Credit: U.S. Coast Guard

The vibrations and salt buildup inside of the evaporators led to a few broken pipes. The engines required constant fine-tuning. Leaks were a regular nuisance. A fuel or oil line would break or a gasket would give away. The piping of two of the fuel tanks cracked, which required engineers to weld them back together. This was life aboard the 40-year-old USCGC Polar Star (WAGB-10), America’s last heavy icebreaker, on its most recent mission, its captain explained to Foxtrot Alpha.

After cutting through 70 miles of snow-covered ice measuring an average of 6 feet thick in Antarctica, the Polar Star homeported in Seattle Friday after trudging her way through a 107-day mission that covered more than 20,000 miles. The mission was under Operation Deep Freeze 2017, the U.S. military’s component of the National Science Foundation managed by the U.S. Antarctic Program.

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Already operating ten years past her expected operational date, the Polar Star cut a channel from Beaufort Island to McMurdo Station in Antarctica. The 150-member crew widened the channel so that it could escort a cargo ship and a fuel ship to deliver a year’s worth of cargo and fuel to the McMurdo and Amundsen-Scott South Pole research stations.

Capt. Michael Davanzo, who assumed command of Polar Star last July, told Foxtrot Alpha that the boat held up remarkably well, considering her age and ongoing mechanical issues. There was an unusual amount of ice this year that forced the crew’s engineers to work 24 hours per day to keep the boat from breaking down.

“The engineers worked really long hours to keep the boat running and making repairs as they came up,” Davanzo said. “If you could imagine living in an earthquake—that’s the only way I can associate it with 24 hours a day and everything rattling and vibrating. Sometimes we would get screws that would fall out from the overhead. Occasionally, a bracket or something would break and damage control men would weld things and make repairs as we’d go.”

The Polar Star moored at McMurdo Ice Pier in 2014. Photo credit U.S. Coast Guard

The engineers basically “nursed the engines” through the trip, Davanzo said. When the boat was on its gas turbines, they required 24-hour care as well. During icebreaking, the challenge was to keep the load balances even between its three shafts so that one didn’t get overworked. The ice pilots had to survey the amount of power and speed exerted while breaking ice and the engineers kept a careful eye on the megawatt output.

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Another issue was the amount of snow cover on the ice. Heavy snow causes a lot of friction and slows the icebreaker’s forward progress. Consequently, that requires more expended power that further stresses already overworked and aged engines and gas turbines. And Davanzo said the crew had to engage in “ingenious engineering” where they cannibalized one of their evaporators to make another one work to maintain water.

“It was an orchestrated team work to make sure we optimized the performance of the cutter,” Davanzo said.

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The captain really can’t say it, but it really was a miracle that that Polar Star returned back from the mission and without getting stuck in ice. He hailed his crew, especially his engineers, for making the mission successful. For a non-nuclear icebreaker 10 years past her prime, she held up extraordinarily well.

When I asked the captain how many more trips she could make like the one he and his crew completed, Davanzo didn’t respond directly, instead saying the boat will enter a maintenance period to address any mechanical issues to prepare it for the following year.

The evaporators are the biggest repair issues at the moment, he said. Without them, the icebreaker can’t make water. And engineers have to make sure the propellers didn’t sustain any damage during its intensive icebreaking over the last three-plus months. But such a plan isn’t ideal.

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Under better circumstances, the Polar Star would rest for a few years before being deployed again (Or, better yet, be retired); However, as the only heavy icebreaker the Coast Guard has, it can’t take a break; she is expected to be put to work again in November, the captain said.

As Foxtrot Alpha has reported, Congress doesn’t seem to see the need for prioritizing icebreakers. The Coast Guard has repeatedly said it needs three heavy and three medium icebreakers to fulfill its operational needs, including rescue mission readiness, lane cutting and other essential duties needed to maintain an active presence in Antarctica and the Arctic Circle.

There are a number of problems with the Coast Guard operating with only one heavy icebreaker that is working past her time. For one, if the Polar Star were to have broken down during the mission, the crew could have been stuck in the middle of the ocean for months until the ice loosened; the crew keeps more than a year of supplies onboard just in case.

The service’s medium icebreaker, the Healy, is a research vessel that was not designed for rescue missions, nor is it built to clear 70 miles of ice like the Polar Star. Another issue is that it puts the U.S. at a geopolitical disadvantage against Russia in the Arctic Circle; Russia boasts more than 40 icebreakers. (We could debate whether Russia actually needs that many icebreakers, but that is another post for another time).

Put it this way: asking the Polar Star to carry out another mission is like driving a well-maintained 1970s hooptie from New York across country and expecting it not to break down on you in Iowa. It’s a hell of a gamble. The Coast Guard stands to suffer a 14 percent cut under President Donald Trump’s proposed budget, another slap in the face of arguably America’s most under-appreciate service.

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That isn’t a good sign for a Coast Guard that is in urgent need for new icebreakers. Davanzo praised his crew’s efforts throughout our conversation. Indeed, the engineers are surely top rate and doing their jobs. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear Congress will do theirs and fund the Coast Guard’s icebreaker needs.