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Coast Guard captain Uchytil retires from 'deep freezes' and 'ice liberties'

Polar opposites attracted sailor to career at sea

Posted: May 29, 2011 - 8:33pm
U.S. Coast Guard 17th District Rear Adm. Thomas P. Ostebo, left, Capt. Carl J. Uchytil and his son Ensign Nicholas Herndon, foreground, salute during Uchytil's retirement Friday at the Juneau Arts & Culture Center. Uchytil retires after 31 years while Herndon begins his career on the same vessel and with the same position Uchytil held on board.   Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire
Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire
U.S. Coast Guard 17th District Rear Adm. Thomas P. Ostebo, left, Capt. Carl J. Uchytil and his son Ensign Nicholas Herndon, foreground, salute during Uchytil's retirement Friday at the Juneau Arts & Culture Center. Uchytil retires after 31 years while Herndon begins his career on the same vessel and with the same position Uchytil held on board.

Somehow on the dry plains of Iowa, in the small town of Toledo, in a family of little means, a young lad playing football, basketball, baseball, cross-country and track found a calling on the water.

“I don’t know what prompted me,” retiring U.S. Coast Guard 17th District Capt. Carl J. Uchytil said. “The flyers I saw said they did everything, saved lives, put out fires, busted druggies, I couldn’t figure out why everybody didn’t want to be in the Coast Guard. I was just a kid looking for adventure 30 years ago.”

Uchytil was honored in a Coast Guard D17 Retirement Ceremony on Friday at the Juneau Arts & Culture Center.

“I had never seen the ocean before,” Uchytil said of his early years. “I had never seen a Coast Guard unit before. The first time I had ever been in an airplane was on my way to the academy. I had never ventured two states away from Iowa.”

An Iowan cousin told friends Uchytil had joined the “Post Card” Academy.

“I didn’t know then that there are Coast Guard units, river tenders, on the Mississippi River,” Uchytil said. “At Dubuque and Keokuk, Iowa, and Omaha, Nebraska.”

Uchytil would show he had an attraction to water, frozen or otherwise, first by captaining the lightweight crew team at the academy, then graduating in 1984 with a bachelor’s degree in marine science and being assigned to the 399-foot Coast Guard cutter Polar Sea as a deck watch and navigation officer.

Uchytil reflected that, while during academy swab summer on board the cutter Eagle sailing for a week, he was reprimanded by Lt. Robert Papp, now Adm. Papp, and was threatened with being expelled.

“I just remember being a knucklehead, trying to get by and get through,” Uchytil said of his first days. “Kids coming out of boot camp today are more motivated, better educated and more professional, I am thankful that I got employment 31 years ago. Every day had been an adventure for me in the Coast Guard, that has not been a disappointment.”

In fact, men like Uchytil laid the groundwork for future service. In 1985, the Polar Sea completed a historic first solo circumnavigation transit around the North American continent.

This was during the Reagan years and Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi still boasted his “line of death” that would invite military response if vessels crossed through the Gulf of Sidra midway between the 32nd and 33rd parallels — 130 miles off the Libyan coast.

“I was supposed to go to Antarctica that summer,” Uchytil said. “Instead we went to support and resupply our Air Force base in Thule, Greenland, break them out of the ice.”

The Polar Sea left Seattle, went through the Panama Canal, up the east coast, stopped in Halifax, and dropped anchor for 30 days off Thule, as there was no ice to break.

They then went through the Canadian waters of the Northwest Passage under strict orders not to drop one single cigarette butt overboard lest they anger them as well. Canadian aircraft flew overhead dropping leaflets asking that they respect the sovereignty of Canada and turn around and go back.

“But we saw huge multi-year ice,” Uchytil said. “We were breaking ice 40-feet thick.”

Uchytil said captains of Coast Guard vessels in the Antarctic or high Arctic will stop the ship and grant “ice liberty.” The crew would go out and play flag football or soccer on the ice, or fly kites or ride bikes. “In Antarctica, the Penguins would come right in and think they were part of the games. It was a National Geographic day everyday we were under way,” Uchytil said.

