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On return trek from the Arctic, heavy ice breaker stops in Juneau

Juneauites tour the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star Saturday afternoon

Posted: August 4, 2013 - 12:10am
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Executive Officer Kenneth Boda served as a Deck Watch Officer aboard USCGC Polar Sea from 1997 to1999 before returning to the ship as second in command last May.  Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
Executive Officer Kenneth Boda served as a Deck Watch Officer aboard USCGC Polar Sea from 1997 to1999 before returning to the ship as second in command last May.

Docks in downtown Juneau are usually reserved for cruise ships in the summer time, but on Friday evening one of the two U.S. Coast Guard polar class heavy icebreakers cruised the Gastineau Channel and tied up at AJ Dock just behind the Carnival Miracle.

The 399-foot long, 83-foot wide Polar Star lowered its gangway on Saturday afternoon for public tours, allowing hundreds of locals to explore the ship’s bridge, flight deck and hangar.

“I mean, cruise ships, I see ‘em seven days a week,” said Darvin Nelson, a security and maintenance worker at the dock who toured the vessel on his day off. “So it’s kind of cool to see this one.”

The red-hulled cutter, which can breakthrough up to 24 feet of solid ice, stopped in Juneau on its return trip home to Seattle from the Arctic where it completed a month-and-a-half long ‘ice trial.’ It had been laid up at a Washington shipyard since 2006 and was overhauled with new diesel engines, turbines and hydraulics that control speed and direction.

Commanding Officer George Pellissier said the purpose of the trial was to test the new systems and train the 136 crew members, 117 of whom had never been to the Arctic since only one Coast Guard icebreaker has been in commission for the past six years. (The other heavy icebreaker and sister ship Polar Sea had engine issues in 2007, which left only the medium icebreaker Healy operational.)

“It was purely ‘train the crew’ and basically beat on the ship as much as we can — it pains me to say that — and see what worked and what didn’t,” Pellissier said.

The Polar Star successfully completed two sea trials in Seattle in January and March, then embarked for the Arctic on June 18. It traveled north past Barrow, traversing thick “rubble” ice fields, ice piled on top of itself, some 12 to 14 feet deep, until they were just 480 miles shy of the North Pole. There, the ice is actually mostly thinner “first year” ice about six feet deep or less. The cutter has the ability to continuously break through six feet of ice while traveling at six knots.

After three weeks of actively breaking ice, the crew began the trip home, stopping in Barrow and Nome on the way home.

The pit stop in Juneau gave the crew a break and a chance to see Southeast Alaska, such as Seaman Collette Riddle, a 19-year-old Coast Guard member from Lewiston, Idaho, who said she joined the Coast Guard in January because she was feeling adventurous.

“I wanted to go and see different things that weren’t in Lewiston,” she laughed, saying she thinks this trip has accomplished that. “Been to the Arctic Circle now.”

Others have been here before, like Petty Officer Third Class Joshua Arce, 29, an electronics technician.

“Once on the (Coast Guard Cutter) Bertholf,” he said, then pointed toward the Franklin Street docks. “Once on that cruise ship right there.”

Pellissier said the second reason for stopping in the capital city was to give the Rear Admiral Thomas P. Ostebo, the commander of District 17, a chance to show off the ship. A private reception was held late Saturday afternoon on the flight deck after the public tours.

In an interview on board the Star, Pellissier said the ice trial went even better than he expected. He said he believes the improved systems will make the vessel more reliable and safer. Only minor changes are needed from here, and he compiled a “laundry list” of fix-it tasks that need to be completed, he said.

“Much better than I actually had even hoped,” he said. “The ship performed remarkably well.”

Upon its return to Seattle, it’s back to shipyard for more “rehab” which, in addition to the captain’s laundry list, will include a refurbished flight deck and removal of asbestos in the panels of the bridge.

It will resume its two primary missions once sea-ready: resupplying the U.S. military base McMurdo Station in Antarctica and the South Pole Station (it breaks a channel through the sea ice and escorts a tanker ship in with fuel and a container ship with food and supplies), and supporting science missions in the Arctic.

Its first mission back will be to Antarctica next year, said the ship’s executive officer Kenneth Boda. “Deep Freeze 2014,” is the mission’s name, Boda said.

The Polar Star was placed in “caretaker” status seven years ago despite being in good work condition. The captain said the Coast Guard didn’t have the funding to run both heavy icebreakers, but that Congress agreed to provide the money for the upgrades while it was laid off. However, due to the Polar Sea’s engine problems in 2007, that meant no heavy breakers have been on the water recently.

“We’ve been a long time without a heavy icebreaker,” Pellissier said. “It’s good to be back.”

The ship will be leaving Juneau on Sunday by 9 a.m., he said.

“We pulled in late yesterday after the Disney ship left,” he said, “and then tomorrow morning there’s another cruise ship that wants our spot.”

• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at emily.miller@juneauempire.com.

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