Tag Archives: polar star

Warship Wednesday, August 4, 2021: The Grand Old Lady of the North

Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger

Warship Wednesday, August 4, 2021: The Grand Old Lady of the North

USCG Photo, National Archives & Record # 26-G-5608

As today is the 231st birthday of the founding of what today is known as the U.S. Coast Guard, you knew this was coming! Here we see the floating football that is the Wind-class Coast Guard icebreaker Northwind (WAG/WAGB-282) mustering up all available power from her six engines to penetrate a pressure ridge in the Bearing Sea during the winter season, July 1953. Note her twin 5″/38 mount forward and her Hedgehog ASW system at the platform under the bridge. Pretty stout armament for an iceboat, but we’ll get into that.

How the “Winds” came to blow

When World War II started, the U.S. Navy was up to the proverbial frozen creek as far as icebreaking went. While some foreign powers (the Soviets) really liked the specialized ships, Uncle Sam did not share the same opinion. However, this soon changed in 1941 when the U.S., even before Pearl Harbor, accepted Greenland and Iceland to their list of protected areas. Now, tasked with having to keep the Nazis out of the frozen extreme North Atlantic/Arctic and the Japanese out of the equally chilly North Pac/Arctic region (anyone heard of the Aleutians?), the Navy needed ice-capable ships yesterday.

The old (read= broken down) 6,000-ton British-built Soviet icebreaker Krassin was studied in Bremerton Washington by the Navy and Coast Guard. Although dating back to the Tsar, she was still at the time the most powerful icebreaker in the world. After looking at this ship and the Swedish icebreaker Ymer, the U.S. began work on the Wind-class, the first U.S. ships designed and built specifically as icebreakers.

Set up with an extremely thick (over an inch and a half) steel hull, these ships could endure repeated ramming against hard pack ice. Just in case the hull did break, there were 15-inches of cork behind it, followed by a second inner hull. Now that is serious business. These ships were so hardy that one, USCGC Westwind (WAGB 281), almost 30 years after she joined the fleet, was heavily damaged by ice in the Antarctic’s Weddell Sea. About 120 feet of the port-side hull was gashed when brash ice forced the ship against a 100-foot sheer ice shelf. The gash was two to three feet wide and was six feet above the waterline. The crew patched the side, there were no injuries, and the breaker returned home under her own power.

At over 6,000-tons, these ships were bulky for their short, 269-foot hulls. They were also bathtub-shaped, with a 63-foot beam. For those following along at home, that’s a 1:4 length to beam ratio. Power came from a half-dozen mammoth Fairbanks-Morse 10-cylinder diesel engines that both gave the ship a lot of power on demand, but also an almost unmatched 32,000-mile range (not a misprint, that is 32-thousand). For an idea of how much that is, a Wind-class icebreaker could sail at an economical 11-knots from New York to Antarctica, and back, on the same load of diesel…twice.

A photo of USCGC Eastwind, circa 1944. Note how beamy these ships were. The twin 5-inch mounts on such a short hull make her seem extremely well-armed. USCG Photo

To help them break the ice, the ship had a complicated system of water ballasting, capable of moving hundreds of tons of water from one side of the ship to the other in seconds, which could rock the vessel from side to side in addition to her thick hull and powerful engines. A bow-mounted propeller helped chew up loose ice and pull the ship along if needed.

With a war being on, they just weren’t about murdering ice, but being able to take the fight to polar-bound Axis ships and weather detachments as well. For this, they were given a pair of twin 5″/38 turrets, a dozen 40mm Bofors AAA guns, a half dozen 20mm Oerlikons, as well as depth charge racks and various projectors, plus the newfangled Hedgehog device to slay U-boats and His Imperial Japanese Majesty’s I-boats. Weight and space were also reserved for a catapult-launched and crane-recovered seaplane. Space for an extensive small arms locker, to equip landing parties engaged in searching remote frozen islands and fjords for radio stations and observation posts, rounded out the design.

Two of the class, Eastwind and Southwind, operated against teams of German scientists and military personnel who attempted to establish weather stations in remote areas of Greenland late in the war.

As noted by the USCG Historian’s Office on this chapter of “The Weather War,”:

On 4 October 1944 Eastwind captured a German weather station on Little Koldewey Island and 12 German personnel. On 15 October 1944 Eastwind captured the German trawler Externsteine and took 17 prisoners. The trawler was renamed East Breeze and a prize crew sailed her to Boston.

Our Wind

Northwind was ordered from Western Pipe & Steel Co., Los Angeles, (Builder’s Number CG-184) for $9,880,037 and her keel was laid 10 July 1944, the same week the Allies were fighting for Saint-Lo in France and Saipan in the Pacific. Impressively, she was finished in 54 weeks, commissioning 28 July 1945, just a fortnight before the Japanese threw in the towel. As such, her war service was negligible.

However, she was soon on the cutting edge of modern polar operations. Stationed in Boston, she landed her aft 5-inch mount to clear her decks for a large helicopter platform to accommodate a primitive HNS helicopter of the type the  Coast Guard had pioneered the use of in 1944-45.

Original caption: Preparing for Arctic Cruise, 1946. Especially rigged and outfitted for its arctic cruise, the Coast Guard Icebreaker Northwind, is shown in New York Harbor before she sailed last spring. The helicopter, which is proving valuable in the work in hand, needs only a small “platform” on which to take off or land and both operations can be carried on while the vessel is steaming at full speed. NARA 26-G-4936

Shown here just before leaving to participate in the Navy expedition to the North Pole, the Coast Guard Cutter Northwind lies at anchor in New York’s harbor, June 26, 1946. Note the NYC skyline to include the Empire State Building. NARA 26-G-4937

Then came a deployment in the form of Operation Nanook, under the command of Captain Richard Cruzen. The destination: Greenland and the Canadian Arctic, where Northwind would field the first helicopter seen in that part of the world.

As detailed by the Coast Guard Aviation Association

The task force was made up of two Navy AK transports modified for sub-zero operations, fully equipped to construct the stations. In addition, the Seaplane tender USS Norton Sound, with two PBM seaplanes, was part of the Taskforce as was the submarine Atule which conducted tests and carried out operations under the ice in Baffin Bay and to the north. The wooden-hulled net tender Whitewood was used as a survey ship. The Coast Guard ice breaker Northwind joined the group north of the arctic circle providing escort and navigation through the ice fields. The Northwind had on board an HNS helicopter piloted by Coast Guard Aviation Pilot 1/c John Olsen. This was a precursor of things to come in polar operations.

Sikorsky HNS-1 helicopter, CGNR 39047, lifts off from the deck of USCGC Northwind on 1 September 1946, during Operation Nanook. Note insignia of what appears to be an Eskimo girl seated astride a polar bear, with the words “Arctic Annie.” Photograph by Photographer’s Mate Second Class P.R. Zimmerman, USN. 80-G-636441

Inset of the Sikorsky’s insignia.

In November 1946, Capt. Charles Ward Thomas, the famed skipper of her sistership USCGC Eastwind during the Weather War with the Germans, assumed command of Northwind. During the Thomas years, Northwind would participate in Operation High Jump, the fourth Byrd expedition to the Antarctic, and subject of the Academy Award-winning motion picture, “The Secret Land.”

Highjump and the follow-on Windmill operation in 1947-48 to this day were the largest naval task forces to operate in Antarctica, consisting of 13 ships including an aircraft carrier and 33 aircraft. Many crackpot legends hold it was to scout out possible secret Nazi bases in the region where Hitler, who was still thought missing at the time, may have escaped to via U-boat.

Northwind spearhead of the expedition, clearing the way through the Ross Sea ice pack for Navy cargo ships. For the mission, she carried both a Grumman J2F Duck floatplane and a whirlybird.

