This blog is part of a series of posts following the crew of Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star as they journey to Antarctica for Operation Deep Freeze 2016. Follow their journey here on Coast Guard Compass!
This is the second blog in a two-part blog series highlighting what day-to-day life is like aboard Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star. To read the first blog, please view it here.
0800-1200 – Radio
There’s a door on the Polar Star, just one deck below the bridge, with a nice big warning sign. Past the point of the door there is no photography allowed or, for that matter, so much as a written description of what lies beyond. For that reason, we’ll keep this watch focused on what happens behind the mysterious door, which is a connection to the outside world.
The qualified radio watchstander this morning is Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Toomey, an operations specialist in the Polar Star’s communications division who is currently on his third mission to Antarctica.
Toomey starts his watch by logging on to the radio room’s computer, a key aspect of the radio watch. It may seem simple, but the radio watchstander’s 24-hour monitoring of their email accounts makes them the easiest members of the crew to contact should the cutter’s command back at Coast Guard Pacific Area in Alameda, Calif., need to send a message.
The radio room also, predictably, has an array of radios.
“We have HF and UHF communications,” says Toomey. “We can monitor the distress and general high seas frequencies.”
The radio watch does not only receive communications, either. From the little room the watchstander sends weather updates to the Navy Fleet Weather Center and operational updates and cutter position to PACAREA.
Maintaining communications is almost an afterthought in a world of cell phones and nearly ubiquitous Wi-Fi, but at 75 degrees south of the equator that’s not the case.
“If we’re off the coast of Honolulu and our satellite communication isn’t working, we’re going to do everything we can to troubleshoot,” says Toomey. “Down here we still troubleshoot, but there’s only so much you can do. The satellite we use isn’t even supposed to work this far south.”
Tyranny of distance or not, the radio watch does manage to keep the crew informed, and also manages the iridium satellite phone for timely contact with the outside world when necessary.
As the mostly quiet watch continues, Toomey takes a look out of the lone porthole in a connected room. McMurdo Station looms just in the distance. It won’t be long before he and the other crewmembers will be stretching their legs on land again. Before that happens, though, there is a channel to be cleared for Operation Deep Freeze 2016, and in the meantime there are two more watches to stand. Next up is the auxiliary watch, and for that we head back below decks to meet up in the engineering control center.
1200-1600 – Auxiliary Machinery
Back in main control the Polar Star’s engineer work force is preparing their propulsion system for another day of icebreaking. The EOW dispatches his expert, Petty Officer 3rd Class Justin Turnbough, an electrician’s mate in the Polar Star’s engineer department. He has two break-ins with him, both learning the ropes of the diverse and complicated machinery.
“The aux watch has to know electrical systems, propulsion systems, damage control systems, and diesel systems,” says Turnbough, naming a handful of the auxiliary machinery watch responsibilities. “We go throughout the ship every hour and make sure everything is running as it’s supposed to.”
Once in the cutter’s turbine room, Turnbough and his break-ins, Petty Officer 2nd Class Gavin Dunaway and Petty Officer 3rd Class Kyle Koning, both electrical technicians, prepare the three massive turbines for action. Just one of these gas turbines puts out more horsepower than all three of the ship’s diesel engines combined. With such raw power comes the need for extreme caution, honed expertise, and constant preparation to respond to an emergency.
Once the turbines are running as smoothly as possible, Turnbough begins his round about the Polar Star. The ship-wide examination is so complex that by the time he finishes, it’s time to start over again. There is not one facet of shipboard life that doesn’t rely on the equipment monitored by the auxiliary machinery watchstander. The watch is a steady walk: up and down ladders, through 100-degree turbine rooms and out into frigid Antarctic wind, from the deepest bilge to the towering smokestacks above. It passes for a moderate cardio workout.
Just as the watch ends, the ship finishes its icebreaking duty for the day. An unexpectedly thin patch of ice allowed for quick channel making, and the rumble of the laborious work grinds to a halt just as our final watch begins.
We meet the security watchstander just where the auxiliary watch ends: in the Polar Star’s main control. If you’re picturing a bouncer or Secret Service agent, you’re in for a surprise.
Fireman Corin Gilbert, a member of the Polar Star’s main propulsion division, is taking the watch and prepared to begin his own round about the ship.
Gilbert’s security watch is, in some ways, similar to the auxiliary watch, he explains.
“Security is basically going around to all the main pieces of equipment and making sure that it’s within parameters,” says Gilbert. “Like checking the lube oil levels, making sure the air pressure is up and making sure everything is running properly.”
The watch is stood exclusively by firemen, the engineering department’s newest Coast Guardsmen. With few exceptions, the Polar Star is their first assignment out of boot camp.
“The security finds something and says, ‘this is wrong,’” Gilbert says. “The aux shows up and says, ‘okay, this is how we fix it.’”
Both watch positions would be hindered without the other, and it gives newer engineers the chance to learn the machinery with backup.
Each hour Gilbert makes his round, reporting back to the EOW and taking precise readings on tanks and gauges throughout the ship, which is now settled in the ice for the night.
As Gilbert’s watch ends he relays a passdown to the oncoming watchstander. The same thing happens across the ship: on the bridge, in the radio space, and were it not past icebreaking hours, up in aloft conn. It’s the same set of standards and training in a different set of hands. A new watch full of who-knows-what hazards and surprises, but an equally prepared team ready to face them.
Hopefully you have a better picture of what life is like aboard the Polar Star, and what it takes to operate it. The mission is still just beginning, so continue to check back as we look into the history and purpose of Operation Deep Freeze 2016, the art of icebreaking in Antarctica and many more glimpses into life on the south side of the planet.