Between the Southern Ocean and McMurdo Antarctic Research Station there lies the Ross Ice Shelf. During the months of December and January, the time when America sends the most supplies by boat to the research station, there is about 27 kilometers of ice in between the station, and the edge of the ice shelf. This ice can be over three meters thick.
Surprisingly, the US Coast Guard currently has only one operational ship that is able to break through ice of that thickness. This ship is called the Polar Star and, after 43 years, it is in rough shape. It lists to the left, its hull is covered in dents and scratches, and every year when it makes its journey from Seattle to Antarctica, engines fail, seals break, and pipes clog.
“She’s an old beast, and you gotta know how to run her,” says crewman Joseph Sellar. “You can’t just turn the key.”
The Polar Star was retired in 2006 and replaced with its sister ship, the Polar Sea, but in 2011 the Polar Sea had a major engine failure and was taken out of service. Being the only available ship able to do the job, the Polar Star was put back into use. Although the ship was thoroughly repaired, the Polar Star’s five years of inactivity took an irreversible toll on it.
The icebreaker was about 1,600 kilometers into its most recent voyage when a large wave hit the bow and flooded the deck. The water from the flood destroyed the oven, subjecting the crew to a week of cold cuts before it could be replaced at the ship’s first re-supplying stop in Honolulu. Along with this, the port propeller malfunctioned and quit two days after the first incident so the Polar Star had to use a massive turbine, which is usually reserved for icebreaking, to get the rest of the way to Honolulu where it could be repaired.
These were not the only problems the ship experienced. A day after departing from Honolulu, the Polar Star’s desalination unit quit, preventing the crew from doing laundry and limiting their showers.
The next major problem happened about one month, and 16,000 kilometers later. The ship had just reached the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf and begun plowing slowly through the thick ice. Every once in a while, the ship had to back up and plow forward again to get through an especially thick patch of ice. The crew in the bridge wore dark sunglasses to see through the glaring sunlight, which was intensified by the expanse of white snow reflecting it, and that shined bright 24 hours a day.
The problem occurred when a filling broke, allowing seawater to flow into the compartment housing the main propeller shaft. If this was not fixed quickly, the main propeller would stop working and ice would freeze around the ship, trapping it in its place. A portable pump was placed in the compartment to slow the rising water, while two navy divers were sent to temporarily seal the hull from the outside.
Being wary of a nearby pod of orcas, the divers descended nine meters below the water’s surface and bound the leaking propeller shaft with rubber mats, which were wrapped and sealed with thick plastic wrap. This succeeded to slow the stream of water to a trickle.
Now the fitting needed to be replaced. Chief engineer Brad Jopling and an assistant crawled into the cramped compartment and crouched in the freezing water. They removed the old steel fitting, which was incorrectly added during a previous repair, and inserted the proper corrosion resistant copper nickel fitting. After being delayed over 30 hours, the Polar Star could finally continue moving.
“If you don’t mind, it don’t matter,” Jopling often said.
Over the next week and a half, the bars that stabilized the propeller shafts broke so many times that the engineers ran out of the 20 centimeter bolts needed to repair them. The crew had to radio McMurdo to send more by helicopter, which landed on the ice nearby, since the Polar Star’s helipad was no longer certified for landings. Then Jopling was lowered onto the ice by crane to walk out and retrieve them.
After the long ordeal, the Polar Star finally arrived at McMurdo on January 24th. At the docs, workers unloaded several tons of food and many supplies for the researchers. During the winter months, the period when the ship arrived, the base is flocking with over 1,000 researchers, but during the summer months the population of the base drops to under 100 due to the 24 hour darkness. Most of the researchers arrive at the base by plane, but a lot of the heavier supplies need to be transported by ship. Being the only ship able to reach McMurdo on its own, the Polar Star has to transport a fair amount of these supplies.
After staying two weeks at McMurdo, the Polar Star began its long trek back, this time clearing a path through the ice for a large freighter called the Ocean Giant, which stayed just 150 meters behind so the space in between them wouldn’t freeze over.
The last major technicality of the voyage occurred on February 11th when the incinerator caught on fire. After hearing a loud boom and the alarm going off, damage control officer, Courtney Will, ran to the damage control lockers, put on a fire fighting suit, and rushed up to the incinerator room with two other crewmembers.
Newer ships have remote activated sprinkler systems to put out fires, but not the Polar Star. Will and her two assistants had to manually fight the fire by hose for two hours before it finally went out.
On March 11th, the Polar Star finally reached Seattle and was loaded onto a drydock for repairs. Every year after the ship returns to its port, workers spend five months meticulously repairing the damages that happened along the journey. The workers often have to scour eBay for discontinued replacement parts.
This voyage may be one of the Polar Star’s last. On March 15th, the Coast Guard finally announced that they received funding to build another heavy icebreaker, and that it would be finished by 2024. After its many years of service this worn down ship may finally be retired.