U.S. Coast Guard Oral History Program
Ice Operations on the Polar Star, 1983, with Captain Joseph F. Smith, USCG
This interview was transcribed by Ms. Seamond M. Roberts, CMT, and we wish to acknowledge her assistance.
Smith: O.K., we are talking about Operation Deep Freeze 1983 aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star. I am Captain Joseph F. Smith, and I was then the Commanding Officer of the vessel during the rather historic cruise we made between October 19, 1982 and May 2, 1983. I guess in chronological order, the trip went something like this: We departed Seattle on the 19th of October, headed for refresher training. That is a Navy training exercise or period in San Diego, California, designed to run the ship through various drills and exercises such that the resultant is that the ship is better prepared to cope with its job and the day-to-day emergencies that may arise in a seagoing environment. Before we left San Diego, it is kind of interesting in joshing with the various officers and some of the people, we had pre-planned the trip and we were joking one day about what I wanted on the trip – or what I wanted out of the trip, and I said, "Well, I’ll tell you, I’m getting kind of old and tired and I’ve been to sea before, and if I could have 6-1/2 months of flat calm, fair winds and following seas, I think that is what I would wish for most." Well, we left Seattle on the 19th of October and the first night out, why it was blowing about 55 knots. It was getting up to gale force, pretty close to hurricane force winds, and it was sloppier than the devil and what happens first is that we have a steering casualty. For those of you who don’t know, that is just like driving down the street in your automobile and your steering goes out. In this case, it resulted in the ship broaching, or pulling parallel to the seas and rolling violently. Unfortunately, the only casualty we had was the Captain’s brand-new stereo in the captain’s cabin which I had recently been working on and it fell on its face and broke, and, of course, needless to say, I took quite a bit of teasing about that for the rest of the trip, especially I am the one who is usually ON EVERYBODY else’s back about securing things, and so forth.
So, it starts out with a bit of a humorous twist and some really sloppy weather and I thought, "Oh, my goodness, is this a forerunner or portent of things to come? Are we going to have 6-1/2 months of lousy crummy weather?" The answer to that, quite frankly, was "no." That was the last bad weather essentially we saw in the whole trip and indeed with a few exceptions the dream came true and we just had a super trip.
On of our goals, of course, in San Diego was to do very well in our training period down there and we exited from San Diego having earned a ship’s E or an excellent evaluation in both seamanship and engineering – the first E’s earned by the ship since its construction and, of course, needless to say, the crew as a whole was very generally pleased to have done so well and that boded well for our trip.
We proceeded from the San Diego area to a place called Port Hueneme, California, a little port just north of Los Angeles where we loaded cargo in support of various scientific efforts in the Antarctic scene. We spent a couple of days there, loading approximately 350 measurement tons of cargo, and from there we started working our way South. We didn’t work our way too far South initially when we stopped in Long Beach, which is just down the road a hop-skip-and a jump. Our schedule had changed somewhat, so that we had a little flexibility and a little time to kill, so we enjoyed that by spending a short port call in Long Beach so that the troops could see Disney Land and the local Los Angeles scene for those of them who had never seen the Southern California atmosphere.
From there, we proceeded to Acapulco, Mexico, where we had a four-day port visit which was very delightful, and from there we started to get serious in that we headed for Valparaiso, Chile, which is a port on the west coast of South America at which we call to pick up a few of the scientists which we would be taking and transporting to the Antarctic continent. We stopped in Valparaiso, again about 4-5 days, a rather uneventful stay. We picked up a couple of dozen of various scientific personnel of various disciplines and thence proceeded to the Antarctica continent, specifically the Antarctic Peninsula, and a U.S. station by the name of Palmer Station.
On our trip to Palmer, we departed a little bit from the usual route in that south of Valparaiso, we turned in a little entrance which provided access to what they call the Patagonian Channels. It’s Chile’s answer – as it were – to the inside passage between Seattle, Washington and southeastern Alaska for example – a very picturesque cruise. There were a couple of reasons for doing that: One, to get out of the slop and the roll of the heavy seas off the Chilean coast and also, you know, provide a little more scenic pictures for the kids to send home to mom and dad and their loved ones and so forth, and also to essentially train our officers the deck, in that they have to keep on their toes a little bit more when they are in traffic, as it were in the congested areas as opposed to the open sea.
We arrived in Palmer Station, having traversed the Patagonian Channels and we passed through the Beagle Channel and out around Cape Horn, across The Great Passage, and arriving on the 24th of December in Palmer. Fortunately, the weather was good, so we anchored immediately and tied off our stern to the beach and proceeded to off-loading our cargo and also fueling the station, as well as dropping the scientists off that had ridden down with us.
