Heading south for winter: 26 people rescued trapped in Antarctic ice

This blog is part of a series following Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star on their journey to Antarctica in support of Operation Deep Freeze 2015.

Written by Petty Officer 1st Class George Degener

 

The disabled fishing vessel Antarctic Chieftain is towed astern of the Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star through sea ice near Antarctica, Feb. 14, 2015. Polar Star's crew will tow Antarctic Chieftain to the safety of open water. Polar Star's crew has been underway in Antarctica in support of Operation Deep Freeze 2015, part of the U.S. Antarctic Program, managed by the National Science Foundation. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class George Degener.

The disabled fishing vessel Antarctic Chieftain is towed astern of the Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star through sea ice near Antarctica, Feb. 14, 2015. Polar Star’s crew will tow Antarctic Chieftain to the safety of open water. Polar Star’s crew has been underway in Antarctica in support of Operation Deep Freeze 2015, part of the U.S. Antarctic Program, managed by the National Science Foundation. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class George Degener.

 

The 157 crewmembers of the Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star departed the U.S. Antarctic Program’s McMurdo Station Feb. 9, 2015 after successfully completing the surface vessel portion of Operation Deep Freeze 2015, which provided military logistical support to the National Science Foundation-managed U.S. Antarctic Program. The crew was unaware of a dire situation unfolding more than 840 miles away. The 26-man crew of the 207-foot fishing vessel Antarctic Chieftain was beset by ice near Cape Burks, Antarctica.

Antarctic Chieftain had a damaged propeller and the vessel’s master realized the seriousness of the crew’s situation and made a call for help. The Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand contacted the Cutter Polar Star Feb. 11, the only heavy icebreaker close enough to the stricken vessel to provide assistance.

Polar Star diverted from its course toward South America and headed east toward the Antarctic Chieftain’s position. Navigating through extreme ice and weather conditions, the crew traveled more than 750 miles of open water and broke through 89 miles of drifting pack ice to reach the stranded crew who had been trapped for nearly two weeks.

 

Members of Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star's deck force pay out messenger line to the crew of the disabled fishing vessel Antarctic Chieftain near Cape Burks, Antarctica, Feb. 14, 2015. Polar Star's crew uses messenger line to pass a tow hawser to the Antarctic Chieftain, which is beset by ice. Polar Star's crew has been underway in Antarctica in support of Operation Deep Freeze 2015, part of the U.S. Antarctic Program, managed by the National Science Foundation. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class George Degener.

Members of Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star’s deck force pay out messenger line to the crew of the disabled fishing vessel Antarctic Chieftain near Cape Burks, Antarctica, Feb. 14, 2015. Polar Star’s crew uses messenger line to pass a tow hawser to the Antarctic Chieftain, which is beset by ice. Polar Star’s crew has been underway in Antarctica in support of Operation Deep Freeze 2015, part of the U.S. Antarctic Program, managed by the National Science Foundation. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class George Degener.

 

Polar Star’s conning officers used precise shiphandling to maneuver through the ice and position the ship within 20 feet from the disabled vessel. Despite a 17 mph headwind, Polar Star’s deck force demonstrated proficient seamanship, safely passing a mooring line to the Antarctic Chieftain, to connect the two vessels.

Members of the cutter’s dive team embarked aboard Polar Star for Operation Deep Freeze 2015 attached the tending lines of a remote operated vehicle to a carabineer clipped onto the mooring line. They passed the controlling lines to Antarctic Chieftain and lowered the ROV through brash ice into the water. Petty Officer 2nd Class Bill Glenn, a trained ROV pilot from Regional Dive Locker-West, in San Diego, controlled the ROV dive.

“The main emphasis of the ROV dive was to survey the damaged propeller, and I could see that the blades were significantly bent toward the rudder,” said Glenn. “A hull scan on both the port and starboard sides didn’t reveal any significant damage. The engineering officer, executive officer, and commanding officer came out and we were able to watch the Antarctic Chieftain’s rudder move through its available range of motion in real time.”