Original caption: Coast Guard ‘Copter Scouts for Leads. From the deck of the Coast Guard Icebreaker Northwind, the ship’s helicopter takes off, to look for the “leads” in the ice packs, into which the super ice crusher can smash her way, opening a passage for the thin-hulled vessels of the Byrd Antarctic Expedition. Here the Northwind is followed by the Merrick, Yancey, and the Mt. Olympus. The ‘copter proved of special value, being able to hover and study ice conditions for the benefit of the Northwind’s skipper.” 1/1/1947 NARA 26-G-5024

Sikorsky HNS-1 helicopter, CGNR 39043, landing on the deck of USS Northwind (WAG-282) on 2 January 1947. 80-G-612006

It was during Highjump that Northwind successfully completed the first major rescue mission involving a submarine, freeing USS Sennet (SS-408) along with the supply ships Yance and Merrick, who were stuck in a thick ice flow in the Antarctic Circle.

USS Sennet (SS-408), needing a hand during Operation High Jump

7 January 1947- Operation Highjump, Coast Guard icebreaker NORTHWIND completed the first rescue mission involving a submarine. USS Sennet (SS-408) supply ships Yance and Merrick

Original caption: “The Northwind Hits It! The Antarctic. The World of Ice. With her diesel-electric motors, with power ranging up to 10,000, going full blast, the Coast Guard’s icebreaker Northwind charges the ice pack at top speed. Following the terrific crash, the Northwind rides half a ship’s length up onto the ice before she is stopped. She backs away and charges again and again until the area is broken up and ready for the thin-hulled vessels which follow her. This arduous duty of the Northwind was a day after day routine, as her part of the work of the Byrd Expedition to the Antarctic. This photo was taken from the Northwind’s helicopter, which proved so valuable in scouting out loads in the ice, far in advance of the ships.” 1/5/1947. Note the J2F Duck on her deck. NARA 26-G-03-18-47(7)

On 15 January 1947, Northwind’s chopper made the first helicopter flight to the base “Little America” in Antarctica. The pilot was LT James A. Cornish, USCG and he carried Chief Photographer’s Mate Everett Mashburn as his observer.

Icebreaker USS Northwind (AGB-5) cuts across the bow of USS Mount Olympus (AGC-8) to clear a path for her, through pack ice off the Ross Sea, Antarctica 1947-02-28 L45-209.06.01.

Original caption: Cargo being transferred from the USS Philippine Sea to the Coast Guard Ice-Breaking Cutter Northwind, on Operation Highjump, the Navy’s venture of exploration to the Antarctic. The Coast Guard Ice-Breaker has the task of opening lanes through heavy ice when other vessels with thinner plating could not force their way through. NARA 26-G-5062

Stationed in Seattle from 1947 to 1973, she fell into a cycle of polar ice operations, alternating trips from the Arctic to the Antarctic. In 1948, with the Northwind, Captain Thomas re-established the annual Bering Sea Patrol, which had been discontinued during the war, conducting the first such patrol in eight years, and compiled an oceanographic report of the waters navigated in the Bering Sea and the Arctic Ocean.

Northwind’s crew, by nature of the cutter’s work, saw some amazing things.

Original caption: “The Antarctic. The World of Ice. Desert of Death. Seldom indeed has the eye of man looked at this bleak desert of ice. This is a tiny portion of the limitless icepack that stands guard around the Antarctic continent. The Coast Guard’s icebreaker Northwind smashes its way into the virgin ice, making a passage for the thin-hulled vessels which made up the central group of the Byrd Expedition to the Antarctic.” 1/11/1947. NARA 26-G-03-18-47(11)

Original caption: “Bering Sea Patrol, its scenery on the grand scale for the Northwind as she roses into an Alaskan fjord. Views rivaling the ethereal beauty of the Alps, are typical of the stale and abound fringed coasts of Alaska.” 11/14/1948 NARA 26-G-5300

Original caption: The Artist is Mother Nature – On a refueling mission in Alaskan waters, the U.S. Coast Guard Icebreaker Northwind (WAGB-282) passes snow-capped Mt. Shishaldin in this picturesque scene, taken on the Bering Sea side of the Aleutian Islands. Mt. Shishaldin is one of 80 active volcanoes in the Aleutians. 11/26/1950 NARA 26-G-5477

Her Cold War career (see what I did there) consisted largely of a series of Operation Deep Freeze resupply missions to the Antarctic, alternating with Bering Sea patrols with the latter including missions to install and support the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line.

Original caption: Postman Artic Style. Swooping down over the ice, a Coast Guard PBY from the Air Detachment at Kodiak, Alaska, makes an aerial pick-up of the Northwind’s mail. Note the plane’s tailhook, poised to snatch the line. The postman had to ring only once. On the first attempt, he hooked the line from which the mailbag was suspended. Members of the Northwind’s crew crouch on the ice as they steady the vertical poles which hold the line. 7/12/1953. NARA 26-G-5613

Northwind and USS Glacier (AGB-4), the Navy’s last icebreaker, working ice during the winter 1953 Bearing Sea Expedition. Original caption: “In this solid field of ice in the Bering Sea, the two icebreakers try a tandem method of breaking ice. Ramming, backing, and ramming again, the vessels try forcing their wayside by side in a parallel line.” NARA 26-G-5609

McClure Strait and CGC Northwind. 13 August 1954 – The USCGC Northwind breaks the west-to-east entrance to previously impassable McClure Strait, the ice-locked western entrance to the Northwest Passage in the Canadian Arctic. Pushing along the southern edge of the Strait, the icebreaker heads toward Mercy Bay, about halfway to Banks Island. The U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Northwind, commanded by Captain William L. Maloney, USCG, made the first passage through McClure Strait from west to east between August 13 – 21, 1954. The Navy icebreaker USS Burton Island, commanded by Comdr. Everett Trickey, USN, executed the first passage through the Strait from east to west between August 11 – 16. Both ships accomplished the historical fete while conducting oceanographic and hydrographic surveys in the Beaufort Sea and McClure Strait areas on a Joint U.S. – Canadian Expedition participated in by scientists from both countries. The U.S. ships were the first to push through McClure Strait, connecting the Arctic Ocean and Viscount Melville Sound. McClure Strait was the only link left unconquered by explorers who for more than 450 years sought the famed Northwest Passage route between the Atlantic and the Pacific. The ships left San Diego on July 12 and returned to Seattle on September 29, 1954. NARA 26-G-5676

The 269-foot cutter also performed standard Alaska patrol tasks, such as holding “floating courts” that roamed from port to port and providing a modicum of military presence in far-away towns as needed.

Original caption: “This is the main street of the far northern little frontier-like town of Nome, Alaska, on the 4th of July 1955. Natives and Servicemen watch a parade that shows a group of sailors from the Coast Guard icebreaker Northwind marching. The icebreaker was at Nome from July 1 to 6, en route to the Arctic with a Navy Pacific Task Force on last summer’s Military Sea Transportation Service’s sealift operations for the “Dew Line” (Distance Early Warning) radar stations. Leaving Seattle July 16 this year for the summer “Dew Line” operations, the Northwind’s crew will not be at Nome to participate in holiday celebrations.” NARA 26-G-5732

USCGC Northwind in Antarctic waters, 16 December 1956. K-21429.

USCGC Northwind and USS Glacier (AGB-4) in Antarctic waters, 26 December 1956. K-21428.

Crew members from U.S. Coast Guard Icebreaker Northwind (WAGB-282) hold the first pistol tournament ever held in the Antarctic (January 10, 1957). Chilled thumbs pulled the triggers at targets lined up at McMurdo Sound. During the tournament, a light breeze blew down some of the targets. USNS Private John R. Towle (T-AK-240), a U.S. Navy cargo ship, lies to the back. Operation Deep Freeze was from December 1956 to April 1957. Official U.S. Coast Guard Photograph.

Original caption: “A closeup view from the stern of the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Northwind shows all four sections and the weatherproof door of her new telescopic helicopter hanger. The aluminum hanger is 67 ft. long, 23 ft. wide, and 21 ft. high. These measurements are gauged with the size of the Coast Guard’s largest helicopter in use – the gas turbine HH-52A “flying boat” helicopter. The icebreaker Northwind which is based in Seattle and works in the frigid Arctic region most of her time is the first American ship to carry this type of hangar. It was previously developed and used by the Canadian Ministry of Transport, however, here, the Northwind is carrying the hangar on an extended mission into the Bering Sea and the Arctic where it will undergo initial cold weather experiments.” 6/17/1963. NARA 26-G-6034

Original caption: “A starboard broadside view of the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Northwind shows her newly installed telescopic helicopter hanger in the closed extended position. The icebreaker is seen here en-route to the Bering Sea and the Arctic on an extended mission which will keep her away from her homeport in Seattle for a few months. During that time the hanger will receive initial experience in colder weather operations.” 6/17/1963 NARA 26-G-6033 

In 1965, Northwind pulled another “first.” That July, she conducted an oceanographic survey between Greenland, Iceland, and Scotland and was the first Western vessel to operate in the Kara Sea off the Soviet Union.

