Catlin Arctic Survey

Ex-Cop Builds Bicycle-Powered Winch to Bolster Arctic Research

Eli is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine.

Scientists with the Caitlin Arctic Survey have been utilizing a new device on this year's 10-week expedition on the edge of the Arctic Ocean near Ellef Ringnes Island, Canada: a unique pedal-powered winch built to haul a 50-kilogram scientific payload 200 meters below the sea ice. The bicycle contraption, designed by an ex-cop who is the brother of the expedition's base manager, Simon Garrod, is a crucial element of research equipment for the members of the survey, who are braving temperatures that rarely top -35°C to unlock the secrets of the Arctic's disappearing sea ice.

The winch, pedaled by crew members and scientists, gradually deploys water-sampling equipment that delivers samples central to the mission: to characterize and understand the currents below the sea ice on which the scientists' tents rest. Last year, the scientists used a hand winch to lower the equipment, which must be moved slowly so it can acclimatize to temperature and pressure. "It was hard, exhausting, awkward work," says a survey press release of the old hand winch. So Simon Garrod showed his brother David a video of the hand winch in operation. David, who recently retired from the police but runs a small metal shop in Salisbury, U.K., turned out to be among the unsung heroes of the expedition.

David looked at improved hand winches, saying, "If they have some bloke who is 6'2", he's going to want the winch to be comfortable, but so is someone who is short." He also considered gasoline-powered ones, "Just another potential liability requiring spare parts." Then, while out on a bike ride, Simon had the revelation: Use pedal power.

David scribbled down a design, "what we call the back-of-a-fag-packet idea," and the scientists approved it. He had 6 weeks to deliver a working device.

David chose a simple road bike, stripped off any extra equipment, and a spool for the metal wire. He was told the scientists needed to lower a 60-kilogram weight 500 meters in 20 minutes. That would require very slow pedaling. But "it's quite difficult to maintain torque when pedaling at a slow rate," David says, so he added gears that allow "high pedal rate with low-speed winching." (The gears can be adjusted if more or less torque is desired, as can the seat height.)

"I made it so it was all simple components that could easily be assembled," says David, who served in Her Majesty's Army on a helicopter maintenance crew before his roughly 2 decades as a police officer. On the winch drum itself, which would see hundreds of kilograms of stress, nylon bearings Garrod installed require no lubrication. "So no problem with the grease getting solid," David says.

An emergency hand brake designed for automobiles allows the scientists to stop and lock the winch at desired heights. A special arm that a second crew member operates while another pedals places the wire in neat rows on the spool when the wire is withdrawn.

David, who earns money these days mostly making custom motorbike parts, is just happy the device is working well, as the scientists report few problems thus far. From scientist Helen Findlay, quoted in the press release:

It's been really great so far … the only down side is that it is outside the tent because of its size.

Within a few hours we had all the base staff pulling together and building a snow wall to help protect the cyclist (Ian) from wind and snow.

During one 24-hour marathon set of trawls, crew member Ian Wesley took to the pedals in the -35° weather, Findlay continues:

Ian cycled every trawl, so we strongly suspect he is the first person to cycle a winch for 2400m on the Arctic Ocean - a Guinness World Record?

David is happy his winch is working well, though he doubts the contraption will make him wealthy. "It's got fairly limited commercial potential," he says.

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