America’s Only Heavy Icebreaker Soldiers On Through Antarctic Mission

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05-Apr-2024

The U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star has returned from her annual voyage to Antarctica, completing a 138-day mission to clear a channel to America’s main research station on the frozen continent. The yearly “Operation Deep Freeze” breakout is typically Polar Star’s sole assignment, and the aging vessel returns to shipyard each year after completing it. 

Polar Star traveled nearly 28,000 miles this time, transiting through parts of four oceans and calling in four continents. As in years past, the crew dealt with maintenance contingencies under way, including dive operations to fix a leaking shaft seal in freezing conditions. They broke out a 38-mile-long channel to McMurdo Station and escorted three merchant ships to the temporary pier, enabling delivery of 215,000 barrels of fuel and 36,000 tonnes of supplies for the National Science Foundation base. 

Divers and damage control personnel work on repairing a leaking shaft seal under way, January 2024 (USCG)

“The successful completion of this mission stands as a testament to the relentless commitment and selflessness exhibited by our crew,” said Capt. Keith Ropella, Polar Star’s commanding officer. “Despite adverse weather, difficult ice, and formidable mechanical challenges, the crew of Polar Star not only achieved their mission but did so with remarkable expertise and teamwork.”

Polar Star escorts a merchant ship through the ice to McMurdo Station, January 2024 (USCG)

Polar Star has returned to Mare Island Drydock in California for her next round of repair and refit work. The projects this year include replacement of aging machinery control systems and “significant maintenance” to extend the vessel’s service life, the Coast Guard said in a statement.

The nation’s only functioning heavy icebreaker is 48 years old this year, and the Congressional Research Service believes that her replacement will likely deliver in 2028 at the earliest – at which point Polar Star will be 52. The class was originally designed for a 30-year service lifetime.

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