Executive Officer Uchytil was next assigned to the 269-foot cutter Westwind in 1987, home ported in Mobile, Ala. From 1987-89, Lt. j.g. Uchytil served on the 270-foot cutter Tahoma homeported in New Bedford, Mass. As the communications officer he was involved in counter drug interdictions in the Caribbean. Their first bust was a German boat builder’s large sailboat and Uchytil and a boarding buddy found 140 kilograms of cocaine.

Uchytil next attended the University of Rhode Island, receiving a Masters of Science degree in ocean engineering.

From 1991-95 Lt. Uchytil served at Civil Engineering Unit — Miami and was responsible for aids-to-navigation construction and lighthouse maintenance for the Southeast United States and the Caribbean. This was also where he met Maria Elena Salguerio in 1993, a civilian working for the Coast Guard, and the two were married in 1995. They moved to Seattle as Lt. Cmdr. Uchytil was assigned to the 399-foot Coast Guard cutter Polar Star as operations officer in 1995-97, continuing missions in some of the most inhospitable climate regions of the world, including his first “Operation Deep Freeze” as missions to Antarctica were called.

“They are polar opposites,” Uchytil said. “Antarctica is a continent surrounded by water, the Arctic is water surrounded by a continent. The ice, animals and landscape are different. The types of ice are different. I remember one trip watching a polar bear sitting for several hours over a seal hole in the ice, his paw over his nose to cover his breath, and he did catch a seal.”

Uchytil received orders to Facilities Design Construction Center — Pacific in Seattle in 1997 where he served as a project manager for major construction projects and later as Chief, Planning and Management Division until 2002. Duties included recapitalizing the Long Range Aids to Navigation Stations throughout Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.

“They looked like Frankenstein’s laboratory inside,” Uchytil laughed. “All these tubes and water boiling … if you took an incandescent light and held it up it would light up because of all the juice in the facility. The Coast Guard had since pulled the plug on LORANS.”

From 2002-04 Cmdr. Uchytil was executive officer on the Polar Sea in back-to-back “deep freezes.”

“Only three percent of Antarctica is land exposed,” Uchytil said. “At the south pole you have two-mile-thick ice. The U.S. has a station there but it takes two miles to get there.”

In 2001, ice 120-miles long and 40-miles wide calved off from the mass and disrupted water flow in Ross Sound, nearly trapping the Polar Sea as it was breaking ice to get a container ship and tanker into ice station McMurdo.

In 2004 he served at Coast Guard Headquarters, Washington, D.C. as Deputy Chief Office of Cutter Forces until 2006 and was instrumental in cutter policy and sustainment resource issues.

Uchytil is the only Coast Guard officer to have had a tour as junior, operations, executive and commanding officer on the two polar icebreakers.

“It has been my career,” Uchytil said.

Uchytil and Maria, son Carl, 15, and daughter Claire, 12, will reside in the capital city.

“Beside the natural beauty of Alaska, I love the fact that it has just one area code and that if you fly on a semi-regular basis you’ll end up sitting next to the governor in coach class on some flight, Uchytil said. “I like that Claire’s 12-year-old girlfriends go out big-game hunting. I like to follow the official Alaska sport of dog mushing. I like that practically everyone who lives in Alaska wants to be here.”

Uchytil’s daughter Dana, 23, is a college student in Florida and his son Nicholas, 23, graduated from the Coast Guard Academy on May 11. Both attended the ceremonies. Nicholas will begin his first appointment on the same vessel (Tahoma) with same title (communications officer) as his father.

“My dad never pushed the Coast Guard,” Nicholas said. “But I guess the Coast Guard had plans for me I didn’t know about. It is something I will cherish. He had a great career and I can only aspire to accomplish half of what he did in the Coast Guard. He will always be a resource I can talk to.”

Said Uchytil jokingly, “My son will have nothing to do, I left that ship operating so precisely I am sure they are following the same procedures I established 25 years ago.”

Uchytil was told that the smartest thing he ever did was marry his wife, and the second smartest was to marry into a family where he didn’t speak the language. Maria has a Cuban background and her family now lives in Miami.

“It’s an emotional time and I am so happy,” Maria said. “After 31 years I get my husband back, but being part of his service has been very special for me.”

• Contact reporter Klas Stolpe at 523-2263 or at klas.stolpe@juneauempire.com.

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