Was this how Shackleton's nightmare began? Our 15-foot Zodiac was hemmed in by ice floes that looked like giant white lily pads. Smaller chunks choked the...

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Was this how Shackleton’s nightmare began?

Our 15-foot Zodiac was hemmed in by ice floes that looked like giant white lily pads.

Smaller chunks choked the engine blades when Charlie Saccheus gunned the outboard. The boat barely budged.

We were stuck, with at least 500 feet of unconsolidated ice between us and open water.

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Floes bumped together, then drifted apart, revealing gaps as menacing as landmines.

Without protective gear, like the Mustang suits we were wearing, anyone who plunged into the 35-degree Bering Sea would be paralyzed within minutes.

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Getting out of the boat seemed insane.

But it was clear the only way we were going to make it back to the Thomas G. Thompson was to manhandle the inflatable over the ice.

With the 274-foot research vessel standing by, I knew our situation didn’t compare with that of British explorer Ernest Shackleton, whose three-masted barquentine was trapped and crushed by sea ice near Antarctica in 1915.

Still, I could imagine the floes solidifying around our three-boat flotilla as darkness fell and temperatures — already a biting 23 degrees Fahrenheit — plummeted.

Seattle Times photographer Steve Ringman and I were with biologists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle.

The scientists were stalking a spotted seal and her pup to attach tracking tags. Alaska natives Saccheus and John Goodwin Sr. lent sharp eyes and boat-handling skills honed by a lifetime of seal hunting.

When we set out from the Thompson, the seals looked like easy targets near the edge of the ribbon of ice. But 25 mph winds shoved the floes around like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. By the time we reached the ice in our Zodiacs, the seals were deep in the interior of the undulating landscape.

Undaunted, the biologists steered into the ice. Progress was slow, like navigating through a fleet of bumper cars.

The female seal eyed us fearfully. As the boats moved closer, she dove into the water. Using her pup as bait, the biologists spent a fruitless, freezing hour crouched on the ice in their white camouflage jackets, hoping the mother would return.

Now, we were headed back to the Thompson, but the wind had shoved even more ice into our path.

Everyone else had already bailed out of the boats to push and pull.

I swung my legs over the pontoons and slowly edged out onto the ice, clenching the handrail rope the way a foundering man grasps a life ring.

The floe bobbed, but supported my weight easily. I got behind the boat and pushed, while Saccheus and biologist Bob Montgomery pulled. Some of the floes were partially submerged, and my boots filled with water. I heaved on the bow and slipped onto my back. I watched where I put my feet before every step.

Still, we made little headway.

Team leader John Bengtson radioed the Thompson.

Was it possible for the ship to cut a path through the ice?

At the helm, chief mate Robert Symonds complied — reluctantly.

Symonds has a reputation for keeping his cool in any situation. But he later told me that aiming the 3,500-ton Thompson at the three tiny boats was nerve-wracking. Would we be swamped by the wake? Sucked under the ship?

So he gave us a wide berth.

So wide that the path opened by the Thompson closed like a zipper before we could reach it.

It was almost 8 p.m. We were wet and exhausted. The temperature was dropping.

Bengtson radioed again.

Could the Thompson make another pass — closer this time?

Captain Phil Smith took the helm, while Symonds went on deck to help guide the ship. Smith slowed the ship to a crawl.

Looming like a rust-streaked angel, the Thompson crept past us and glided to a stop.

Smith cranked on the side thrusters to push ice away from the stern.

Nearly everyone on board was at the railings, watching as we struggled the final yards out of the ice into the clear water around the ship. We had been gone more than four hours, for an operation that usually takes one hour.

And we had a luxury awaiting us that Shackleton could only have dreamed of — the galley crew kept dinner warm.

Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or sdoughton@seattletimes.com

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