A Waiting Game
Coast Guard crews work on polar fleet as breaking ice remains years away
BY JOHN C. MARCARIO, Assistant Editor
Hello and Goodbye
The Coast Guard’s third and
largest polar icebreaker, Healy, was
commissioned in 1999. It is not a
heavy-duty icebreaker, however, as
it is designed to break 4. 5 feet of ice
continuously. Polar Star has the
capability to break up to 21 feet of
ice. Healy is configured to support
research operations work, which is
largely determined by the needs of
the National Science Foundation.
While Polar Sea and Polar Star
are out of operation, keeping their
crews focused and motivated while
they do such mundane tasks as
painting has been a challenge for Polar Sea/Polar Star
Fleet Executive Officer Cmdr. Jason Hamilton.
“The focus for a lot of people was to go to the Arctic
and break ice,” Hamilton said. “It can be hard explain-
ing to a 19- or 20-year-old that these other tasks are
just as important as going to the Arctic.”
The Coast Guard has not determined when Polar
Sea will be decommissioned, or even what will happen
with the ship once it is taken out of the fleet. Its crew,
however, will merge with that of Polar Star in August.
“The uncertainty with how exactly we are going to
turn off the lights on Polar Sea [is tough for the crew]
and it’s providing uncertain times for us. But we continue trying to be upbeat and focused each day, as we
can’t control all of these outside distractions,”
He is confident Polar Star will be ready in the fall of
2013, but he admitted the crew will probably be rusty
after a nearly three-year layoff from polar icebreaking
“There is a shrinking number of people who’ve had
past experience … but the more we have, the more
they can train the junior officers on the ship,” he said.
He is hopeful some crew members will have the
opportunity to sail on Healy when it is on polar mis-
The Coast Guard has two heavy-duty polar icebreakers in
Seattle. One, Polar Sea, is being decommissioned, while the other,
Polar Star, is being retrofitted for its return to the fleet.
■ Polar Star will be ready for deployment in fall 2013.
■ A crew of about 180 enlisted officers for Polar Sea and Polar
Star will merge in August for the first time.
■ The Coast Guard has not determined when operations on
Polar Sea will stop.
As the debate continues whether the country needs additional polar icebreaking capabili- ties, Coast Guard crews in Seattle work on
deactivating one polar icebreaker, Polar Sea, while
reactivating its sister ship, Polar Star.
The service announced earlier this year that Polar Sea
will be decommissioned in fiscal 2011. In 2010, premature excessive wear in the ship’s main diesel engine
cylinder assemblies was discovered during inspections
prior to a planned Arctic patrol. Polar Sea was commissioned in 1977.
Polar Star, meanwhile, continues to go through a retrofit that will have it back in the fleet by 2013. It has been
out of service since 2006, when it was placed in special
“caretaker” status pending funding for mechanical
upgrades. It started a 30-month, $62.8 million retrofit in
2010 at Seattle’s Vigor Shipyards (formerly Todd Pacific
Shipyards). Funding for the retrofit came from the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act of
2009 and 2010. The ship was commissioned in 1976.
The Coast Guard said work on Polar Star should
result in the icebreaker having its life extended by
approximately seven to 10 years. Polar Sea went
through a similar retrofit fit in 2006 that was supposed
to carry it through at least fiscal 2014.