge to let them know that we were coming through too.

As we sped across the harbour I mentioned to Esben that the motor sounded different. But we off course needed to pass the bridge, so we continued. As we came out in the front basin, we had to wait for a freighter to leave, and the motor still sounded funny. Then Esben checked the cooling water – and yelled that we hadn’t opened the seacock for the raw water. Our motor can be a bit difficult to turn off, but this time I managed to do it in record time. We waited a bit while drifting around in the harbour, and then turned on the motor again. And everything was fine. But I don’t think we’ll make that mistake again.

We entered the Elbe at slack tide and sailed westwards along the northern side of the marked channel, where the bottom is sloping more gently and there is a bit of room outside of the path of the freighters. The wind was directly from behind, so we had a nice sail for a couple of hours with just the jib out. Actually, I think the jib didn’t do much, the current probably pushed us along. Runa tends to get a bit sea sick, so we went to sit in front of the mast and chat. That pushes the seasickness aside, and is really nice.

But soon we had reached the part of the Elbe where the channel becomes broader, and as we were going south, we had to cross over. We do have AIS in our vhf, but it doesn’t tell us when we’re on collision course, so we just had to try our best not to be in the way. Some of the freighters of course sail much faster than you think, and we ended up speeding as fast as we could to not be run down by the one that was the farthest away when we started crossing. Good thing the motor still worked… But in the end we made it to safety, only to realize that the water was a lot more choppy on this side of the channel. So we were hit by seasickness once again. Esben threw up while reefing the main, Mattis while lying on his back in bed and Runa threw up so many times that I finally had to order her down below to lie down – she knows she needs to look at the horizon when she’s seasick, so she wants do stay on deck.

As we left the Elbe and started the leg towards the entrance to the Weser, we couldn’t hold our course under sail and started the engine. That gave a bit of rest, and everybody fell asleep while I steered us southwards. The tricky thing about the sail was that we needed to time our progress so that we had the current in our favor both in the Elbe, and then again on the way in towards Bremerhaven in the Weser. Sailing in the Baltic, we are not used to tide tables, and I find that I definitely need to concentrate when doing tide calculations, but at the same time I find it quiet cool. I guess working with oceanography on a daily basis helps a bit. And somehow we managed to reach the Weser at exactly the right time, and soon we were flying along with a speed of 8 knots inwards toward Bremerhaven. I was starting to get a bit anxious about our arrival time as we weren’t too keen on arriving after sunset. But as we were going in the same direction as the tidal wave, we kept the speed of 8 knots for a few hours, and soon the outer harbour terminals of Bremerhaven became visible. Esben and the kids went up in front of the mast to sit and watch the big ships being loaded with cargo. Here we really realized how big some of the freighters were – Mattis insisted that we should go and pick up the toy boats that zoomed in and out between them, and neither he nor Runa believed us when we said that those were pilot boats, much bigger than Chip-Chip.

As we approached the city centre, the sun was beginning to set, so we turned on the navigation lights and turned into the harbour at 19.30, exactly as it became dark. We had to pass a lock, the Doppelschleuse, to get to the sailing club. But as it was Sunday night and the kids had to go to bed, we decided to leave Chip-Chip at the guest dock at the entrance to the Geeste, and do the rest of the sail the next morning.

In the Geeste river

Esben had coffee ready as I arrived back at Chip-Chip the next morning after getting the kids to school and kindergarten, and we were ready to enter the Fischereihafen lock at 8.30. Unfortunately, the lock keepers didn’t seem to care much about opening hours, so we drifted around in the outer basin for almost an hour before being allowed to enter. Good thing we had coffee and sunshine.

The sail from the lock to the harbour took almost an hour as we went slowly in the beautiful morning. But finally we arrived and were greeted by a Swedish speaking gentleman who also had his boat in the harbour. It was great to finally be there – now we just needed to become official members of the sailing club!