This blog is part of a series following Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star on their journey to Antarctica in support of Operation Deep Freeze 2015.
Written by Petty Officer 1st Class George Degener
Without them, the ship goes nowhere. The 93 members of the engineering department aboard Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star are responsible for the propulsion, steering, electrical, sewage, ventilation, firefighting and damage control systems on board the heavy icebreaker supporting the U.S. Antarctic Program through Operation Deep Freeze 2015.
Deep Freeze is a multi-agency operation, the military component of the U.S. Antarctic Program, which is managed by the National Science Foundation. The cutter’s crew is responsible for breaking a channel through ice and escorting cargo and fuel ships to McMurdo Station, NSF’s logistics hub on the continent.
While the cutter’s deployment in support of Deep Freeze is scheduled to be four months, the engineering department began preparations well before the cutter departed its homeport of Seattle in November 2014. After returning from the previous deployment in April, the ship underwent dockside maintenance in Seattle, and in July, the ship went into a three-month dry dock period in Vallejo, California. While in dry dock, the engineers monitored major overhauls to the ship’s three main shafts, propellers, and oil distribution box.
“We lived on the ship while the contractors at the shipyard were doing the work,” said Chief Warrant Officer Paul Smith, main propulsion assistant aboard Polar Star. “We see what they do and act as quality control.”
While underway, engineers must respond to any issues that arise within the systems aboard Polar Star, some of which include original equipment from when the ship was commissioned in 1976. Electrician’s mates troubleshoot issues with the ship’s diesel generators and have a responsibility for anything that uses electricity; machinery technicians maintain steering gear, diesel engines, turbines, and auxiliary equipment; damage controlmen maintain the sewage system, and ensure that the crew has the proper equipment and training to respond to any damage the ship my incur. Electronics technicians and information systems technicians maintain computers and consoles that allow engineering watchstanders to maintain a clear picture of how each system is functioning and respond to emerging situations.
The environment in which the engineers thrive is a challenge in and of itself. Watchstanders expertly traverse spaces containing dangerous equipment that will cause serious injury without explicit attention to detail. While transiting across the Pacific Ocean near the equator, temperatures in engineering spaces reached more than 100-degrees due to heat produced by six main diesel engines, three turbine engines, three ship’s service diesel generators and auxiliary machinery.
“We like to work hard,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Collin Morales, an electrician’s mate. “You can look into every shop and find someone working seven days a week.”
The cutter’s area of operations in the ice and waters surrounding Antarctica provides no support system for the engineers working in the ship. On their own, the crew must combine their efforts and assist one another when either routine, or unforeseen problems arise with machinery systems necessary for safe shipboard operations.
Weather also dictates significant changes to the engineering systems. Ice-valve alignment is a complex procedure made necessary when the ship enters extremely cold water. Engineers carefully open and close specific valves in order to prevent small ice chunks from being sucked into the ship’s intake. Ice valve alignment also allows warmer water to circulate throughout the ship, preventing vital systems from freezing.
“We are pretty much all by ourselves out here,” said Morales. “We’re the ones that have to get things done.”
From the ship’s bow to the stern light, and from high in the aloft conning tower to the lowest bilge, every space in Polar Star holds equipment and machinery that the ship’s engineers have to maintain in order to keep the screws turning and the lights burning.