Polar Star Headed for Icy Reception

Water Ways
Honolulu Star Bulletin (11/22/97)
By Ray Pendleton

"Notice, Honolulu Harbor has an ice-free channel," Coast Guard Captain Charles Lancaster said with a laugh.

He was responding to my question regarding the reason for the incongruous visit of his ship - the bright orange, 400-foot-long icebreaker Polar Star - to Hawaii's warm waters.

"Actually, we stopped here on our way to Antarctica to conduct some train-the-trainer exercises with Navy personnel," Lancaster continued. "Our drills involve emergency engineering problems such as fire and flooding.

"Because we have to be at the ice edge of Antarctica's Ross Sea by December 26, we'll be leaving here soon."

One of two Coast Guard icebreakers, Polar Star will have a variety of missions during her two-month deployment to Antarctica. Her primary assignment will be to break an approximately 16-mile channel through four- to six-foot-thick sea ice to McMurdo Station, an American research base. Supply ships will then use the channel during the short Antarctic summer to bring in food, fuel and other necessities to the station for the following year.

Polar Star also serves as a scientific research platform. There are five on-board laboratories and accommodations for up to 20 scientists.

The scientists' research studies include geology, oceanography, sea ice physics, and several other disciplines. They conduct experiments to determine the makeup of the sea floor structure and sediments, sea ice formation and flow patterns, and water column structure and circulation.

One of Polar Star's newest of 126 crewmen, Seaman Josh Grable of Bellingham, Washington, was assigned to escort me on a tour of the ship. Fresh out of boot camp, he was excited about making his first ocean voyage and brimming with knowledge about his vessel.

"She and her sister ship Polar Sea were commissioned in 1976 and are home-ported in Seattle, Washington," Grable told me. "They are the only polar icebreakers in our American fleet, but another one is currently under construction.

"Polar Star's three 16-foot propellers are powered by either gas turbines or diesel electric motors, depending on needs and conditions," Grable said. "In open water, we can make about 17 knots."

In ice breaking situations, the 13,000-ton Polar Star's speed is a different matter.

"She can maintain about three knots while breaking through ice up to six feet thick," Grable said. "In thicker ice - up to about 21 feet - she's slower because she rides up on the ice and then breaks through using weight and her forward momentum."

"To prevent Polar Star from getting stuck in the ice," Grable added, "we have pumps that can transfer the contents of tanks on either side of the ship in less than a minute. It can really get the ship to rolling back and forth."

To help maintain the crew's morale during their long and often strenuous voyage, there are many features aboard Polar Star not usually associated with Coast Guard cutters. The amenities include four lounges, a library, a gym, a video movie theater, an official U.S. post office, satellite pay phones and even a Starbuck's Coffee kiosk.

The one amenity that I will bet becomes the most sought-after, once Polar Star arrives in icy Antarctica, is located in what the crew calls their "gravity-free zone" - or forward gym - where the rise and fall of the ship's bow can suddenly send one airborne. In a small, boxed-in corner stands an inconspicuous door marked "sauna."

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