“Meet the neglected 43-year-old stepchild of the U.S. military-industrial complex” –Los Angeles Times

Great article from the Los Angeles Times about the trials, tribulations, (and joys) of being on the Polar Star, recounting her three and a half month 2018/2019 Deep Freeze.

And once again she goes into the dry dock in Vallejo, California, rather than a yard in her homeport (for 5 months). If you add it up, she spends more time in Vallejo than her homeport (3.5 months). Since she is being drydocked every year, maybe it is time to move the families closer to the shipyard. According to the article she is expected to continue in service another seven years.

“Nation’s only heavy icebreaker returns home following 105-day Antarctic trip” –PACAREA

Below is a PacArea news release quoted in full. Sounds like a tough deployment, but they had the talent to pull it off.

united states coast guard

News Release

March 11, 2019
U.S. Coast Guard Pacific Area
Contact: Coast Guard Pacific Area Public Affairs
Office: (510) 437-3375
After Hours: (510) 816-1700
Pacific Area online newsroom

Nation’s only heavy icebreaker returns home following 105-day Antarctic trip

Nation's only heavy icebreaker returns from Antarctic mission Nation's only heavy icebreaker returns from Antarctic mission Nation's only heavy icebreaker returns from Antarctic mission
Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star at McMurdo Station Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star breaking nice near McMurdo Station, Antarctica Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star escorting the Ocean Giant

Editors’ Note: Click on images to download high resolution version.

SEATTLE — The 150-member crew of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star returned Monday to their homeport of Seattle following a 105-day deployment to Antarctica in support of Operation Deep Freeze.

Operation Deep Freeze is an annual joint military service mission in support of the National Science Foundation, the lead agency for the United States Antarctic Program. Since 1955, the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Coast Guard have assisted in providing air and maritime support throughout the Antarctic continent.

This year marks the 63rd iteration of the annual operation. The Polar Star crew departed Seattle on Nov. 27 for their sixth deployment in as many years and traveled 11,200-nautical-miles to Antarctica.

Upon arrival in McMurdo Sound, Antarctica, the Polar Star broke through 16.5 nautical miles of ice, six to ten feet thick, in order to open a channel to the pier at McMurdo Station. Once the channel was open, the crew refueled Polar Star at McMurdo Station, the United States’ main logistics hub in Antarctica. At the conclusion of a three day port visit to McMurdo Station the ship provided a six-hour familiarization cruise to 156 McMurdo station personnel.

On Jan. 30, the Polar Star escorted the container ship Ocean Giant through the channel, enabling a 10-day offload of 499 containers with 10 million pounds of goods that will resupply McMurdo Station, Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station and other U.S. field camps for the coming 12 months. The Ocean Giant is an ice strengthened vessel contracted by the U.S. Navy’s Military Sealift Command for Operation Deep Freeze.

As in years past, getting the 43-year-old Polar Star to Antarctica was accomplished despite a series of engineering casualties aboard the ship. Commissioned in 1976, the cutter is operating beyond its expected 30-year service life. It is scheduled for a service life extension project starting in 2021.

During the transit to Antarctica, one of the ship’s electrical systems began to smoke, causing damage to wiring in an electrical switchboard, and one of the ship’s two evaporators used to make drinkable water failed. The electrical switchboard was repaired by the crew, and the ship’s evaporator was repaired after parts were received during a port call in Wellington, New Zealand.

The impact from ice operations ruptured the cutter’s centerline shaft seal, allowing water to flood into the ship. Ice breaking operations ceased so embarked Coast Guard and Navy Divers could enter the water to apply a patch outside the hull so Polar Star’s engineers could repair the seal from inside the ship. The engineers donned dry suits and diver’s gloves to enter the 30-degree water of the still slowly flooding bilge to effect the vital repairs. They used special tools fabricated onboard to fix the leaking shaft seal and resume ice breaking operations.

The Polar Star also experienced ship-wide power outages while breaking ice in McMurdo Sound. Crew members spent nine hours shutting down the ship’s power plant and rebooting the electrical system in order to remedy the outages.

On Feb. 10, the crew spent nearly two hours extinguishing a fire in the ship’s incinerator room while the ship was approximately 650-nautical-miles north of McMurdo Sound, Antarctica. The fire damaged the incinerator and some electrical wiring in the room was damaged by fire fighting water. There were no personnel injuries or damage to equipment outside the space. Repairs to the incinerator are already scheduled for Polar Star’s upcoming inport maintenance period.

Presently, the U.S. Coast Guard maintains two icebreakers – the Coast Guard Cutter Healy, which is a medium icebreaker, and the Polar Star, the United States’ only heavy icebreaker. If a catastrophic event, such as getting stuck in the ice, were to happen to the Healy in the Arctic or to the Polar Star near Antarctica, the U.S. Coast Guard is left without a self-rescue capability.

By contrast, Russia currently operates more than 50 icebreakers – several of which are nuclear powered.

Reserved for Operation Deep Freeze each year, the Polar Star spends the Southern Hemisphere summer breaking ice near Antarctica, and when the mission is complete, the Polar Star returns annually to dry dock in order to complete critical maintenance and repairs in preparation for the next Operation Deep Freeze mission. Once out of dry dock, the ship returns to Antarctica, and the cycle repeats.