Not to look for heroics or anything, but we did work around-the-clock essentially on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and we held Christmas, as it were, on the 26th of December, the reason for that being that despite the fact that generally speaking we had good weather then and for the rest of the trip, the weather can change terribly dramatically in the Antarctic in essentially in a matter of minutes, as those of you that have been there can attest to. So, needless to say that when we had good weather, we worked then and then we slept or hibernated when the weather turned bad. So, we didn’t want to take any chances and the people at Palmer were, of course, were very cooperative, too.
A rather interesting point of observation in that they are essentially civilian and we are military and it’s kind of interesting in that we don’t worry too much about overtime and frankly the union concept down there – it’s a little bit old-fashioned in that everybody works and everybody works hard and when they get the job, then they play. So, they were cooperative and we had a good stay in Palmer.
Then, on approximately the 26th of December, we departed Palmer Station on essentially was later to be a rather historic circumnavigation or circling of the Antarctic continent, below the latitude of 60 degrees south, and while the Coast Guard itself had started a couple of these trips before, they had either aborted for one reason or another, or had not actually circumnavigated the entire Antarctic continent before.
We worked our way across the Bellinghausen Sea into the Ross Sea and then eventually to the U.S. station at McMurdo in the Antarctic, which is the major U.S. effort down there, and in fact, in the summer time, they have a population you know of approaching a thousand people. Now, that is not very large of course, but one must remember that on the entire Antarctic continent there are no indigenous people down there, that is to say there are no natives, as it were, except the scientific people from the various countries who go down there for the various scientific experiments that they conduct, so obviously a thousand people is a pretty good base down there, but not large in terms of the urbanization of the rest of the world.
The main job we have in McMurdo is simply to get through the ice that has formed across what they call McMurdo Sound, break through that, thereby causing a path to be opened for the tanker which brings in the fuel without which they cannot exist and also a supply ship, a dry cargo vessel subsequent to the tanker which brings in of course the other supplies that are necessary to the effort down there.
This year, speaking of records, we ran into another one. We had almost 30 miles of ice to slog through to the base at McMurdo and the trick here is for our vessel to break through the ice and then hope for a wind shift around blowing from the south such that all this ice is blown out – this little narrow opening we have created – into the open sea and thereby creating as it were a highway through the ice through which the tanker and the cargo vessel can go by themselves.
Unfortunately, we broke the ice all up, but the good old wind would not cooperate and therefore when the tanker got there, we had to ice escort the vessel through. The way you do that is that you bring them up very, very close astern and you assume a certain speed and then just hope he can keep with you. If he gets too far away, the ice floe closes in between the ice breaker and the ship following and causes the other vessel, which is not designed for this, to slow down and stop and in the process of getting going again, this is very frustrating and difficult, if not, indeed, dangerous. We were very fortunate, through good seamanship on the part of the tanker skipper that we made it through about the last 16 miles of ice with only one stop and successfully got into winter’s quarters bay and he tied up and re-fueled.
We spent perhaps 10 days in that area, doing a number of things. They had some problems with a dock, called the ice wharf, which is just a giant floating ice cube which is manmade actually, and the reason for making this big ice cube is that so they can pull it up against the beach, the outboard side of which is kind of a sheer vertical surface along which ships can tie up without grounding on the bottom. This ice wharf had gotten away from them through the winter and we had to use demolition or explosives to blow up the ice that had gotten between the beach and the wharf and then flush it out with our screw current and then push, as it were, the ice wharf back in against the beach. Fortunately, we did all of this without breaking it, so the operation was quite successful.
We, of course, on the lighter side while we at McMurdo, they have developed a race, a short race of about 5-6 miles. They hold this annually, called the Scott’s Hut Race. Some of our young men participated in this. Unfortunately, I guess we are not acclimatized to the same extent that the "natives" are down there. We did, however, get a 10th place out of incredibly about 400 runners that are involved in this thing. Virtually, everybody gets out there and if you can believe this, run around in their shorts at about 35 degrees Fahrenheit – that’s just right above freezing for about 5-6 miles. In fact, the young man that won it was in fact just in shorts period, no T-shirt and just sneakers. Of course, I guess you can obviously see if that he runs hard enough and fast enough, he is going to generate his own warmth. However, it was just a bit incredible to me!
Again, on the lighter side, while we were there, we started the first around-the-world golf tournament which is really just really a semi-gag in that the guys got out on the ice and used an orange golf ball – what else? The only problem is that every time you hit the ball, you can’t find it again, because ice is very friction-less and of course for those of you that are duffers and can’t hit the ball very far, why maybe you ought to take up playing on ice and then you get those 800-yard drives.
