The heavy-duty ship the US needs to protect its thawing border with Russia ‘is just falling apart,’ captain says

Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star Alaska Arctic
Petty Officer 1st Class Wahkene Kitchenmaster removes ice from Polar Star’s hull in below-freezing temperatures in the Chukchi Sea, December 28, 2020. US Coast Guard/PO1 Cynthia Oldham
  • Polar Star, the Coast Guard’s only working icebreaker, wrapped up an Arctic mission in February.
  • The 45-year-old ship is “definitely showing its age,” its commanding officer said.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The months-long Arctic operation that Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star finished last month was a rare mission for the US’s sole heavy icebreaker.

It was the first time a US icebreaker had been in the Arctic in winter since 1982. The crew overcame “treacherous” conditions, but they also grappled with a problem aboard the ship that may hinder the US’s Arctic ambitions.

Polar Star is “now 45 years old, and it’s definitely showing its age,” Capt. William Woityra, Polar Star’s commanding officer, said in February at an event cohosted by the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the Nome office of Alaska Sea Grant.

“We were up to this mission, and we were excited to undertake it, but it took the crew working around the clock to keep the ship running,” Woityra added.

Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star Alaska Arctic
Polar Star in the Chukchi Sea, December 19, 2020. US Coast Guard/Lt. Jared Payne.

Polar Star can break through 6.40m of ice and sail through 40- to 50-foot seas (though seas much lower than that can incapacitate the crew, Woityra previously told Insider).

The icebreaker’s usual wintertime trip to Antarctica to help resupply the McMurdo Sound research station was canceled because of the pandemic. It was sent north after the US’s only other oceangoing icebreaker, Healy, broke down as it sailed to the Arctic.

Polar Star has its own history of breakdowns, which cropped up again.

“On New Year’s Eve, we actually got stopped in the ice,” Woityra said. “We had a diode on our AC-to-DC rectifier that blew out, and we had to replace it. And this is a part that is no longer available. It’s not made anymore.”

Polar Star has a split propulsion system. In addition to gas turbines, it has what Woityra called “basically locomotive engines” powering generators that send power through that rectifier to turn a propeller shaft.

“We’ve got a few dozen of these in a box on a shelf,” Woityra said of the diode. “When they’re gone, the ship will not be able to run anymore. It’s really kind of disconcerting … that this ship, and this operation, and the US’s icebreaking presence in the Arctic is reliant on a box of spare parts that … there are no more of.”

Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star Arctic Bering Alaska
Crew from Polar Star enjoys a brief ice liberty on the frozen Bering Sea, January 30, 2021. US Coast Guard/PO1 Cynthia Oldham

Parts for Polar Star are dwindling. Crews have stripped replacement parts from its out-of-service sister ship, Polar Sea, and even turned to eBay to find a resistor unavailable elsewhere.

“The only source of supply in the world was on eBay,” Woityra told Insider during the event. “We worked with the supplier to actually pull listing from eBay, and we were able to use normal government contracting mechanisms to purchase those resistors.”

“With a ship that’s almost 50 years old, every single part of it is just falling apart, and there’s no one-for-one replacement to keep it going,” Woityra added.

Polar Star is set to begin a five-year service-life extension program this summer to keep it going for another decade. The Coast Guard has awarded a contract for a new icebreaker, which it expects by 2024, with two more by 2030.

Leasing an icebreaker is also being considered as a near-term option, as other countries expand their icebreaker fleets.

‘We’re pushing back’

Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star Alaska Arctic
Polar Star’s deck department removes ice from the ship’s deck and deck equipment while in the Chukchi Sea, December 28, 2020. US Coast Guard/PO1 Cynthia Oldham

Despite mechanical challenges, the Coast Guard was enthusiastic about Polar Star’s mission, which included testing communications technology for the Defense Department and scientific research in an environment and at a time of year for which data is scant.

“It had been 40 years since the Coast Guard had been operating in this region,” Woityra said. “So here was a chance to gather some in-situ data that was normally not available under any circumstances.”

American researchers, Merchant Marine Academy midshipmen, and Royal Navy sailors were also aboard Polar Star for the mission, as were junior Coast Guard members, there to train as the service tries to rebuild its Arctic proficiency.

“We’ve really got to build out a future fleet of icebreaker sailors, as the Arctic … becomes increasingly more an area of focus and becomes increasingly more accessible,” Adm. Karl Schultz, commandant of the Coast Guard, said at a separate event last month.

That increasing accessibility, driven by climate change, has made the Arctic a growing venue for geopolitical competition. The Bering Strait, which separates the US and Russia, is likely to be a focal point for that competition.

Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star Alaska Arctic
The Aurora Borealis is seen from Polar Star while patrolling in the Chukchi Sea, December 21, 2020. US Coast Guard/Seaman Joseph Soderling

Schultz, Woityra, and other Coast Guard officials have stressed that the service has a good relationship with its Russian counterpart, but a major Russian military exercise in the area last summer, during which Russian warships harassed US fishing boats, added to tensions.

Polar Star’s crew was aware of that encounter and was motivated to “defend US interests” and support Alaskans, Woityra said.

When Polar Star patrolled the US-Russian maritime boundary, the Russian fishing fleet “was well on their side,” Woityra said. While in the strait, Polar Star also saw “regular overflights by Russian border-patrol aircraft.”

“We knew that they were coming. They knew where we were,” Woityra said. “We got word 12 to 24 hours ahead of time … and when they came into range, they held us on VHF radio, we exchanged information, everything went exactly as according to plan.”

Schultz said last month that “having a pragmatic relationship with the Russians is a good thing,” as it facilitates cooperation on search-and-rescue operations, environmental management, and disaster response, but the service is “projecting our sovereign interest” in the region, Schultz added.

“Russia’s pushing up against that line, and we’re pushing back,” Schultz said.