Between 1966 and 1989, Northwind hosted a series of Icebreaker Support Section (IBSEC) deployments, each consisting of a pair of Sikorsky HH-52A Seaguards, which picked up a red (officially orange) paint scheme.

USCGC Northwind (WAGB-282) in the ice, circa 1967. Note her retracted hangar with an HH-52 tail poking out. The second Sea Guardian is likey the aircraft taking the photo. Courtesy of Donald M. McPherson, 1977. NH 85275.

USCGC Northwind (WAGB-282) nighttime photo, in the ice, circa 1967. Note her extended hangar. Courtesy of Donald M. McPherson. NH 85274.

Between 9 June and 22 September 1969, Northwind transited 14,000 miles from the Bering Sea through the Northwest Passage then made it back to Seattle via the same route, the first vessel to conduct both a West-to-East and East-to-West transit of the Northwest Passage in a single season.

From 1973 to 1975 Northwind underwent extensive machinery modernization and electronic modification at the Coast Guard Yard at Curtis Bay, Maryland, which included landing the rest of her WWII-era heavy armament (she still had a small arms locker and four stowed .50 cal M2s) and picking up the familiar red-hull seen on today’s American icebreakers.

USCGC Northwind breaking ice at Winter Quarters Bay January 1977 via Antarctica New Zealand.

From 1978 to 1989, Northwind was stationed at Wilmington, North Carolina, and used for general ice-breaking, including in the Great Lakes, which her lack of fixed gun mounts kept her under Canadian treaty restrictions. Rather than Bering Sea cruises, she alternated Deep Freeze trips with Arctic East cruises, sailing in Baffin Bay and supporting Thule AFB in Greenland with side trips to Iceland and Norway.

Operation Deep Freeze 80. Antarctica. From left to right, the icebreakers USCGC Glacier (WAGB 4), Northwind (WAGB 282), and Polar Sea (WAGB 11) moored in the ice below Mount Erebus. Photographed by PH2 Jeff Hilton. January 5, 1980. 428-GX-K-129186.

Northwind, 1982, Inglefield Bredning, Greenland Tracy Glacier in the background

Clocking in on the war on drugs at a time when the service was hull poor, on 4 November 1984 Northwind seized the P/C Alexi I off Jamaica for carrying 20 tons of marijuana, becoming the first icebreaker to make a large narcotics seizure.

USCGC Northwind in Baffin Bay on 10 July 1986. USCG Photo.

It was during her 1986 cruise that Northwind assisted in a joint Denmark-U.S. relocation operation, shuttling arctic musk ox around Greenland via her Sea Guards, likely another first.

Seamen move a crated musk ox into position aboard the US Coast Guard icebreaker Northwind (WAGB 282) during a joint Denmark-US relocation operation, 7/10/1986. Note her WWII-era wooden decks and the sex orientation markings on the crates. TSgt Jose Hernandez. DFST8708199

An HH-52A Sea Guard helicopter from the US Coast Guard icebreaker Northwind (WAGB 282) airlifts a crated musk ox to its new habitat during a joint Denmark-US relocation operation, 7/10/1986. TSgt Jose Hernandez. DFST8708196

Northwind outlived her seven sisters. Weather War vets Eastwind and Southwind/Atka, along with the former Navy-owned Staten Island, Burton Island, and Edisto were all scrapped in the 1970s. In the Frozen North, the Canadian Coast Guard’s CCGS Labrador lingered until 1987. Only USCGC Westwind (WAGB-281), who had served the Soviets for six years under Lend-Lease as Severni Polius (North pole), endured, surviving another decade on the salvaged parts of her sisters.

Northwind, “The Grand Old Lady of the North,” was decommissioned on 20 January 1989, just shy of 44 years with the service and 11 months after Westwind was taken out of service. She had no less than 27 skippers and never saw a period of mothballs until she was shipped off in 1990.

After a decade floating in the James River, ex-Northwind was scrapped at International Shipbreakers, Port of Brownsville, Texas in 1999.


Like Northwind, the other members of her class pulled down several “firsts.” For instance, USCGC Eastwind (WAGB-279) was the first Coast Guard cutter of any type to circumnavigate the globe after departing Boston on 25 October 1960 bound for Antarctica and arriving back in Boston 5 May 1961. This was followed up by a similar Antarctic summer cruise by her sistership, USCGC Southwind (WAGB-280) [ex-USS Atka (AGB-3)] in 1968-1969.

While all eight Winds have long been scrapped, their unarmed half-sister, USCGC Mackinaw, which broke ice on the Great Lakes for six decades, is a floating museum in Michigan, and her grandfather, the old now 98-year old Krassin, is preserved at Saint Petersburg.

A bell from Cutter Northwind, perhaps from our icebreaker, is on display behind the Highland County Historical Society building in Hillsboro, Ohio, a town that made such bells for the Navy and Coast Guard.

The bulkhead on Northwind where various IBSEC avdets chronicled their cruises among the icebergs from 1966 to 1989 was removed after the cutter was decommissioned and restored by ATC Mobile personnel (where the IBSEC was stationed) in 1991. The bulkhead art is on display at the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola. 

There is also a public FB group on the ship. 

She is remembered in maritime art in the USCG’s collection. 

“Northwind” by David Rosenthal. The icebreaker Northwind breaks a pressure ridge in the permanent polar ice pack on its last mission before decommissioning. The mission was to break a path through the ice for the research vessel “PolarBjorn” as far north as possible.

“Arctic Cutter” by Ellen Leelike. The Coast Guard icebreaker Northwind is shown at work doing its specialty.

With the Coast Guard building a new class of Polar Security Cutters, basically modernized and better-armed icebreakers, it would be nice if they brought the old “Wind” names back. 


Winds, 1946 Jane’s entry

Winds, 1973 Jane’s entry

Displacement: 6,515 tons (1945)
Length: 269 ft oa
Beam: 63 ft 6 in
Draft: 25 ft 9 in max
Installed power (1945): 6 × Fairbanks-Morse model 8-1/8OP, 10-cylinder opposed-piston engines at 2,000 shp (1,500 kW), each driving a Westinghouse DC electric generator.
Propulsion: (1945) 2 × Westinghouse Electric DC electric motors driving the 2 aft propellers, 1 × 3,000 shp (2,200 kW) Westinghouse DC electric motor driving the detachable and seldom-used bow propeller.
Propulsion (1973): Four 3,000 horsepower DeLaval diesel engines, two GE electric motors
Speed: Top speed: 13.4 knots (1967)
Economic speed: 11.6 knots
Range: 32,485 nautical miles
21 officers, 295 men (1944)
13 officers, 2 warrants, 160 men (Post-1967 USCG service)
14 officers, 137 crew + room for 12 scientists and 14 AvDet personnel (Post 1975)
Sensors and processing systems:
SA-2, SL-1 (1944, removed 1949)
SPS-10B; SPS-53A; SPS-6C (1967)
Sonar: QCJ-8 (1944-45)

4 × 5″/38 (twin mounts)
12 × 40mm/60 (3 quad mounts)
6 × 20mm/80 (single mounts)
2 × depth charge tracks
6 × “K” guns
1 Hedgehog
M2 Browning machine guns and small arms (1944)
Aircraft carried: 1 Grumman J2F Seaplane, later two helicopters in telescoping hangar

1 x5″/38 single mount
20mm Mk 16 cannons (singles)

If you liked this column, please consider joining the International Naval Research Organization (INRO), Publishers of Warship International

They are possibly one of the best sources of naval study, images, and fellowship you can find. http://www.warship.org/membership.htm

The International Naval Research Organization is a non-profit corporation dedicated to the encouragement of the study of naval vessels and their histories, principally in the era of iron and steel warships (about 1860 to date). Its purpose is to provide information and a means of contact for those interested in warships.