After using video captured by the ROV to survey the damage to Antarctic Chieftain’s propeller, Polar Star made the decision to tow the fishing vessel clear of the ice. Towing operations are inherently dangerous, but the presence of the thick Antarctic ice increased this evolution’s complexity. The first step was to cut a channel through 15 miles of ice to a polynya, a small area of open water surrounded by ice. Then Polar Star returned to the Antarctic Chieftain and passed a tow hawser.

 

Members of the military dive team aboard Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star launch a remote operated vehicle into the water to inspect the disabled fishing vessel Antarctic Chieftain, beset by ice near Cape Burks, Antarctica, Feb. 14, 2015. Dive team members used the ROV to inspect Antarctic Chieftain's damaged propellers. Polar Star's crew has been underway in Antarctica in support of Operation Deep Freeze 2015, part of the U.S. Antarctic Program, managed by the National Science Foundation. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class George Degener.

Members of the military dive team aboard Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star launch a remote operated vehicle into the water to inspect the disabled fishing vessel Antarctic Chieftain, beset by ice near Cape Burks, Antarctica, Feb. 14, 2015. Dive team members used the ROV to inspect Antarctic Chieftain’s damaged propellers. Polar Star’s crew has been underway in Antarctica in support of Operation Deep Freeze 2015, part of the U.S. Antarctic Program, managed by the National Science Foundation. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class George Degener.

 

Polar Star towed Antarctic Chieftain through more than 170 miles of heavy ice to finally reach open water. The extreme environmental conditions required a much shorter tow line than would normally been used. As the ships moved forward, pieces of ice moved between the vessels, impacting Antarctic Chieftain’s bow. The pressure of the ice finally overloaded the towing rig causing it to break.

Crew members aboard Polar Star, including Seaman Austin Essegian took turns tending the tow line attached to Antarctic Chieftain, which was under heavy tension.

“The ice buildup caused the hawser to take a lot of tension and pulled so hard ,the line started melting where it was attached to the bits on our fantail,” said Essegian. “I grabbed a fire hose and with two other seamen we sprayed water onto the line to cool it before it could melt through. I’m glad we were down there because if we weren’t, it could have been a really dangerous situation.”

When the tow connection failed a second time, Polar Star’s deck force deployed a 14-inch towing hawser to the Antarctic Chieftain. The stronger heavier line was more elastic, which created its own set of challenges for those maneuvering the tandem ships safely trough the ice.

 

Seaman Patrick O'Grady uses an axe to release towing line passed from the Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star to the fishing vessel Antarctic Chieftain near Antarctica, Feb. 14, 2015. Polar Star's crew will tow the disabled vessel to open water. Polar Star's crew has been underway in Antarctica in support of Operation Deep Freeze 2015, part of the U.S. Antarctic Program, managed by the National Science Foundation. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class George Degener.

Seaman Patrick O’Grady uses an axe to release towing line passed from the Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star to the fishing vessel Antarctic Chieftain near Antarctica, Feb. 14, 2015. Polar Star’s crew will tow the disabled vessel to open water. Polar Star’s crew has been underway in Antarctica in support of Operation Deep Freeze 2015, part of the U.S. Antarctic Program, managed by the National Science Foundation. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class George Degener.

 

Rescuing the crew of the Antarctic Chieftain combined all the complexities of towing with the intricacies of icebreaking, to create a uniquely complex evolution,” said Lt. j.g. Stephen Nolan, an underway officer of the deck and ice pilot aboard Polar Star. “While towing, the officer of the deck was responsible for balancing the required power necessary to break through the ice with load constraints of the tow line and gear. Despite the varying densities and pressures of ice we encountered which forced the parting of our tow rig on three separate occasions; the crew of Polar Star successfully rescued 26 mariners in distress at the end of the world.”

When the tow parted for the third time, the Antarctic Chieftain tested and used the the vessel’s weakened propulsion to follow Polar Star through remaining pack ice and into the open water of the Southern Ocean. The crew of fishing vessel Janas, dispatched from New Zealand, emerged from a snow squall, to assume responsibility for the stricken vessel, and escort her to New Zealand.

The crew of Polar Star continues their voyage north and returned to their homeport in Seattle March 10. Thanks to their efforts aboard the only ship in the U.S fleet capable of operating in such remote, hostile environments, 26 mariners get to make their own journey home.

 

 

 

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