The Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star doesn't sleep, not for a second. The cutter and its crew rotate through a daily cycle, like the Antarctic sun looking down on the icebreaker. Always moving, never setting.
At midnight, surrounded by miles of fast ice, a lone channel to the Ross Sea trailing behind, there are still watchstanders attending to the aging cutter.
What's going on above and below the deck? What does it take to run the nation's only operational heavy icebreaker? There's no better way to find out than living it. So join us for two days of 12-hour watch shifts: three four-hour watches from 8 a.m. (0800) to 8 p.m. (2000) each day. Start your coffee brewing; it's going to be a long couple of days.
A U.S. Coast Guard HH-52A Seaguard helicopter landing on the icebreaker USCGC Polar Star (WAGB-10) IN 2005. (U.S Coast Guard courtesy photo)
0800-1200 ... Bridge Watches
The Polar Star's bridge spans the entire width of the ship. With the exception of a small space where the door stands, windows encircle the room completely. This is the control hub for the cutter during normal at-sea operations, and there is no shortage of equipment to guarantee the crew gets where they are headed safely.
Navigational charts, both paper and digital, multiple radar screens, binoculars, true and magnetic compasses, alidades for determining bearing to nearby landmarks, and books upon books of nautical and navigational knowledge make up the bridge's extensive toolset. The space is accented by the new and the old: flashing digital alarms, connected to machinery throughout the ship, and polished brass, likely no younger than the icebreaker itself.
At the chart table, one of the three qualified watchstanders for this period carefully takes note of the current latitude and longitude in the ship's position log. Meet the quartermaster of the watch, QMOW, an expert of navigation and log keeping,
“As the QMOW we have to know just as much as the officer of the deck does, as far as the navigational picture,” says Petty Officer 3rd Class Michael Garcia, a boatswain's mate in the Polar Star's navigational division. “If you look at the basics of the watch, it's pretty easy, but there is just so much more information you have to know for the watch that makes the qualification difficult.”
During ice operations, the QMOW is the most senior watchstander on the bridge, because the officer of the day (OOD) is about 70 feet above everyone else, piloting from what's known as aloft conn: aloft, as in high up, and conn, as in steering the ship. It's the QMOW's job to make sure the other two watchstanders – the boatswain's mate of the watch (BMOW) and the lookout – are staying vigilant on their own watches.
Speaking of other watchstanders, it's time for the boatswain's mate of the watch, Seaman Mauro Tapia, a member of the Polar Star's deck department, to make a round about the cutter. Since we've already met the QMOW, we'll tag along with Tapia.
First, a crucial step: donning a survival suit before facing the extreme environment just on the other side of the bridge door. The jolts and heaves of breaking ice could potentially send you into the water, or onto the ice, if you're out on deck. And the BMOW's round will require plenty of time on the frigid deck.
“We're looking for fire and flooding, and making sure that everything's secure,” says Tapia. “There are all sorts of odds and ends, boxes and 55-gallon drums. The vibrations loosen stuff.”
That goes for ice operations, and during heavy seas while crossing the Pacific on their way from Seattle to Antarctica.
The round is not in vain. Tapia checks the tightness of the hatches on the ship's bow, then makes his way aft, or toward the back of the cutter, to check the flight deck. It turns out that there is a loose safety net, and he's quick to rig some line around the net to secure it in place. Without a constant watch, things are capable of just falling apart under the steady vibration of ice breaking.
With the deck now secure, Tapia heads back up to the bridge. It's almost time for lunch, which will mean reliefs for everyone, including this watch period's lookout. Seaman Joe Vaccaro, also a member of the deck department, gazes forward out one of the many windows, a pair of binoculars in hand.
“When we're breaking ice, all we stand is lookout,” says Vaccaro, who normally would also rotate through the helmsman position when an ice pilot isn't driving. “Marine life is more of a concern as we break the channel, you'll have whales coming into the path we broke and seals hopping in and out.”
While breaking a channel to the National Science Foundation's McMurdo Station is the key component of Operation Deep Freeze 2016, the U.S. military' logistical support to the NSF-managed U.S. Antarctic Program, the cutter's crew also strives not to disturb the Antarctic wildlife. In a land as untouched as this, the watchstanders do what they can to minimize impact.
All the bridge watchstanders head down to lunch as their reliefs arrive, but the Polar Star is still charging ahead through the ice, backing and ramming the miles away. And that brings us to the next watch, the ice pilots of aloft conn.
1200-1600 ... Ice Pilot
Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star ice pilots and break-in ice pilots control steering and propulsion from the icebreaker's aloft conn in McMurdo Sound, Antarctica, Jan. 9, 2016. The ice pilot is an officer of the deck with further expertise in navigating through sea ice. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Grant DeVuyst)
A series of ladders from the bridge lead up five levels to a confined working space with the best view on the cutter. With one qualified watchstander and two break-ins learning the watch, the little crow's nest of a room quickly becomes crowded. The view, however, makes up for the lack of personal space.
