A little over a month after returning from its annual resupply mission in support of the U.S. Antarctic Program, the crew of the Coast Guard’s only active heavy polar icebreaker is preparing to leave its homeport in Seattle for a quick transit to California for its annual dry dock maintenance period to prepare the ship for the start of its next mission to Antarctica later this year.

The Polar Star will leave port on April 18 and arrive April 22 at Mare Island Dry Dock, LLC near San Francisco for at least four months of repairs and possibly five or six, Capt. Gregory Stanclik, the commanding officer of the 399-foot ice breaker, told Defense Daily in telephone interview on April 5. Come mid-November, the 43-year old ship will begin its annual trek to break ice to assist the resupply of the National Science Foundation’s McMurdo Station, he said.

Last November, as the Polar Star was about to sail for Operation Deep Freeze 2019, the Coast Guard began soliciting sources for the annual dry dock contracts, listing dozens of work items to be performed between mid-April and mid-August 2019. Stanclik said that once the ship arrives at Mare Island and maintenance and repairs get underway, unanticipated work could tack another month or two onto the schedule.

Coast Guard heavy icebreaker Polar Star in dry dock at Mare Island Dry Dock in 2018. Photo: Mare Island Dry Dock

The icebreaker arrived home to Seattle on March 11 after a 105-day mission in support of Operation Deep Freeze 2018, opening a channel through the ice for supply ships to get to the station. The deployment was the sixth in six years after the ship spent six years in “caretaker” status, which included a four year overhaul to extend its life.

The Polar Star was reactivated in 2013 and the Coast Guard is preparing to conduct another service life extension program for so the vessel can remain viable into the mid-2020s, around the time the second of three planned new Polar Security Cutters (PSC), a new icebreaker, is delivered.

Despite the relatively recent refurbishment, the Polar Star continues to show its age. In the latest voyage, the ship suffered “several high-risk casualties,” including an incinerator fire, a leak in a propeller shaft seal, and power outages, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz has repeatedly told congressional panels this year during fiscal year 2020 budget hearings.

“Events like these reinforce the reality that we are only one major casualty away from leaving the Nation without any heavy icebreaking capability,” Schultz said.

The various casualties on the last voyage typically took between six to 48 hours to repair, and overall, accounted for 38 percent of the mission time from the start of breaking ice until completion of the operation, Stanclik said.

“The casualties inhibit forward progress,” he said. “The only mission inhibitor is stopping to complete repairs.”

The steel hull of the Polar Star is in “excellent shape” and the horsepower in the engines and turbines is “still there,” Stanclik said.

Most of the casualties are driven by the age of the ship and have to deal with the electrical components despite preventative maintenance, Stanclik said. Wires and contacts that were charred wires and burnt from an electrical fire in a switchboard on the latest mission were as old as the ship, he said. The controlled pitch propeller on the Polar Star is also more apt to fail during ice strikes, he said.

Stanclik has spent 15 of the last 17 years involved with the Coast Guard’s icebreakers in one way or another. He has served as the engineering officer and executive officer on the Coast Guard Cutter Healy, the service’s only medium icebreaker, and has had a number of assignments related to maintenance and logistics related to the various icebreakers and other vessels. Before taking command of the Polar Star last June, he spent three weeks aboard the ship last January as it was heading toward McMurdo for Operation Deep Freeze 2018.

Despite the age of the ship and the “arduous duty” of being away from homeport for many months, Stanclik said serving on the Polar Star is a “highly desired assignment” given the uniqueness of the mission.

“Everyone wants to be here,” Stanclik said, adding, it’s a “mission of national importance … a no fail mission. We are part of a team that keeps the South Pole station open year round.”

Within a month, the Coast Guard is expected to award a detailed design and construction contract to a shipbuilder for the PSC. The Coast Guard wants at least three PSCs, which would be available for missions in the Arctic and Antarctic. Longer-term, the service also wants to eventually have three medium icebreakers. The Healy currently supports scientific missions in the Arctic.