Local sailor completes icy mission

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By Jesef Williams

ANTARCTICA - The temperature hovers around zero degrees all day. You're surrounded by ice, and depending on how strong the wind is, the temperature can drop to nearly 50 degrees below zero.

Quincy Champion says that Antarctica is so cold, you have to wear special clothing to prevent freezing to death.

Despite the conditions, he's glad to have gone there three times.

"It's a beautiful place," he said.

Champion, a Heath Springs native and petty officer in the U.S. Navy, is part of a detachment of sailors who recently spent almost three weeks in Antarctica. He was there to provide food and other supplies for scientists and researchers who live there year round.

The Navy has been going on such expeditions for 160 years.

Champion is one of 60 sailors in the Navy Expeditionary Logistics Support Group, based in Williamsburg, Va. The group arrived in Antarctica on Jan. 26 and stayed there until Feb. 15.

Quincy and the other sailors worked as cargo handlers, off loading about 20 million pounds of equipment and supplies. They also gathered all of the trash and waste from the prior year to be taken away from the continent. An international agreement requires researchers stationed in Antarctica to save all waste to preserve the environment.

"Every cargo handler desires and dreams of making this mission, so we pick the best and brightest," said Lt. Cmdr. Paul Melvey, executive officer for Navy Cargo Handling Battalion ONE. "We're honored to have this opportunity for more than 50 years to support scientific research that ultimately affects everyone on the Earth.'

The sailors teamed up with cargo handlers from New Zealand to accomplish the mission, appropriately called Operation Deep Freeze.

They flew to New Zealand, then to Ross Island, Antarctica, and eventually made port at McMurdo Station, the United States' largest permanent arctic base. The cargo handlers worked around the clock - two 12-hours shifts - in the continuous sunlight of the Antarctic summer.

"This is the only place I've been where there's 24 hours of sunlight," said Champion, 37, who first went to Antarctica in 1990 and then again in 1991. "That's exciting."

Champion, who served as a hatch team supervisor this time, says crew members have to wear safety harnesses while off loading equipment from a ship, standing about 40 feet in the air.

The frigid cold, heavy wind, and blizzard-like snow make the mission even more dangerous. Everyone has to remain alert at all times, he says. During the first two trips to Antarctica, Champion worked as a crane operator.

"You just got to use a lot of common sense and be smart," Champion said. "Don't put yourself in harm's way and look out for your shipmates."

Everyone wore rubber "bunny" boots and ECW (extreme cold weather) gear for protection from the frigid conditions.

Antarctica is the world's most southern continent. On average, it is the coldest, driest and windiest continent, and has the highest average elevation.

Champion says the biggest adjustments one must make when going there are to the temperatures and the non-stop sunlight. The constant sunlight makes it hard to stay on a normal sleeping schedule, he says.

The absence of vegetation and the unique wildlife on the continent are an interesting sight. Penguins, seals and arctic terns – a type of bird – are some of the few animals found on the continent.

Lt. Joshua Heivly, one of the officers in charge during the expedition, says the mission went according to plan, though the cargo ship did arrive four days late because of ice. Nobody involved was injured.

Heivly says it was good to have someone like Champion around who could give the other cargo handlers guidance about their tasks and safety.

"It was highly valuable," Heivly said. "He knows how the station was laid out and (he) contributed to the whole operation."

Champion says McMurdo Station underwent a lot of upgrades since the last time he was there in the early 1990s. There are now more recreational activities and access to modern communication, such as e-mail. During the mission, he was able to keep in contact with three important people – his mother, Helen Champion; his grandmother, Lozzetta Truesdale; and his special friend, Mischa Cloud.

"They're the three important ladies that keep me in check," he said.

Before the most recent Antarctic mission, Champion, an Andrew Jackson High School graduate, completed tours in Kuwait and Norway. He has also worked as a massage therapist in Charlotte. He was a reservist from 1993 to 2007.

Champion won't be able to return to Antarctica next year. He's scheduled to go to Iraq in July for an eight- to 10-month tour. But he says it would be nice to go again in years to come.

"Knowing that you're helping sustain these guys for a year "it's a pretty good feeling," he said.

Contact Jesef Williams at 283-1152 or jwilliams@thelancasternews.com