With more than 50 years of scholarship, Warship International, the written tome of the INRO has published hundreds of articles, most of which are unique in their sweep and subject.

PRINT still has its place. If you LOVE warships you should belong.

I’m a member, so should you be!

Aging Icebreaker Sets Polar Record

U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star (WAGB 10) underway in the Chukchi Sea, Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020, at about 10:30 a.m. The 44-year-old heavy icebreaker is underway for a months-long deployment to the Arctic to protect the nation’s maritime sovereignty and security throughout the region. U.S. Coast Guard Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Cynthia Oldham.

The country’s only heavy icebreaker, U.S Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star (WAGB-10), on Christmas Day reached a record-breaking winter Arctic latitude while in the course of a grueling 30-day winter deployment to wave the flag in the increasingly crowded northern seas.

As noted by the USCG:

Polar Star‘s crew navigated beyond 72 degrees latitude shortly before noon Friday before changing course and heading south to continue their Arctic deployment.

“The crew achieved a notable milestone Christmas Day by traversing farther into the harsh, dark winter Arctic environment than any cutter crew in our service’s history,” said Capt. Bill Woitrya, the cutter’s commanding officer.

“Our ice pilots expertly navigated the Polar Star through sea ice up to four-feet thick and, in doing so, serve as pioneers to the country’s future of Arctic explorations.”

With frigid Arctic winds and air temperatures regularly well below zero, Polar Star‘s engineers work around-the-clock to keep frozen machinery equipment running and the ship’s interior spaces warm enough for the crew.

The 44-year-old icebreaker is underway to project power and support national security objectives throughout Alaskan waters and into the Arctic, including along the Maritime Boundary Line between the United States and Russia.

The Polar Star crew is also working to detect and deter illegal fishing by foreign vessels in the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone and conduct Arctic training essential for developing future icebreaker operators.

The Polar Star’s record-breaking winter Arctic latitude is 72° 11′ N.

It should be noted that Polar Star, while on her regular McMurdo resupply to the Antarctic last year– a mission suspended in 2020 due to the coof– suffered a serious electrical/engineering casualty underway, so it is nice to see that she is doing better this year and is headed back home.

Of course, her crew is having to battle that age-old boogeyman of the Arctic– knocking ice off the ship that accumulated from sea spray to keep topside weight to a manageable level. 

Those who have done the task know first hand it is one of those jobs that looks fun until you do it for about two minutes. 

Aegis Icebreakers?

More info on the new class of three planned Coast Guard Polar Security Cutters has bubbled up.

In short, they will be big boys, at 460-feet long and 33,000-tons. For reference, the Coast Guard’s current 50-year-old icebreaker, USCGC Polar Star (WAGB-10), is 399-feet long and weighs in at comparatively paltry 13,800-tons.

However, the Polar Sea is a bruiser, packing 75,000 shaft horsepower in her CODAG plant. This allows her to crush up to 21 feet of ice by backing and ramming and cruise through 6-feet of pack at a continuous 3 knots. According to a statement released this week, the new PSC’s will have 42,500 shp but will still meet an 8-foot mark on ice-busting.


Of note, the Coast Guard’s single medium icebreaker, the 11,000-ton Healy can crack ice up to 10 feet thick.

More from VTH in Moss Point:

As you can see, the design is based on Finnish and German tech that is being used on the (under construction) German research breaker Polarstern II, which is about the same size.

The plan for Polarstern II is a good starting point as that ship includes:

-Maximum 130 persons on board.
-44 person crew living in single and double rooms.
-Normal cruises up to 60 scientists.
-Safety equipment (lifeboats) on each side 100%.
-80 places for 20” Containers (laboratories and storage).
-Seakeeping stabilizer suitable for the transit cruises and station operation.
-Helicopter Deck and Hangar for 2-3 Helicopters.

In short, these big breakers, larger than the planned German ship, could potentially carry a light company-sized landing force with a couple of helicopters.

Currently, the USCG’s cutters just carry a small arms locker with the capability to mount a couple of M2 .50-cals if absolutely needed. The penguins and polar bears have not put up much of a fight in recent years.

That could be changing.

Changes from the design to make the Coast Guard’s new vessel capable of fighting are still being decided. However, according to the USNI, “The ship’s combat system will be derived from the Aegis Combat System, and the Coast Guard is still mulling over the weapons loadout, [USCG Adm.] Schultz told reporters on Wednesday.”

In 2017, Coast Guard Commandant Paul Zukunft said the new icebreakers would be fully weaponized to include canister launched anti-ship missiles.

This was repeated in 2018 when he said:

“We need to look differently at what an icebreaker does… We need to reserve space, weight, and power if we need to strap a cruise missile package on it… U.S. presence in the Arctic is necessary for more than just power projection; it’s a matter of national security… If they remain unchecked, the Russians will extend their sphere of influence to over five million square miles of Arctic ice and water.”

Things could get interesting.

The country’s one-and-only polar icebreaker made it back home (barely)

Seattle saw the reappearance of “Building 10,” the common designation of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star (WAGB-10), as she returned this week to her homeport after an epic 105-day deployment to Antarctica in support of Operation Deep Freeze, the 63rd year for the annual mission to supply McMurdo Station in Antarctica.

This place:

Forget what you have heard about no more ice: Upon arrival in McMurdo Sound, Antarctica, Polar Star still had to break through 16.5 nautical miles of ice, six to ten feet thick, in order to open a channel to the pier for supply ships to follow.

As the vessel is 43-years-young and has seen lots of hard service (she rams icebergs on purpose) things did not go as planned along the 11,200-mile sortie.

From the Coast Guard:

During the transit to Antarctica, one of the ship’s electrical systems began to smoke, causing damage to wiring in an electrical switchboard, and one of the ship’s two evaporators used to make drinkable water failed. The electrical switchboard was repaired by the crew, and the ship’s evaporator was repaired after parts were received during a port call in Wellington, New Zealand.

The impact from ice operations ruptured the cutter’s centerline shaft seal, allowing water to flood into the ship. Ice breaking operations ceased so embarked Coast Guard and Navy Divers could enter the water to apply a patch outside the hull so Polar Star’s engineers could repair the seal from inside the ship. The engineers donned dry suits and diver’s gloves to enter the 30-degree water of the still slowly flooding bilge to effect the vital repairs. They used special tools fabricated onboard to fix the leaking shaft seal and resume ice breaking operations.

The Polar Star also experienced ship-wide power outages while breaking ice in McMurdo Sound. Crew members spent nine hours shutting down the ship’s power plant and rebooting the electrical system in order to remedy the outages.

On Feb. 10, the crew spent nearly two hours extinguishing a fire in the ship’s incinerator room while the ship was approximately 650-nautical-miles north of McMurdo Sound, Antarctica. The fire damaged the incinerator and some electrical wiring in the room was damaged by fire fighting water. There were no personnel injuries or damage to equipment outside the space. Repairs to the incinerator are already scheduled for Polar Star’s upcoming inport maintenance period.


And keep in mind that for at least one pay period while underway the crew went without the eagle flying due to the lapse in appropriations.

The good news is, the Coast Guard is seeking to pick up six new polar icebreakers and the FY19 budget actually appropriated $655 million to begin construction of a new “polar security cutter” this year, with another $20 million appropriated for long-lead-time materials to build a second. So they may actually get two out of the planned six when all is said and done.

Hopefully, Polar Star can hold out till then.

Also, did I mention the Russians have 50 icebreakers?

Operation Deep Freeze: Making it by with tape and bubble gum for another year

An Emperor penguin poses for a photo in front of the Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star in McMurdo Sound near Antarctica on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018

The country’s only heavy polar icebreaker has pulled it off again..despite the flooding, engine failure, you know, the regular.

The 42-year-old 399-foot USCGC Polar Star (WAGB-10) last week finished cutting a resupply channel through 15 miles of Antarctic ice in the Ross Sea and escorting supply vessels to the frozen continent to resupply McMurdo Station at the tip of Ross Island, the epicenter of the U.S. Antarctic Program (pop. 1200).

The trip was not without drama for the elderly cutter.

