Coast Guard’s only active icebreaker stops in Juneau

The crew of the Healy took groups of curious visitors on tours around the ship.

The icebreaker Healy stopped in Juneau last week after another season’s work, and the ship’s crew invited the public aboard.

The Healy is its own community. Between the bridge and laboratories, narrow flights of stairs connect three levels of living quarters. The crew needs to keep the ship running 24/7. This year, the Healy hosted Weather Channel TV crews twice, rescued a whaling crew from an ice floe and escorted a Russian fuel tanker to Nome. The Healy entered active duty in 2000 and is 20 years newer than the Polar Sea and Polar Star, which are both in Seattle. The Polar Sea could be demolished in 2013, whereas the Polar Star could be reactivated.

Captain Beverly Havlik is the commanding officer of the Healy.

“I was assigned to the ship last April. April 2011 Our deployment has brought us now to Juneau, it’s our last stop before we go back home to Seattle, homeport is Seattle, Washington,” Havlik says.

Earlier this year, the Healy escorted Russian fuel tanker Renda to Nome to provide heating oil and gas to the iced-in community. Havlik says people travelled to Nome just to witness the historic delivery.

While ice breakers perform commercial deliveries down south in the winter, along the East Coast and Great Lakes, the Nome delivery was the first of its kind in Alaska in recent years. The Healy led the Renda across more than 800 miles of sea ice.

[quote]“The ice conditions were never beyond the capabilities of the ship, the ship handled the ice quite well. Ice breaking is a combination of the hull design and sheer horsepower. The ship has a design to just push through the ice and break it, it’s a little bit of a process of riding on top of the ice and breaking down from above, so you’re kind of stepping down on the ice,” Havlik says. [/quote]

The Healy doesn’t normally escort other ships through the ice. Havlik says the hull is designed to do as little damage to the sea ice as possible so scientists can sample ice floes easily.

She says Russian tankers are generally towed through ice:

[quote]“They will sometimes touch each other. We have no such system on board here, we don’t hook onto other vessels and we don’t tow them through ice, so learning to work together without that assistance that they were accustomed to having was a challenge but we figured out how to work through the language barrier, and the experience differences, the cultural differences to get the job done.”[/quote]

When the Healy got the call last fall to help with the fuel delivery, it was wrapping up some scientific research  – its main mission.

Master Chief Tim Sullivan is the ship’s navigator:

[quote]“Day’s pretty busy, again up on the bridge. We’re staffed 24 hours per day so the ship is always moving and we do a lot of science. It’s an exploration of the Arctic that not a lot of people get an opportunity to see, so it’s like riding on a cruise ship but it’s one of the US icebreakers.”[/quote]

Petty Officer Matthew Emmons came to the Coast Guard from the Navy.

“I’ve been on board here for roughly 4 months and I’m an electronics technician. We fix navigation equipment, radars, radios, GPS, we also maintain the TV system on board. I enjoy it, it’s pretty fun. It’s just different duty than normal Coast Guard duty. It’s not law enforcement, it’s not drug interdiction and such, it’s more science related, so it’s something more out of rate than what people normally do and sometimes that’s a good thing to have a little change-up in your career.”

Scientists use the ship's cranes for a variety of things, including scraping the sea floor.
Scientists use the ship’s cranes for a variety of things, including scraping the sea floor.

Last winter, Captain Havlik led the Healy through its first winter science mission. The ship went north-to-south, outracing the edge of the sea ice to track an environmentally sensitive, but abundant type of plankton known as copepods.

This past summer, the icebreaker used high resolution sonar to map parts of the Arctic Ocean’s seafloor. The Healy’s mapping may help the US extend the exclusive economic zone, which is currently 200 nautical miles offshore.

Havlik says the icebreaker will likely do more search-and-rescue in the Arctic as more ecotourism and  resource exploration ships make their way to the far north. There will be ice in the Arctic Ocean even as the Northwest Passage becomes more navigable.

[quote]“And the ice can be dangerous, it will blow around with the wind and move where it wants to go. I won’t say that everyone pays attention to what happening around them, and there is a possibility that they can get trapped in an ice field, and ice under pressure is very very dangerous. ice under pressure can crush ships.”[/quote]

Science missions have propelled the ship to Arctic waters for more than a decade. Havlik says the Healy heads north again in July.

“And then in January the ship will go into a dry dock and spend about two months on dry dock. Then we’ll do the load-out for more science research and get underway in July and be back up to the Arctic again.”


Photos by Heather Bryant/KTOO

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