What Keeps the Coast Guard Awake at Night

Published Sep 17, 2015 10:39 PM by Wendy Laursen

Gary Rasicot, the Coast Guard's director of marine transportation systems, told reporters at the recent GLACIER conference that Crystal Cruises’ Serenity keeps him awake at night.

In August next year, Crystal Serenity will sail from Alaska, through the Canadian Arctic to Greenland and then New York with 1,050 guests and 650 crew members on board. 

Alaska Dispatch News quotes Rasicot saying: “As a Coast Guardsman, I don’t want a repeat of the Titanic, and we need to make sure that we think this through,” he said. “I want to make sure that those 1,700 people, when they lay their head on the pillow at night, they’ll be rest assured that if something bad happens we’ll be able to respond.”

For Rear Admiral Daniel Abel, U.S. Coast Guard – 17th District Commander, also speaking at GLACIER, it’s the Coast Guard Cutter Healy’s current mission to the North Pole that keeps him awake.

The vessel is there on her own in a hostile area, he says, there is no buddy system for her and “there’s nothing with a U.S. flag that is going to come save her” if difficulties arise.

Vice Commandant of the Coast Guard, Charles D. Michel, answered questions with Abel at the event, and he spoke of the need for cooperation in the face of Arctic challenges. 

“The Coast Guard really is a bureaucratically agile agency and has always existed in a partnership type format, even down in the Lower 48, but it becomes increasingly important here in the Arctic and Alaska because of the great distances involved, the weather associated with this, the tremendous logistics, communications, navigation challenges that are necessary. Virtually everything up here is done by partnership,” he says. “The Coast Guard can do almost none of this on its own.”

Answering concerns from the floor, Michel highlighted general recognition for the need for more U.S. icebreakers. Russia has over 40 heavy or medium or heavy icebreakers, yet the U.S. has a fleet of three, with one broken, he said. 

“The bottom line is, if you want to provide global access seven by 24 to ice covered regions, you’ve got to have icebreakers. Other nations of the world understand that. The United States has always understood our need to access these regions for either pollution response, search and rescue national security reasons.”

“That fleet demands serious recapitalization,” says Michel. However, in the case of building U.S. icebreaker capacity, co-operation is being hampered by cross-agency need with a number of U.S. agencies being users of icebreakers that are essentially a billion dollar national asset. It’s a difficult problem for Washington, he says, citing cross-committee and cross-agency bureaucracy.

The U.S. has not built an icebreaker since the Polar Sea and Polar Star in the 1970s. Michel says the industry required to shape the unique steel used in icebreakers’ hulls has atrophied. “We are going to have to rebuild this,” he said.

It usually takes up to 10 years to build an icebreaker, and on his way to GLACIER, President Barack Obama proposed a faster timetable for buying a new heavy icebreaker for the U.S. Arctic. In the first step of Obama's new timetable, the government would buy a heavy icebreaker by 2020 instead of the previous goal of 2022.

Meanwhile, the Healy continues on its mission GEOTRACES to study trace elements in the Arctic Ocean, and Crystal Cruises has a waiting list of over 700 people wanting to get on to the already-booked-out Serenity cruise.