Deep Freeze 2016: Another year, another journey

This blog is the first in a series of posts following the crew of Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star as they journey to Antarctica for Operation Deep Freeze 2016. Follow their journey as they support the

Written by Petty Officer 2nd Class Grant Devuyst

Petty Officer 3rd Class Zachary Draim, a boatswain’s mate aboard Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star, observes the approaching sea ice edge in the Southern Ocean Jan. 4, 2016. The Polar Star crew encountered ice five days after leaving Hobart, Australia, on the way to Antarctica in support of Operation Deep Freeze 2016, which provides the U.S. military logistical support to the National Science Foundation-managed U.S. Antarctic Program. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Grant DeVuyst.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Zachary Draim, a boatswain’s mate aboard Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star, observes the approaching sea ice edge in the Southern Ocean Jan. 4, 2016. The Polar Star crew encountered ice five days after leaving Hobart, Australia, on the way to Antarctica in support of Operation Deep Freeze 2016, which provides the U.S. military logistical support to the National Science Foundation-managed U.S. Antarctic Program. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Grant DeVuyst.

Rolling between swells at the end of the South Pacific on New Year’s Eve, the Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star tips over the hill into its 40th year of commissioned service. Most of the crewmembers are tucked soundly into their racks as the clock strikes midnight.

On the bridge, where a handful of watchstanders navigate the ship toward the Antarctic continent, the remnants of a summer sunset’s twilight still tint the horizon. Below decks the creaks, groans and rumbles of the big ship speak to its age. Echoes of foreign port calls and missions to the ends of the Earth line many of the icebreaker’s bulkheads. Plaques, patches and stickers from places most Americans will never set foot. The ship has character that can only come from such a lengthy affair with the sea.

The Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star approaches Antarctic sea ice in the Southern Ocean Jan. 4, 2016. During Operation Deep Freeze 2016, the Polar Star crew will navigate through the ice to support an annual resupply of the National Science Foundation’s McMurdo Station, Antarctica. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Grant DeVuyst.

The Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star approaches Antarctic sea ice in the Southern Ocean Jan. 4, 2016. During Operation Deep Freeze 2016, the Polar Star crew will navigate through the ice to support an annual resupply of the National Science Foundation’s McMurdo Station, Antarctica. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Grant DeVuyst.

Every turned page of the calendar shows in the ice-bludgeoned, though sturdy, red hull. It’s not just a 399-foot chunk of metal. If observed correctly, the Polar Star is a book; chock full of the stories of every Coast Guardsman who ever sailed aboard.

The cutter’s extensive history is meticulously documented in a very tangible sense; in archived cruise reports, maintenance records, and photo albums. More deeply though, is a fundamental history, where modern computers and systems work in tandem with equipment of generations past, where senior enlisted and command cadre return to a unit they knew in the earliest days of their careers.

As one watch ends, another begins. It’s the constant flow of two or three year tours that took the icebreaker from its commissioning day in 1976 to where it is now.

Take, for instance, two petty officers third class: Preston Cummings, a boatswain’s mate in the deck department who’s on his last patrol with the cutter; and Heather Hooper, a marine science technician in the operations department who reported aboard only months ago.

“You get to see the world,” said Cummings of what draws people to the nation’s only operational heavy icebreaker. “They definitely come for the adventure.”

“Adventure” sums up the Polar Star’s career quite well. The cutter is uniquely equipped, from hull design to roaring turbines, to operate in some of the most perilous environments in the world.

For the last two and a half years, it has been Cummings’ job to work on deck in those environments.

“I never could see myself going to Antarctica,” said Cummings, who grew up in Hawaii. Now he supervises members of the deck department as they moor to the ice pier on Ross Island. “The mission is important to me because without it those guys wouldn’t get any food; they wouldn’t be able to function down in McMurdo.”

Kris Waters, an engineering flight test specialist with Aerovironment Inc., records a wind reading with an anemometer on Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star’s flight deck in the Southern Ocean Jan. 3, 2016. The Coast Guard partnered with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and AeroVironment Inc. to bring a PUMA AE unmanned aircraft system to act as an ice-scouting tool as part of Operation Deep Freeze 2016, which provides the U.S. military logistical support to the National Science Foundation-managed U.S. Antarctic Program. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Grant DeVuyst.

Kris Waters, an engineering flight test specialist with Aerovironment Inc., records a wind reading with an anemometer on Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star’s flight deck in the Southern Ocean Jan. 3, 2016. The Coast Guard partnered with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and AeroVironment Inc. to bring a PUMA AE unmanned aircraft system to act as an ice-scouting tool as part of Operation Deep Freeze 2016, which provides the U.S. military logistical support to the National Science Foundation-managed U.S. Antarctic Program. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Grant DeVuyst.

That mission brings two critical deliveries of fuel and supplies to the National Science Foundation’s McMurdo Station during the summer, all thanks to the icebreaking knowledge of the crew, thick steel plating of the bow, and constant maintenance of the monstrous engines below deck.

Cummings’ time on the Polar Star may be wrapping up, but the sights and experiences have left their mark, just as he did on the cutter itself. This isn’t a metaphor; just check the sailor of the quarter plaque for his name from July to September 2014.

Hooper, on the other hand, is still finding her place on the venerable ship.

“Most marine science technicians don’t get underway, there are mostly land billets,” said Hooper of her decision to join the Polar Star for her first position as an MST. “In school we kind of negotiate our billets, and I was one of the few people who were actually interested, so I got it.”

It’s likely she won’t have a chance to serve at sea again, but the crew is helping her make the most of the opportunity.

“Everyone’s been great to me, I’ve had a great reception,” Hooper said. “They all want to help you get qualified. You can only use study guides so much, you need someone to take you through it.”

She’s learning to plot the cutter’s position across vast swaths of ocean, respond to emergencies on the ship when the closest help could be thousands of miles away, and work as a team member to accomplish missions that seem nearly impossible given the obstacles. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience, forged in ice.

As the year turns, so does the crew of the Polar Star. Old faces prepare for their departure as new ones learn to take their place. In the meantime, there’s a large field of fast ice looming in McMurdo Sound, and if the United States’ Antarctic post is going to get the supplies they need to operate for another year, the Polar Star has a lot of work to do.

Operation Deep Freeze 2016, the U.S. military and Coast Guard logistical support element of the NSF-managed U.S. Antarctic Program, has only just begun and you’ve only met two of the Polar Star’s 140 crewmembers. Check back for updates to learn more about life on board as the crew continues their mission in Antarctica.

Passengers and the crew of CGC Polar Star gather to observe their first encounter with ice during Operation Deep Freeze 2016 in the Southern Ocean Jan. 3, 2016. The mission to resupply the National Science Foundation’s McMurdo Station, Antarctica, is one of the most difficult U.S. military peacetime missions due to the harsh environment. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Grant DeVuyst.

Passengers and the crew of CGC Polar Star gather to observe their first encounter with ice during Operation Deep Freeze 2016 in the Southern Ocean Jan. 3, 2016. The mission to resupply the National Science Foundation’s McMurdo Station, Antarctica, is one of the most difficult U.S. military peacetime missions due to the harsh environment. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Grant DeVuyst.

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