The Coast Guard has been the sole provider of the nation’s polar icebreaking capability since 1965, and is seeking to increase its ice breaking fleet with six new polar icebreakers in order to ensure continued national presence and access to the Polar Regions.

In the fiscal year 2019 budget, Congress appropriated $655 million to begin construction of a new polar security cutter this year, with another $20 million was appropriated for long-lead-time materials to build a second.

In response to the demands of the region, the service is set to release an updated version of its Arctic Strategy, which Adm. Karl Schultz, the commandant of the Coast Guard, is scheduled to discuss March 21 during his annual State of the Coast Guard Address.

“The Coast Guard greatly appreciates the strong support from both the Administration and Congress for funding the polar security cutter program,” said Schultz. “These new cutters are absolutely vital to achieving our national strategic objectives in the Polar Regions – presence equals influence, and we must be present to meet the Nation’s national security and economic needs there in the future.”

Despite flooding, engine failure, U.S. icebreaker completes Antarctica operation–News Release

The following is a news release quoted in full. Frankly I think it is a good thing that we are reporting the problems rather than just happy news. The public and our law makers in particular need to understand that we are putting people, and the mission, in danger because we are making do with overage systems that should have been replaced long ago. Incidentally, USAP is apparently U.S. Antarctic Program.

This additional note was attached to the release, “Editor’s Note: All dates and times are in New Zealand Daylight Time, which is 21 hours ahead of Pacific Standard Time and 24 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time. Video of the Cutter Polar Star’s operations are available by clicking the thumbnails above or clicking here and here. Photos from the cutter’s operations by clicking the thumbnails above or clicking here.

MCMURDO STATION, Antarctica – The crew of U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star completed their mission Tuesday in support of National Science Foundation (NSF) after cutting a resupply channel through 15 miles of Antarctic ice in the Ross Sea and escorting supply vessels to the continent. 

The Polar Star sailed from Seattle to assist in the annual delivery of operating supplies and fuel for NSF research stations in Antarctica during Operation Deep Freeze by carving a navigable path through seasonal and multi-year ice sometimes as much as 10-feet thick. Operation Deep Freeze is the logistical support provided by the U.S. Armed Forces to the U.S. Antarctic Program.  

“Although we had less ice this year than last year, we had several engineering challenges to overcome to get to the point where we could position ourselves to moor in McMurdo,” said Capt. Michael Davanzo, the commanding officer of the Polar Star. “Our arrival was delayed due to these challenges, but the crew and I are certainly excited to be here. It’s a unique opportunity for our crewmembers to visit the most remote continent in the world, and in many respects it makes the hard work worth it.”

 On Jan. 16, Polar Star’s shaft seal failed causing flooding in the cutter’s engine room at a rate of approximately 20-gallons per minute. The crew responded quickly, using an emergency shaft seal to stop the flow of freezing, Antarctic water into the vessel. The crew was able dewater the engineering space and effect more permanent repairs to the seal to ensure the watertight integrity of the vessel. There were no injuries as a result of the malfunction.  

Flooding was not the only engineering challenge the crew of Polar Star faced during their trek through the thick ice. On Jan. 11, their progress was slowed after the one of the cutter’s three main gas turbines failed. The crew uses the cutter’s main gas turbine power to breakup thick multi-year ice using its propellers. The crew was able to troubleshoot the turbine finding a programing issue between the engine and the cutter’s 1970s-era electrical system. The crew was able to continue their mission in the current ice conditions without the turbine. 

“If the Polar Star were to suffer a catastrophic mechanical failure, the Nation would not be able to support heavy icebreaker missions like Operation Deep Freeze, and our Nation has no vessel capable of rescuing the crew if the icebreakers were to fail in the ice,” said Vice Adm. Fred Midgette, commander, U.S. Coast Guard Pacific Area in Alameda, California. “The crewmembers aboard Polar Star not only accomplished their mission, but they did so despite extreme weather and numerous engineering challenges. This is a testament to their dedication and devotion to duty.” 

The cutter refueled at McMurdo Station Jan. 18 and continued to develop and maintain the ice channel in preparation for two resupply ships from U.S. Military Sealift Command, Ocean Giant and Maersk Peary. The crew of Polar Star escorted the vessels to the ice pier at McMurdo Station, an evolution that requires the cutter to travel about 300 yards in front of the supply ships to ensure they safely make it through the narrow ice channel. The crew escorted the Ocean Giant to the ice pier at McMurdo Jan. 27 and conducted their final escort of the Maersk Peary to Antarctica Feb. 2. The crew escorted Maersk Peary safely out of the ice Feb. 6 after supply vessel’s crew transferred their cargo.

The Polar Star departed their homeport in Seattle Nov. 30, 2017, and are expected to return to the U.S. in March 2018. The 399-foot Polar Star is the only operational heavy icebreaker in the U.S. fleet. The cutter, which was built more than 40 years ago, has a crew of nearly 150 people. It weighs (displaces–Chuck) 13,500 tons and uses 75,000 horsepower to break ice up to 21 feet thick. 

The U.S. military is uniquely equipped to assist the National Science Foundation in accomplishing its USAP mission. This includes the coordination of strategic inter-theater airlift, tactical intra-theater airlift and airdrop, aeromedical evacuation support, search and rescue response, sealift, seaport access, bulk fuel supply, port cargo handling, and transportation requirements supporting the NSF, the lead agency for the USAP.