The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star, America’s only remaining heavy icebreaker, arrived in Juneau Friday morning to resupply from operations patrolling the Bering Strait, projecting power, conducting science and readying for next year’s deployments to Antarctica.
The icebreaker set a record for U.S. surface vessels for northernmost winter approach earlier in the tour, but the cold takes a toll, even for a ship designed to operate in those extremes, said the vessel’s captain.
“The greatest challenge we have faced is that many systems and components on this 45-year-old ship are challenged to operate in the super-low temperatures we experienced on this mission,” said Capt. Bill Woityra in an email. “While the hull is designed to break very thick ice, many parts of the ship just stop working when the temperatures fell below -10°F (-50°F with wind chill).”
The ship has primarily been operating far north and west of Juneau, in the Chukchi and Bering seas, Woityra said, in the region of St. Lawrence Island.
A long trip on a dark road
The crew has done well despite more than two months without a port call, Woityra said, surrounded by ceaseless grinding of sea ice against the hull, temperatures adjusted for windchill so low they’re approaching the average temperature of Mars and the endless night of the north.
“Even with the long, dark and extremely cold days, the crew has remained steadfast in their work ethic. We did have the opportunity for a brief (two hour) period of “ice liberty” on the frozen Bering Sea at the end of January, which was a special treat,” Woityra said. The crew has been working week after week to ensure the success of this patrol.”
Crewmembers aboard the Polar Star also have no access to personal email or social media, Woityra said, compelling them to put much of their social lives on hold for the months of the deployment apart from rare port visits. The Polar Star deployed with a number of scientists and engineers aboard to think about ways to improve efficacy of future operations in the region as the Arctic grows in importance, Woityra said.
“The Arctic is cold, dark and difficult to navigate in the winter,” Woityra said. “Deploying with researchers and scientists aboard has aided in the development, understanding and pursuit of technologies that will mitigate risks and enable future mission performance so that looking forward, the Coast Guard can safely operate continually and effectively in this remote environment.”
Training is continuous
Just like the cold of the Arctic winter, Woityra said, the drive for improvement is also constant.
“The crew is always training. Regardless of what the deployment objectives are or where the cutter is operating, our cutter crews run frequent emergency drills to be sure everyone is absolutely prepared and knows their role in case of an emergency situation,” Woityra said. “Specific to this patrol, and in addition to the routinely run drills, we participated in a communication exercise with the Russian Border Guard, and conducted the ice training you saw photos of.”
A number of officers are getting experience in the ice operations unique to this region, a learning experience that can’t be replicated just anywhere, Woityra said.
“Overall, we have continued progress towards growing future icebreaker leadership. Seven officers aboard have earned their ice pilot certification and the crew as whole has gained critical familiarity operating in this inhospitable region. The two officers aboard from the Royal Navy have nearly completed their Ice Pilot training and are due to take their boards, which is like a final exam, before the end of the patrol,” Woityra said. “Having them aboard for this deployment has helped strengthen international partnerships and promotes unity as our countries aim to further expand operations in the world’s most remote regions.”
The unique opportunity for the crew, earned amongst the slabs of sea ice, is a better teacher than any classroom, Woityra said.
“Our teams learn techniques and procedures in a pool, but seldom have an opportunity to hone their proficiency in the actual Arctic environment,” Woityra said. “I’m certain the team learned more, and locked in more skills in a few hours on the ice last month than weeks and weeks of pool time could ever provide.”
Innovation in the cold
Another major mission is improving the technology that the U.S. uses to operate this far from the warmth of the more equatorial seas.
“Looking towards the future, all signs point toward the Coast Guard deploying more platforms to the Arctic, more often and during different seasons of the year,” Woityra said. “The Coast Guard is robustly proficient at summer-time Arctic operations, while winter presents an entirely new set of challenges. Polar Star’s winter Arctic deployment has served to better understand and prepare for the challenges of operating in such a harsh and unforgiving environment.”
Scientists with the Coast Guard’s Research and Development Center deployed sensors to map ocean temperatures and salinity, and other buoys to map the drift of the scrum of sea ice, Woityra said. Other engineers worked on finding solutions to issues aboard ship with the assets they had on hand.
“I used the 3D printer to complete many small projects that resulted in large lifestyle improvements for the crew,” said Shalane Regan, an engineer with the Coast Guard’s RDC. “Most importantly, the knowledge I was able to gather about larger issues the crew faces, for example, visibility issues due to frost accumulation on the bridge windows, I can take home for my team to develop solutions that will create a better-equipped, mission-ready fleet.”
Other personnel worked on testing a constellation of communication satellites provided to the Navy for secure communications for mobile forces in the high Arctic, an absolutely critical component of any operations in the region.
“The U.S. and the Coast Guard are fiercely committed to defending our national interests in the Arctic,” Woityra said. “Looking to the future, we need to continue to invest in the infrastructure and platforms that will enable that, and continue to pursue technologies that will mitigate operational risks and enable mission performance in such a challenging environment.”
• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at 757-621-1197 or firstname.lastname@example.org.