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Navy Officer experiences life on an icebreaker

A sea ride that sounds like a constant earthquake is one way of describing a trip to McMurdo Sound in United States Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star. But for Midshipman Emma Walker, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

02 May, 2023

Midshipman (MID) Walker had graduated as a Maritime Logistics Officer in June 2022 and was into her Navy studies when she was told there was an opportunity to take a sea ride on an icebreaker down to Antarctica.

She was a confident traveller, having worked overseas in America and Japan, but COVID brought her home. ”I thought, let’s just do it. It’s not something you get to experience on RNZN ships.”

She joined USCGC Polar Star in Hobart in the middle of December for a three-month journey that ranged to McMurdo Station and onto Chile.

Polar Star’s annual job is to break open a channel in the summer sea ice surrounding New Zealand’s Scott Base and America’s McMurdo Station, which allows research and supply ships to deliver fuel and supplies to Antarctica.

150 crew wearing green jackets and red baseball caps stand on the ice with the USCGC Polar Star stationary behind them.

The 150-strong crew of the USCGC Polar Star. Photo provided by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Every year the ship endeavours to take sea-riders, she says. “I had no idea what I was getting myself into to when I embarked. But they had made a programme for me. For the 13 weeks on board, I spent a couple of weeks at a time in different departments. I spent time in the galley, supply shop, ship’s office, engineering, and damage control.”

She was the only non-American onboard, with a crew of 150.

Progressing south, encountering six feet of ice is “not too bad”, she says. “Then we hit some pretty big flows the further south we went. The ship can handle up to 21 feet of ice, around six and a half metres.”

An icebreaker has a very rounded hull, and will ride up onto the ice, allowing gravity and the sheer weight of the ship to crack through.

“The noise is like a constant earthquake. You’re breaking ice 24/7, there’s no real downtime from it. You get used to it. In fact, since being home, I struggle to sleep in silence.”

Once a channel is made, Polar Star has to go back and fourth, keeping it open, running in close proximity ahead of container ships to escort them into McMurdo Station.

Sailors understand the concept of a long voyage, but you get port calls, says MID Walker. “Here it’s three months on a ship with only four days ashore in McMurdo Station, where you are very limited to what you can do. I was lucky - this was the first year the ship had Starlink, so we had Wi-Fi on board. Full coverage, all the way down.”

A birds eye view of the USCGC Polar Star stationary as the ship was breaking through the ice. There are black dots at the bow of the ship, this is the crew as they disembarked for a morale boost. MID Walker in front of the USCGC Polar Star on the ice. She is wearing navy blue jacket and pants, sunglasses and a big smile. A huddle of Emperor Penguins on the ice.

The USCGC Polar Star breaks through the ice (left), MID Walker in front of the ship on the ice (middle) and Emperor and Adélie penguins (right). Photos provided by the U.S. Coast Guard.

For a morale booster, the ship stopped in the middle of the ice and slid the brow out, letting everyone out onto the ice. “We were out there, on this vast flat mass, with nothing there, not even a bird. It’s hard to explain, it’s crazy to think about.”

Christmas on a ship was pretty cool, she says. “We decorated gingerbread houses, wore ugly Christmas sweaters, had a Secret Santa, and ate turkey for dinner. It even snowed on Christmas, which was pretty special. The command team was really good about keeping up morale. There is always something going on during downtime. Every weekend there were Mario Kart tournaments held, which got very competitive.” The ship has a gym, but unlike Royal New Zealand Navy ships, there’s no Physical Training Instructors on board.

MID Walker had one more unique experience, as the ship finished up in February and headed east. “We crossed Drake’s Passage, which is the body of water between South America’s Cape Horn and the South Shetland Islands of Antarctica. It was the first time in over 40 years Polar Star crossed the passage. I disembarked in Valparaiso, Chile. The ship still had a month at sea before getting home to Seattle.”

Her advice to others considering the sea-ride is to get stuck in with everything happening on the ship. “Get involved. It is incredible, the things I saw are unreal. There is so much to learn by observing, having conversations and being a part of the ship’s company. The ship's culture is so different to New Zealand, immerse yourself and learn from it."

“And everyday you’re down there, take the time to have a look outside.”