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Mike Lewis receives cargo.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
Mike Lewis, Port Hueneme receiving supervisor, logs recently arrived materials on the loading dock of the logistic operation's main warehouse.

Shipping it out

Port Hueneme serves as the logistical nerve center for moving materials to and from Antarctica

The road to Port Hueneme on California’s southern coast slices through strawberry fields and rural fruit stands, a bucolic drive that ends at quiet beaches and a naval base that is home to the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP)’s logistics nerve center.

Simply referred to as Port Hueneme by the program’s participants, the operation consists of a handful of long warehouses that hug the north side of the base’s deep-water port. Most every type of widget – from water bottles to fuel tanks to tires as tall as a man – necessary to keep the Antarctic machine running year-round passes through here at some point.

And every year around the year-end holidays, the staff at Port Hueneme is busier than elves at Santa’s workshop. That’s when the annual re-supply vessel – the M/V American Tern, in this case – pulls into port to receive hundreds of tons of cargo and food.

“This is the toughest time, when the ship is here,” Mike Lewis tells the men and women crowded into a small office and meeting room, where the first loading day’s operation begins with a safety meeting. It’s crunch time, the Port Hueneme receiving supervisor reminds everyone, when injuries are more likely to happen in the rush to get the job done in time.

“It’ll go to the last minute,” counsels a veteran warehouse employee, who recounts the lore of past years, when the vessel was already halfway to Long Beach and yet another crucial piece of cargo, arriving late, nearly precipitated the ship’s recall to Port Hueneme to retrieve it. Materials can go by air, but the cost more than triples, so it is imperative to get as much stuff as possible on the 159-meter-long ship.

“Our challenge is to make sure we get [the cargo] in on time, and that it survives the mission south,” notes Mike Embree, director of Logistics for Raytheon Polar Services Co., the contractor that supports the National Science Foundation (NSF)’s science operation in Antarctica.

“A delay is big bucks for NSF,” he adds, gazing across the port to the Tern, two of its three cranes already swinging into action, grabbing containers from the pier with the help of civilian longshoremen. It’s an unusually cold California morning, but the skies are clear and the weather calm. The night before the winds had scoured the coast, vigorously shaking the palm trees lining the road.

M/V American Tern
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
The M/V American Tern at Port Hueneme.

Embree crosses his fingers that such windy blasts don’t return until after Jan. 4, when the vessel is scheduled to leave. The cranes can’t operate safely otherwise.

The U.S. Navy established Port Hueneme during World War II as a temporary depot to train, stage and supply the newly created Seabee construction battalion. Some 20 million tons of supplies came through Port Hueneme during the war, more than any other port in the country.

Tern Crane
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
The M/V American Tern sports three cranes.

The Navy, of course, has a long history with the Antarctic dating back to the early 20th century expeditions to the continent led by Adm. Richard Byrd. In the 1950s, the Navy supported the burgeoning scientific program born out of the International Geophysical Year, and continued to do so for the next four decades as Operation Deep Freeze until the mission was officially decommissioned in the late 1990s.

Whether staffed by the Navy or civilian contractors, Port Hueneme remains the logistics base of operations as it has for decades. And it’s busier than ever: In any given year, the USAP alone ships about 40 million pounds through Port Hueneme, by air as well as by ship.

“The program has gotten bigger,” says Jackie Samuel, Port Hueneme Operations manager. Samuel has been with the program since 1990, when five people were enough to keep goods moving through the base. Today, it takes 14 full-time workers, along with some contractors hired to lend a hand during this time of the year.

“It’s never dull,” he says, even after nearly two decades of watching people and companies come and go. “When things change on the Ice, our plans change here.”

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Curator: Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Winifred Reuning, Division of Polar Programs