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Out of Phase in the Great North: Part II

This is the second in a two-part series about Arctic exploration in the 1970s and 1980s. Read part one, which describes Alaska's oil rush, here.

By Frank Geisel

In the late 1970s, a projection of an oil boom offshore Alaska pointed toward unprecedented commercial marine traffic. Envisioned fleets of massive icebreaking tankers would transit to oil production fields year-round, leaving enforcement and protection to the Coast Guard. Commercial shipbuilding could scale up much more rapidly than a government-sponsored design and construction effort—and could shut down almost immediately, as seen after Mukluk. Once begun, the process of funding, building, and operating heavy Coast Guard icebreakers could not rapidly adapt to changing commercial developments. The problem continues to this day—while the Coast Guard has affirmed the importance of developing its icebreaking capabilities in light of increasing commercial opportunities in the Arctic, an estimated $1 billion cost and a timeline of roughly 10 years for acquisition, construction, and delivery to produce just one vessel may put the government’s goals out of reach.

The Big Boats, 1976

In the 1970's, with the driving force of much more seaborne traffic anticipated in the Arctic, the U.S. Coast Guard benefitted from all the money being thrown at the U.S. Navy. A design effort was begun to build two of what would be the largest, most powerful non-nuclear icebreakers in the world. Their design was driven by a dual purpose, and it's hard to get a clear sense of which had the priority. First, because of the booming science effort in Antarctica, a big, fast ship was desired which would have the speed to haul ass to McMurdo Sound and the muscle to then quickly break into an ice sheet and lead the resupply ships in.

McMurdo Sound lies at the inner end of Ross Sea, a massive bay. This enclosed area freezes each winter into a smooth sheet of ice that can extend up to 100 miles seaward, and the ice retreats to 20 or 30 miles in the Antarctic summer. The remaining sheet is about 3 feet thick at its seaward edge, and about 6 or 7 feet thick near the McMurdo Base. With knowledge of these Antarctic conditions in mind, the Polar-Class boats were designed with sufficient power to break their way through this ice sheet continuously, at a minimum speed of 3 knots, to lead the resupply. The yearly resupply consisted of a large oiler for the McMurdo Station fuel tanks and one or more cargo carriers (the amount of equipment and supplies carried into Antarctica would boggle the mind if all added up, particularly when it did not balance with the amount of trash or used and broken equipment carried out). The requirement that the boats continuously break 6 feet of ice in Antarctica therefore drove the design to be what it was.

The second major role for the big new icebreakers would be to be “mission-capable” in the Arctic. And here's where things get a little fuzzy. The design criteria for “6-foot thick continuous icebreaking capability” would have been fine for McMurdo Sound, if that was the boats’ only mission. A bit of an overkill, actually, to save a couple of days of slower, old-style backing-and-ramming icebreaking. But the “6-foot” thing didn't quite work in the Arctic, because the sea just didn't cooperate and freeze in nice smooth sheets. While it was great to have all that horsepower to actually break through 6-foot-thick ice sheets, what was discovered was that the lack of skill or experience of the ship handlers meant hours of crawling progress and excessive horsepower (and fuel) required to make any progress at all, or to extract the ship from very difficult ice conditions. And besides, there was just this one more little question about the whole idea of Arctic operations, which was: What in the hell was the purpose of going up there? And really, if a little consulting firm hadn’t pulled the oil companies together to go smashing about in the ice fields, would the Coast Guard have gone up there on their own directive, to raise the flag? To chase fishermen exceeding their limits? (Of course, there is an acknowledged need for search-and-rescue operations, which comprise a critical part of the Coast Guard’s mission.)

Finally, there was another unspoken purpose in building heavy icebreakers: the Russians had them, so like a sea-going version of the 1960s space race, we too had to have them.

Facts and Figures

Polar Star was commissioned in 1976, as was her sister ship, Polar Sea, the following year. They were about 400 feet in length, with an 80-foot beam; had 1 3/4 inches of steel around the middle where the ice was; were capable of 17 knots in an open sea; held 1.4 million gallons of fuel, 140 Coast Guard personnel, and 20 “scientists” (anybody who wasn’t in the Coast Guard); and between 18,000 and 60,000 horsepower, depending on engine configuration.