At any rate, we finally got the tanker in there and completed our work around the McMurdo area and then we started to get serious and we proceeded North – obviously every direction is North from the South Pole – and commenced our inspection trip of other countries stations.
Now, for those of you that don’t know, let me digress here to explain just a little bit about the Antarctic continent. First of all, you never see the Antarctic continent on the usual wall map you might see about your offices because of the geometry of the situation and the projection of the map. There is just no way of showing the Antarctic continent unless you get a bird’s eye view looking down on the South Pole and since not too many people are interested in it, you obviously don’t see many maps, or charts as we call them.
O.K., it was at this point when we departed the McMurdo area that we really got into the meat of the sandwich, as it were, and started our real mission – our primary mission, that is, and that was to deliver a four-person Department of State team to 10 stations of other nations on the periphery of the Antarctic continent.
Just a brief description of the Antarctic continent, if you look down from the South Pole on the Antarctic continent, you will see a very large land mass, as opposed to the Arctic, which, of course, is nothing but ocean; and this land mass is actually somewhat larger than the 48 United States, the continental United States in an area, and on top of this land mass, you will see almost up to two miles of ice stacked. For example, at the South Pole, the altitude there is about 8,000 to 9,000 feet, and in fact we land airplanes up there right on the ice. That is how we maintain our station at the South Pole, so that is kind of what it looks like, and we were relieving the Ross Sea, which is south of the islands that form the country New Zealand, and we were going to go to the west, or counterclockwise looking down on it from above the South Pole, and the first station we came to is the Russian station of Leningrad Skyia.
The Russians, incidentally, seem to have a penchant for picking some really crummy locations in that they get perched up there on some ridges where the wind blows and it is COLD and thoroughly miserable. I think perhaps the first station was one of the toughest ones, in that as you guessed it, Murphy’s Law struck, and at all times, one of our helicopters went down with a bad part and we really wanted both helicopters to ferry this four-man team into these stations. The Navy, from McMurdo, got the part for us and flew it out in a C-130 aircraft and air-dropped it to us right on the ice and we picked it up by helicopter by lowering a man to the ice and picked up the part and back to the ship, fixed the helicopter, and away we went.
I might describe the four-man Department of State team in that it was made up of a career State Department fellow by the name of Al Chapman. He was in charge. He had another career State Department fellow by the name of Ron Gate, who was fluent in seven languages including Russian and Japanese, and he was there primarily for his linguistic ability, and then they were supplemented by an Army colonel who had expertise in nuclear devices, and finally we had a female Navy commander, who was a scientific type and also fluent in Russian and Polish. Interestingly enough, she was a very attractive lady and going back to the Russian station of Leningrad Skyia, some of those gentleman had been there for over two years without having left there, and, needless to say, folks, when you get a female commander amongst 24 men that have not seen anybody in two years, why the other three fellows might just not have existed.
That was one of the lighter things that took place.
Now, the purpose of this circumnavigation trip and the inspection trip – as we call it – is just that. The Antarctic does not belong to anybody per se. There is a treaty to which various nations are signatories and one of the unique provisions of the Antarctic Treaty is that they have an open door policy – really – and you can drop in any time and visit these folks, and that was exactly what we were doing. Why, of course, is to see that yes, they are not establishing nuclear plants or things of that nature in violation of the Antarctic Treaty, and that is what we did.
From the Leningrad Skyia station, we proceeded westbound again and we covered ultimately 14 stations. We managed to get into the seven primary targets, the three secondaries, and we were having such good luck and through some skillful flying and so forth, we also managed to get four unscheduled stations. The stations included eight different nationalities. They included Russian stations. They included Australian stations. They included British, West German, the Japanese, the Argentineans, and in fact the Union of South Africa has a station down there.
One of the more interesting anecdotes that we had is that as we approached the Australian station of Casey, we got in a call on a radio at Casey saying that they had received a radio transmission from a 65-foot sail boat who was beset in the ice and heard us and wanted to see if we could get some help in breaking him loose. Needless to say, we weren’t terribly eager because our time frame was very, very short, and breaking a 65-foot vessel out of the ice – that kind of ice – without it up itself is perhaps more luck than skill. In any event we were kind of, shall we say, trapped by the humanitarian aspects, so after we had visited the Australian station, we proceeded to the geographic location of this boat , which turned out to be a vessel by the name of Dick Smith Explorer.
