The cracking and breaking of ice on a metal hull can be heard from land as the heavy icebreaker U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star (WAGB 10) enters the harbor of McMurdo Station, Antarctica to move the ice pier out of the way for an incoming modular causeway system. Polar Star approached and guided the ice pier with cautious ease.
“The biggest challenge we faced during the ice pier move was all the loose ice in Winter Quarters Bay. As Coxswain, I was the person in overall command of our team and the person operating the Landing Craft Vehicle/Personnel (LCVP) boat,” said Boatswain’s Mate 1st Class Joel Behr. “We either had to maneuver the LCVP around ice or several times we had to nose up to the ice and push it out of our way. This was challenging because it’s abnormal operations for our boats to push ice. The good thing about the LCVP is it has a beaching plate on the keel [a reinforced plate of metal] which gave the boat better safety for riding up on the ice when we pushed against it to move it out of the way.”
With three aviation-grade gas turbine engines, Polar Star provides the three controllable-pitch propellers with up to a total of 75,000 horsepower, making her the most powerful ship in the U.S. Coast Guard with the ability to break ice up to 21 feet thick. Moving the ice pier was no issue for the capability of this ship. However, the chunks of the pier that broke off during the move were being moved around in the Bay and the LCVP had to navigate around them.
The winds were also a key factor when managing maneuverability. “Most of the weight of the boat is towards the stern leaving the bow very light, so when the wind catches the bow just right it’ll want to swing us around. So having to counteract that along with dodging ice made for some sporty driving,” said Behr.
Homeported in Seattle, Washington, USCGC Polar Star is the United States’ only heavy icebreaker. Every year, Polar Star travels to McMurdo Station, Antarctica, to provide support for Operation Deep Freeze (ODF).
“Participating in ODF is easily one of the cooler things I’ve done in the Coast Guard. Between the amount of travel we do and going to foreign countries, various seagoing traditions and ceremonies we do while at sea,” said Behr. “Coming to Antarctica and doing my job in such a remote, unforgiving, but pristine environment makes the hard work in Dry Dock and Seattle worth it.”
Polar Star’s shell plating and associated internal support structure are fabricated from steel that has especially good low-temperature strength. The portion of the hull designed to break ice is 1.75 inches thick in the bow and stern sections. The curved bow allows Polar Star to ride up on the ice, using the ship’s 13,000-ton weight to break the ice, and is immensely useful during ODF.
“The primary purpose of Polar Star’s deployment is to break a channel through the miles of fast ice to provide access for up to three Military Sealift Command-chartered ships, National Science Foundation Research Ships, and the Royal New Zealand Navy auxiliary ship HMNZS Aotearoa, to resupply McMurdo Station, Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, and other outlying camps and stations. ODF is an annual mission that Polar Star supports from November to March each year,” said Cmdr. Samuel Blase, U.S. Coast Guard Liaison Officer, Joint Task Force-Support Forces Antarctica.
Joint Task Force-Support Forces Antarctica (JTF-SFA) oversees the activities of the joint services and provides Department of Defense support to the National Science Foundation (NSF) and United States Antarctic Program (USAP) through Operation Deep Freeze. The U.S. Air Force, Air National Guard, Air Force Reserve Command, U.S. Navy, U.S. Navy Reserve, U.S. Army, U.S. Coast Guard, and Military Sealift Command make up JTF-SFA. JTF-SFA coordinates strategic inter-theater airlift, tactical deep field support, aeromedical evacuation support, search and rescue response, sealift, seaport access, bulk fuel supply logistics, port cargo handling, and transportation requirements.