Polar Star headed for Arctic ice trials

The Polar Star in port on June 27, 2013. Photo by Audrey Carlsen, KUCB – Unalaska.

The Polar Star in port on June 27, 2013. Photo by Audrey Carlsen, KUCB – Unalaska.

The United States’ only heavy icebreaker will soon be back in service after a four-year, $90 million renovation. The USCGC Polar Star was scheduled to leave Unalaska last Friday to undergo several weeks of ice trials in the Arctic.

The 399-foot-long ship is painted bright red. Its decks are clean and shiny, and brand-new anchors rest in neatly coiled piles of chain on the prow. Ensign Paul Garcia explains that this is all the result of a massive overhaul of the ship that wrapped up in 2012. “The engines were getting replaced, the main gas turbines were getting replaced, all of our cranes … those are all brand new,” he says.

The ship also has new navigation equipment, new systems for lowering anchors and small boats, and a newly-equipped gym and movie theater to keep the crew in good spirits during polar voyages that can last up to six months.

The renovations are extensive and impressive, but the question still remains – does the ship actually work?

“Now, we need to make sure that all our equipment is functioning correctly, that we’re still able to withstand the same amount of force and break the same amount of ice that we were back in the ’80s,” says Garcia.

To that end, the crew of the Polar Star will be heading up to the Arctic, where they will perform various ice breaking maneuvers using a strategy that amounts to repeatedly beaching the ship on the ice.

“We have a lot of weight up forward,” says Garcia. “We kind of have a rounded hull and so we use our three main gas turbines to come up on the ice and then use that weight to come down and it smashes the ice and that’s how we create the channels. It’s called backing and ramming.”

And since the Coast Guard hasn’t had a heavy icebreaker for several years now, these ice tests will also be an opportunity for inexperienced crew members to get trained and qualified.

“You’re always going to have some growing pains,” says Garcia. “But this few weeks that we’re out here should hopefully take care of those. Fall time, I think we’ll be fully operational again and ready to perform any mission that the Coast Guard needs us to perform.”

While the Polar Star is heading for Arctic waters this summer, it will actually be spending most of its time in service in the Antarctic, breaking channels through the ice to resupply McMurdo Research Station. In addition to this yearly mission, dubbed Operation Deep Freeze, the ship will be available for scientific research, search and rescue and law enforcement missions, and, most importantly, maintaining a U.S. “presence” in Arctic waters.

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