Written by Chief Petty Officer Nick Ameen
Leading a crew across oceans to the bottom of the Earth should not be taken lightly. It takes experience, patience and wisdom to succeed in such an endeavor.
The great explorers Capt. Robert Falcon Scott and Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton foresaw the benefit of Antarctica and its secrets waiting to be discovered. But beyond their vision was something else: the ability to lead.
More than a century after Scott’s Discovery Expedition, mankind continues to uncover Antarctica’s mysteries through scientific analysis. In the modern era, new techniques are employed to maintain yearlong research. The National Science Foundation oversees the U.S. Antarctic Program, which operates at multiple bases on the distant continent.
Each year in January—during the Southern Hemisphere’s summer—the U.S. Coast Guard assists with the resupply of these bases by creating a navigable channel through the frozen Ross Sea for supply ships. The Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star, a 399-foot icebreaker homeported in Seattle, is the sole operational heavy icebreaker in the United States’ fleet, and its crew makes the annual voyage aboard the 40-year-old ship to ensure Antarctic research continues.
Capt. Michael Davanzo has overseen two missions to Antarctica since he took command of the Polar Star in July of 2016. Becoming the commanding officer of the icebreaker was Davanzo’s first choice, and he says being selected for the assignment was both a surprise and an honor.
“There’s something about the raw, desolate beauty of Antarctica that moves you,” said Davanzo. “Operating in these conditions is a great challenge. The ice is thick and the wind is cold, and we’re working to break the ice while keeping the crew and the ship safe so we can complete the mission.”
That mission consists of the Polar Star’s crew making the 9,000-mile journey from Seattle to McMurdo Station, Antarctica, in order to create a channel for supply ships to deliver fuel and goods. Those deliveries help to keep the National Science Foundation’s research centers operational for a full year.
“The main part of our goal is to establish a track into the ice pier and create a turning basin so we can get the cargo ships from the ice edge to the pier without damaging their ship, and facilitating the safe movement of cargo into McMurdo,” said Davanzo. “The second part of our goal is to not break our ship in the process, because we have to get home. If you’re not careful or if you enter the ice too fast, you can damage the ship. We’re the nation’s only heavy icebreaker, so we have to keep it running for years to come to keep the mission viable. The final part of our goal is to train future polar sailors because we need to increase the pool of qualified people.”
Davanzo’s leadership ensures his crew’s proficiency at navigating through the ice of Antarctica. Having that knowledge bequeathed from crew to crew allows the mission to continue for years to come. As the Antarctic landscape once again freezes over, Coast Guard ice captains will be there to lead the expedition and ensure mission success.