Stuck in the Arctic

Coast Guard Cutter Healy crewmembers make contact with a mariner aboard his 36-foot sailboat trapped in Arctic ice approximately 40 miles northeast of Barrow, Alaska, July 12, 2014. Coast Guard 17th District watchstanders in Juneau were contacted by North Slope Borough Search and Rescue that a man, sailing his sailboat from Vancouver, Canada, to eastern Canada via the Northwest Passage, needed assistance after his vessel had become trapped in the ice. U.S. Coast Guard photo courtesy of Coast Guard Cutter Healy.

Coast Guard Cutter Healy crewmembers make contact with a mariner aboard his 36-foot sailboat trapped in Arctic ice approximately 40 miles northeast of Barrow, Alaska. U.S. Coast Guard photo courtesy of Coast Guard Cutter Healy.

This post originally appeared at Coast Guard Alaska and was written by Petty Officer 2nd Class Grant DeVuyst.

The 24 hours of sunlight, enormous marine mammals and vast emptiness create an environment unlike any in the world. It’s no surprise, then, that the melting ice is enticing adventure seekers to experience the untouched frontier. As vessel traffic increases, so does the chance for an accident in this inherently dangerous maritime region. It’s the inevitability of peril that drives many Coast Guard missions, and those missions extend all the way into the Nation’s Arctic. When an adventure on the Chukchi Sea took a turn for the worse, the Coast Guard was ready to respond.

This story began when the captain of the sailing vessel Altan Girl called out for the Coast Guard to report he was stuck in the ice.

“The call was received by Coast Guard Sector Anchorage watchstanders via the Mobile Arctic Support System, which was deployed to Barrow to provide seasonal communications coverage as part of Arctic Shield 2014,” said Lt. Cmdr. Michael Crider, chief of the 17th District telecommunications division. “The call set off a coordinated communications effort that involved the Coast Guard, Barrow Police Department and North Slope Borough Search and Rescue communicators to ascertain and monitor the vessels situation.”

The crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Healy plans an approach to tow the 36-foot sailboat, Altan Girl, trapped in Arctic ice approximately 40 miles northeast of Barrow, Alaska, July 12, 2014. The Healy crew broke a 12-mile path through the Arctic ice with the sailboat in tow and led it to open water. U.S. Coast Guard photo courtesy of Coast Guard Cutter Healy.

The crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Healy plans an approach to tow the 36-foot sailboat, Altan Girl, trapped in Arctic ice approximately 40 miles northeast of Barrow, Alaska. The Healy crew broke a 12-mile path through the Arctic ice with the sailboat in tow and led it to open water. U.S. Coast Guard photo courtesy of Coast Guard Cutter Healy.

At that point there was no cause for alarm. The mariner planned to wait and hope for better conditions. Days passed. Weather worsened. As the sailboat, originally 25 miles from Barrow, drifted from with the ice to a point 40 miles from shore, communication between the vessel and emergency services became limited.

NSBSAR personnel attempted to reach the stranded man, but poor visibility and weather conditions restricted their crews from flying to the sailing vessel’s location. It was time to call in the icebreaker. A two-day trip away in the nearby polar ice, the crew of the Seattle-based Coast Guard Cutter Healy was performing scientific missions funded by the National Science Foundation. The research mission consists of an entire spectrum of scientists from different organizations and the crew of Healy working together to further our Nation’s understanding of the Arctic environment. In coordination with NSF and equipped with ice and weather reports provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Healy crew began making their way toward the stranded sailing vessel.

“Our partnerships with scientific organizations allow us to better understand this unique environment so we can also better perform our other vital Coast Guard missions in the emerging Arctic maritime domain,” said Capt. John Reeves, commanding officer of the Healy. “The lack of infrastructure and increasing traffic in the region also demand that we have a surface presence in this northernmost area of responsibility.”

The crew of the icebreaker showed their multi-mission capabilities once on-scene. They broke through twelve miles of Arctic Sea ice to find the sailboat hopelessly caught in the ever-shifting floe. After breaking it free from surrounding ice, they towed the 36-foot vessel south to open water and safety. Following a safety inspection from the Healy crew, the lone sailor made his way to Barrow to resupply and await better weather conditions before continuing his journey. The Healy was then free to continue its scientific mission.

“This case highlights the important capabilities that Coast Guard multi-mission assets deployed to the Arctic are able to provide to mariners in distress,” said Rear Adm. Dan Abel, commander of the 17th Coast Guard District. “The Coast Guard 17th District is committed to working with our federal, state, local and tribal partners along with industry to protect the safety of life at sea in Alaska and the Arctic.”

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