VIDEO: Polar Star beats engineering challenges to complete mission

The Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star breaks ice in McMurdo Sound near Antarctica on Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. The crew of the Seattle-based Polar Star is on deployment to Antarctica in support of Operation Deep Freeze 2018, the U.S. military’s contribution to the National Science Foundation-managed U.S. Antarctic Program The Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star breaks ice in McMurdo Sound near Antarctica on Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. The crew of the Seattle-based Polar Star is on deployment to Antarctica in support of Operation Deep Freeze 2018, the U.S. military’s contribution to the National Science Foundation-managed U.S. Antarctic Program U.S. Coast Guard photo by Chief Petty Officer Nick Ameen

FEBRUARY 7, 2018 — The U.S. Coast Guard's sole operational heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star, is at McMurdo Station, Antarctica, after completing its mission Tuesday in support of the National Science Foundation (NSF), cutting a resupply channel through 15 miles of Antarctic ice in the Ross Sea and escorting supply vessels to the continent.

The more than 40 year old vessel accomplished its task after overcoming a number of engineering challenges that underscore the fact that the Coast Guard's current Polar icebreaker acquisition program is in a race against time (see feature in our January issue).

The Polar Star sailed from Seattle to assist in the annual delivery of operating supplies and fuel for NSF research stations in Antarctica during Operation Deep Freeze by carving a navigable path through seasonal and multi-year ice sometimes as much as 10-feet thick. Operation Deep Freeze is the logistical support provided by the U.S. Armed Forces to the U.S. Antarctic Program.

"Although we had less ice this year than last year, we had several engineering challenges to overcome to get to the point where we could position ourselves to moor in McMurdo," said Capt. Michael Davanzo, the commanding officer of the Polar Star. "Our arrival was delayed due to these challenges, but the crew and I are certainly excited to be here. It's a unique opportunity for our crewmembers to visit the most remote continent in the world, and in many respects it makes the hard work worth it."

On Jan. 16, Polar Star's shaft seal failed causing flooding in the cutter's engine room at a rate of approximately 20-gallons per minute. The crew responded quickly, using an emergency shaft seal to stop the flow of freezing, Antarctic water into the vessel. The crew was able dewater the engineering space and effect more permanent repairs to the seal to ensure the watertight integrity of the vessel. There were no injuries as a result of the malfunction.

Earlier, on Jan. 11, the cutter's progress was slowed after the one of its three main gas turbines failed. The crew uses the cutter's main gas turbine power to break up thick multi-year ice using its propellers. The crew was able to troubleshoot the turbine finding a programing issue between the engine and the cutter's 1970s-era electrical system. The crew was able to continue their mission in the current ice conditions without the turbine.

"If the Polar Star were to suffer a catastrophic mechanical failure, the Nation would not be able to support heavy icebreaker missions like Operation Deep Freeze, and our Nation has no vessel capable of rescuing the crew if the icebreakers were to fail in the ice," said Vice Adm. Fred Midgette, commander, U.S. Coast Guard Pacific Area in Alameda, California. "The crew members aboard Polar Star not only accomplished their mission, but they did so despite extreme weather and numerous engineering challenges. This is a testament to their dedication and devotion to duty."

The cutter refueled at McMurdo Station Jan. 18 and continued to develop and maintain the ice channel in preparation for two resupply ships from U.S. Military Sealift Command, Ocean Giant and Maersk Peary. The crew of Polar Star escorted the vessels to the ice pier at McMurdo Station, an evolution that requires the cutter to travel about 300 yards in front of the supply ships to ensure they safely make it through the narrow ice channel. The crew escorted the Ocean Giant to the ice pier at McMurdo Jan. 27 and conducted their final escort of the Maersk Peary to Antarctica Feb. 2. The crew escorted Maersk Peary safely out of the ice Feb. 6 after supply vessel's crew transferred their cargo.

The Polar Star departed its homeport in Seattle Nov. 30, 2017, and is expected to return to the U.S. in March 2018. The 399-foot Polar Star has a crew of nearly 150 people. It weighs 13,500 tons and uses 75,000 horsepower to break ice up to 21 feet thick.

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