Well, of course for those of you without any Antarctic, to see a 65-foot sail boat with ice stacked up around it, one wonders, you know, about the mental approach of those people that are on the boat, and quite frankly, I thought they were all a bunch of nuts – not knowing who they were.
To make a long story short, we got there about midnight. Of course, this time of the year we are getting a few hours of darkness around the hour of midnight locally, and through a little luck and a little skill, we managed to bust them loose and they bounced down the side of the ship and fell in behind us and a little piece of wake we got there, and after a couple of adjustments, they managed to hang in there, and about six hours later we got them to the open water.
By that time, I was, you know, quite curious as to who they were, so there were only six people on board and I invited them aboard for breakfast. The master turns out to be a fellow by the name of Dave Lewis. Dave, as a matter of fact, has written a published an article in I think it was the February 1983 issue of National Geographic, and as luck would have it, he turns out to be a rather experienced Antarctic explorer. He has sailed a vessel called the Iceberg single-handedly around the Antarctic continent in the past, and similar feats of deering-do. An amusing anecdote. The other five were two females, young females, and three other male scientists and where they were headed for was south of the station. They were going to tie up essentially to the Antarctic continent and perform various experiments and they are still there. I have a letter from the Australian foundation which sponsors them that thanked us and they are coming out in April of 1984 I understand.
One last story, the young lady who serves as the executive officer, or second-in-command, or first mate, or whatever you want to call her, is a young 30-year-old American girl, an anthropologist whose purpose of making the trip was to write her doctoral thesis on essentially the subject of what happens to human beings confined in small spaces for a long period of time – and, of course, that kind of broke us up. That was pretty amusing, and as I said, I don’t think she could find a better atmosphere for an experiment.
At any rate, we continued proceeding around the Antarctic continent. I think perhaps the record flight was off one of the Russian stations. The last Russian station we visited was a station clear around on the other side of the Antarctic continent. Now, here we had to take the ship right up near the beach, or the glaciers that form what looks like no other beach in the world in that these glaciers are perhaps as high as 400 feet.
The next significant event was the penetration of the United States Coast Guard Polar Star to what I believe is the furthest point south in the Weddell Sea that a U.S. flag vessel has even been. We did this in conjunction with a visit to an Argentine station down there, and also, in order to rendezvous with the brand-new West German icebreaker called the Polar Stahren. Now, for those of you who don’t know, the German word "Stahren" means "star," so, literally, or ironically, the Polar Star met the Polar Star – down in the deep Weddell Sea one morning and we parked in the ice, near each other perhaps about two city blocks away, and we took the time to visit back and forth with both the sailor type personnel and our scientific personnel chatted and went back and forth. The West Germans, of course, have an entirely different kind of vessel from ours. We feel perhaps ours is a little bit better hull shape and perhaps a little bit more capable of breaking ice, but certainly in the field of human/creature comfort, I must confess that the West Germans had it all over us. For example, they have four of the world’s finest cocktail lounges aboard that I have ever seen – one of which is only four steps down from the bridge. Now, for what they use them for . . . I have no idea, but certainly it makes them significantly different from our rather in comparison austere vessels. At any rate, we had a very fine visit there for perhaps 4-5 hours and then we went on our way.
We extracted from the Weddell stays what might be characterized as almost a speed run. It is absolutely incredible to me as a sailor that we could have left Seattle on October 19th, planned this whole trip and done it – JUST LIKE WE SAID WE WERE GOING TO DO IT!
We did everything we set out to do and more and we essentially did it on schedule in an environment where the wind and the weather and the elements are incredibly capricious and despite that, thought a lot of luck and a lot of hard work and maybe even some cleverness, we managed to pull it off. So, we were very proud I think to have completed this in only 69 days and really have done the job.
At that point, we picked up our scientists and we headed for . . . .
Question: How many did you have on the Star?
O.K., the people on board the Polar Star are approximately 125 enlisted of our own crew. We have got about 15 officers, and when we sail we bring two helicopters along and that also brings with it four aviators – four officer aviators – and 10 aviation ratings to take care of the machines – and, in addition to that, at any one time we may have as many as two dozen or a few more scientific people on board. So, during the trip around, we had approximately 170-180 people on the ship.
Question: What was the most significant thing to happen on the trip?
I think the most significant thing that happened on the whole trip is the unusual psychological upbeatness, or morale, of the entire crew. They never had a downer or a low period in the entire 6-1/2 months. I find that just incredible, having made long voyages before. There is just no way that you don’t have a little lull, or down point, and because of a lot of incredibly fine people, we just had super morale, and I really find this the more incredible thing of the whole voyage.
END OF INTERVIEW