Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star steams under the aurora borealis during its current Arctic deployment patrolling the maritime boundary with Russia. (Petty Officer 1st Class Cynthia Oldham / U.S. Coast Guard)

Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star steams under the aurora borealis during its current Arctic deployment patrolling the maritime boundary with Russia. (Petty Officer 1st Class Cynthia Oldham / U.S. Coast Guard)

‘Ice’ to be home again: looking back on record-setting icebreaker deployment

Long nights, thick ice, and hamsters: the Polar Star finishes a rare northern deployment.

With the Coast Guard’s heavy icebreaker Polar Star now back safely at its homeport in Seattle, it’s a good time to take a look at some of the sea miles sailed — and records set — during its unprecedented Arctic deployment.

The icebreaker, deployed to support U.S. strategic interests in the ice-choked seas, set a record for the furthest north a U.S. vessel has gone in the wintertime.

“The vastness of the ice-covered Arctic seascape is not something I will forget anytime soon,” said Lt. Michael Lowe, the vessel’s assistant operations officer in an email “That, combined with a crystal clear night sky and the northern lights was pretty amazing.”

Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star crewmembers participate in ice rescue training in the Bering Strait on Jan. 28, 2021. (Petty Officer 1st Class Cynthia Oldham / U.S. Coast Guard)

Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star crewmembers participate in ice rescue training in the Bering Strait on Jan. 28, 2021. (Petty Officer 1st Class Cynthia Oldham / U.S. Coast Guard)

The pandemic means that normal operating procedures, such as port calls for the crew, were suspended in the name of safety. Frequent testing and constant vigilance kept the crew safe and the vessel on track for success.

“Logistics were more challenging than compared to other deployments as no one was able to join the crew after departing,” Lowe said. “One of the biggest disappointments was that the crew did not get to experience port calls and explore Alaska to the degree they would normally. However, on our way to Juneau we did make a trip into Glacier Bay National Park and get to experience the beautiful scenery that Alaska offers there.”

Last of its kind: America’s sole heavy icebreaker arrives in Juneau

Underway replenishment of supplies — including fresh food — is difficult at the best of times for the fleets operating in temperate waters, much less an icebreaker that spent more than half of its tour in the ice, Lowe said.

“The culinary staff did an excellent job keeping fresh vegetables last as long as they could, but there comes a time in the deployment that fresh produce just isn’t an option,” Lowe said. “Despite this challenge, the crew was well fed with a healthy variety of meals day in and day out. While there is no official word on the favorite meal, I think it would be safe to say Chicken Cordon Bleu (known as hamsters in the Coast Guard fleet) is one of the favorites.”

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star arrived in Juneau Friday, Feb. 12, 2021, to resupply from extended operations in the Arctic over the winter. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire)

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star arrived in Juneau Friday, Feb. 12, 2021, to resupply from extended operations in the Arctic over the winter. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire)

The cold and the ice offered more challenges than just keeping the crew supplied with greens, Lowe said. Polar Star’s normal deployments to McMurdo Station in Antarctica usually occur in the Antarctic, which, while not warm, isn’t the bone-shattering cold of the Arctic winter.

“Aside from COVID, other challenges included the near-perpetual darkness for much of the time, reducing our availability to navigate through ice like we would when we operate in daylight,” Lowe said. “Additionally, the frigid temperatures well below freezing added a complexity to engineering and operations Polar Star does not usually deal with going to the Antarctic during the Southern Hemisphere winter.”

While the weather was foul, the Polar Star completed its mission of training new polar sailors, including qualifying 10 ice pilots, a vanishingly rare skill set, said Senior Chief Petty Officer NyxoLyno Cangemi.

Family members watch as U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star (center) arrives back to its homeport in Seattle on Feb. 20, 2021. (Petty Officer 2nd Class Steve Strohmaier / U.S. Coast Guard)

Family members watch as U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star (center) arrives back to its homeport in Seattle on Feb. 20, 2021. (Petty Officer 2nd Class Steve Strohmaier / U.S. Coast Guard)

However, the Polar Star is not likely to be seen in these waters again soon, due to operation requirements of supporting McMurdo Station by breaking ice for maritime resupply, Lowe said. The Polar Star is the only U.S. ship capable of breaking that Antarctic ice, Lowe said.

“Polar Star will be departing for our annual dry dock in Vallejo, (California). After dry dock Polar Star will be ramping up preparations to deploy to Antarctica for the annual resupply of McMurdo Station as part of Operation Deep Freeze 2022,” Lowe said. “Because we will be needed in Antarctica, Polar Star does not currently have any plans to return north.”

• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at (757) 621-1197 or mlockett@juneauempire.com.

By the numbers

Furthest North Latitude: 72°11, 126’N (location of record)

Total Distance Traveled: 9,423 nautical miles

Total Days Away from Homeport: 74

Coldest Temperature: -11° F

Number of Scientific Instrument Deployments: 72

Days Spent Above the Arctic Circle: 9

Days Operating in the Ice: 39

Highest Wind: >60 knots

Notable Stops/Transits: Dutch Harbor, Juneau, Glacier Bay, Taylor Bay

Thickest Sustained Ice: Approximately 4 feet, with much thicker ridges

Largest Roll in Heavy Seas: Approximately 35 degrees

Ice Pilots Qualified: 10

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