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Exploring the World’s Most Powerful Icebreaker – The Jet Engine-Powered US Coast Guard Cutter “Polar Star”

primary_uscg_smAfter an excellent season working at WAIS Divide, my team and I returned to McMurdo to wrap up a bit of administrative items, finalizing this season’s shipping, and pack everything up for redeployment to New Zealand. Luckily, during those few days at McMurdo the US Coast Guard Cutter “Polar Star” came into port, cutting the way for the resupply and refueling ships to come.

From US Coast Guard:

USCGC-Polar-Star-WAGB-10-PatchUSCGC POLAR STAR (WAGB-10) is a United States Coast Guard Heavy Icebreaker. Commissioned in 1976, the ship was built by Lockheed Shipbuilding and Construction Company of Seattle, Washington along with her sister ship, POLAR SEA (WAGB-11).POLAR STAR is one of the largest ships in the US Coast Guard and one of the world’s most powerful non-nuclear ships. The POLAR STAR is home ported in Seattle, Washington.

A few snippets from Wikipedia:

Polar Star uses four different methods of electronic navigation to overcome the difficulties of high-latitude operations, and a computerized propulsion control system to effectively manage six diesel-powered propulsion generators, three diesel-powered ship’s service generators, three propulsion gas turbines, and other equipment vital to the smooth operation of the ship.

Polar Star’s three shafts are turned by either a diesel-electric or gas turbine power plant.[disambiguation needed] Each shaft is connected to a 16-foot (4.9 m) diameter, four-bladed, controllable-pitch propeller. The diesel-electric plant can produce 18,000 shaft horsepower (13 MW), and the gas turbine plant a total of 75,000 shaft horsepower (56 MW).

With such a sturdy hull and high power to back it up, the 13,000-ton (13,200 metric ton) Polar Star is able to break through ice up to 21 feet (6.4 m) thick by backing and ramming, and can steam continuously through 6 feet (1.8 m) of ice at 3 knots (6 km/h).

Polar Star has a variety of missions while operating in polar regions. During Antarctic deployments, the primary missions include breaking a channel through the sea ice to resupply the McMurdo Research Station in the Ross Sea. Resupply ships use the channel to bring food, fuel, and other goods to make it through another winter. In addition to these duties, Polar Star also serves as a scientific research platform with five laboratories and accommodations for up to 20 scientists. The “J”-shaped cranes and work areas near the stern and port side of ship give scientists the capability to do at-sea studies in the fields of geology, vulcanology, oceanography, sea-ice physics, and other disciplines.

Here’s a compilation of time lapse videos I made of the Polar Star cutting its channel to allow the “Ocean Giant” cargo ship in.

I was fortunate enough to be able to take a few tours of the ship:

At the end of January, once I had returned back to McMurdo after a few weeks at WAIS, I notice the US Coast Guard Ice Breaker "Polar Star" cutting its way through the ice to McMurdo.
At the end of January, once I had returned back to McMurdo after a few weeks at WAIS, I notice the US Coast Guard Ice Breaker “Polar Star” cutting its way through the ice to McMurdo.
The Polar Star was in port for a few days, and designated an afternoon to give tours to USAP members. What a great opportunity! I was on the first tour, and ended up going through the ship a few times.
The Polar Star was in port for a few days, and designated an afternoon to give tours to USAP members. What a great opportunity! I was on the first tour, and ended up going through the ship a few times.
Walking across the McMurdo Ice Pier to the gangway, you get a sense of the scale of the ship.
Walking across the McMurdo Ice Pier to the gangway, you get a sense of the scale of the ship.
Requisite shot on the stern, with the flag.
Requisite shot on the stern, with the flag.
The aircraft deck and hangar. There are no aircraft on the Polar Star anymore, and the hangar is used for storage, staging, and recreation.
The aircraft deck and hangar. There are no aircraft on the Polar Star anymore, and the hangar is used for storage, staging, and recreation.

DSC02798-2015-01-25 USCC Polar Star-Donenfeld-1920-WM

DSC02799-2015-01-25 USCC Polar Star-Donenfeld-1920-WM

Looking aft off the starboard side, the ice slowly refreezes.
Looking aft off the starboard side, the ice slowly refreezes.
Looking aft from the bow.
Looking aft from the bow.
On the brige.
On the brige.
Me at the helm. Since all steering is electronically controlled, and can be done from various points on the ship, the main helm is strangely small! I swear, the size of the helm is not proportional to the might of the ship.
Me at the helm. Since all steering is electronically controlled, and can be done from various points on the ship, the main helm is strangely small! I swear, the size of the helm is not proportional to the might of the ship.
Looking aft from the bridge deck.
Looking aft from the bridge deck.
The modern electronic Engine Order Telegraph. Since the ship was docked and the controls were locked out, it was fun to move the lever and watch them automatically reset to zero.
The modern electronic Engine Order Telegraph. Since the ship was docked and the controls were locked out, it was fun to move the lever and watch them automatically reset to zero.
Dining on the Polar Star
Dining on the Polar Star
After my second tour, I started talking with one of the engineers, and was invited below deck for a tour of the three jet turbines which provide the incredible thrust to break through ice.
After my second tour, I started talking with one of the engineers, and was invited below deck for a tour of the three jet turbines which provide the incredible thrust to break through ice.
One of the three massive jet turbines.
One of the three massive jet turbines.
Making our way throuhg the engine room. Here you can see the thermal blankets surrounding the intakes of two of the turbines. This is the true heart of the ship.
Making our way throuhg the engine room. Here you can see the thermal blankets surrounding the intakes of two of the turbines. This is the true heart of the ship.
Looking forward to the air intake ducting for two of the turbines.
Looking forward to the air intake ducting for two of the turbines.
The modern engine control center, with digital displays and computer control.
The modern engine control center, with digital displays and computer control.

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GOPR0215-2015-01-25 USCC Polar Star-Donenfeld-1920-WM

On the other side of the engine control room, the backup engine control system is the original Westinghouse system. Here, we're opening the original cabinet to inspect the original engine control, rheostats, etc.
On the other side of the engine control room, the backup engine control system is the original Westinghouse system. Here, we’re opening the original cabinet to inspect the original engine control, rheostats, etc.

DCIM102GOPROGOPR0220.

The USCGC Polar Star Icebreaker ship commissioning plaque.
The USCGC Polar Star Icebreaker ship commissioning plaque.

DSC02844-2015-01-25 USCC Polar Star-Donenfeld-1920-WM

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DSC02855-2015-01-25 USCC Polar Star-Donenfeld-1920-WM

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