From the USCG:

“Although we had less ice this year than last year, we had several engineering challenges to overcome to get to the point where we could position ourselves to moor in McMurdo,” said Capt. Michael Davanzo, the commanding officer of the Polar Star. “Our arrival was delayed due to these challenges, but the crew and I are certainly excited to be here. It’s a unique opportunity for our crewmembers to visit the most remote continent in the world, and in many respects, it makes the hard work worth it.”

On Jan. 16, Polar Star’s shaft seal failed causing flooding in the cutter’s engine room at a rate of approximately 20-gallons per minute. The crew responded quickly, using an emergency shaft seal to stop the flow of freezing, Antarctic water into the vessel. The crew was able dewater the engineering space and effect more permanent repairs to the seal to ensure the watertight integrity of the vessel. There were no injuries as a result of the malfunction.

Flooding was not the only engineering challenge the crew of Polar Star faced during their trek through the thick ice. On Jan. 11, their progress was slowed after the one of the cutter’s three main gas turbines failed. The crew uses the cutter’s main gas turbine power to breakup thick multi-year ice using its propellers. The crew was able to troubleshoot the turbine finding a programming issue between the engine and the cutter’s 1970s-era electrical system. The crew was able to continue their mission in the current ice conditions without the turbine.

“If the Polar Star were to suffer a catastrophic mechanical failure, the Nation would not be able to support heavy icebreaker missions like Operation Deep Freeze, and our Nation has no vessel capable of rescuing the crew if the icebreakers were to fail in the ice,” said Vice Adm. Fred Midgette, commander, U.S. Coast Guard Pacific Area in Alameda, California. “The crewmembers aboard Polar Star not only accomplished their mission, but they did so despite extreme weather and numerous engineering challenges. This is a testament to their dedication and devotion to duty.”

The cutter refueled at McMurdo Station Jan. 18 and continued to develop and maintain the ice channel in preparation for two resupply ships from U.S. Military Sealift Command, Ocean Giant, and Maersk Peary. The crew of Polar Star escorted the vessels to the ice pier at McMurdo Station, an evolution that requires the cutter to travel about 300 yards in front of the supply ships to ensure they safely make it through the narrow ice channel. The crew escorted the Ocean Giant to the ice pier at McMurdo Jan. 27 and conducted their final escort of the Maersk Peary to Antarctica Feb. 2. The crew escorted Maersk Peary safely out of the ice Feb. 6 after supply vessel’s crew transferred their cargo.

Coast Guard patches up broke down icebreaker with surfboard repair kit

The nation who at one time had the world’s largest and best-equipped icebreaker fleet has for years been suffering in that department. So much so that the only true heavy breakers we have under U.S. flag, the 399-foot USCGC Polar Star and Polar Sea, are among the oldest ships in the Coast Guard (who is known for having “veteran” platforms) and are uber-cranky.

The 399-foot Polar Star. Top of the line in icebreakers 1977-2010. However, note no visable weapons. For scientific missions these are not needed. However for soverignty missions, are a must.

The 399-foot Polar Star. Top of the line in icebreakers in 1977

The crew of the recently returned to duty cutter Polar Star responded to four general emergencies during their most recent deployment to Antarctica. A “general emergency” is a situation in which the crew and the cutter are in serious danger if the not remedied quickly. The crew experienced three fires and one major lube oil leak, which can quickly ignite into fire.

One of which required an out-of-the-box fix.

Petty Officer 1st Class Kevin Oakes, an electrician’s mate aboard the Polar Star, used a surfboard repair kit to fix one of the cutter’s generators after the system shorted out and began smoking. The crew had lost power to one of their propellers en route to Antarctica leaving them with reduced power Dec. 13. The crew could not get specially designed replacement parts for the 40-year-old generator in time for the crew to execute their mission to Antarctica; however, with a little online research and brainstorming, Oakes used one of his shipmate’s surfboard repair kits to fabricate a new replacement part allowing the Polar Star’s crew to continue their mission.

More here

Polar Star back in business

Click to big up.  (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class George Degener)

Click to big up. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class George Degener)

The Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star (WAGB-10) enters an ice field near the Balleny Islands Jan. 5, 2015, while en route to Antarctica in support of the U.S. Antarctic Program, which is managed by the National Science Foundation.

The Polar Star, the second/third largest coast guard cutter in service, just began a four-month mission to Antarctica as part of Operation Deep Freeze 2014 to 2015, the Polar Star sails as part of part of Joint Task Force Support Forces Antarctica, alongside U.S. Air Force and Navy personnel, in support of USAP.


The 38-year old Polar Star, a huge 13,800-ton beast, is, with her sister, the most powerful seagoing icebreaker ever built for the U.S. sea services with her half dozen Alco 16V-251F diesel engines and trio of Pratt & Whitney FT-4A12 gas turbines giving her over 93,000 shp to her three shafts, making her capable of breaking ice 21-feet thick.

She spent 2006-2012 laid up at her slip in Seattle and during that time was simply referred to as “Building 10” since she never moved.

Its good to see the old girl back in the ice.



Warship Wednesday May 21, Alexander’s Polar Star

Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all of their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places.

– Christopher Eger

Warship Wednesday May 21, Alexander’s Polar Star

polar star paintng

Here we see a beautiful rendering by the noted Russian artist Alexander Beggrow in 1892 of His Russian Imperial Highness’s Ship Polyarnaya zvezda (Polar Star). This painting is currently in the Central Naval Museum, St.-Petersburg, Russia and is one of the few artifacts remaining of the craft.


The yacht/auxiliary cruiser Polar Star was built at the Baltic Shipyard in St. Petersburg under commission for the Tsar of all the Russias, Alexander Alexandrovitch Romanov III, as a gift for his wife, the Danish-born Tsarina Marie. Designed by the Navy’s shipbuilding plans group, she was laid out by Admiral I. Shestakova who used inspirational plans of the fast British second-class cruisers Iris  and Mercury  – who when she was completed was the fastest ship in the Royal Navy –as a base line for the Tsar’s fast new ship.



She was laid down at the Baltic shipyard May 20, 1888, in the presence of the Imperial couple and top officials of the Ministry of the Navy, she was launched on May 19, 1890. After mooring and sea trials in March 1891, the ship was adopted in the ships of the Baltic fleet and listed as part of the Imperial Guards.


She was thoroughly modern. Built of good German Siemens-Martin steel, she had full-length watertight doors, electric lighting throughout, a
double-bottom hull, and a modern steam plant that consisted of two vertical triple expansion steam engines with designed capacity of 3000 HP each and 10 boilers. She had fully redundant systems including two sets of emergency steering wheels, one above deck and another below. Polar Star was outfitted it precious woods and furniture, as fitting the Imperial family.

Dozens of sketches by Nabokov and Prokofiev decorated the salons of the ship. For going ashore in style, she carried 8 away boats, including two mahogany-constructed steam launches for the royals.

The Polar Star was built with four 47mm Gatling guns, very similar to this 37mm Hotchkiss shown here in Russian service. Note the bare feet. Thats gonna suck when the hot brass starts flying.

The Polar Star was built with four 47mm Gatling guns, very similar to this 37mm Hotchkiss shown here in Russian service. Note the bare feet. Thats gonna suck when the hot brass starts flying.

As she was to carry the Tsar, whose father had been assassinated just ten years before, the ship was heavily armed with a quartet of rather well hidden Hotchkiss 5-barreled Gatling-type 47 mm guns which were considered just the thing to smother an incoming anarchists controlled terrorist ship with hot lead, capable of spitting 30 rounds per minute out past 2000-meters. Called “Gockisa guns”, this armament, as well as an entire platoon of heavily armed Imperial Marines, quartered below deck, provided a formidable force.

Besides the Marines, the ships 313-man crew was extensively vetted and cleared by the Tsarist secret police, the dreaded Okhrana, and its members were thought salted among them as seemingly innocent stewards and stokers just to keep everyone honest.

Firing a salute in Copenhagen harbor while on a state visit

Firing a salute in Copenhagen harbor while on a state visit

Further, whenever the yacht traveled with the Tsar aboard, she was accompanied by an escort that included at least a couple torpedo boats and a cruiser.

