Reflections From an Ice Pilot’s Winter Mission to the Arctic

Above latitude 66 degrees, 33 minutes north, we did not see the sun rise above the horizon for weeks. Icebreaking in nearly complete darkness demanded heightened situational awareness from cutter personnel. Operating safely in the Arctic winter presents unique challenges that must be considered as the United States surges forces to meet emerging mission demands in the region. My experiences are based on seventy-eight days underway during Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star’s Arctic West Winter patrol from December 2020 to February 2021. As the nation’s sole heavy icebreaker, Polar Star’s primary mission was geopolitical in nature: projecting power and presence into the Arctic.

Navigation and standing the watch during open-ocean steaming has many well-known rigors but ice-choked waters escalates the degree of difficulty. Watch officer decisions are heightened in stakes and significance, and ultimately more dangerous in the ice. One wrong decision can result in a crippling casualty to the rudder and screws. Polar Star’s standing orders list patience, protecting the rudder and screws, and choosing the path of least resistance as three of the most important rules to icebreaking. The ten total rules form widely accepted guidelines that provide a useful framework for ice pilots to make tactical decisions in the ice. The Arctic environment, especially in winter, presents additional challenges that must be addressed. These are the most significant:

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