They took a morale-boosting swim near the equator, rubbed elbows with a curious Emperor penguin and tossed footballs over Antarctic ice.
For the 150 crew members of the Polar Star icebreaker, which each year carves a route to resupply Antarctica’s McMurdo Station, these were the highlights of their journey to the bottom of the world.
But the crew also had to manage rugged seas in a vessel nicknamed the “Polar Roller,” put out an onboard fire and spend more than three months away from home, and with limited communication to their families.
During their journey, one of the ship’s two evaporators to make drinking water failed, its electric system began to smoke and scuba divers had to repair the shaft that drives one of its three propellers.
On Monday, after more than 100 days away, the crew returned the aging Polar Star to Coast Guard Base Seattle — its home port. A crowd of family and friends cheered, hugged and cried as their loved ones stepped back on dry land.
Congress recently approved funding for a new icebreaker. But in the near future, the 43-year-old cutter and its crew are the only ones that can cut through the ice to supply the scientists at the U.S. doing crucial research in Antarctica.
“This is the only heavy icebreaker the United States has. We’re the ones that have to do the mission,” said Lt. Commander Karen Kutkiewicz, who steered the ship through the ice. “This is 43 years old. This takes a lot of TLC.”
A fire in an old ship
The Polar Star left Seattle on Nov. 27 last year, days after Thanksgiving, stopping in Hawaii and Sydney, Australia, before making its way to Antarctica.
There, the 75,000 horsepower cutter began to ram its way through more than 16 miles of sea ice. The 399-foot cutter’s hull is shaped like a football. Its three 16-foot propellers essentially thrust the boat’s reinforced hull upward, which allows the boat’s weight to crush away the ice, said Captain Gregory Stanclik. The ship can move continuously through 6 feet of ice. By backing up and then ramming sheets of ice, it can take on 21 feet.
The Ocean Giant, a cargo ship, followed the cutter down the ice channel as it carved. Then, the vessel unloaded some 499 shipping containers worth of supplies for McMurdo Station, considered the gateway to Antarctica and the supply hub to researchers throughout the continent. As the cargo ship unloaded its freight over 10 days, the Polar Star cruised continuously up and down the passageway it had created, grooming it of ice.
The yearly cargo shipment makes up the majority of supplies for the scientists working in Antarctica, Kutkiewicz said.
It’s a rewarding feeling, she said, to be counted on to supply the outpost.
Many countries are “working together for the betterment of science and mankind. The Coast Guard, we’re on the forefront of that,” she said.
The 43-year-old vessel is long past its expected 30-year service life. Many of the ship’s systems are “nearing obsolescence,” Stanclik said. Some parts must be fabricated by hand because vendors no longer sell them.
“The bones are good,” Stanclik said. “We do surgery. We do some spinal fusions. Systems get tired.”
The crew must be self-reliant, Stanclik said. The vessel carries 14 months worth of food for a skeleton crew, in case the Polar Star becomes stranded in the ice and the crew must winter onboard.
Icebreaking is brutal on a ship. Vibrations shake the vessel as it carves through the ice. Even with shock-mounted equipment, “you’re going to have things that come loose,” Stanclik said.
During this trip, the ship’s power system went down for several hours. A leaking propeller shaft temporarily halted ice breaking. An electrical problem caused smoke and damage to a switchboard.
The Coast Guard is still investigating the cause of the recent fire, which started in a trash-burning incinerator nicknamed “Cinnamon Spice.” The fire became “uncontrollable,” Stanclik said. It took nearly two hours to put the blaze out. Damage was contained to the room with the incinerator inside. Stanclik said the crew performed admirably during the emergency.
“We train so frequently, it becomes second nature,” he said. “No one freaked out.”
Each year, the Polar Star must be pulled out of the water and dry-docked for maintenance and upgrades. Each year, the ship must be rehabilitated. It’s the only option.
“The Coast Guard and crew will keep the ship running until properly relieved,” Stanclik said.
That day might come soon. Congress last month passed legislation that provided the $655 million to construct a new icebreaker vessel, and an additional $20 million to plan a second.
The Polar Star arrived in Seattle at 8:30 a.m., about an hour and a half earlier than scheduled. Family and friends gathered next to the boat with anticipation as the crew made some final preparations. The crew would have about two weeks off. Then, the boat will go into dry dock to prepare for next year’s mission.
Karen Snow had flown from Connecticut to see her son, Graham Carpenter. She’d hauled him out a pair of skis and a batch of chocolate chip cookies she’d baked back home.
“He’s our youngest … he wanted to travel the world. He asked to go far,” she explained. “I can’t wait to see his photographs and hear his stories.”
Tina Ball waited with her two daughters, Ansleigh, 16, and Adalynn, 4.
“I’m super excited to hang out and watch the tears fall — all those happy faces coming off the boat,” said Ball, whose husband, Kevin Ball, is a culinary specialist on the Polar Star. He’d be cooking at home that night. She was already marinating a tri-tip steak.
It had been a tough trip for the family. “This deployment has been a little more difficult with the government shutdown — the uncertainty. The unknown,” she said.
Thousands of Coast Guard members missed regularly scheduled paychecks as a result of the shutdown. Ball said local Coast Guard families pooled together to start food pantries to help one another through.
Soon enough, the polar travelers were reunited with their families.
Carpenter regaled his mother with tales of “an alien land” and his sightings of orcas and Minke whales.
Kevin Ball, wrapped in Adalynn’s embrace, told his daughters about the penguin he’d met.
Kutkiewicz’s 5-month-old son, John, burrowed into his mother’s chest. She hadn’t seen him in months and he’d nearly doubled in size, she said.
“It’s so wonderful,” she said. “He’s smiling now.”
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