Written by Chief Petty Officer Nick Ameen
A sprawling world of engineering equipment exists below the main deck of the Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star. Without it, the ship cannot operate.
The Polar Star’s engineering department ensures the ship’s mechanical and electrical equipment is working properly, but the harsh conditions of Antarctica provide many challenges for the aging ship, which has been around longer than many of its crew members.
The 399-foot icebreaker is the Nation’s only operational heavy icebreaker. It is responsible for many missions including clearing a channel every year through the frozen Ross Sea as part of Operation Deep Freeze, which is the U.S. military’s contribution to the National Science Foundation (NSF)-managed U.S. Antarctic Program. The channel it creates provides safe passage for supply ships making crucial deliveries to NSF’s McMurdo Station in Antarctica. Pummeling through ice up to 10 feet thick takes a toll on the ship, which goes into drydock annually for maintenance and repairs.
Fireman Evan Bonesteel reported aboard the Polar Star in April of 2017 and became familiarized with the ship while it was in drydock. He says getting to know the ship during drydock was beneficial as it provided the time to familiarize himself with the ship’s machinery and firefighting capabilities before heading out for his first operational deployment.
Since reporting aboard, Bonesteel has contributed to numerous repairs aboard the ship, and he says he’s enjoyed the learning experience each project has presented.
“For me, as a fireman going into an engineering rating, I don’t think there’s a better cutter to be on,” said Bonesteel. “You don’t learn anything when things don’t break.”
One project Bonesteel worked on was the rebuild of an air-operated pump, which is used for waste oil and bilge movement.
“We rebuilt this thing three times in a row even though it was pretty new, but we’ve had all sorts of suction issues,” said Bonesteel. “Being on a cutter of this age, you can’t tell what the issue is. We have to check every part of the system; we can’t go under the assumption that everything else is working.”
The crew of Polar Star overcame several engineering issues during their deployment to Antarctica including two instances that required some damage control efforts to contain. Lt. Cmdr. Chris Pelar, the Polar Star’s engineer officer, is responsible for the ship’s machinery, electrical distribution systems and the nearly 50 members of the ship’s engineering department.
“The biggest challenge of this deployment has been finding the unknowns—those things we didn’t think about,” said Pelar. “We had one issue that cascaded into several different casualties. It seems crazy that one small component can fail on one system that has a much larger impact on the entire cutter as the casualty begins to cascade into other system failures.”
Pelar says his engineering crew is great at what they do and they make it possible for the ship to fulfill its mission. Members of his department have gone as far as using a lathe to fashion custom parts from raw materials in order to keep the ship running. One such project was completed by Chief Petty Officer Mark Price, a machinery technician, and Petty Officer 2nd Class Jonny Walker, a marine science technician. Price and Walker worked with brass and synthetic resin to create bushings used to protect the ship’s shafts.
“The bushing they designed and installed connects the anti-rotation bar to the hull of the ship and the controllable pitch propeller system’s oil distribution box,” said Pelar.
Pelar said without the anti-rotation bar installed there could exist the potential for the oil distribution box to rotate and break.
As the Polar Star continues to age, its tenacious crew continues to display disciplined initiative while rising to the challenge of keeping it operating.
“The crew of Polar Star is highly dedicated to ensuring the vessel carries on its proud tradition of being ready to meet the Nation’s multifaceted needs in the remote polar regions and will continue to do so until the Coast Guard is able to deliver new heavy polar icebreakers,” said Capt. Mike Davanzo, commanding officer of Polar Star.