Whenever the ship anchored in isolated Finnish jetties, the local harbors and towns would carry the following message:

“Notice to all mariners concerning seafaring regulations when the Russian Imperial Yacht is in Finnish waters: Fire will be opened on all commercial shipping and all yachts–whether motor, sail or steam-that approach the line of guard ships. All ships wishing to put to sea must seek permission not less than six hours in advance. Between sundown and sunrise, all ships underway may expect to be fired upon.”

All of this security allowed the targeted royals to relax and enjoy themselves.


The yacht served the Imperial family for 26 years. After Tsar Alexander died in 1894, it was passed to his son who soon had his own super yacht, Standart, built in Denmark (to roughly the same plan as Polar Star only bigger– to confuse terrorists as to which yacht was carrying the royals.) Nevertheless the Polar Star stayed in the family and was used not only by Nicholas but by his mother, uncles, and others.

spec sheet

It sailed to England, Germany, and all points in between, serving as a safe refuge for the Imperial family as they visited friends and relatives in Europe.

A Smith and Wesson .44-Russian caliber No3 revolver presented by the Tsar to the retiring Captain of the Polar Star in 1895. It was good to be close to the Tsar!

A Smith and Wesson .44-Russian caliber No3 revolver presented by the Tsar to the retiring Captain of the Polar Star in 1895. It was good to be close to the Tsar!

Two sailors from the Imperial yachts were even chosen to be the new Tsarvitch Alexis’s nannies in 1905.


Alexei with Andrei Derevenko, one of the two sailor-nannies from the Royal yachts who would remain by his side for more than a decade. While Derevenko would desert the family after the Revolution, the second sailor, Klementy Nagorny would remain with them until they were executed in Siberia in 1918. Taken from the Imperial family days before the final act, his final fate is uncertain.

Alexei with Andrei Derevenko, one of the two sailor-nannies from the Royal yachts who would remain by his side for more than a decade. While Derevenko would desert the family after the Revolution, the second sailor, Klementy Nagorny would remain with them until they were executed in Siberia in 1918. Taken from the Imperial family days before the final act, his final fate is uncertain.

Speaking of 1905, the Polar Star almost changed history when Nicholas, traveling alone, met Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany on his own yacht at the remote Finnish inlet named Bjorko.  There, Willy got Nicholas, his cousin, to sign a non-aggression treaty with Germany. The problem was that the Tsar’s father had already in 1894 signed one with France, Germany’s clear and present danger. Long story short, and after a good bit of bad blood between the Tsar, the Kaiser, Paris and London, this treaty was discarded. If it hadn’t, the First World War could have been very different.

Speaking of war, when it finally came in 1914, the days of slow peaceful cruises were done. Both Standart and Polar Star were placed dockside and largely forgotten.

standart and polar star

When the Russian Revolution found Polar Star in March of 1917, she was iced in Helsinki (then-Helsingfors) with units of the Baltic Fleet. Her Marine Guard long since sent to the front and her crew raided to man other warships, she was no longer full of the spit-and-polish Russian jacks that had doted on the Tsar and his family.

In fact, on April 28, 1917, the ship was made the headquarter of the Revolutionary Central Committee of the Baltic fleet (CENTROBALT) in Finland. Her Captain at the time, Lyalin, was very popular in the fleet and was elected the first Red fleet commander. The coming spring, Polar Star made steam and sortied across the Gulf of Finland in the epic Ice Crossing to Kronstadt, just days ahead of being seized by the Germans.

She sat out the Russian Civil War there and, relatively undamaged by British raids in 1919, and the harsh Red Army reprisals during the 1921 Kronstadt Uprising, she was left swinging at her anchor lines with her crew largely taking up residence aboard the old yacht. In 1930, after a review of available hulls, the Soviet Red Banner Fleet decided to refit Polar Star for further use. Considering she was nearly 40 years old, its a testament that she was constructed so well as to still be useful.

as sub tender

Her old steam plant was removed as was one of her funnels and she had installed a new low-speed diesel plant that could propel her at 10-knots. Armed with a number of old 3-inch guns, she was used as a submarine tender and troop transport during both the Finnish Winter War (1939-40) where she blockaded the Finnish Coast and later took troops into Tallin after Estonia was occupied. Then came World War Two, where she spent her time dodging German and Finnish bombs, mines, and torpedoes. In 1942 she was made the headquarters of the 3rd Submarine Division and by 1944 moved forward to Turku, which enabled a more rapid turn around for war patrols of the Soviet U-boats she supported.

By 1954 her new engineering plant was unreliable but her hull was still sound even at age 63 and as such she was made a static accommodation ship, with new sailors and officers assigned to ship’s bunks spent their time smoking cigarettes on the same decks as Kaisers, Kings, and Tsars once tread.

By December 1968, the old Polar Star was sent to the scrappers, her service done, although some reports mention that she may have been used to test anti-ship missiles as late as the early 1970s and was expended as a target hulk. Nevertheless, both the sovereign and later the Party got their ruble’s worth out of the old girl.


polar star

Displacement: 3949-tons
Length 349.4-feet
Beam: 45.28-feet
draft: 17-feet
Speed: 17 knots (1891), 10 knots (1930)
Powerplant: 2 × vertical triple expansion steam engines, 2 bronze screws, 10 boilers (as commissioned) Two 625hp diesels after 1930.
Crew: 313 ships crew, 36 marines, 50 persons in Imperial suite. Post 1930, unknown

4 x 47mm guns Gockisa (1891),
3 × 76mm,
3 × 45mm
2 × 12,7mm HMG

4 × 76mm
4 × 37mm

If you liked this column, please consider joining the International Naval Research Organization (INRO), Publishers of Warship International

They are possibly one of the best sources of naval study, images, and fellowship you can find http://www.warship.org/

The International Naval Research Organization is a non-profit corporation dedicated to the encouragement of the study of naval vessels and their histories, principally in the era of iron and steel warships (about 1860 to date). Its purpose is to provide information and a means of contact for those interested in warships.

Nearing their 50th Anniversary, Warship International, the written tome of the INRO has published hundreds of articles, most of which are unique in their sweep and subject.

I’m a member, so should you be!

The Icebreaker Crisis in the USCG as of 2012

During World War 2, the US Navy and Coast Guard fought what is known as “The Weather War” in which small ice-strengthened US ships searched for German Weather installations in Greenland, Iceland, Canada, and other frozen points above the Arctic Circle. On the opposite side of the world, the same types of ships were needed to patrol the northern pacific to maintain defense over Alaska. Most Americans forget (if they ever knew) that the Alaskan islands of Attu and Kiska were invaded by the Japanese military in 1942 and retained for almost two years. After WWII, the US military found itself still very much in need of an arctic and Antarctic presence, now that the USSR was only a skip and a jump away over the North Pole.

Today, with the Northwest Passage increasingly viable and fuel resources in the Arctic more approachable, the need is still as strong as ever to have a robust Polar capability for the US Military.

The Northwest Passage

The missions of U.S. polar icebreakers are as follows:

  • Conducting and supporting scientific research in the Arctic and Antarctic.
  • Defending U.S. sovereignty in the Arctic by helping to maintain a presence in the region.
  • Defending other U.S. interests in Polar Regions, including economic interests relating to the U.S. exclusive economic zone (EEZ) north of Alaska.
  • Monitoring sea traffic in the Arctic, including ships bound for the United States.
  • Conducting other typical Coast Guard missions (search and rescue, law enforcement, etc) in Arctic waters, including U.S. territorial waters north of Alaska.

The height of the US seagoing icebreaker fleet was 1955-1972. In that golden age, the US Navy and the USCG combined maintained 8 heavily armed large icebreakers and 40 ships that could be classified as medium icebreakers. This included:

  • 1×309 foot heavy icebreaker (Glacier) that could break up to 20-feet of sea ice, armed with 5″ guns and capable of carrying two helicopters.
  • 7×269-foot heavy (Wind-class) icebreakers that could break up to 13-feet of sea ice, armed with 5″ guns and capable of carrying a helicopter.
  • 1x 230-foot medium icebreaker (Storis) that could break up to 6-feet of sea ice, armed with 3-inch guns.
  • 39x 180-foot (Balsam Class) buoy tenders with icebreaking bows that could break up to 3-feet of sea ice, armed with a 3-inch gun.
  • Also on the drawing board were as many as 4 mega 399-foot Polar Class heavy Icebreakers and a dozen 140-foot icebreaking tugs, projected for delivery as beginning as early as 1976.

