SEPTEMBER 9, 2015 — Within days of President Barack Obama announcing plans to accelerate and expand the U.S. Coast Guard's polar icebreaker acquisition program, the U.S. made its point about being an Arctic nation: the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy (WAGB-20), homeported in Seattle, arrived at the North Pole Sept. 5, 2015, becoming the first U.S. surface ship to do so unaccompanied.
Healy's crew and science party, totaling 145 people, departed Dutch Harbor, Alaska August 9, in support of GEOTRACES, an historic, international effort to study the geochemistry of the world's oceans. The National Science Foundation funded expedition is focused on studying the Arctic Ocean to meet a number of scientific goals, including the creation of baseline measurements of the air, ice, snow, seawater, meltwater and ocean bottom sediment for future comparisons. As the Arctic region continues to open up to development, the data gathered onboard Healy during this cruise will become increasingly important to understanding how the scientific processes of the Arctic work, and how to most responsibly exercise stewardship over the region.
This is also only the fourth time a U.S. surface vessel has ever reached the North Pole, and the first since 2005.
Considered a medium polar icebreaker, at 420 ft and displacing 16,000 tons, the Healey is actually somewhat larger than the Coast Guard's two heavy icebreakers, the 399 ft Polar Star and (currently inactive) Polar Sea.
While it has a greater capability for supporting scientific research than the two heavy icebreakers, Healey's icebreaking capacity is not as great. Though the Coast Guard press release announcing its arrival at the North Pole said it is "capable of breaking ice over 10 ft thick," its continuous icebreaking capability at three knots is usually stated as 4.5 ft ice thickness, compared with the 6 ft ice thickness at three knots at which the two heavy icebreakers are rated.
Healy can embark a scientific research staff of 35 (with room for another 15 surge personnel and two visitors).
Healey was procured in the early 1990s as a complement to Polar Star and Polar Sea, and was commissioned into service on August 21, 2000. The ship was built at the Avondale Industries shipyard, New Orleans, LA,