Despite Breakdowns and Missed Pay, Polar Star Reaches Antarctica

The Polar Star under way, 2018 (USCG)

Published Jan 18, 2019 10:20 AM by The Maritime Executive

The 150 crewmembers of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star arrived Thursday in Antarctica, fulfilling their yearly mission to to resupply America's main outpost on the continent. 

The 42-year-old ship is the United States’ only operational heavy icebreaker, and the crew - which has not been paid since December - is making their sixth deployment in as many years to support the resupply of McMurdo Station. 

Each year, the Polar Star creates a navigable path through seasonal and multi-year ice, sometimes as much as 21 feet thick, to allow a resupply vessel to reach McMurdo Station. The supply delivery allows multiple Antarctic stations to stay operational year-round, including during the dark and tumultuous Antarctic winter. 

The Polar Star arrived after completing an 18-mile trip through the ice to McMurdo Sound, where 400 containers will be offloaded from the supply ship Ocean Giant.

The U.S. Coast Guard maintains two icebreakers – the Coast Guard Cutter Healy, which is a medium icebreaker, and the Polar Star. Protecting America's interests in the polar regions is part of the Coast Guard's national defense mission, along with providing search and rescue capabilities. In order to keep carrying out this mission, the agency says that its icebreaker fleet desperately needs modernization.

The Polar Star is showing her four decades of age, and she is now only capable of one mission per year. She spends the northern hemisphere's winter breaking ice near Antarctica, and when the mission is complete, she returns to drydock on the U.S. West Coast. With a six-month-long drydock period scheduled after every six months, she may well be a contender for the title of the most maintenance-intensive vessel in operation today - especially considering her frequent need for damage control under way.

During this year’s deployment, one of the ship’s electrical systems began to smoke, causing damage to wiring in an electrical switchboard, and one of the ship’s two evaporators used to make drinkable water failed. Like last year, she also experienced a leak from a shaft seal, which halted icebreaking operations until scuba divers could make repairs. 

The Polar Star also experienced ship-wide power outages while breaking ice. Crewmembers spent nine hours shutting down the ship’s power plant and rebooting the electrical system in order to remedy the outages.

If a catastrophic event were to happen to the Healy in the Arctic or to the Polar Star near Antarctica, the U.S. Coast Guard is left without a self-rescue capability. By contrast, Russia currently operates more than 40 icebreakers – several of which are nuclear powered.

The Coast Guard has been the sole provider of the nation’s polar icebreaking capability since 1965, and is seeking to increase its icebreaking fleet with six new Polar Security Cutters in order to ensure continued national presence and access to the Polar Regions.

“While we focus our efforts on creating a peaceful and collaborative environment in the Arctic, we’re also responding to the impacts of increased competition in this strategically important region,” said Adm. Karl Schultz, commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard. “Our continued presence will enable us to reinforce positive opportunities and mitigate negative consequences today and tomorrow.”