New London - As a young naval officer in 1969, Donald Murphy was aboard the destroyer USS Frank E. Evans, asleep, when the destroyer collided with an Australian aircraft carrier in the South China Sea.
The Evans, which was maneuvering around the carrier to guard it during a major naval exercise, was cut in two. Seventy-four of the 273 men aboard were killed.
Murphy, the chief scientist at the U.S. Coast Guard International Ice Patrol for the past 28 years, never talked much about the incident. But recently, on the verge of retirement, he was in a reflective mood.
Escaping the damaged destroyer at the age of 23, Murphy said, made him a more cautious person, someone who understands the importance of constant vigilance and situational awareness, of knowing what is going on around you.
"I can't say I can draw a straight line between that experience and the profession I chose," Murphy, now 66, said last week. "But it certainly is odd that I ended up in the maritime safety business. It's serendipity, really."
As the IIP's chief scientist, Murphy has applied his extensive knowledge of oceanography to the unit's operations, helping plan iceberg-tracking flights off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, predicting how icebergs will drift and creating iceberg warnings for mariners.
The IIP has a perfect record - not one ship that has heeded its warnings and steered clear of the "bergy water" has struck an iceberg.
"It's really wondrous to see the complexity of the ocean's currents. Trying to understand them is a never-ending challenge," said Murphy, a New London native who now lives in Stonington. "What I like about the ice patrol is you're applying that knowledge to a practical problem."
The IIP was formed after the RMS Titanic hit an iceberg and sank in 1912. Murphy joined the patrol on the anniversary of the Titanic's sinking in 1984, and he has stayed for nearly a third of its history.
"He has provided a level of professionalism over a long span of time that I think has shaped the culture of the unit," said Cmdr. Lisa Mack, the unit's commanding officer.
Mack said Murphy played an integral role in the development of the North American Ice Service, a partnership of the IIP, Canadian Ice Service and U.S. National Ice Center to provide a joint daily iceberg warning to mariners. Murphy has mentored many of the officers and petty officers at the IIP, several of whom have returned to the unit for a second tour, Mack added.
Murphy's successor, Mike Hicks, commanded the unit from 2003 to 2007 and served as the executive officer from 1996 to 1999. Hicks said Murphy is one of the world's leading experts on the ocean near the Grand Banks and is particularly well versed in how the currents move the icebergs.
Murphy went to graduate school for oceanography at the University of Connecticut, earning both a master's degree and a Ph.D. after he left the Navy in 1970. He worked as a research oceanographer for seven years at the Coast Guard Research and Development Center, which at the time was in Groton. He's called "Doc" by members of the ice patrol.
"He brings perspective to our organization," Hicks said. "And that's invaluable."
Last Wednesday, in one of his last oceanography briefings to the unit, Murphy explained the weather near the Grand Banks and various oceanographic analyses so IIP members could understand how icebergs that are currently far to the north could travel into the trans-Atlantic shipping lanes.
Last week, an iceberg twice the size of Manhattan broke off one of Greenland's largest glaciers, the Petermann Glacier. In 2010, a 100-square-mile chunk of ice calved from the same glacier and pieces of it arrived in the shipping lanes in June 2011, Murphy said. By next spring or early summer, Murphy said, he expects pieces of the new iceberg will arrive along the east coast of Canada.
"Situational awareness," he said after the briefing. "That's what this is all about."
In Murphy's first year at the IIP, a record-setting 2,202 icebergs drifted into the shipping lanes. In 2006 there were none. After he retires in a formal ceremony Wednesday, Murphy plans to continue his research on the possible reasons for the striking variability between years.
"I just need a little more space in my life," Murphy, who also serves as the Stonington Shell?sh Commission chairman, said of his decision to retire. "But I'm not abandoning icebergs.
"The more we learn about the ocean, the more complex it seems to be. We know the basics well. But the variability of the ocean currents, we're still struggling to understand.
"I think oceanographers will have jobs far into the future."