The Arctic and the Coast Guard- Part 2

Last week we started talking about the Coast Guard and the Arctic. This week in part 2 of our discussion I wanted to take the time to talk some more about the CGC Healy, especially with bill H.R. 2865 which could be an indicator on the future needs for the ice breaker fleet of the Coast Guard.

Strait of Belle Isle--The Coast Guard Cutter Healy (WAGB 20) enters the ice for the first time just east of Strait of Belle Isle. U.S. COAST GUARD PHOTO

Strait of Belle Isle–The Coast Guard Cutter Healy (WAGB 20) enters the ice for the first time just east of Strait of Belle Isle. U.S. COAST GUARD PHOTO

Ice breakers have fascinated me since I was a little girl (yes the Polar Sea and Polar Star have been around that long). Having been to McMurdo Antarctica (2002-03), surrounded by ice and seeing first hand the demanding environment that these ships and their crew work in? I think they are pretty impressive and have one of the coolest missions in the Coast Guard. Pun intended of course.

To get a little perspective on the CGC Healy I talked to retired Rear Admiral Jeffery Garrett, retired Capt. David Visneski, and Capt. Frederick Sommer. Admiral Garrett was the first commanding officer (CO) of the Healy, taking her through shakedown operations and ice trials in the Eastern Arctic in early 2000, followed by transit through Northwest Passage to homeport in Seattle.  Capt. Visneski was the second CO of Healy,  the captain of the ship when she became the first non-nuclear ice breaker to make it to the North Pole completely unassisted, followed by Healy’s only trip to the Antarctic to date. Capt. Sommer is the current CO of Healy.

The attention the Healy has been getting by the media, not to mention in Congress, is “unprecedented for an ice breaker” according to Capt. Sommers. Until recently the ice breakers were a bit of a backwater mission, not a lot of people knew they existed or what they were for.

Coast Guard Cutter Healy  is the largest of the heavy ice breakers in the Coast Guard. Her ice breaking capabilities are 4.5 ft @ 3 knots continuous and 8 ft of ice when backing and ramming. Backing and ramming is pretty much what it sounds like and I don’t mean how you parallel parked a car when you were a teenager. You can see more of the Healy stats on the ship’s site.

Real quick I should mention for anyone who doesn’t know there are differences in the ice in the Arctic and the Antarctic. The Antarctic ice tends to be younger because the breakers break the same basic path each year to McMurdo Station, so you have 1 to 2 year old ice. In the Arctic there generally aren’t specific path ways like there are in the Antarctic so you can find layered multi-year ice. So, like a sailor with decades at sea the multi-year ice can be a bit tougher than the younger ice. This was something that had to be taken into consideration when building the Healy.

“The Arctic Ocean is one of the few places we know little about,” said Capt. Visneski. “We know more about the moon in some places than we do about the Arctic Ocean.”

Healy’s mission from the start has focused on the scientific exploration of the Arctic and she was built for a whole lot of science.  Seriously check this link out. When you think about how precious space is on any ship, looking at the way Healy was built you can see just how important the science is.

“The Healy has turned out to be a really far sighted initiative.” Admiral Garrett told me when talking about the way Healy was built.

One of the coolest features of Healy, Admiral Garrett explained, is the multibeam sonar used to map the sea floor. This technology showed incredible foresight on the part of the designers, and has become a real important asset now with the Law of the Sea Convention and the increasing interest in the continental shelf.

Exploring North of Alaska in several trips the Coast Guard Cutter Healy used multibeamed sonar to map the sea floor.

Exploring North of Alaska in several trips the Coast Guard Cutter Healy used multibeamed sonar to map the sea floor.

When you think about the concerns we have today about the mapping of the Arctic floor and what it means to territorial rights which include mining, fisheries enforcement and all the other things that go with an EEZ, it was pretty impressive on the part of the designers of Healy when they decided to include the multibeam sonar. It works so fast that as you are moving over the water you can get a real time print out in color mapping the sea floor beneath you. National Geographic has an interesting article on the mapping of the sea floor that you can read on their site.

Researchers pore over a map of the Gakkel Ridge aboard Coast Guard Cutter Healy in 2001. NSF Photo

Researchers pour over a map of the Gakkel Ridge aboard Coast Guard Cutter Healy in 2001. NSF Photo

Capt. Visneski explained that even though events have unfolded bringing more attention to the Arctic in recent years, even when he was the CO of Healy (2001-03), there were a lot of people already attuned to the building events in the Arctic. During his time in command of the ice breaker, the scientists aboard mapped Gakkel Ridge, making some some startling discoveries.

You can read more about the the maiden scientific voyage of the Healy on this scienceblog.com piece.

9/11 occured during that first major deployment of the Healy, so one thing that didn’t come into play quite the same way when the Healy left port as when she came back was national security. After 9/11 the Coast Guard was brought into the spotlight as the premier maritime security force keeping us safe as the shield of freedom.

When I asked Capt. Visneski if he thought 9/11 and the war on terror changed the focus of the Healy when it came to her missions, he said not really while he was the CO. He added that Healy was always first and foremost a Coast Guard cutter, which means she and her crew were going to be always ready no matter what.

Capt. Sommers, Healy’s current CO, said that the changes have been very subtle in the focus for Healy as she has come under more national attention, but that the potential for the more classic (and well known) missions has grown in the last few years.

Here is the thing, with the Healy up there? We have presence. We have visibility. Also, since (as all three of the commanding officers pointed out) the Healy is a dynamic platform we can respond to the changing needs of mariners and the American public in an area of the world that has more water for us to cover than it has in the past.

There has been some concern about our ability to deal with threats to national security when it comes to the Arctic with its decreasing ice coverage and the Law of the Seas Convention. The thing is that the Convention actually enhances our ability to complete this mission. Maximum maritime naval and air mobility that is assured by the Convention is important for us to operate effectively. Key sea and air lanes need to remain open as a matter of international legal right and not depend on the approval from nations along the routes, so that vessels like Healy can get where they need to go and get there quickly.  But I am getting off on a tangent, back to Healy.

With the increasing interest in the Arctic the demand for the Healy greatly outstrips her availability. Right now Healy is back in Seattle having recently returned from Arctic West Summer 2009. The ship was supporting the ongoing Bering Ecosystem Study (BEST). BEST is a multi-year project sponsored by the National Science Foundation that studies the ecological processes of sea ice as it retreats through the Bering Sea. Hopefully on the next time she heads north we will be able to talk to some of the crew as they experience the ice for the first time.

Here are some great videos about Healy, her missions and the ice breaking fleet:

You can follow the Healy on Twitter as well: http://twitter.com/cgchealy

Oh and for those of you who like bits of trivia, Healy and the other red hulled ice breakers were painted red in the mid 1970’s when the Coast Guard began painting all of its polar icebreakers’ hulls to make them easier for helicopter pilots to spot in the ice.

Okay, informative videos/tweets and trivia bits aside, what it comes down to is this: Healy was a well planned and designed ship when she was built, and now when so many eyes are turning to the north and Arctic horizons? She is just the asset we need to further scientific research, to help respond to mariners in need of help, and to maintain an American presence in the Arctic. I think Capt. Sommer put it best: “When an area is under someone’s care it is better taken care of than when it is just there.”

A. Thorsson

CGC Healy in the ice. USCG Photo

CGC Healy in the ice. USCG Photo

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