The Coast Guard’s only operational heavy polar icebreaker experienced a fire last month that took two hours to extinguish and that came closely on the heels of completing its annual ice breaking mission to resupply U.S. scientists in Antarctica.
“It’s always a serious matter whenever a shipboard fire breaks out at sea, and it’s even more concerning when that ship is in one of the most remote places on Earth,” Vice Adm. Linda Fagan, commander of the Coast Guard’s Pacific Area, said in a statement on Feb. 28. “The crew of the Polar Star did an outstanding job. Their expert response and determination ensured the safety of everyone aboard.”
If the 43-year old Polar Star were to suffer a catastrophic event that left it stuck in the ice, the Coast Guard has no self-rescue capability. The service’s only other operational polar icebreaker, the medium icebreaker Healy, performs annual scientific missions in the Arctic.
The fire broke out on Feb. 10 in the ship’s incinerator room and had to be contained by fire crews aboard the Polar Star after initial attempts to douse the flames with four fire extinguishers failed. In addition to the damage to the incinerator, some electrical systems and insulation in the compartment were damaged by water used to halt the blaze.
A spokesman for the Coast Guard’s Pacific Area told Defense Daily that the loss of the incinerator doesn’t limit the operation of the Polar Star, which is due back to its homeport in Seattle on March 11.
There were no injuries and the fire is under investigation.
The Polar Star departed Seattle last Nov. 27 for the annual mission and arrived in Antarctica on Jan. 17 to lead the resupply effort through McMurdo Sound, where it broke ice six to 10 feet thick over 17 miles leading to the scientific operations at McMurdo Station. The mission was completed a day before the fire, which occurred 650 miles north of McMurdo Sound.
Before the Polar Star began its ice breaking missions in January, the ship had already suffered several casualties, including a leak to a propeller drive shaft that caused a halt in ice breaking operations while scuba divers repaired a seal, damage to an electrical switchboard and one of its two evaporators used to make drinking water. The switchboard was repaired by the crew and the evaporator was repaired after parts were received during a port call in New Zealand.
The cutter also experienced power outages throughout the vessel during ice breaking operations that took the crew nine hours to fix by shutting down the power plant and rebooting electrical systems.
Every year after completing its ice breaking mission, the Polar Star goes into drydock for annual maintenance and repairs. The spokesman said the incinerator fix is being added to the list.
The drydock operation is being competed. Once a shipyard is selected for the repairs, which is expected within two months, the Polar Star will proceed to the repair yard.
Last year during its ice breaking mission, the Polar Star also suffered a failed shaft seal that resulted in flooding to its engine room. Also, one of the ship’s three main gas turbine engines failed.
The Coast Guard is on track before the end of September to award a contract for the design and construction of a new heavy icebreaker, dubbed the Polar Security Cutter, which is expected to be delivered in 2023. In the meantime, the service plans to make fixes to the Polar Star to keep it operational until the mid-2020s. The planned operational life of the Polar Star was 30 years.
The Coast Guard plans to buy three PSCs, and eventually wants to buy three new medium icebreakers.