USCG celebrates 223rd birthday

The U.C. Coast Guard heavy ice breaker Polar Star pulled into Juneau’s AJ cruise ship dock on Friday. The ship was open to the public on Saturday and left Sunday morning for Seattle. Photo by Dick Isett.

The U.S. Coast Guard is 223 years old.  The maritime service was created on Aug. 4, 1790 as the Revenue Cutter Service under the U.S. Department of Treasury.

Juneau is headquarters of the 17th Coast Guard District, which includes the Arctic.

Part of Juneau’s weekend celebration included a visit by the heavy ice breaker Polar Star, on its way to its Seattle home port after conducting ice tests in the Bering Sea.

The ship has been rebuilt and is the Coast Guard’s only heavy ice breaker in operation.   The Polar Star was open to visitors on Saturday.

Polar Star Executive Officer Kenneth Boda was one of the tour guides and offered a Coast Guard history lesson without prompting.

“We were built to basically collect customs and taxes, collect tariffs of vessels coming into port.  Over the years, we absorbed the Lighthouse service and the Life Saving Service, the Bureau of Steamboat Inspections as well.  Along the way along we were part of the armed forces,” he said.

The modern Coast Guard was created in 1915 as the fifth military uniformed service.

“Our vessels are fully compatible with all the Navy standards so we can operate in conjunction with the Navy,” Boda said, “but we also have the law enforcement side, the Homeland Security side, as well.”  

Boda called the Coast Guard a unique entity of the federal government. Its presence is local, regional, national and international, from the North Pole to the South Pole.

Most coastal Alaskans are familiar with the Coast Guard missions of safety, security and stewardship.

“Saving people’s lives is one of the big responsibilities of the Coast Guard,” Boda said. “Making sure that the ships that leave port are safe, we do vessel inspections.  Making sure that foreign ships that arrive have been inspected and have cleared all the U.S. regulations before they come into U.S. ports.” 

In 2012, according to the Coast Guard website, more than 436,000 vessels and their 29 and a half-million crewmembers and passengers were screened prior to arrival in U.S. ports.

The Coast Guard is the only military organization within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.  Boda said that means it is responsible for ensuring U.S. harbors and ports are secure from any kind of threat.

“When I say threats, people think terrorist threats, but it’s not always terrorism that’s a threat, sometimes just a hazard to navigation.  For instance, a vessel that might wander out of the shipping lane and lose situational awareness.  In some other ports like Valdez, for instance, we have a vessel traffic service, you know that basically monitors ships as they come in and out and make sure everyone’s safe,” he said.

While enforcing U.S. fisheries laws is one of the most visible roles of the Coast Guard in Alaska, stewardship is protecting the oceans.

“Stewardship is environmental pollution response, so that the Coast Guard is called out to an Exxon Valdez or a Deep Water Horizon as well,” Boda said.

The Coast Guard is still investigating Royal Dutch Shell’s 2012 Alaska drilling operations after some vessels failed inspections, the oil rig Kulluk ran aground, and the company had other safety and environmental violations.

During the Polar Star’s brief stop in Juneau, KTOO had the opportunity to speak with Commanding Officer George Pellissier about its Arctic and Antarctic missions.  Check back for those stories.