They scrounged parts, took spares from their laid-up sistership, even resorted to buying decades-old electrical parts on E-Bay. Then on their last deployments to Antarctica, the crew of the 40-year-old Polar Star headed off potential major casualties that could have crippled the only operational U.S. heavy icebreaker.
On Thursday U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft visited the Polar Star crew in Seattle, where the 399’x83’6”x31’ ship is dry docked at the Vigor Industrial shipyard, not far from sistership Polar Sea. Zukunft presented the crew with a Unit Commendation Award for their efforts in the Southern Hemisphere, including four general emergencies – three fires and a major lube oil leak.
Zukunft gave particular recognition to three: Petty Officer 1st Class Kevin Oakes, Petty Officer 3rd Class Augustin Foguet, and Seaman Manon Mullen. Their stories underscore problems with maintaining the Polar Star, an increasingly difficult challenge that will go on for years until the U.S. builds a new heavy icebreaker class.
Foguet, a damage controlman, and Mullen, a deck hand, helped repair the cutter’s thrust bearing bracket after it suffered a catastrophic failure while the cutter was breaking 6’ to 8’ thick ice in Antarctica Jan. 23. The thrust bearing bracket, a series of beams about the size of an SUV, supports the propeller shaft.
The failure triggered a 36-hour race to repair the structurally unstable bracket before it could potentially collapse under the weight of the shaft. Foguet was part of the team that crawled into the confined spaces of the bracket to weld the structure back together. Mullen helped prepare the area for welding, conducted fire watches during the around-the-clock welding operation and worked to clean up to resume operations.
Oakes, an electrician’s mate, used a shipmate’s surfboard repair kit to fix one of the cutter’s generators after the system shorted out and began smoking. The ship’s generators and electrical switchboards are frequently a problem to maintain, because parts are no longer manufactured. At one point the crew hunted down fuses from a seller on E-Bay, Gary Rasicot, the Coast Guard’s director of marine transportation systems, told members of Congress last year.
Enroute to Antarctica, the Polar Star had lost power to one of its shafts Dec. 13 and was operating on reduced power. Specially designed replacement parts for the 40-year-old generator would not be available in time to carry out the mission. After researching online and brainstorming a design, Oakes used the surfboard repair kit to fabricate a new replacement part and get the generator running.
The Polar Star is critical for resupplying the U.S. McMurdo Research Station in the Ross Sea, where it breaks the channel so resupply ships can deliver food, fuel and supplies to restock the scientists’ base for the Antarctic winter. The icebreaker itself also serves as a scientific research platform, with five laboratories and accommodations for up to 20 scientists.