If there is one official United States government “good news” announcement to make during the pandemic year of 2020, it is that America’s only surviving heavy Antarctic Polar-class icebreaker, 44-year old U.S. Coast Guard Cutter (USCGC) Polar Star (WAGB-10), didn’t have any major or Showstopping repair issues during Operation Deep Freeze 2020 compared to Operation Deep Freeze 2019.
A Problem-plagued Operation Deep Freeze 2019
During Operation Deep Freeze 2019, CGC Polar Star experienced the following major mechanical issues that placed the icebreaker and crew in serious jeopardy during the voyage south to Antarctica. In an email exchange back in 2019, the U.S. Coast Guard’s (USCG) Pacific Command Public Affairs detailed the problems encountered during Operation Deep Freeze 2019.
- Smoke that damaged wiring on an electrical switchboard (repaired in route)
- One of the ship’s two drinking water evaporators failed (repaired in route)
- Centerline shaft seal broke, allowing water to flood into the engine room of the ship (hull patch applied by divers, seal repaired, and water pumped out)
- Two ship-wide power outages while breaking ice in McMurdo Sound (system restarted)
- An Incinerator Room fire that damaged the incinerator and some electrical wiring in the room. There were no personnel injuries or damage to equipment outside the space.
Despite the engineering causalities last year, Polar Star succeeded in breaking through to resupply McMurdo Station during Operation Deep Freeze 2019 and then sailed back to homeport, Seattle, before sailing to Mare Island Dry Dock LLC, Vallejo, California for her annual 2019 maintenance period. Mare Island Dry Dock has also performed annual repair and servicing for the Polar Star in 2017 and 2018. The Polar-class icebreaker received a $57 million overhaul in 2012, completed by Vigor Industrial Shipyards in Seattle. Vigor Shipyards also painted the exterior of the icebreaker in 2017.
During Operation Deep Freeze 2019, the incinerator caught fire and damaged the electrical wires in that room. The U.S. Coast Guard’s Pacific Command Public Affairs Assistant, PACS Nyxo Lyno Cangemi updated Naval News via email in August 2020 on the repairs performed to the Incinerator Room:
“The incinerator itself was replaced, with its supporting systems also repaired and replaced as needed, including fans and associated wiring. Most of the damage was contained within the incinerator itself, and the system has been restored to fully-operational condition. A total rebuild of the compartment [room] was not necessary.”
PACS Cangemi explained the needed electrical repairs sustained during the Operation Deep Freeze 2019’s two power plant failures. “Supporting electronics and wiring were repaired and replaced as needed. Inspections indicate it would not have led to a total power plant failure; however, it precluded safe incinerator usage.”
Naval News asked if the 2019 Dry Dock had any significant vendor supplier issues in obtaining repair and replacement parts. “There were no significant issues with repair/replacement of the incinerator. However, for the entire ship, repairs and parts availability are increasingly challenging due to the age of the ship and systems obsolesce,” PACS Cangemi said.
The Polar Star’s FY2020 Dry Docking and SLEP
In an email exchange in July-August 2020 with U.S. Coast Guard’s Pacific Command Public Affairs Assistant, PACS Nyxo Lyno Cangemi, the Coast Guard explained how Dry Dock 2020 differs from Dry Dock 2019.
Since Operation Deep Freeze 2020’s voyage produced no major repair issues, the Polar Star left Vallejo’s Mare Island Dry Dock, the site and contractor of many of WAGB-10’s previous years’ annual dry docking, relatively on time this year.
Polar Star enters annual Dry Dock after each Operation Deep Freeze south to resupply McMurdo Station, Antarctica, for maintenance and Service Life Extension upgrades. Depending on the number and severity of the icebreaker’s repairs, Dry Dock can take the regularly scheduled summer months normally around June to August, or go into repair-overtime until September and even October with the ship’s crew flying back and forth between Seattle and the San Francisco Bay Area, rotating time aboard the icebreaker before the 2020 COVID-19 outbreak.
“CGC POLAR STAR is critical to meeting the Nation’s heavy icebreaking needs, and is scheduled to continue service through at least 2027,” PACS Cangemi said. 2027 coincides with the Congressional Research Service’s Report released on July 29, 2020 that stated that the Polar Star will serve until delivery of the second new Polar Security Cutter (PSC) in 2027. The first PSC is scheduled for delivery in 2024.
The Coast Guard intends to prolong the service life of the Polar Star through a series of Service Life Extension Programs (SLEPs), costing $75 million total and divided into $15 million each year starting in 2021. The five SLEPs should maintain the Polar Star to 2027.
PACS Cangemi’s August 2020 email reply supports this by stating, “In April 2019, the Navy and Coast Guard awarded a contract to VT Halter Marine in Pascagoula, MS, for the detail design and construction of the PSC. The initial award includes non-recurring engineering, detail design and construction of the first PSC and has options for the construction of two additional hulls. Design is underway and construction of the first ship is scheduled to commence in early 2021.”
Usually, USCGC Polar Star’s annual Dry Dock repairs cost the U.S. Coast Guard anywhere from $12-$18 million each year. However, the cost of the FY2020 Dry Dock has not been calculated since repairs are still ongoing.
“Mare Island Dry Dock in Vallejo, CA is performing the 2020 sustainment dry dock for CGC POLAR STAR. CGC POLAR STAR entered the shipyard on April 13, 2020 and left Mare Island Dry Dock on August 5, 2020. However, additional contracted maintenance and repairs will continue during the ship’s transit and in-port period in Seattle, WA. Annual maintenance costs vary based on required voyage repairs and major work items that can be accomplished before the dry dock availability ends,” PACS Cangemi said. “Lessons learned during the current dry dock, as well as from previous dry docks, include the value of early identification of minor problems and the completion of major preventative maintenance. Good program management with effective oversight continues to be critical to ensuring an on-time and on-schedule dry dock.”
“The specific maintenance items for POLAR STAR’s dry dock availabilities vary from year to year and are based on the preventative maintenance schedule and the material condition of the ship,” PACS Cangemi said. “This [FY2020] year, major work items include removal, overhaul, and installation of all three controllable pitch propeller hubs, inspection and renewal of reduction gear bearings, cam replacements on the main diesel engines, and the replacement of antiquated machinery control systems.”