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Polar Star gets back to work

Jun. 17, 2013 - 05:30PM   |  
After almost seven years, the Polar Star is heading into ice trials in the Arctic.
After almost seven years, the Polar Star is heading into ice trials in the Arctic. (PA3 Jordan Akiyama / Coast Guard)
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The Polar Star, commissioned in 1976, received $90 million of work that should extend its service life an estimated seven to 10 years. Improvements were made to:
■All three cranes.
■All three main gas turbines.
■All three main propulsion motors.
■All three reduction gears.
■All six main propulsion engines, along with the engine blocks.
■All three ship service diesel generators.
■All six propulsion generators (inspected and cleaned).
■Refrigerator compressor units.
■Main propulsion control and monitoring system.
■Controllable pitch propeller system.
■Workers also installed a new “Miranda” davit for raising and lowering a small boat.

After almost seven years out of commission, and a reactivation cost of $90 million, a Coast Guard heavy icebreaker is back in action.

The Polar Star is the nation’s only heavy icebreaker, and it can break through 21 feet of ice. The ship is heading to ice trials in the Arctic in mid-June and will remain in the Barrow Point and northern Alaska region until early August, said the ship’s commanding officer, Capt. George Pellissier.

During ice trials, Pellissier will test how the overhauled Polar Star performs and how his crew operates underway and in the Arctic.

The Coast Guard has not had a heavy icebreaker in operation since the Polar Sea’s engine failed in 2010. The Polar Star has been laid up since 2006.

With no active heavy icebreakers for a few years, the Coast Guard has catching up to do in its polar proficiencies, Commandant Adm. Bob Papp said May 21, the day he released the service’s Arctic Strategy.

Boatswain’s Mate 1st Class John Skinner, Polar Star’s deck force supervisor and a veteran of the Polar Sea, said he wants his crew to get their quals during the ice trials.

“More than half of them are not qualified on their underway billet,” he said.

That is because the Polar Star has only been underway about 2 1/2 weeks in the last six months. The crew has spent most of its time performing maintenance trying to get the Polar Star back on the ice. Not only that, a lot of the crew are right out of boot camp, Skinner said.

There are some more senior Coasties happy to get underway, too, he said, especially after years of maintenance work, including redoing the berthing, painting, deck work and maintaining the small boats.

Unfortunately there are some who cycled off the crew before the ship could get underway.

“A lot of the guys have done a lot of work [on the Polar Star] and transferred out and not seen the end result,” Skinner said. “Working on a ship for several years that doesn’t get underway can seem like ... you are working for something that is not going anywhere.”

The Polar Star has a crew of about 130, but about 150 people will be aboard during ice trials, including contractors who helped overhaul it.

If all goes well during ice trials, the Polar Star could be performing one of its primary missions in December: breaking into McMurdo Station in Ross Island, Antarctica. Since the Polar Star has been out of commission, the nation has had to use foreign icebreakers to resupply the U.S. science station.

“In my view, that’s a shame,” Pellissier said.

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