USCGC Polar Star
America’s only operational heavy icebreaker
The icebreaker USCGC Polar Star (WAGB-10) was commissioned in 1976, following construction by Lockheed Shipbuilding in Seattle. It is 399 feet long, with a beam of 83 feet, a draft of 31 feet, and a standard displacement of 10,863 long tons. Its six 3,000 horsepower diesel engines and three 25,000 horsepower gas turbines power three shafts equipped with controllable-pitch propellers. As one of the world’s most powerful non-nuclear icebreakers, it can maintain a speed of up to three knots in six-foot thick ice. It has a complement of 15 officers, 127 enlisted personnel, and a 12-person helicopter detachment, as well as accommodations for up to 33 scientific personnel. Its hull at the bow and stern in one-and-three-quarters inches thick with close frame spacing so as to allow Polar Star to break through ice ridges up to twenty-one feet thick by backing and ramming. Backing and ramming is a great way for the officer of the deck to work out any frustrations as it involves backing the ship about a quarter-mile and then hitting the ice at full speed. The trick is to reverse the pitch on the propellers shortly before the ship grinds to a halt – otherwise, the ship might get stuck in the ice. Assuming the ship has not broken through the ice floe, the OOD then backs up a quarter-mile and does it again. Most of the time though the ice is not near that thick. Much of the Polar Star’s work in the Arctic involves support for scientific missions. Duty in the Antarctic primarily involves supporting the resupply mission for the McMurdo Research Station on the edge of the Ross Sea. Polar Star’s sister ship, USCGC Polar Sea (WAGB-11) is in inactive commission status following a catastrophic engine failure. The medium icebreaker USCGC Healy (WAGB-20) primarily supports scientific research in Arctic waters. A bill has been introduced in Congress to authorize construction of six additional polar icebreakers, but it is too early to tell if this measure has legs.