Boating 101: A burrito and survival suit adventure

Photos from UAB in Antarctica group on Flickr, related to this post
By Ruth McDowell
Posted on 02/23/10

Hi everyone, from Palmer Station!

It is hard to describe how wonderful it is here. I have been especially awed by my first glimpses of Antarctic wildlife- and I didn’t have to wait long to see Antarctic fauna- as I was unpacking in my room, an Adélie penguin walked down the road outside my window!

Kate and I have been busy learning about life here, setting up our lab space and dive equipment, meeting everyone on station, and of course seeing our first Antarctic seals, penguins, seaweeds, and marine invertebrates. However, one of our first priorities was a boating course. Everyone at Palmer Station takes this course before they are able to use the station zodiacs, and most people on station enjoy getting out in the boats to take recreational trips to the nearby islands or to see the beautiful scenery and wildlife from the water.

Our first morning at Palmer Station, we met with Ryan, the boat operations manager. Before we could learn about boating, we had to learn how to use the camp stoves and set up the tents that are stored in survival caches located on every island in safe zodiac boating distance off Anvers Island. These caches are placed on the islands in case a boating group is unable to return to the station, primarily due to weather. The weather here can change rapidly. Storms can arrive with little warning, and winds can rise from 20 to 60 knots in less than 10 minutes. Although we are careful to check the forecast before we plan our trips, I’m sure everyone understands how weather can surprise you. So it’s very important to know how to use the survival gear in the caches in case what we intend to be a short boating or dive trip turns into several hours or a night spent on one of the islands.

We then talked about what to do in a person overboard situation. The water temperature here stays pretty constant between -1 and 1° C. The first minute or two in water this cold is an extreme shock to the body. Immersed in water this cold, a person has only about 10 minutes during which they are capable of purposeful movement. Around 10 minutes after immersion, hypothermia sets in as blood is pumped away from the extremities to the core in an attempt to keep the vital organs warm enough for metabolism. It’s extremely important to get the person back into the boat as soon as possible. However, haste can lead to accidents, and running someone over with the zodiac is not helpful. Therefore, it’s best to take it slow approach in the zodiac to your overboard person and remember that the person has at least those 10 minutes before hypothermia causes serious problems. All the boats are equipped with warm “space blankets” and sleeping bags, and though she did not actually go overboard, we practiced wrapping Kate up like a burrito, which we would do after removing wet clothing in order to re-establish her body heat.

Then we were ready for the really fun part (not that a Kate burrito is not fun!): learning to drive the zodiacs. It can be slow going if there is a lot of brash ice in the water, but the day of our boating course the water was clear, and we could take the zodiac up to top speed as we navigated throughout the small islands around the station. I had never driven a boat before, and working the tiller of a zodiac is honestly one of the most fun things I have gotten to do in a long time. I really can’t wait to get some more practice! We also spent time learning to land the zodiac, tie it up, and deploy the sea anchor.

To wrap up our boating course, we practiced a real man overboard situation. I got to put on a full survival suit and jump into the water! It was relaxing to float in the icy cold water, protected by my waterproof suit, bobbing up and down with the waves and watching the clouds move as Kate and Ryan looped around to pick me up. I didn’t want to get out! Here is a tip though, if you are ever in the same situation: the wrists of the survival suit do NOT seal like our dry suits do, so keep your hands out of the water if possible. Trying to swim is not a good idea if you don’t have to ?. When icy water started trickling up my sleeve, I was not opposed to being dragged back into the zodiac…

It’s time to get back to work. We have a full day of diving and research ahead of us. There is a lot of brash ice today, but otherwise it’s a beautiful day for a dive and for a boat ride!



  1. Re: Boating 101: A burrito and survival suit adventure
    Posted by Kevin on 02/23/10

    I know what you mean about having a lot of fun in the zodiacs! If we hadn't already performed depth soundings around all the islands, I would recommend volunteering to go look for new dive sites. How are the housing arrangements treating you? I know it can be strange to share a room after not having a roommate for a while. Continue to enjoy the atmosphere that is Palmer Station, Antarctica!

    1. Posted by Ruth on 02/24/10
      Hey Kevin! Good to hear from you. I’m living in GWR, and I really like it. You’re right- it is a little strange to share a room, but I hardly even notice it because I am only in there when I’m sleeping : ). Also, my roommate is really nice. She's the station doctor. She leads a workout every morning at 5:40 am (!) and she really motivates me to get up and do it. I will definitely continue to enjoy it here. I already know I won’t want to leave in June…
  2. Re: Boating 101: A burrito and survival suit adventure
    Posted by Second Graders on 02/23/10

    How do you keep the survival tent in place if you are experiencing strong winds while stranded on an island?

    1. Posted by Ruth on 02/24/10
      Hi second graders, thanks for the question! Tents come equipped with long ropes attached at various intervals along the bottom. To keep the tent in place on windy days, you just pull these ropes out and attach them securely to the ground. In many places, these ropes can be secured to the ground using stakes at the end of the ropes. Have any of you been camping before? If so, you might remember driving these stakes into the ground after setting up the tent. However, this would not work on the islands in Antarctica. The islands here are bare rock. It would be impossible to use stakes because there isn’t soil to drive the stakes into. So instead, we will tie the rope to rocks- the heavier the rock, the more secure the tent will be in high winds. We could even tie the ropes off to boulders. You can imagine that it might take a lot of rope to tie up to a boulder. Because of this, the boat operations manager, Ryan, has tied additional lengths of rope to all the tents. Once the tent is securely tied to the rocks, we would be able to huddle up inside and wait out the storm.
  3. Re: Boating 101: A burrito and survival suit adventure
    Posted by Terri Schoenrock on 02/24/10

    Great post Ruth! I have always loved a good Kate burrito myself, but I am her mom and I get to say that!

    You folks impress me every day. Go to it and have a great time becoming the wonderful, intelligent and competent women you are.

    While you're there, would you please create world peace and solve world hunger?

    Best, Terri

  4. Re: Boating 101: A burrito and survival suit adventure
    Posted by christian s. on 02/26/10

    hey ruth

    i am following this blog for a while now and try to understand as much as possible. it's really interesting to watch this process going on and read the story behind the person who does the experience. it seems, you'd have a very interesting job, even it would be much too cold for me.
    hope the rest of your expedition will be as good as the beginning. have fun, take care and allways keep at least a hand water under keel!

    best wishes from switzerland

    oh, and to agree my previous speaker, if you had capacities for improving world peace, i would be grateful as well!

  5. Re: Boating 101: A burrito and survival suit adventure
    Posted by ivar on 05/28/10

    Fun to read! I actually thought this was about real suits - as in, tailored suits, then quickly understood it was about SURVIVAL suits from the header! :) Anyways, i read through it despite, because it was fun to read - well written. Penguins, seaweeds, water temp of 0 degrees... far from my everyday here in Germany. well, at least i know how much time i have before hypothermia sets in, in the case i should fall into icy waters :)

    Enjoy the diving and good luck in doing good research!


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