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Ship tied up to a pier.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
The U.S. Coast Guard cutter POLAR STAR takes on fuel at McMurdo Station's ice pier, while a small boat at the far left deploys a boom to contain any fuel in the event of a spill. The icebreaker uses fuel for propulsion but also as ballast to help it break ice.

Active duty

Coast Guard cutter Polar Star returns to icebreaking role after $90 million refit

In January 2013, the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) cutter Polar Star External U.S. government site took its first steps toward active duty on a brief three-day sail near its homeport of Seattle following a three-year, $90 million overhaul.

A year later, and after a couple of longer trial runs around Puget Sound and the Arctic, America’s only working heavy icebreaker easily sliced its way through 12 miles of sea ice to McMurdo Station External U.S. government site.

It was the first time a USCG cutter had been seen in McMurdo Sound since the 2006-07 Antarctic summer, returning to one of its primary missions of clearing a channel through the ice to help resupply the station with cargo and fuel.

“We’re glad to be here,” said Capt. George Pellissier External U.S. government site, in command of the 399-foot-long icebreaker, after having previously served on the Polar Star as the executive officer and engineering officer during previous tours of duty.

The U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) External U.S. government site, which is managed by the National Science Foundation (NSF) External U.S. government site, had to contract for icebreaker services in the interim, primarily with Sweden and Russia.

Commander Kenneth J. Boda External U.S. government site, the ship’s current executive officer, said, “It’s great to be back. The crew is so excited to be down here. It’s the highlight of people’s career to do a Deep Freeze.”

View of ship across wooden bridge.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
The U.S. Coast Guard cutter POLAR STAR as seen from the bridge that connects the wharf to the ice pier.
Gangway is lowered from a ship by crane.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
A gangway is lowered from the U.S. icebreaker with the help of linehandlers from McMurdo Station.

Operation Deep Freeze External U.S. government site is the U.S. military’s catch-all term for its logistical support of the USAP. The mission began in the 1950s during the International Geophysical Year External Non-U.S. government site, a global research campaign that focused on the polar regions. IGY eventually led to the creation of the modern-day U.S. research program in Antarctica.

The USCG can date its involvement in Deep Freeze to the ’50s, eventually taking responsibility for all of the nation’s icebreakers from the U.S. Navy External U.S. government site by 1965. The Polar Star, and its sister ship the Polar Sea External U.S. government site, were built in the 1970s to replace the aging Wind class icebreakers of the 1940s. [For more about the history, see Icebreakers and the U.S. Coast Guard External U.S. government site.]

The Star and Sea were the most powerful non-nuclear icebreakers ever built. But both had exceeded their lifetime when the Polar Sea’s engine failed in 2010. The Polar Star had been laid up in Seattle since 2006 before its engine plant was refurbished and other upgrades performed.

At 13,000 tons, the Polar Star is designed to break about six feet of ice at a continuous 3 knots. It can smash up to 21 feet of ice by ramming. It sports two separate propulsion systems. Its 18,000-horsepower diesel-electric motors are used for normal operations and light ice-breaking duty, while its three 25,000-horsepower gas turbines can help it turn the thickest ice into ice cubes.

The Polar Star’s return to duty was certainly eventful, though not necessarily in ways that were expected.

While docked at Sydney before making its final push to McMurdo, the Polar Star left port earlier than scheduled to respond to a distress call to rescue two ships that had become trapped in Commonwealth Bay by ice. A favorable change in the weather allowed the ships to break free before the cutter arrived.

“Mother Nature got there before Uncle Sam, and we missed out,” Boda said. “We were glad everyone was safe.”

The sea ice that the Polar Star found in McMurdo Sound was already clearing out when the ship arrived, making for a relatively easy 12-mile transit to the station. The norm in January when the icebreaker usually arrives is about 20 to 30 miles from the edge of the pack ice to McMurdo’s ice pier in Winter Quarters Bay.

Huge icebergs that choked McMurdo Sound in the 2000s sometimes caused the ice edge to extend out more than 80 miles.

A veteran of six tours of duty in the Antarctic, Pellissier said that ice conditions are unpredictable. He noted that British explorer Robert Falcon Scott, whose 1901-04 Discovery Expedition External Non-U.S. government site was the first to use Winter Quarters Bay, was able to sail a wooden ship into McMurdo Sound in 1902. The next year his ship was ice-bound for another winter.

“It’s cyclical. You’re going to have light ice years and heavy ice years,” Pellissier said.

The toughest ice the ship encountered was actually on a side mission. The Polar Star was enlisted to break its way through multi-year land-fast ice to get to Marble Point, a refueling station for helicopters supporting research in the McMurdo Dry Valleys External U.S. government site on the other side of McMurdo Sound.

“It seemed like it was all multi-year ice,” said Lt. j.g. Paul Garcia, bridge deck watch officer and public affairs officer for the Polar Star.

Crane lifts bundle off deck of ship.
Photo Credit: Gavin Stewart
A crane on the deck of the U.S. Coast Guard cutter POLAR STAR unloads a bundle of fuel hose to the ice below near Marble Point.

The cutter and its crew helped deploy about a mile of new fuel hose, which will allow the Polar Star to refuel Marble Point more easily in the future if needed. The operation hadn’t been done since the USCG was last at McMurdo Station. Instead, fuel was traversed by vehicles across McMurdo Sound when the sea ice was frozen.

The ice fronting Marble Point was particularly tough, according to Boda. At one point, the Polar Star only moved a half-mile during a three-hour stretch.

“It was nasty ice there. It was really hard ice. We were on two turbines to get in. It was a struggle even then to turn around,” he said. “Now we have the option to break in with the ship again. … This ship is a great asset down here. We can do a lot.”

This year’s mission was cut a bit short when storms in early February destroyed the ice pier during the supply vessel operation. All the cargo had been unloaded, but retrograde cargo, including science samples such as ice cores and meteorites in larger freezer containers, didn’t make it on the Maersk Illinois for the northbound journey. [See previous article — Harsh continent: Storms and waves batter McMurdo Station due to absence of sea ice.]

The Polar Star itself didn’t escape entirely unscathed from the 40-knot winds that threw sea spray across Hut Point Peninsula and created waves strong enough to batter the ice pier into six pieces. The storm ripped the sheathing cover for the ship’s helicopter hangar door roller assembly. Some communications equipment was also damaged.

The ship was scheduled for additional work anyway when it returns to Seattle to address a “punch list” of repairs or upgrades that were discovered on the southbound voyage.

“She has growing pangs,” Pellissier noted.

It’s likely the crew is growing up with the ship. Many of the 140 crewmembers are young officers or enlisted personnel relatively new to the Coast Guard. Only nine people had previously been to the Antarctic.

“There’s a lot of experience you can gain from this platform,” Garcia said. “It’s a unique mission. It’s interesting and fun. You get to interact with a lot of different people.”

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Curator: Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Winifred Reuning, Division of Polar Programs