The entire cutter lies out below aloft conn, and the 360 degrees of glass allow a sight unlike any other on board. The heightened position adds another two miles or so to the ice pilot's horizon, which is the entire point of driving way up above everything else.
“It gives you the height of eye to see a lot further,” says Petty Officer 1st Class Steve Braun, a boatswain's mate in the Polar Star's deck department. “This way you can pick out your path once we get to the larger floes, because the idea is: if you don't have to, don't break it. Find the easiest route to put the least stress on the ship.”
When the Polar Star hits ice, nowhere is it felt quite like in aloft conn. The center of the ship is the fulcrum, and the small control room swings and shudders wildly as the cutter bucks and rocks.
At the moment there are only three qualified ice pilots on the cutter, but Braun will join their ranks soon. He stands now at the throttles and helm, preparing to plow into the ice between the Polar Star and McMurdo Station, Antarctica.
“Three knots ahead,” says Master Chief Petty Officer Greg Zerfass, a boatswain's mate in the Polar Star's navigation division. “Five ahead, seven ahead, eight.”
His voice trails off and is replaced by an explosion of rattling as everyone in aloft conn, and likely most of the crew below, braces for the unpredictable clash of steel on ice. The process continues for all four hours, and at the end of the watch their hard work shows.
McMurdo Station is nearly four miles closer; progress from the total 12 miles between the U.S. base and open water.
As Braun powers through another ramming of the ice, a familiar voice comes over the radio: “Conn, main control, could you come back half on center?”
It's the engineer of the watch, letting the ice pilots know that their propulsion is being pushed to its limit. The engineer of the watch (EOW) is our next watch, and for that we head below deck to the core of the ship.
1600-2000 ... Engineers of the Watch
Lt. Spencer Ross, the Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star's assistant engineer officer, works with the cutter's machinery software while underway in McMurdo Sound, Antarctica, Jan. 9, 2016. Engineer watchstanders monitor machinery and respond to alarms from engineer control central. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Grant DeVuyst)
The mere thought of learning the purpose of every dial, monitor, meter, alarm, switch and button in the Polar Star's engineering control center is overwhelming. Gray panels stretch out in front of two black chairs. Computer screens show graphic readouts of propulsion, power and auxiliary equipment. It's a lot to take in. It's easy to imagine the learning process for the entire console could take years. But here sit two watchstanders, the engineer of the watch and the assistant engineer of the watch, who know exactly what's going on, despite the relatively short length of a tour aboard the cutter.
During this phase of icebreaking, the scene is controlled chaos. The EOW and AEOW sit quite literally on the edge of their seats, ready to act when the inevitable problem occurs. It doesn't take long.
Master Chief Petty Officer Ron Ritter, a machinery technician who oversees the Polar Star's auxiliary machinery division, is quick to inform the ice pilot when the wing propeller on the port side of the cutter takes too much of a beating.
“Conn, main control, port shaft is in shaft protect,” he says as one of the screens in front of him warns him of the change in state.
Other alarms sound around the space. It's not just propulsion that the EOW and AEOW are monitoring, but also the ship's power supply, in the form of diesel generators, and all auxiliary machinery that provides heating, cooling, refrigeration, water, and sewage to the crew and passengers.
“The main thing that the engineer of the watch and the assistant engineer of the watch are doing is monitoring all the machinery on the MCAM system, which is the five different screens you see here,” Ritter says, gesturing to his watch station. “We're also monitoring the main propulsion and main gas turbines. We hit heavy ice, which can sometimes send them into an overload condition.”
Their response requires steady attention to the display at hand and communication with aloft conn, where the movement of the ship is being controlled.
“It's the nature of the ice,” Ritter adds. “It takes a toll on the machinery.”
The EOW and AEOW are in the zone, and not proverbially, through the entire four hours of watch, especially while the Polar Star is breaking ice. Distractions are kept to a minimum, and nobody is allowed to come between the two watchstanders and their control center, an area referred to as “the zone.”
While the monitoring system gives a remote picture of the ship's machinery, it's not capable of affecting repairs or identifying issues outside its programmed function. This is why the EOW has the auxiliary and security watchstanders, two positions we'll get to tomorrow. But for now it's been a long day of watch, and if you're going to be ready to stand another day like this, it's time to get some chow from the galley and hit the rack. The ship has finally stopped breaking ice for the day, so make sure to get plenty of rest before the shuddering of forward progress starts again in the morning.
By U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Grant DeVuyst
Provided through Coast Guard
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