The fuel consumption of these vessels when icebreaking could be prodigious. In thick ice when maximum horsepower was required, the gas turbine engines could consume somewhere in the neighborhood of 3000 gallons an hour (and sometimes more!). Using a minimum sustainable speed of 3 knots in 6 feet of ice, we get the following:  3 knots (about 3.45 mph), divided by 3000 gallons/hour is about 0.00115 miles per gallon, or a whopping 6 feet per gallon, or even more appropriately, 869 gallons per mile! One can see why it was so much fun to go smashing about on grand missions of vital importance, when someone else was paying for those 1,400,000 gallons of fuel oil. One last thing to think about: During all those missions, in which oil companies were major participants, the government, in the form of the Coast Guard, refused the kind offer of several of the companies to bunker up the ship at cost, and instead insisted on paying the full, inflated, marked-up, special "government" price of perhaps $1.35 a gallon. While it might have taken some wheeling and dealing to allow such a good deal for oil, the reduced rate might have been in the range of $0.85 a gallon. When loading up at the rate of 1,400,000 gallons, it makes a difference. Think about it.

Mission Planning: The Big Picture

After the two Polar class ships were built, there was the inevitable period of breaking-in, or breaking down and repairing. Many things were found wanting, not the least of which was overall reliability. All the design reviews in the world did not help these boats and their crews, who persevered to overcome most of the design shortcomings. Boats and crews paid the physical price, taxpayers the other costs--hundreds of thousands of dollars each year for each boat to be overhauled in drydock.

Simple things became major things, like main bearing blocks for propeller shafts not being able to withstand the violent vibrations of breaking ice. Stern tube seals leaked. Engines didn't run properly, or reliably. More seriously (and how could it be more serious than engine trouble?), the controllable-pitch propeller system wasn't the best that it could have been, compromising the ships’ ability to generate forward or reverse thrust.

The ships were certainly seaworthy, and powerful, manned by highly motivated Coast Guard personnel. There was one problem, however, that would plague operations for years to come, one of those sea-going problems that can't be completely identified. The ships were twins, but one ship always seemed to break down badly and seemed to have the lowest morale, while the other just powered along with a happier crew, and consequently, happier missions. It was an unexplained mystery; maybe the keel was laid on a funny day, astrologically speaking. Sailors are very superstitious about such things and could feel the vibrations from the ship, hear its voice, sense its desires, and naturally, if the ship herself just wasn't right somehow ... well, you could see something coming on the horizon, but didn't know what.

Eventually, major issues were resolved on both ships, and they were declared to be ready for duty in the high Arctic. As discussed before, they were ready for the Antarctic just by being able to sail there, as the actual icebreaking was rather trivial. It was to the north where the real challenge was, where the real sailors went. A 5-year plan was hatched which called for winter missions (January to April) of increasing distance and duration. All of the missions started from the south, went north, and returned, thus helping to simulate the assumed eventual routes of oil and gas-carrying tankers. The first year would be just to Point Barrow, then “over the top” and along the northern Alaskan coastline, further and further until the final mission would travel all the way to the Canadian border.

There was even some pipe dream that a “reverse” Northwest Passage (west to east) would be forthcoming; none of this had been discussed with the Canadians, of course, and the consequences would be seen later.  But no matter, the plan had been put to paper, and once it was hatched, it had a life of its own and couldn't be controlled.

Because Antarctic operations occurred at the height of the southern summer (January), exactly when the Arctic winter missions were planned, it worked out perfectly, as there were two boats. They would simply rotate north and south missions. And that is how, in the winter of 1980-81, Polar Sea took on the mission of the first winter passage to Point Barrow, Alaska.

With this perspective on the Polar class ships’ voyages, we may make a few observations. Our government-sponsored shipbuilding (and operating) efforts operate on a MUCH longer timeframe than do the efforts of commercial oil and gas companies, which have the resources to scale up and down much more rapidly. That's what made the Polar icebreaker "trafficability" work so "out of phase"–because there weren’t enough questions asked about the very possibility that there might not be a massive oil discovery. 

The parallel today is just as striking in which leader after leader decries the current "acquisition" paradigm, which is ponderous and glacial—in stark comparison to the rapid and dynamic changes in the commercial environment. We have just seen this most recently in the noise and smoke surrounding the (now abandoned) Shell drilling venture in the Chukchi Sea. 

Yes: all that noise and smoke revealed, once again, the startling lack of a U.S. capability to go to and operate in the high Arctic. 

Currently Polar Sea is laid-up in “caretaker” status, meaning it is non-operational, awaiting decisions to either scrap for parts or attempt to refurbish. Polar Star is operational, supporting Antarctic missions, but the possibility for use in extended full-time Arctic operations is questionable. 

Starting up a new icebreaker construction program (or building a new deep-water port in Nome), are years from actual operation, which has the very real possibility of leaving some new capability once again out of phase with current world conditions.

*****

*****

Frank Geisel is a principal consulting engineer with more than 30 years experience in science and industry. He received his B.S. in Ocean Engineering from MIT in 1980, and immediately engaged in six years of instrumentation, data-acquisition, and field-team leadership for 12 major offshore exploration programs in the Arctic and Antarctic.

[Photo Courtesy of Frank Geisel]

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