Life aboard a Coast Guard icebreaker

At 420 feet long and 82 feet wide, the Coast Guard Cutter Healy is the Coast Guard’s largest cutter. Onboard you’ll find an impressive galley, large medical facility, science lounge, ship’s store, a library, and crews’ lounges, which all prove handy for a group who will be underway continuously for 65 days. Morale events are on-going for both the Coast Guard crew and science party, including trivia nights, movie marathons, and talent shows. Physical fitness classes and an oceanography course are also available to the crew. Petty Officer 1st Class Kenny Cook, a boatswain’s mate aboard the Healy, gives a first-hand account of what life aboard the Coast Guard’s newest and most technologically advanced polar icebreaker.

One of Cutter Healy’s onboard life rings is framed in the foreground atop the Chukchi Sea, north of the Arctic Circle July 8, 2016. During Cutter Healy’s first of three missions during their West Arctic Summer Deployment, a team of 46 researchers from the University of Alaska-Anchorage and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) studied the Chukchi Sea ecosystem. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Ens. Brian P. Hagerty.

One of Cutter Healy’s onboard life rings is framed in the foreground atop the Chukchi Sea, north of the Arctic Circle July 8, 2016. During Cutter Healy’s first of three missions during their West Arctic Summer Deployment, a team of 46 researchers from the University of Alaska-Anchorage and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) studied the Chukchi Sea ecosystem. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Ens. Brian P. Hagerty.

Written by Petty Officer 1st Class Kenny Cook

Petty Officer 1st Class Kenny Cook brings some fun to the deck while still making sure all operations are done safely. Photo courtesy of Caitlin Bailey, GFOE, The Hidden Ocean 2016: Chukchi Borderlands.

Petty Officer 1st Class Kenny Cook brings some fun to the deck while still making sure all operations are done safely. Photo courtesy of Caitlin Bailey, GFOE, The Hidden Ocean 2016: Chukchi Borderlands.

Life aboard Coast Guard Cutter Healy is unique and different from any other job I have had during my Coast Guard career. The Healy’s mission is mainly science based, although we do maintain a readiness posture in the event we are needed for an emergency or search and rescue operations.

Cook enjoys watching the ice break below Coast Guard Cutter Healy, the largest cutter in the Coast Guard, from the aloft conning station above the bridge. U.S. Coast Guard photo courtesy of Petty Officer Kenny Cook.

Cook enjoys watching the ice break below Coast Guard Cutter Healy, the largest cutter in the Coast Guard, from the aloft conning station above the bridge. U.S. Coast Guard photo courtesy of Petty Officer Kenny Cook.

I act as one of the safety supervisors for deck evolutions. I oversee the safety of personnel and the deployment of any type of science gear or apparatus. Everything we do on deck is inherently dangerous. We lift many types of large, heavy, and/or awkward equipment ranging from devices that can collect mud and seafloor samples, water at different depths or even collect sea creatures unique to this region. We use large cranes and A-frames hoists to lift and then lower the science gear over the side of the boat into the water, often times letting it drop all the way to the ocean floor. We train long and hard to mitigate any possible danger in order to provide the safest working environment possible.

As one of the deck watch officers, I have been lucky enough to drive the Healy, which is especially exciting and unique. When navigating through the ice, there are a lot of factors involved in choosing the best path to take. We need to see where there might be open water, thinner ice, and we need to avoid ridges where there is extremely dense ice formation. We transfer control from the bridge to the aloft conning station above the bridge, in order to get a better look at everything. There is definitely a specific skill set and learning curve for driving a ship through thick ice, but it is such an exciting thing to learn and do. I always look forward to having the opportunity to drive in the ice because not only can you see forever from aloft conning station, but watching a ‘lead’, or crack form in the ice as we break through, is truly exhilarating. I can truly say that I love my job.

The Coast Guard often launches small boats for both science and safety operations. Photo courtesy of Caitlin Bailey, GFOE, The Hidden Ocean 2016: Chukchi Borderlands.

