Polar Star crew recognized for mission-saving repairs

Written by Senior Chief Petty Officer Sarah Foster, Pacific Area Public Affairs.

Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft recognizes the crew of Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley.

Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft recognizes the crew of Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley.

Polar Star’s engineering crew knows more about the saga of aging cutters than the average Coast Guardsman.

Every patrol, maintenance issues occur regularly, but Operation Deep Freeze 2016 was the “mother” of all casualties for the 40-year old cutter, threatening to halt a resupply mission for the U.S. Antarctic Program in Antarctica.

It took a surf kit, elbow grease and round-the-clock marathon repair sessions by Petty Officer 1st Class Kevin Oakes, an electrician’s mate, Petty Officer 3rd Class Agustin Foguet, a damage controlman and Seaman Manon Mullen from the deck department, to keep the limping “polar-roller,” as it’s affectionately called, afloat and operable.

Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft recognizes the crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star from Seattle. Coast Guard Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley.

Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft recognizes the crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star from Seattle. Coast Guard Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley.

The three crew members were in for a surprise when Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukuft recognized them during an awards ceremony aboard the cutter. The Commandant was then shown the engine room where the critical repairs took place.

Ice-breaking operations were interrupted for more than three days in the Southern Sea to repair cracks on the port and starboard thrust-bearing foundation bedrails, bulkhead plating and shaft brake foundations in the cutter’s engine room. These issues went undetected for more than four deployments, until the physical manifestation revealed itself during the crew’s most recent patrol.

Foguet and the crew of the Polar Star led the round-the-clock repair to weld the thrust bearing brackets during Polar Star’s catastrophic failure. Although Mullen belonged to the deck department, she enthusiastically volunteered to toil side-by-side the engineers in the dark, oily bowels of the engine room.

In the main propulsion, the engineering watch section struggled to bring the number 3 shaft back online. The generator breakers would trip every time the shaft was powered, because the slip rings were malfunctioning.

Petty Officer 1st Class Kevin Oakes of Stratford, Conn., Petty Officer 3rd Class Augustin Foguet of Costa Mesa, Calif., and Seaman Manon Mullen of Honolulu in the engine room of the Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star. Coast Guard photo.

Petty Officer 1st Class Kevin Oakes of Stratford, Conn., Petty Officer 3rd Class Augustin Foguet of Costa Mesa, Calif., and Seaman Manon Mullen of Honolulu in the engine room of the Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star. Coast Guard photo.

Oakes fabricated generator slip rings out of a surfboard repair kit that helped restore power to Main Diesel Generator Three, which enabled the cutter to continue their resupply mission to Antarctica.

It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that the cutter isn’t only aging, it’s slowly dying, but its soul is kept alive by its determined and tireless crew until there’s a replacement.

The Polar Star is nearly 40-years-old and the nation’s only non-nuclear heavy icebreaker capable of operating in the thick Antarctic ice for a mission such as breaking out ships beset in ice or clearing McMurdo Sound for the critical annual resupply of McMurdo Station.

“The challenges posed by Polar environments demand specialized capabilities and personnel who are trained and equipped to operate in the most unforgiving places on Earth,” said then-Vice Adm. Charles D. Michel during an April 15, 2015, testimony before the House Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee. “With reactivation of Polar Star, the Coast Guard has returned to breaking out a channel, and escorting petroleum and break bulk carriers, to resupply the United States base of operations in McMurdo Sound. Polar Star is the only icebreaker in the United States fleet capable of conducting this mission and providing assured access.”

These “specialized capabilities” are exemplified by the three Polar Star crewmembers in their work ethic.

“Imagine trying to build a ship in a bottle–that is a similar feat to welding the brackets in the bilge, under heavy equipment in the engine room,” Walker said. “Without these repairs, the entire Antarctica Program would have shut down, because with POLAR STAR unable to complete her mission, the supplies critical to sustain life, and provide
fuel and supplies for the science missions, all would have come to a halt.”

Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft talks with crewmembers of Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley.

Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft talks with crewmembers of Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley.

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