A sea ride that sounds like a constant earthquake is one way of describing a trip to McMurdo Sound in United States Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star. But for Midshipman Emma Walker, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Midshipman (MID) Walker had graduated as a Maritime Logistics Officer in June 2022 and was into her Navy studies when she was told there was an opportunity to take a sea ride on an icebreaker down to Antarctica.

She was a confident traveler, having worked overseas in America and Japan, but COVID brought her home. ”I thought, let’s just do it. It’s not something you get to experience on RNZN ships.”

She joined USCGC Polar Star in Hobart in the middle of December for a three-month journey that ranged to McMurdo Station and onto Chile.
Polar Star’s annual job is to break open a channel in the summer sea ice surrounding New Zealand’s Scott Base and America’s McMurdo Station, which allows research and supply ships to deliver fuel and supplies to Antarctica.

The 150-strong crew of the USCGC Polar Star. Photo provided by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Every year the ship endeavors to take sea-riders, she says. “I had no idea what I was getting myself into to when I embarked. But they had made a program for me. For the 13 weeks on board, I spent a couple of weeks at a time in different departments. I spent time in the galley, supply shop, ship’s office, engineering, and damage control.”

She was the only non-American onboard, with a crew of 150.

Progressing south, encountering six feet of ice is “not too bad”, she says. “Then we hit some pretty big flows the further south we went. The ship can handle up to 21 feet of ice, around six and a half meters.”

An icebreaker has a very rounded hull, and will ride up onto the ice, allowing gravity and the sheer weight of the ship to crack through.
“The noise is like a constant earthquake. You’re breaking ice 24/7, there’s no real downtime from it. You get used to it. In fact, since being home, I struggle to sleep in silence.”

Once a channel is made, Polar Star has to go back and fourth, keeping it open, running in close proximity ahead of container ships to escort them into McMurdo Station.

Sailors understand the concept of a long voyage, but you get port calls, says MID Walker. “Here it’s three months on a ship with only four days ashore in McMurdo Station, where you are very limited to what you can do. I was lucky – this was the first year the ship had Starlink, so we had Wi-Fi on board. Full coverage, all the way down.”