By 1989 the USCG-only (the USN got out of the icebreaking biz in 1966) seagoing icebreaking fleet had largely been disarmed and had shrunk to :


The 399-foot Polar Star. Top of the line in icebreakers 1977-2010. However, note no visible weapons. For scientific missions, these are not needed. However, for sovereignty missions, are a must.

  • 2×399-foot, 13,000-ton Polar class icebreakers. These ships were commissioned in 1976 and 1978, painted red, and armed with two 12.7mm machineguns, small arms. They are capable of breaking up to 21-feet of sea ice and carrying two helicopters.
  • 31x remaining 180-foot aging Balsam class buoy tenders, most of which had been disarmed and delisted as being capable of icebreaking.
  • 9x 140-foot Bay Class icebreaking tugboats, armed with two 12.7mm machineguns and capable of breaking up to 3-feet of freshwater ice. These craft are all used on the US East Coast and Great Lakes to keep local waterways open and are therefore unavailable for polar operations.
  • (the 230-foot WWII-era medium icebreaker, Storis, had been retasked as a white-hulled cutter and was no longer used as an icebreaker)

Today, 2012 the USCG is in a pickle barrel full of ice. The 2011 USCG The “High Latitude Region Mission Analysis,”–a summary of which the Coast Guard’s current and future polar missions, stated that the USCG will need at least 3 heavy and 3 medium icebreakers to fulfill its requirements. Today it currently has…one of the above (a medium).

The current (Jan 2012) fleet consists of:


The USCGC Healy. One of the largest medium icebreakers in the world. The ship has fantastic labs and support facilities, but can only break 4.5 feet of ice. Compare this to the smaller Polar Star above that can shatter up to 21-feet of ice.

  • The 13-year old 420-foot, 16,000-ton USCGC Healy.  Commissioned in 1999, the ultra-modern red-hulled beast only has 30,000 shp maximum thrust to her shafts, whereas the smaller Polar-class icebreakers had a maximum of 75,000-shp. This means the largest US icebreaker ever commissioned can only break 4.5 feet of sea ice continuously at three knots, classifying her as a medium icebreaker. In 2011, the ship performed a seven-month science cruise in the Arctic Ocean conducting scientific operations. Due to the other large U.S. icebreakers, being either in repair (Polar Star) or in the process of being decommissioned (Polar Sea), the Healy is the only active large icebreaker in the Coast Guard’s fleet. Under the current arrangement, NSF is responsible for funding the Healy’s operations and maintenance while the Coast Guard is responsible for operating the ship and carrying out its maintenance program. Total Healy costs are approximately $24 million annually or about $130,000 per each of the 185 days she at sea. As a research ship, she is largely unarmed except the ship’s small arms locker.
  • The two 399-foot Polar Star-class heavy icebreakers have been used hard and put up wet. At some 30+ years old, they are well past their prime and due for a replacement that never came. Known as “Buildings 10 and 11” because they rarely move from their docks, both ships have been mission in-capable for several years although they are still on the USCG list as active ships. Since April 2010, neither has been deployable and will continue to be in such a condition for the next few years.

WAGB-10, the Polar Star on June 30, 2006, Polar Star was placed in a “Commission-Special” status in Seattle, WA with a reduced 34-man crew. The Coast Guard plans to reactivate her by 2013 after a $6-million refit, at which point she will 37-years old.  As it stands today, she has not been deployed in 7-years. It is expected that she will be deployable again in 2013 after the refit.

WAGB-11, the Polar Sea, is suffering from severe engine issues that could cost more than $400-million to refit the ship. On June 25, 2010, the Coast Guard announced that Polar Sea had suffered an unexpected engine casualty and consequently will likely be unavailable for operation. The report said, “…inspections of the Polar Sea’s main diesel engines revealed excessive wear in 33 cylinder assemblies.” Moreover, that, “…five of [the ship’s] six mighty engines are stilled, some with worn pistons essentially welded to their sleeves.” Unmoving since April 2010, it has been used for parts to assist the Polar Star in her rebuild and is slated for decommissioning. The most recent USCG report on her is concerning whether she should be awarded National Historic Places statuses upon her decommission.

On March 25, 2008, the Navy Times described options for the refit or replacement of the         Polar Star-class vessels. The four options laid out were either:

  1. Replacement at $925 million each
  2. Full refit at $400 million each that would make the vessel good for another 25 years.
  3. Minor refit $56 million each that would make the vessel good for another seven to ten years.
  4. One season refit at $8 million that would enable the ship to be patched together for one more season’s deployment.

Nov. 3, 2011, Congressional Research Service report estimates a new polar-class sized icebreaker would require 8 to 10 years before entering service. If requested in FY 2012, it is unlikely that a new heavy icebreaker will join the fleet before 2022.

The Coast Guard’s own proposed FY2011 budget does not request any funding in the service’s Acquisition, Construction, and Improvements (AC&I) account for polar icebreaker sustainment or for the acquisition of new polar icebreakers.

The Rest of the World’s Polar Fleet Countries with interests in the Polar Regions have differing requirements for polar icebreakers, depending on the nature and extent of their polar activities. According to one source, as of January 2009, Russia had a fleet of 25 polar icebreakers (including six active heavy icebreakers, two heavy icebreakers in caretaker status, 15 other icebreakers, and two additional icebreakers leased from the Netherlands. 7 of these ships are nuclear powered); Finland and Sweden each had seven heavy polar icebreakers, and Canada had 6.

The NSF and leased scientific ships.

 Supporting National Science Foundation (NSF) research activities in the Arctic and Antarctic have accounted for in the past for a significant portion of U.S. polar icebreaker operations. Supporting NSF research in the Antarctic has included performing—or, in more recent years, standing ready to assist in—an annual mission, called Operation Deep Freeze, to break through the Antarctic ice to resupply McMurdo Station, the large U.S. Antarctic research station located on the shore of McMurdo Sound, near the Ross Ice Shelf. The NSF pays for most USCG icebreaking efforts.

Laurence M. Gould at Palmer Station, contractor-operated 300+ days per year for the NSF

Nathaniel B. Palmer, contractor-operated by the NSF 300+ days per year for less than the cost of funding a USCG icebreaker for 185-days per year. Certain members of Congress are very interested in that concept.

Even with the USCG assets, the U.S. Antarctic Program Palmer Station resupply depends primarily on two privately owned vessels, the Laurence M. Gould (LMG) and the Nathaniel B. Palmer (NBP). Both were designed and built based on input from the science community. As leased vessels, the NSF gets a great deal of bang for the buck. Annual costs for the NPB and LMG in 2007 were $16.3M and $7.5M, respectively, resulting in respective day costs of $54.3K and $23.4K for these ships, or less than half what the NSF spends on the Healy.

The NBP is an ABS A2 icebreaker capable of breaking 3 feet of level ice continuously at 3 knots, with 13,000 shaft horsepower and a displacement of 6,800 long tons. It is outfitted with all of the winches and A-frames necessary for deploying and retrieving oceanographic instrumentation. The vessel is outfitted with onboard oceanographic instrumentation and a networked computer suite, including multi-beam sonar, and has 5,900 ft2 of lab space and 4,076 ft2 of open deck space for oceanographic work and staging and a helicopter pad and hanger. The NBP averages 300 days a year underway in support of science.

The LMG was is smaller than the NBP and has less icebreaking capability, as it was designed to operate in the more benign ice regions surrounding the Antarctic Peninsula. The ship is an ABS A1 ice-strengthened vessel with 4,600 shaft horsepower and a displacement of 3,400 long tons and can break one foot of level ice at a continuous 3 knots. It is fully instrumented with onboard oceanographic instruments and a networked computer suite. The LMG has the dual purpose of supporting oceanographic science and providing re-supply to Palmer Station, located on the Antarctic Peninsula. The LMG averages 320 days a year underway in support of scientific research and associated logistics.

