Written by Chief Petty Officer Nick Ameen
Each year when the Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star visits Antarctica, its crew faces a unique challenge. Creating a navigable channel through a frozen sea to the National Science’s Foundation’s (NSF) McMurdo Station, where the ice is up to 10 feet thick, requires a particular set of skills. This is why the Polar Star is one of only two Coast Guard cutters with qualified ice pilots aboard.
Ice pilots are responsible for navigating the ship through different types of ice. On their way to Antarctica, ice pilots will first negotiate pack ice—large pieces of floating ice—before reaching the fast ice, which extends out from the shore and is attached to it.
Becoming an ice pilot requires a member of the ship to also be a qualified deck watch officer, responsible for the ship’s navigation through more typical sea conditions.
“Normal deck watch officers monitor vessel traffic, hazards to navigation, and weather and sea conditions,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Eric Hëyob, a boatswain’s mate and ice pilot aboard the Polar Star. “For us, ice is what we transit through and it can also be a hazard to navigation, so being an ice pilot lends the ability to figure out what’s good to hit, what’s not good to hit, what’s the best route to take and how to best approach that situation.”
Hëyob said one of the biggest challenges of becoming an ice pilot was learning all the terminology associated with the specialized certification, as well as knowing how ice reacts based on what stage it’s in.
Ice pilots aboard the Polar Star perform their duties from aloft conn, which is located more than 100 feet above sea level. It’s a vertical climb of 60 steps up several cramped ladders to get to aloft conn, where a 360-degree view of the ship’s surroundings offers the best vantage point to most effectively break ice. Aloft conn, a small enclosed space, houses the equipment necessary to steer the ship and control the engines, as well as monitor radar and radio. There’s also a digital navigational chart to monitor the ship’s position and movement.
Capt. Michael Davanzo, the Polar Star’s commanding officer, places a strong emphasis on training his ship’s ice pilots. He said it’s one of his three main goals for the deployment, along with mission success and getting home safely.
“We have a pretty robust training program,” said Davanzo. “We have to train the future ice pilots, so we take advantage of our underway time during Operation Deep Freeze.”
Operation Deep Freeze is the U.S. military’s logistical contribution to the NSF-managed U.S. Antarctic Program, the national program of scientific research on the southernmost continent.
Davanzo added that the Polar Star has just six qualified ice pilots so getting people qualified for Operation Deep Freeze 2019 is imperative.
“This is my second deployment now with the Polar Star, and it’s been absolutely rewarding,” said Hëyob. “It was challenging going through all the qualifications but now that I’m fully qualified it’s nice getting to pass on the knowledge to the newer folks.”
Becoming an ice pilot in the Coast Guard is rare, as the opportunity is only available to those serving aboard the Polar Star and the Coast Guard Cutter Healy, which carries out science support in the Arctic. Earning the qualification is tough, but it places the member in a small community of polar sailors who have what it takes to guide a ship through some of the most unusual sea conditions on Earth.