The Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star returned Saturday to home port in Seattle after a northern cruise that marked the first time since 1982 that a U.S. government vessel had ventured into the winter Arctic.
The crew encountered dense, shifting sea ice, daylong darkness and wind chills that plunged to 50 degrees below zero. On Dec. 25, the Polar Star reached a latitude of 72 degrees, which was farther north than any U.S. government vessel, other than a submarine, had reached in winter.
The mission was a serious test of the capabilities of the 45-year-old, 399-foot Polar Star with challenges that included generating enough heat to keep the ship warm.
Capt. Bill Woityra, the vessel’s commander, said the “crew’s resilience was unyielding … we accomplished everything we set out to do and more.”
The Polar Star is one of two U.S. seagoing icebreakers and the only one classified as “heavy” — able to break through ice up to 21 feet thick. The vessel left Seattle in early December and traveled through the Gulf of Alaska, the Bering Sea and then through the thick ice of the Chukchi Sea.
It was a big shift from the Polar Star’s usual mission. The Polar Star typically heads south to assist in the summer resupply of the McMurdo Station on Ross Island, close to the Antarctic continent. As late as August, the 134 full-time crew were still preparing for their traditional role.
But that mission was scuttled by the National Science Foundation as the coronavirus pandemic prompted research to be cut back and restrictions put in place to reduce the risk of the virus reaching Antarctica. So, in September, the Coast Guard decided to send the Polar Star north.
The vessel in recent years has had mishaps and maintenance problems, including a 2019 fire that damaged a shipboard incinerator and a leaking shaft repaired with the aid of a scuba diver. During this fall-winter cruise, despite the extreme weather, the vessel had no major breakdowns or accidents, according to Petty Officer Steve Strohmaier, of Coast Guard public affairs.
“There was no lost time due to malfunction,” Strohmaier said.
In the Chukchi Sea, the Polar Star rammed — again and again — through a heavy blanket of ice. Crew members came up with a lot of descriptions for the auditory experience of this noisy passage, comparing the sounds to “screeches and bangs from a perpetual car crash, a blaring elephant, freight train or driving through concrete,” according to a dispatch written by Petty Officer 1st Class Cynthia Oldham and Petty Officer 2nd Class Tedd Meinersman.
They wrote that the ice the crew experiences during the Antarctic summer is warmer and softer, and makes less noise when it is compressed and crushed by the hull.
In the Arctic, the winter ice was mostly flat, and several feet thick. But it was wind driven, and some areas piled up in pressure ridges that the crew worked to avoid, a task complicated by the lack of light that greatly limited visibility, according to Woityra.
The Arctic winter ice was also was very hard. “I was shocked by how hard and ridge and tough it was totally foreign to me,” said Woityra, who noted that the noise of the ice-breaking was a constant cacophony that made sleep elusive despite the perpetual night.
The Polar Star headed north with researchers from an Army Corps of Engineers cold weather laboratory, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the University of Washington and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.
Researchers deployed buoys that will transmit information about ice floes, and the crew aided research to develop a better understanding of the hydrology of the Chukchi Sea.
Also during the trip, the Polar Star and a Russian aircraft in mid-January patrolled a portion of the two nations’ maritime boundary in the Bering Sea. The patrol included communications exercises that demonstrated the importance of a working relationship in an area where the two nations have agreements for combined operations in search and rescue and countering illegal fishing, according to Capt. Jason Brennell, chief of enforcement for the Coast Guard’s 17th District.
Woityra, the Polar Star’s commander, said he expects the Coast Guard will be heading to the Arctic more often in the future, and in different seasons.
“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,” Woityra said in a statement released by the Coast Guard.
The isolation of the cruise was heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic, which prevented shore leaves at Alaska ports during 78 days of the cruise. And in Seattle, the first order of business as the crew disembarked was vaccinations.
The crew now has three weeks free of ship duties. Then they will bring the Polar Star down to California for maintenance work in preparation for next year’s cruise, which is expected to be a return to Antarctica.