USCGC Polar Star Battles Snow, Icebergs to Reach Stranded Fishing Vessel Off Antartica

Mike Schuler
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February 13, 2015

USCGC Polar Star file photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard

The U.S. Coast Guard’s sole heavy icebreaker is continuing to respond to a 207-foot fishing vessel stuck in ice off Antarctica, battling snow, wind, large icebergs, and heavy pack ice to reach the stranded vessel and crew.

The crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star is attempting to reach the Australian-flagged fishing vessel, Antarctic Chieftain, with 26 onboard, which is beset in ice approximately 900 miles northeast of McMurdo Sound, Antarctica. The crew of the vessel contacted the Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand on Tuesday evening, requesting assistance after becoming trapped in the Antarctic ice. The Antarctic Chieftain has suffered damage to three of its four propeller blades and has lost its ability to maneuver.

According to Mr. Mike Hill, the manager of RCC New Zealand and Safety Services, the fishing boat’s hull was not damaged and the crew of 26 is not at risk. There has been no reported oil spill or environmental impact.

According to an update Thursday evening from the USCG, the USCGC Polar Star was located about 125 miles from the Antarctic Chieftain and was scheduled to reach vessel at approximately 10 p.m. pacific standard time on Thursday night. As of Friday morning, the USCG had given no confirmation that the Polar Star had reached the vessel as scheduled.

The crew of icebreaker has reported heavy, snow, wind and ice conditions at times as well as large icebergs.

“We are navigating through heavy pack ice, dodging massive ice bergs that range in size from a Home Depot to some that are miles across, often in low visibility conditions,” said Capt. Matthew Walker, commanding officer of the Polar Star. “The mission…we are now engaged (in) demonstrates the Coast Guard’s core mission to save lives at sea – in any continents’ waters. Polar Star is proud to be able to assist New Zealand in the rescue of the Australian fishing vessel Antarctic Chieftain.”

On Wednesday, RCC New Zealand, part of Maritime New Zealand, requested U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star to respond to the Antarctic Chieftain’s position. The 150-person crew of Polar Star was deployed to McMurdo Station, Antarctica, as part of Operation Deep Freeze, which provides military logistical support to the U.S. Antarctic Program managed by the National Science Foundation.

The Polar Star will need to break the ice around the Antarctic Chieftain to reach it. If the vessel’s propulsion is inoperable, the Polar Star may have to tow the vessel from the ice field.

“Towing is always challenging, this evolution poses more risk because of the harsh weather and extensive ice coverage,” said Lt. j.g. Joel Wright, Polar Star’s operations officer.

Once the Antarctic Chieftain is freed from the ice, the New Zealand-flagged fishing vessel Janas is scheduled to escort or tow the vessel to the nearest safe harbor. Janas is now approximately 750-miles away from the Antarctic Chieftain’s position, the Coast Guard said Thursday.

The Polar Star is the nation’s only heavy icebreaker capable of operating in the thick Antarctic ice.

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