After an 86-day transit from its homeport in Seattle, the only U.S. heavy icebreaker, USCGC Polar Star (WAGB 10), arrived at McMurdo Station in Antarctica.
This marks Polar Star’s 25th trip to Antarctica in support of Operation Deep Freeze, a mission conducted each year jointly by the military services to resupply U.S. Antarctic stations in support of the National Science Foundation, lead agency of the U.S. Antarctic Program.
Each year, the crew of the Polar Star pilots the 399-foot, 13,000-ton cutter to open a navigable channel through miles of ice, sometimes up to 21 feet thick, to get fuel and supply ships to McMurdo Station, the logistics hub and largest station in the U.S. Antarctic Program.
The Polar Star with its 157 crew members arrived in the Ross Sea, Antarctica, on Jan. 3 and began breaking through the 37 miles of ice stretching from the Winter Quarters Bay ice pier at McMurdo Station to open water.
The Polar Star spent four weeks breaking through the ice and preparing the shipping channel, aided by favorable winds and currents. By the end of the month she had created open, ice-free access for supply vessels.
The cleared channel to McMurdo Station allowed two supply vessels, the Maersk Peary and the Ocean Giant, to safely offload a year’s worth of supplies: more than 8 million gallons of fuel and 1,000 containers of cargo. Together, these two vessels carry enough fuel, food and critical supplies to sustain USAP operations year-round until the next austral summer in 2023.
During its voyage to Antarctica, the Polar Star made international calls in Wellington and Lyttelton, New Zealand. Polar Star will also partner with the Royal New Zealand Navy’s largest ship, Her Royal Majesty’s New Zealand Ship Aotearoa, to support resupply at Scott Base, New Zealand’s year-round Antarctic research facility.
“It is a great honor to lead the men and women of Polar Star on this important mission,” said Capt. William Woityra, Polar Star’s commanding officer. “This team has brought renewed energy and passion to this 46-year-old ship, and has overcome significant challenges to deliver exceptional results.”
Assigned to Operation Deep Freeze each year, the 46-year-old icebreaker spends January and February breaking ice in Antarctica before returning to the United States.
This year also marks Polar Star’s return to Antarctica after last year’s operation was put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the 2020-2021 season, Polar Star conducted a winter deployment to the Arctic, during which the ship traveled as far as the Arctic Circle. The deployment set a record for the farthest north any U.S. surface ship has been in the winter months
“We are delighted to welcome the return of the Polar Star to McMurdo Station this year,” said Stephanie Short, chief of NSF’s Antarctic Infrastructure and Logistics section. “The continuation of vital U.S. Antarctic Program operations simply would not be possible without [Cutter’s] support and the hard work of the captain and crew.”