United States’ Only Heavy Icebreaker Returns Home from Casualty-Ridden Antarctic Deployment

operation deep freeze 2019
USCGC Polar Star pictured at McMurdo Station in Antarctica during this year’s Operation Deep Freeze. U.S. Coast Guard Photo

The United States’ only heavy icebreaker, the USCGC Polar Star, returned to its homeport of Seattle on Monday following a 105-day casualty-ridden 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. This year marks the 63rd iteration of the annual operation.

The Polar Star crew departed Seattle on November 27th for 11,200-nautical-miles trip to Antarctica. Upon arrival in McMurdo Sound, the Polar Star broke through 16.5 nautical miles of ice, six to ten feet thick, in order to clear a channel to the ice pier at McMurdo Station, the United States’ main logistics hub in Antarctica.

On Jan. 30, the Polar Star escorted the U.S. Navy’s Military Sealift Command-contracted container ship Ocean Giant through the channel, allowing for the offload of 499 containers with 10 million pounds of goods to resupply McMurdo Station, Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station and other U.S. field camps for the next year.

The deployment was not without its difficulties. As in years past, getting the 43-year-old Polar Star to Antarctica was accomplished despite a series of engineering casualties on board the ship.

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.

At one point during ice operations, the cutter’s centerline shaft seal ruptured, allowing water to flood into the ship. Ice breaking operations ceased so Coast Guard and Navy Divers could enter the water to apply a patch so Polar Star’s engineers could repair the seal from inside the ship. The engineers had to don dry suits and diver’s gloves to enter the 30-degree water of the still slowly flooding bilge to make repairs.

The Polar Star also experienced ship-wide power outages while breaking ice in McMurdo Sound, forcing the shut down the ship’s power plant for nine hours and a 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 scheduled for Polar Star’s upcoming inport maintenance period.

The USCGC Polar Star is one of only two icebreakers in the the U.S. Coast Guard’s fleet. The second icebreaker, USCGC Healy is a medium icebreaker. Polar Star, the nation’s only heavy icebreaker, is reserved for Operation Deep Freeze each year and returns to Seattle annually to dry dock in order to complete critical maintenance and repairs in preparation for the next year’s mission.

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

The Coast Guard has been the sole provider of the nation’s polar icebreaking capability and is seeking to increase its icebreaker fleet with the addition of up to six new polar icebreakers.

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 later this month 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.”