The Coast Guard often launches small boats for both science and safety operations. Photo courtesy of Caitlin Bailey, GFOE, The Hidden Ocean 2016: Chukchi Borderlands.

It’s also been incredible to drive our small boats around in the arctic. We lower our smaller boats down from the ship via a Miranda davit or sled, which is an exciting experience in and of itself, for a variety of reasons. But driving a small 26 foot boat around amid the crystal clear water and blue and white ice floes never gets old or routine. As we make our way through the water, the boat crew members are always ready to push smaller ice floes out of the way with boat poles if needed and we assist the scientists with anything they might need. I get the chance to get up close and personal with the Arctic environment, and I feel extremely lucky to be able to do something that not a lot of people can say they have done.

Petty Officer 1st Class Kenneth D. Cook, a boatswain's mate assigned to Coast Guard Cutter Healy, a 420-foot polar icebreaker homeported in Seattle, runs to greet his two sons after mooring at Coast Guard Base Seattle, Nov. 5, 2013. Crewmembers aboard CGC Healy returned home after spending almost four months assisting scientists in the Arctic region. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Katelyn Tyson.

Petty Officer 1st Class Kenneth D. Cook, a boatswain’s mate assigned to Coast Guard Cutter Healy, a 420-foot polar icebreaker homeported in Seattle, runs to greet his two sons after mooring at Coast Guard Base Seattle, Nov. 5, 2013. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Katelyn Tyson.

The Healy has been my home for almost 4 years now. I will never get tired of coming to the Arctic and taking in the stark beauty of the ice, and all of the amazing wildlife. Seeing a polar bear and her cubs out in the wild is truly unforgettable!

Being away from family is the hardest part of deployment by far. Being this far north on the planet comes with technological disadvantages and we live for those moments when we can get a phone call through or when we receive an email from home – especially if it includes pictures.

I have loved having space in the hangar to hold CrossFit workouts and classes. I was lucky enough to be given the chance to create a CrossFit “box” for the ship, and we have daily workouts for those who are interested. It’s been a great way to break up the deployment, interact “outside of work” and have something to focus on.

Photo of Petty officer Kenny Cook with Coast Guard Cutter Healy, the Coast Guard's only operational ice breaker, in the background. U.S. Coast Guard photo courtesy of Cook.

Photo of Petty officer Kenny Cook with Coast Guard Cutter Healy in the background. U.S. Coast Guard photo courtesy of Cook.

One of the things I love the most about my job is being able to tell people about my experience at the North Pole. How many people can say that they have been to the North Pole?! Having been there is really still surreal and indescribable. As you might expect, the weather is pretty brutal. The wind, coupled with the arctic temperatures, made it tough to be outside taking in that once in a lifetime experience for very long, but I relished every second of it! Being part of the crew in 2015, as the first U.S. surface vessel to make it to the North Pole unaccompanied, was truly an honor, and something I will never forget.

A polar bear stands right next to the Healy. U.S. Coast Guard photo courtesy of Petty officer Kenny Cook.

A polar bear stands right next to the Healy. U.S. Coast Guard photo courtesy of Petty officer Kenny Cook.

But, I must admit that the very best part about being stationed on the Healy is the camaraderie that is unique to a polar icebreaker. We live and work together for months at a time out in the frozen wasteland of the Arctic, and it gives you the chance to become really close with your shipmates as your shared experiences bond you together.

Once you have experienced a trip to the Arctic, you are forever a member of a rather remarkable and exclusive club. There is just something about crossing that 66° latitude and entering the “Arctic Realm” that is truly extraordinary.

The Coast Guard is responsible for safely deploying and recovering all of the scientific instruments, including the remotely operated vehicle, needed to collect data from the Arctic. Photo courtesy of Caitlin Bailey, GFOE, The Hidden Ocean 2016: Chukchi Borderlands.

The Coast Guard is responsible for safely deploying and recovering all of the scientific instruments, including the remotely operated vehicle, needed to collect data from the Arctic. Photo courtesy of Caitlin Bailey, GFOE, The Hidden Ocean 2016: Chukchi Borderlands.

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