The Ship That Could Not Be Sunk

March 15, 2009

1942. An Englishman named Geoffrey Pyke thinks he has a solution to the problem that has plagued ships since their invention – they sink. His idea cannot have come at a better time, for the Royal Navy is in big trouble.

German U-Boats are laying waste to the chilly North Atlantic, littering its bottom with the hulks of sunk Allied shipping. The British are desperate to end the U-Boat menace but know they cannot do so without adequate fighter and anti-submarine air-cover. Their land based aircraft do not have the range to patrol the North Atlantic or accompany the supply convoys lumbering across its icy expanse. Aircraft carriers do exist, but the majority are American and fully engaged in fighting the Japanese in the Pacific. New carriers are expensive and incorporate tonnes of valuable materials. And their designs not large enough to support the heavy planes needed for effective anti-submarine duty. Worse, the capital ships require their own flotilla of ships for protection. The expensive submarine hunters can themselves be sunk.

Geoffrey Pyke is an eccentric inventor better known for being out there than being all there. However, he has recently won the confidence of his new boss Lord Mountbatten, who values his unusual approach to problem solving. Pyke turns his attention to aircraft carriers and his fertile mind does not disappoint.

Pyke proposes an entirely new approach to marine architecture. His aircraft carriers are massive – with runways long enough for the big Allied bombers. Even better, though his new ships don’t require very much steel to build, they are virtually indestructible. They cannot be sunk! Amazingly enough, the ships are self-healing and can repair damage to their hulls without external help. Pyke’s idea is to build aircraft carriers out of ice.

The notion of turning icebergs into airfields is not a new, but experiments and common sense have shown ice to be an ‘unsuitable’ material for engineering at this scale.

Pyke’s ice is different. He wants to a use a super reinforced ice that he calls pykrete. Pykrete is made by freezing a combination of water, wood chips and sawdust. Tests show that the resulting material has a strength comparable to concrete. Pykrete is relatively inexpensive, needing but a fraction of the energy used to make an equivalent quantity of steel. It can be cut, carved and molded into any shape. And because pykrete is ice – water – ships made from pykrete cannot sink! Damaged ships can automatically repair themselves by merely accumulating more ice. Just as long as they don’t melt first.

Lord Mountbatten is energized by Pyke’s idea. So passionate is his support that his patron Winston Churchill agrees to aggressively fund further research and development – in complete secrecy, naturally.

Pyke and his team design The Habbakuk – an iceberg ship 2000 feet long and 300 feet wide, with a planned displacement of a mind defying 2.2 million tonnes! The bergship is to be powered by special generators that will send 33,000 hp of power to 26 custom electric motors. The ship is expected to have a top speed of between 7 and 10 knots and will be steered by a rudder 100 feet tall! The natural propensities of ice are to be curtailed by insulation and a network of embedded pipes circulating brine chilled in a special refrigeration plant. The Habbakuk will be slow, but a hull 40 feet thick will make it impervious to torpedoes. Giant four engine Lancaster bombers will take off and land on its stable runways with the same facility as their home bases in the English countryside.

Pyke tests his design by building a scale model. He heads to the stunning Jasper National Park in the Canadian Rockies. There, on picturesque Lake Patricia, he constructs a 1000 tonne pykrete island 30 feet wide, 60 feet long and cooled by a 1 hp motor. Mountbatten flies to Jasper to test the strength of Pyke’s hull design for himself. He takes a shotgun and fires at the structure at point blank range. He discovers that no matter how hard he tries, he cannot cause any damage. Pyke’s pykrete works.

Mountbatten has seen the future and decides to let the Americans into the secret. With Churchill’s backing, in August 1943, he holds a special meeting of Allied generals and luminaries in Quebec, where he demonstrates the new invention. He places two large blocks before his audience – one made of ice, the other of pykrete. Then he pulls out his gun and fires at the first block, which shatters. Before the gathered generals can run from the room, Mountbatten fires a second shot, this time at the block of pykrete.

The bullet does no damage to the pykrete. Instead, it bounces off its concrete hard surface and heads towards the audience. Where it passes clean through the trouser leg of a Fleet Admiral. Mercifully, no blood is spilt.

Soon after, news of the miracle new material and the plans for The Habbakuk land on the desk of President Roosevelt, who finds himself just as intrigued as Churchill. The Americans want islands bristling with planes which they can then launch against the Japanese Navy and Japan itself. The Habbakuk appears to given them what they want. The Allies quickly agree to fund and build this new behemoth motile island of war.

In the end, The Habbakuk is neither built nor begun. Making pykrete consumes wood chips like a fire and the ship design ends up needing more steel than first thought. Insulating and cooling the 2 million tonne bergship is a challenge and nobody quite figures out how to steer it. The Allies find simpler and less grandiose ways to thwart the U-Boats, which fade as Germany crumbles. Land based bombers fly faster and further. And the Americans get their islands full of planes by sending the Marines to capture them from the Japanese. The war ends and when the super aircraft carriers do arrive twenty years later, they are made of steel,  have limitless range and can move at 33 knots powered by nearly 300,000 hp generated by their nuclear reactors.

Pyke’s pykrete prototype floats on Lake Patricia for nearly 3 years, before it finally melts away.