The 20,000-ton, 9-engined Russian icebreaker Krasin, chartered by the US NSF with tax dollars to get the job done

In FY 2005 and FY 2006, the NSF chartered the Russian government-owned, contractor-operated, icebreaker Krasin as no the USCG fleet was unable to meet commitments. In FY 2007 and FY 2008, they chartered the Swedish government-owned, contractor-operated, icebreaker Oden at $7.5 million per year, as the icebreakers that the USCG was provided $54-million by the NSF were insufficient. Furthermore, NOAA charters the Russian flagged R/V Yuzhmorgeologiya approximately 100 sea days per year in support of its Antarctic program.

Small Icebreakers

Besides, several smaller platforms were marginally Polar-capable. The 39 180-foot long Balsam-class buoy tenders were built with a notched forefoot, ice-belt at the waterline, reinforced bow, and stern. Capable of clearing through up to 20-inches of sea ice at a steady pace, the 180s could break through harbors and light pack ice.

In 1957, two of these 180-footers, Bramble and Spar with their larger half-sister the 230-foot Storis, circumnavigated the North American continent through hundreds of miles of sea ice. The Coast Guard convoy, known as Task Force 5, sailed to 4500-miles from Seattle to Point Barrow Alaska, then through the Northwest Passage to the East Coast. The three cutters were the first U.S. vessels to complete a circumnavigation of the continent, icebreaking all the way. With a combined crew of more than two hundred and carrying no less than four dual-purpose 3-inch naval guns as well as several 20mm cannons, this was a fairly well-armed force for 1957.

The unit patch of the Bramble, a 180-foot buoy tender. Can you guess what one of her main jobs was? She and her 39 sisters have all been retired and replaced by tenders that, while nicer and more modern, cant crush as much ice.

In the past two decades, the 230-foot medium icebreaking cutter Storis and all 39 of the 180-foot tenders, joined the six ice-strengthened 165-foot ice-strengthened cutters, and the 216-foot long Northland, in retirement.

Minor icebreaking is now the realm of the 19 new 225-foot Juniper class buoy tenders. The 225’s have a limited icebreaking capability of 14-inches of freshwater ice at 3 knots, or 3 feet of ice backing and ramming.  However, this figure is for Great Lakes use and is of very little use in polar ice. The 14 Keeper-class of 175-foot tenders can break 9-inches of freshwater ice at 3-knots and 18 inches by ramming. This is less than the 180-foot Balsam class buoy tenders that they replaced. Nine excellent 140-foot Bay class tugs have been introduced that can break freshwater ice up to 20 inches (51 cm) thick, and break ice up to 3 feet by ramming, but even this is still slightly less than the 180s.

Therefore, in terms of medium icebreaking the 1950s USCG had 47 vessels that could break up to 20-inches of sea ice that have now been replaced by 39 that can break a lesser amount of freshwater ice. These 39 assets are needed vitally along the East Coast and Great Lakes to the extent that it is unlikely that anything other than an occasionally detached 225-foot buoy tender could be detailed to Polar Region operations. Moreover, these craft are armed with only token crew-served low-angle gun mounts, leaving them incapable of projecting sovereignty in any but the most benign of environments.

The Northwest Passage

Legions of explorers looked for the Northwest Passage for hundreds of years, this included the ill-fated Franklin Expedition, which perished virtually to a man in the 1850s. The first man to complete the voyage was Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen in a small 70-foot long 47-ton herring boat called the Gjoa.

Amundsen’s 70-foot long Gjoa in 1906. Even with a class of modern sailing yachts and a handful of sailors, the USCG could provide some sort of flag-waving patrol in the Northwest Passage. The route has been covered by no less than 4 US-flagged yachts since 1984.

The Northwest Passage has been accomplished 15 times by American vessels, and U.S. Coast Guard icebreakers have been the only American surface combatants to do so, carried out 11 of these voyages. In 1957 Storis, Bramble and Spar were the first of these Coast Guard cutters to make the journey through the passage, establishing a tradition that was followed by the Coast Guard cutters Northwind and Staten Island (1969), Polar Sea (1985, 1990), Polar Star (1988,1989) and Healy (2000, 2003). The other three American warships to transit fully the Northwest Passage were the submerged nuclear-powered submarines USS Nautilus (1958), USS Queenfish (1970), and USS Seadragon (1958). The US-flagged tanker M/V Manhattan was the first commercial vessel to make a full transit (in 1969).

The Northwest Passage is now wide open in some parts during the summer. In 2006, the Hapag-Lloyd cruise ship M/S Bremen sailed through it with passengers. The Bremen, built in 1990, is 6.752 gross tons carries 164 passengers and 100 crewmembers in its non-ice reinforced hull. No less than four privately owned US-flagged yachts have completed the passage in a single season since 1984, showing the feasibility of passing through.

On April 9, 2006, Canada’s Joint Task Force North declared that the Canadian military would no longer refer to the region as the Northwest Passage, but as the Canadian Internal Waters. The declaration came after the successful completion of Operation Nunavut (Inuktitut for “the land is ours”), which was an expedition into the region by five military patrols.

With no US icebreakers to prove otherwise, it looks like Canada is right.

A look at the Legacy fleet of USN/USCG Icebreakers, from the 1944-1989 Glory days or armed, destroyer-sized, capable, heavy cutters.

USS Glacier (AGB-4) 1955-1966 /USCGC Glacier (WAGB-4) 1966-1987

The proud (and heavily armed) USCGC Glacier. Built in Pascagoula MS, in the same yard as most of the modern US Navy’s destroyers and cruisers. Go figure

Displacement:             8,449 long tons (8,585 t) full load

Length:            309 ft. 6 in (94.34 m)

Complement:   14 officers, 2 warrant officers, 225 enlisted

Armament:      • 1 × twin 5 in (130 mm) guns (removed in 1966 when sent to USCG)

• 3 × twin 3 in (76 mm) guns

• 4 × 20 mm guns

Aircraft carried           2 helicopters. Air detachment: 14 officers and 10 enlisted.

Glacier was capable of breaking ice up to 20 feet (6.1 m) thick, and of continuous breaking of 4-foot (1.2 m) thick ice at 3 knots (5.6 km/h; 3.5 mph). Following 29 Antarctic and 10 Arctic deployments, Glacier was decommissioned in 1987

Seven Wind-class Heavy Icebreakers built for the US Navy and US Coast Guard

Northwind, circa 1955, a good example of the Wind class before they were painted red and had their teeth removed

Displacement: 6,500 short tons (5,900 metric tons) full load

Length:            269 ft (82 m)

Complement:   219 officers and men

Armament: Four 5-inch/38 (127 mm) dual-purpose guns (2 twin turrets). Twelve 40 mm/60 AA guns (3 quadruple turrets). Six 20 mm/80 AA; Y-guns. Two depth charge racks. One Hedgehog (weapon) launcher. M2 Browning machine guns and small arms. Reduced to just the M2s and small arms by 1970.  Originally carried a 1 Grumman J2F Duck seaplane, replaced by helicopter in the 1960s. Capable of breaking 13-foot sea ice.

USCGC Staten Island (WAGB-278), Commissioned 1944. Decommissioned 15 November 1974 and scrapped.

USCGC Eastwind (WAGB-279) Commissioned 1944. Decommissioned in 1968, sold in 1972, and scrapped.

USCGC Southwind (WAGB-280) Commissioned 1944. Decommissioned 1974, sold for scrap 1976.

USS Westwind (AGB-6) renamed USCGC Westwind (WAGB-281) in USCG service. Commissioned into USN in 1944. Transferred to USCG 1951. Decommissioned 29 February 1988, sold and scrapped.

USCGC Northwind  (WAGB-282). Commissioned in 1945. Decommissioned 1989 and scrapped.

USS Burton Island (AGB-88) Commissioned into USN in 1947. Transferred to USCG 1966, renamed USCGC Burton Island (WAGB-283) in USCG service. Decommissioned 1978, sold for scrap 1980.

USS Edisto (AGB-89) Commissioned into USN in 1947. Transferred to USCG 1966 and renamed USCGC Edisto (WAGB-284) in USCG service. Decommissioned 1977 and scrapped 1980.