On Thursday, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft visited the Coast Guard heavy icebreaker Polar Star at dry dock at Vigor Shipyard in Seattle, where he commended her crew for their efforts in two recent Antarctic deployments. During that time, the crew successfully responded to four general emergencies – three fires and one major lube oil leak – on the forty-year-old vessel.
Adm. Zukunft recognized three servicemembers in particular for exceptional performance of their duties. In January, the Star suffered catastrophic damage to a thrust bearing bracket while she was operating in six to eight foot thick ice in Antarctica. The thrust bearing bracket is a series of heavy beams that hold up the Star's shafts; Petty Officer 3rd Class Augustin Foguet and Seaman Manon Mullen went into cramped, confined workspaces to safely weld the structure back together, a task that took 36 hours.
In December, Petty Officer First Class Kevin Oakes, an electrician's mate on the Star, came up with the idea to use a surfboard repair kit to fix one of the vessel's 40-year-old generators, which had shorted out and begun smoking. No parts were immediately available to get the generator back up in time for the vessel to deploy on her next mission – so Oakes, after some online research, found a way to use a shipmate's surfboard repair kit to fabricate a new component for the unit.
Polar Star is the United States' sole operational heavy icebreaker, and the USCG estimates that she has five to seven years of useful life remaining before a thorough refit will be required. In congressional testimony earlier this week, U.S. Coast Guard vice commandant Adm. Charles D. Michel said that the Star presently spends about half the year at sea and half the year in shipyard for repairs.
The USCG estimates a need for three heavy and three medium icebreakers to adequately meet mission demands in the high latitudes. The agency has requested $150 million for lead work for designing and building at least one replacement vessel in its FY2017 budget; several senators have announced that this year's appropriation could exceed that amount.
By comparison to the present or envisioned U.S. capacity, Russia operates dozens of ocean-going icebreakers, and is already in the process of recapitalizing its fleet. On Thursday, Russia's United Shipbuilding Corporation launched the hull of what will be the world's largest and most powerful icebreaker, the $2 billion, nuclear-powered Arktika. She is the third icebreaker that USC has sent down the ways in the last six months.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.