Switching Poles, USCG's Heavy Icebreaker Heads North for the Winter

polar star
Polar Star in Seattle's harbor (USCG file image)

Published Oct 29, 2020 7:42 PM by The Maritime Executive

In a departure from her standard operating pattern, the U.S. Coast Guard heavy icebreaker Polar Star will spend the winter in the Arctic this year. The vessel is typically used for the McMurdo Station resupply mission to Antarctica each southern summer, then returns to shipyard at her home port of Seattle, Washington for repairs. However, this year’s maritime resupply at McMurdo Station was cancelled due to COVID safety precautions, the service said, and a limited resupply will be conducted via aircraft - leaving Polar Star available to travel north instead. 

The redeployment decision comes about two months after the medium icebreaker Healy suffered a fire off Seward, Alaska. The Healy lost her starboard side propulsion, and she had to reverse course and return to Seattle for repairs. The restoration work is expected to be extensive, including the replacement of her starboard side propulsion motor. 

The Coast Guard only has two operational icebreakers, Healy and Polar Star. With Healy sidelined, the Coast Guard was forced to temporarily suspend its Arctic surface patrols, leaving it with a reduced presence in a strategic region. The deployment of Polar Star provides a means for the service to resume its operations. 

“The Arctic is no longer an emerging frontier, but is instead a region of growing national importance,” said Vice Adm. Linda Fagan, commander of U.S. Coast Guard Pacific Area. “The Coast Guard is committed to protecting U.S. sovereignty and working with our partners to uphold a safe, secure, and rules-based Arctic.”

The USCG recently placed an order with VT Halter Marine for the first in a series of up to three new Polar Security Cutters, derived from a design for the proposed German icebreaker Polarstern II. These replacement ships should be capable of breaking through pressure ridges up to 21 feet thick, according to the design specification. Construction is set to begin on the first hull early next year for delivery in 2024. 

Like Healy and Polar Star, the Polar Security Cutters will be homeported in Seattle, the closest major port in the Lower 48 states to Arctic waters.