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Two men in packing warehouse.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
Art Hill Sr., left, and David Diaz ensure every piece of cargo headed to Antarctica is packed well enough to survive the long journey south.

Tempo rarely slows for USAP cargo operation in Port Hueneme

Even now, UPS and DHL delivery trucks back up to the loading dock, disgorging more materials. The UPS driver scratches his head as a forklift pulls out pallets of long bamboo sticks. Bamboo in Antarctica? The sticks, topped with different colored cloths, are used to mark trails, snow roads and crevasses.

“They really need all of this stuff,” muses Lewis, who flew the 7,000 miles to McMurdo Station last austral summer to watch the vessel operation in reverse – the around-the-clock unloading of the Tern that involves Navy cargo handlers, known as Navchaps, and New Zealand longshoremen, as well as many of the station personnel.

The visit put his job into perspective. “I could see how important it is to the well-being of those people down there,” says Lewis, a former Navy medic built like a middle linebacker. Now working on his MBA through a long-distance learning program, Lewis says he took a job at Port Hueneme to “try something different.”

“I’m always looking to learn new things,” he says.

The trip south will also be a new experience for the Tern’s chief mate, John Ciastkewicz, who has journeyed to the Arctic but not the Antarctic. From his perspective, watching the cranes dip and rise against the backdrop of forested hills to the east, “this is a lot more relaxed operation.”

Of course, he hasn’t seen what happens at McMurdo Station at the end of January: the constant rumble of trucks to and from the station’s ice pier, kicking up volcanic dust in an unrelenting mechanized storm whose fury only dies until the Tern is well on its way back north, now loaded with a year’s worth of refuse, equipment and science cargo such as ice cores.

“The No. 1 priority is to keep the ice cores safe,” Ciastkewicz observes. To help ensure the cores remain intact, he will plan to stage refrigerated containers, or reefers, around the ice core reefer in case the freezer unit fails and the precious cargo has to be moved immediately.

“You really can’t put a monetary dollar amount on it,” he says of the ice cores.

That’s all still in the future. Today, the chief mate focuses on ensuring everyone follows the load plan. An unbalanced load could potentially break the ship apart, Ciastkewicz says matter-of-factly.

Port Hueneme Warehouse
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
The Port Hueneme Operations warehouse.

Meanwhile, back at the warehouses, the shrill beeps and whistles of forklifts in reverse continually echo in the main warehouse. Many of the containers headed to Antarctica have already been staged near the pier, so some of the material that Lewis and his team receive and move in may be destined for an air shipment – or even the 2009 vessel.

“It never stops,” Lewis says. “We’ve been fortunate enough this year to stay on top of the program.”

In fact, materials are already beginning to refill the “dungeon,” a cavernous room in a separate warehouse just to the north. In a workshop adjacent to this cargo penitentiary, packers and woodworkers assemble the packaging, pallets and boxes to protect the materials for their southbound journey.

Most of the men and women in the workshop are Department of Defense (DoD) employees or contractors. David Diaz, a DoD packer and forklift driver, proudly shows a visitor the “multi-faceted” building, with its heavy-duty staplers, sort of standing sewing machines that seem to date back to the naval base’s earliest days.

Diaz says it doesn’t matter how oddly shaped a piece of cargo may be – there’s always a way to package it: “That’s where our experience comes in,” he says. “We can make customized boxes.”

The clock continues to tick at the main Port Hueneme warehouse. There is some anxiety about the delivery of needed fuel tanks for an important project. Heads shake at the tardy arrival of other materials. Yet the talk also trails to the Tern’s eventual return in the spring, when it in effect will be more garbage haul than cargo ship. Those ice cores that Ciastkewicz worries about should on the road by the beginning of April, most going to the National Ice Core Laboratory near Denver.

And then it’s time to reset the stopwatch for the 2009 run, according to Samuel. “At the end of April, we’re starting up again.”   

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Curator: Michael Lucibella, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Peter West, Office of Polar Programs