After Pandemic Hiatus, America's Only Heavy Coast Guard Icebreaker Returning to Antarctica

The Coast Guard Ice Breaker Polar Star working the ice channel
The Coast Guard Ice Breaker Polar Star (WAGB 10) working the ice channel near McMurdo, Antarctica. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Rob Rothway)

The nation's sole heavy icebreaker will leave for Antarctica on Saturday, returning to the region after a break for the global COVID-19 pandemic.

The Coast Guard cutter Polar Star, homeported in Seattle, Washington, will support Operation Deep Freeze -- the annual effort to reach and resupply U.S. scientists at McMurdo Station on Ross Island in Antarctica.

The four-month mission was called off last year out of health and safety concerns during the coronavirus crisis.

"This was before the vaccine was available, and the National Science Foundation was very focused on not introducing the virus to the community down there," explained the Polar Star's commanding officer, Capt. William Woityra, during a call with on Friday. "All the resupply was done by what they call 'air-bridging,' doing it via aircraft."

For the mission, the Polar Star crew anticipates having to slice through 45 miles of ice to reach McMurdo's pier, where they will offload a full year's worth of cargo and fuel.

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The ship will carry a team of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists on board who will survey McMurdo's Winter Quarters Bay and also test a hydroponic garden system to see whether crew members can grow fruits and vegetables aboard the ship, according to Woityra.

With the McMurdo mission canceled last year, the Polar Star crew of 134 deployed instead to the Arctic for a show of American presence in the region, as well as to test communications equipment and conduct training exercises.

The mission was the first time a Coast Guard cutter had traveled north of the Arctic Circle during the winter in nearly 40 years.

To prepare for this year's Antarctica mission, the 46-year old vessel has been in drydock, part of a service-life extension project designed to make it last another decade as the Coast Guard builds the first of three new heavy icebreakers under the Polar Security Cutter program.

Some of the ship's systems are new, and some are refurbished and repurposed from Polar Star's sister vessel, Polar Sea, kept in drydock for donor parts.

This year, when Polar Star suffered a "major casualty" of its emergency generator -- "it spun out of control and basically ate itself," Woityra said -- Polar Sea supplied the replacement, a system that otherwise would have taken 18 months to fabricate.

"We sent it out to be cleaned and refurbished, and now it's good to go," Woityra said.

VT Halter Marine in Pascagoula, Mississippi, was selected to build the first Polar Security Cutter, with construction expected to begin this year. The first of the $745 million, 460-foot vessels is expected to be delivered in 2024.

Meanwhile, Woityra's crew will work to ensure that Polar Star can carry on the McMurdo resupply mission for at least the next three years. It's not an easy task, the commanding officer said, considering the age of the vessel and its parts.

In 2019, Polar Star had a fire onboard during Operation Deep Freeze -- a blaze in the garbage incinerator that took the crew two hours to put out. The incinerator was destroyed, but the crew managed to keep the fire from spreading.

But with many of the systems, including the incinerator, having been upgraded, Woityra said the ship is in better shape "than it's been in a decade."

The crew getting underway is 100% vaccinated against COVID-19 and has been since May. More than half are new to the ship, and fewer than one-third have ever made the trip to Antarctica.

Many of the 42 "non-rates" -- Coast Guard members who have not yet gone to a school for a professional specialty -- postponed applying to school so they could make the trip.

This will be Woityra's fifth journey to Antarctica and, likely, his last.

"I'm going to be taking it all in and really enjoying it. And knowing that for my last trip, it will be, for a huge portion of my crew, a first trip, I'm planning to really share this and celebrate with them," Woityra said.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

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