The Navy’s only icebreaker HMS Protector is undergoing a major overhaul on Teesside – including preparing the ship to carry unmanned survey devices.
The distinctive Plymouth-based scientific vessel spends the austral summer – winter back in the UK – charting the waters around the frozen continent and working side-by-side with the British Antarctic Survey to gather information on the Southern Ocean, ice and sea levels and the region’s unique wildlife.
Given the unforgiving nature of the Antarctic environment, Protector undergoes maintenance every time she returns from the Southern Ocean.
And every five years she is subjected to ‘deep maintenance’ – a particularly thorough revamp which will prepare the vessel for the long term, in this case until the middle of the decade.
So over the summer, shipwrights and engineers at UK Docks are working above and below the waterline, overhauling Protector from bow to stern, topmast to keel.
Her 60-tonne crane – which has repeatedly proven its worth in loading/offloading supplies and equipment in remote locations with no port facilities – and flight deck have already been removed for major servicing and, with the dry dock emptied, extensive work is taking place on the hull; moving at four knots, the 5,000-tonne vessel can cut through ice half a metre thick.
Beyond what might be regarded as routine maintenance, the ship is being substantially upgraded to embrace latest operational scientific/survey techniques, including increasing use of autonomous survey methods.
“Protector is a unique ship facing a unique set of challenges,” said Captain Michael Wood, the ship’s Commanding Officer.
“This refit marks the start of our long journey back to Antarctica. It will take real determination, and teamwork, to get there. However, I am certain we can make it happen.”
He leads one of the most eclectic teams on any Royal Navy vessel: a specialist crew of hydrographers, meteorologists, engineers, logisticians, and warfare personnel, plus Royal Marines (specialists on survival in cold environments) divers, scientists, a Royal Navy photographer and, occasionally, an artist in residence – up to 100 souls in all, living and working in some of the most austere and challenging conditions on the planet.
Once work on Teesside is complete, Protector’s ship’s company will undergo operational sea training before the ship deploys in the autumn in time for the height of summer in the Southern Hemisphere.