Polar Star shows its age as US awaits more icebreaking power

Polar Star 1

Residents of an ice-bound research facility in Antarctica count on containerships full of crucial supplies like food and fuel being able to get through to them once a year.

That ability was called into question last winter when America’s only operational heavy polar icebreaker, the 42-year-old Polar Star, ran into serious problems while cutting a path through thick ice for supply ships heading to the National Science Foundation’s McMurdo Station, located on the tip of Ross Island in the Ross Sea.

En route to the station on Jan. 11, Polar Star was cutting through “fast ice” — thick ice still attached to the shore — when one of the cutter’s three gas turbines failed, hindering progress. The breakdown occurred after the ship had maneuvered through nearly 300 miles of pack ice.

“We were having trouble keeping all three turbines running and went the majority of the mission without the center turbine running” because the device that starts the turbines and keeps them operating failed, explained Capt. Michael Davanzo, who led Polar Star’s Operation Deep Freeze crew of about 150 for the past two years. “We also had trouble with the old technology talking to the new technology.”

Members of Polar Star’s engineering department make repairs in the ship’s motor room on Jan. 22.

Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard

That repair was made, but five days later there was more unexpected difficulty: major flooding in the engine room when a shaft seal broke.

“It was extremely challenging for 36 hours of repairs in very cold conditions,” Davanzo said.

“If we could tell them where to start, these guys could fix the crack of dawn — they’re that good,” he said of his crew. But with no backup heavy icebreaker, had the problems not been repairable by an “incredible crew with resourceful engineers,” Davanzo said it would have been dicey. The operational commander would have had to look for alternatives, including getting help from another country.

‘Paramount to our national security’
The malfunctions last winter highlight a serious need to have additional heavy icebreakers in operation, Davanzo said, noting that the U.S. fleet of polar icebreakers includes only the 399-foot Polar Star, commissioned in 1976, and a 420-foot medium icebreaker, the cutter Healy, commissioned in 2000. Polar Star’s sister ship, Polar Sea, suffered an engine casualty in 2010 and was removed from service in 2011.

Engineers replace a broken shaft seal on Polar Star on Jan. 16 in the Ross Sea. The seal’s failure flooded the engine room with seawater at a rate of about 20 gallons per minute until the crew was able to stop the flow and dewater the space.

Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard

Coast Guard Cmdr. Kenneth Boda said the government recognizes the need for more heavy icebreaking capability. On March 2, the Coast Guard, in collaboration with the U.S. Navy, issued a request for proposals to design and construct another heavy polar icebreaker, with an option to build two more.

“We need to have a presence in our sovereign territories, and heavy icebreakers are the lifeblood for U.S. interests in the Arctic and Antarctica,” Boda said. “It’s paramount to our national security.”

Boda said the proposals should be submitted late this summer, and then the selection process will begin for who will be awarded the contract next June. The 460-foot heavy icebreaker will cost about $900 million and take four or five years to build.

But can the aging Polar Star hang in there until help arrives?

“We’ll put our best effort into getting her to last that long,” said Davanzo, who was reassigned in June to Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, D.C. “The goal is to have a new heavy icebreaker by 2023, and Polar Star would be operational until a second heavy icebreaker is ready, probably in 2026 or 2027.”

Polar Star headed from its home port in Seattle to Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo, Calif., in April to undergo extensive upgrades after completing this year’s Antarctic mission. The work done in the region “takes a really big toll on the ship,” Davanzo said, and months of maintenance follow each trip.

This year, that work will include upgrades to Polar Star’s HVAC system and generator, which will help with technology incompatibilities, he said.

Polar Star breaks ice around the containership Ocean Giant before its scheduled departure from McMurdo Station on Feb. 1. The cutter is responsible for providing a safe channel for ships that resupply the research site.

Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard

While these major repairs are being done, crewmembers are busy painting, renewing systems, installing closed-circuit televisions, inspecting work done by the shipyard and handling security watches, among other tasks. While at dry dock, the crew rotates every 28 days so that most members can take leave to see their families.

The target is to start sea trials to test what’s been done by Sept. 7. While underway, engines and motors will be calibrated and tested for 45 days — “it’s a break-in period,” Davanzo said — to make sure all is in order for a Dec. 1 departure to Antarctica.

“We’ll come out better than we went in, that’s for sure,” he said.

U.S. vulnerability at the poles
One of the reasons a bigger icebreaking fleet is needed is because of how much rejuvenation time is required each year for Polar Star, and because the smaller Healy is much more limited in what it can accomplish, Boda said.

Contractors work on the hull of Polar Star as the cutter undergoes repairs and upgrades in dry dock in April at Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo, Calif.

Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard

“It’s important to create a fleet because there is more and more interest in both the Arctic and the Antarctic — more shipping, tourism and commercial development,” he said. “And because of that, we need to have a persistent presence in both places. And icebreakers can only be in one place at one time.”

And America’s sovereign territory that requires protection is expansive. Boda explained its scope: From all coasts of the United States out to 12 nautical miles, the area is known as territorial sea. The area out to 200 nautical miles is known as the exclusive economic zone, in which the United States has exclusive rights for fishing, drilling and other economic activities.

“We have sovereignty and control over who takes stuff like oil from the bottom or who can fish,” Boda said.

The area out to 350 nautical miles is called the extended continental shelf, where anything at or below the seabed is controlled by the United States.

Some of the ship’s antiquated components are displayed on a workbench in the engine room during dry-docking. The cutter, which was commissioned in 1976, has many parts that are difficult or impossible to replace.

Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard

“We have a lot of area with sovereign rights, and we need to be there to really regulate what’s going on,” Boda said, noting that the United States has vital interests in the polar regions. Icebreakers enable the Coast Guard to maintain defense readiness, enforce treaties and clear the way for other vessels to get through hundreds of miles of otherwise impenetrable ice, he said.

Boda said he sometimes fields questions about why more icebreakers are needed when the ice is melting at alarming rates and is thinner. Unpredictable, free-moving ice is actually more hazardous to ships trying to navigate through it, he said, and icebreakers also are needed because of a basic law of nature: “Ice grows seasonally each winter.”

Davanzo said that next year’s mission to McMurdo Station may have its own set of challenges because of natural, not mechanical, conditions. On the last trip, he explained, Polar Star’s crew encountered much more pack ice and moisture, which caused a lot of refreezing.

“We didn’t have the normal blowout of ice and there’s still a lot of ice there, a lot of second-year ice, which will make it a little more difficult,” he said.

By Professional Mariner Staff