From The Deck Of An Icebreaker – First Hand Account Of Life Aboard the USCGC Healy

US Coast Guard Icebreaker Healy Gangway
US Coast Guard Icebreaker Healy resting next to the ice floe (Photo by LCDR Lowry, USCG)
Icebreaker Crew
Photo of Petty officer Kenny Cook with Coast Guard Cutter Healy in the background. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

by Ken Cook (USCG) At 420 feet long and 82 feet wide, the Coast Guard Cutter Healy is the Coast Guard’s largest cutter. Onboard you’ll find an impressive galley, large medical facility, science lounge, ship’s store, a library, and crews’ lounges, which all prove handy for a group who will be underway continuously for 65 days. 

Life aboard Coast Guard Cutter Healy is unique and different from any other job I have had during my Coast Guard career. The Healy’s mission is mainly science based, although we do maintain a readiness posture in the event we are needed for an emergency or search and rescue operations.

I act as one of the safety supervisors for deck evolutions. I oversee the safety of personnel and the deployment of any type of science gear or apparatus. Everything we do on deck is inherently dangerous. We lift many types of large, heavy, awkward equipment ranging from devices that can collect mud and seafloor samples, water at different depths or even collect sea creatures unique to this region. We use large cranes and A-frames hoists to lift and then lower the science gear over the side of the boat into the water, often times letting it drop all the way to the ocean floor. We train long and hard to mitigate any possible danger in order to provide the safest working environment possible.

Book Cover For In the Kingdom of Ice The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette by Hampton Sides
Related Book: In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette by Hampton Sides

As one of the deck watch officers, I have been lucky enough to drive the Healy. When navigating through the ice, there are a lot of factors involved in choosing the best path to take. We need to see where there might be open water, thinner ice, and we need to avoid ridges where there is extremely dense ice formation. We transfer control from the bridge to the aloft conning station above the bridge, in order to get a better look at everything. There is definitely a specific skill set and learning curve for driving a ship through thick ice, but it is such an exciting thing to learn and do. I always look forward to having the opportunity to drive in the ice because not only can you see forever from aloft conning station, but watching a ‘lead’, or crack form in the ice as we break through, is truly exhilarating. I can truly say that I love my job.

It’s also been incredible to drive our small boats around in the arctic. We lower our smaller boats down from the ship via a Miranda davit or sled, which is an exciting experience in and of itself, for a variety of reasons. But driving a small 26 foot boat around amid the crystal clear water and blue and white ice floes never gets old or routine. As we make our way through the water, the boat crew members are always ready to push smaller ice floes out of the way with boat poles if needed and we assist the scientists with anything they might need. I get the chance to get up close and personal with the Arctic environment, and I feel extremely lucky to be able to do something that not a lot of people can say they have done.

The Healy has been my home for almost 4 years now. I will never get tired of coming to the Arctic and taking in the stark beauty of the ice, and all of the amazing wildlife. Seeing a polar bear and her cubs out in the wild is truly unforgettable!

Being away from family is the hardest part of deployment by far. Being this far north on the planet comes with technological disadvantages and we live for those moments when we can get a phone call through or when we receive an email from home – especially if it includes pictures.

I have loved having space in the hangar to hold CrossFit workouts and classes. I was lucky enough to be given the chance to create a CrossFit “box” for the ship, and we have daily workouts for those who are interested. It’s been a great way to break up the deployment, interact “outside of work” and have something to focus on.

One of the things I love the most about my job is being able to tell people about my experience at the North Pole. How many people can say that they have been to the North Pole?! Having been there is really still surreal and indescribable. As you might expect, the weather is pretty brutal. The wind, coupled with the arctic temperatures, made it tough to be outside taking in that once in a lifetime experience for very long, but I relished every second of it! Being part of the crew in 2015, as the first U.S. surface vessel to make it to the North Pole unaccompanied, was truly an honor, and something I will never forget.

But, I must admit that the very best part about being stationed on the Healy is the camaraderie that is unique to a polar icebreaker. We live and work together for months at a time out in the frozen wasteland of the Arctic, and it gives you the chance to become really close with your shipmates as your shared experiences bond you together.

Once you have experienced a trip to the Arctic, you are forever a member of a rather remarkable and exclusive club. There is just something about crossing that 66° latitude and entering the “Arctic Realm” that is truly extraordinary.

This article by Kenny Cook first appeared in USCG Compass.