February 7, 2023

I knew so, so little about icebreakers

By John Guy LaPlante

Like you probably.

I learned about them in bits and pieces from my dear friend Mark in Connecticut.

If he sounds familiar to you, it’s because I wrote about him quite recently.

Yes, he is the Mark who, in his late seventies, reached his goal of pedaling his bicycle 100,000 miles!

Now back to icebreakers. The more he told me about them, the more I became fascinated.

What is an icebreaker, by the way? I’m sure most of you know. But maybe not.

It’s a ship designed and built to break through ice to make it possible for cargo ships to make it to their final destination — from X to Y, so to speak.

Invariably they are government vessels. Many countries in icy latitudes have them.

We have icebreakers because of our interests in the Arctic and the Antarctic and even in the Great Lakes. Yes, our Great Lakes.

Ours are operated by our Coast Guard.

Now some background.

Mark and I have been friends for a long time. I am very familiar with his son Karl. His one and only. 

Very impressive fellow. Graduate of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. Numerous assignments on Coast Guard icebreakers. When he retired after 20 years of service, he was the executive officer — the second-in-command — of an Icebreaker operating in the Arctic.

Karl would fill in his dad about what he was doing on the ship and how the work was proceeding.

Mark would delight in hearing all that. 

I would inquire about Karl, and Mark would bring me up-to-date. I found Karl’s experiences very interesting.

Because of his son’s involvement, Mark became fascinated with icebreakers and icebreaking.

He does not do things half-heartedly. He began doing research. Became very savvy, as you will see.

Recently he sent me a long essay about all that. Not for publication. Simply because he felt I would enjoy it as good reading. He was right.

I became interested in publishing it. I felt that many people would be interested, mostly men of course. But women also. So many things are opening up for women.

Hey, women are serving on our submarines on underwater cruises thousands of miles long. 

I’m not sure that’s a good idea, but I have no say in the matter.

For sure women serve on Coast Guard vessels. That doesn’t bother me.

Many cadets at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., are women. They graduate as junior officers and work their way up.

Oh, by the way. When I post a blog, one of the first respondents is Mark. I always look forward to his comments.

He always writes back at length. Firm opinions. Lots of detail. What he writes is always worth reading. It always adds to the topic. He is a fine writer.

And with his piece about icebreakers, he has come through for me. As expected, it  is fascinating.

I am delighted to post it for you.

He is my guest writer. My very first! 

I look forward to your comments. Of course, I will pass them on to him. I’m sure he’ll like that.

Here it is. 

A brief history of American icebreakers

By Mark (guest writer)

During and just after WWII, the United States ordered seven icebreakers, all built to a common design. They were named for the four winds plus Staten Island, Burton Island and Edisto.

They were very capable, able to break up to 20 feet of ice by backing and ramming. Three of these ships went to the Soviet Union on loan and were later returned. The other four were divided between the U.S. Navy and the U.S.Coast Guard. 

By 1966, all seven had been turned over to the Coast Guard. 

Also during the war, a similar ship was built for use on the Great Lakes, the Mackinaw

Mackinaw was longer and wider but drew less water due to the depths of the lakes. The ship was too wide to fit through the pre-’59 Welland Canal, connecting Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, so it never left the lakes.

You can see the Mackinaw design drawings at The Library of Congress: https://www.loc.gov/resource/hhh.mi0462.sheet/?sp=1&st=slideshow#slide-1

A couple of the other ships were sent to the lakes on occasion.       

The group of seven icebreakers lasted into the ’70s with two of them making it to the late ’80s. 

Mackinaw served longer than any of the others, being decommissioned in 2006 after over 60 years of service.

It became a museum while the others were scrapped.

A few years after the war, Canada ordered an icebreaker to the same design, the Labrador. 

All of the U.S. icebreakers worked hard during their lives with all of them eventually being used in Antarctic waters to open up shipping channels to resupply U.S. research bases there. (Operation Deep Freeze).

In 1955 an additional icebreaker joined the fleet, the Glacier. Loosely based on the same design, it served for over 30 years before being retired. 

After 25 years in reserve, custody, but not ownership, of Glacier was given to The Glacier Society, a Connecticut-based group.

They hoped to restore the ship to service as either a high-latitudes hospital ship or a research vessel. 

Sadly, things did not work out and it too was scrapped.

As the original seven wore out, plans were drawn up for a new series of icebreakers. Two, Polar Star and Polar Sea, were eventually built in the mid-’70s.

Their primary function was to open up the channel into the McMurdo Research Station in Antarctica, at which they took turns. 

Their secondary function was Arctic research. 

These activities continued until around 2010 when ice conditions in Antarctica were so severe that both ships had to be deployed. This threw off the maintenance and future deployment schedules for both of them. 

The severe conditions continued, requiring the Coast Guard to send their newest icebreaker, the larger but less capable Healy, as a backup to one of the Polars. Subsequently, Russian and Swedish ships were hired as backup and then the worst happened: 

Both Polars broke down, requiring the foreign ships to take over completely. 

After a couple of years and over 60 million dollars, Polar Star was overhauled and has been doing the Antarctic mission for several years. 

Polar Sea was determined to require too much work so it has been serving as a floating parts source for Polar Star. 

Keep in mind that these ships are now 45 years old. 

The power needed for icebreaking generally is provided by a combination of diesel engines, anywhere from four to ten of them. They are coupled to generators that produce electricity for electric motors turning the propellor shafts (2 or 3). 

Over the years, these engines have produced between 10,000 and 20,000 hp total. 

The Polar class ships also have three gas turbine engines, one per shaft, each of which puts out 25,000 horsepower for when the going gets tough. 

Several Russian icebreakers have been nuclear powered.

With Polar Star now 45 years old and on life support, the Coast Guard has authorized a new heavy icebreaker to be called a Polar Security Cutter, name not yet chosen. 

The Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star breaks ice in McMurdo Sound near Antarctica on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018. (U.S. Coast Guard photo/Nick Ameen) – Read Article

This will be the first of several medium and heavy icebreakers to be produced over the next 10-15 years. 

Plans are to keep Polar Star in service until the second new ship is ready.

So, how do icebreakers break ice? There are two ways. 

One, the less stressful, works on up to six feet of ice, depending on the size of the ship. This is simply steady forward progress; nothing spectacular. 

The other method is “back and ram.” As the name suggests, the ship backs up several ship lengths, then builds up forward speed and hits the ice. At this point, the bow rides up on the ice and the weight of the ship plus the shock crushes the ice.  

By this procedure, some larger icebreakers can deal with ice over 20 feet thick. 

Over the years some icebreakers have had heeling tanks in which water can be rapidly pumped between tanks on each side of the ship. 

This allows the ship to rock from side to side in case it gets stuck. 

Modern icebreakers carry helicopters in a dedicated hangar and have scientific lab facilities for research.

Many of the people embarked on an icebreaker are not there to operate the ship but rather to fly and maintain the helicopters or to conduct research on ice and water.

One unique and interesting feature of an icebreaker is a station called “aloft conn.” It’s on the mast, about 100 feet above the water, from which the ship can be conned (steered).

From here, the person at the helm has a great view of the ice ahead and can look for weak spots to ease the progress of the ship. 

For a fine color photo of the Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star in Antarctica and for further reading on the status of the U.S. icebreaking fleet, check out the following article.


My note back to Mark:

Thank you!

I’m sure very few Americans have any idea of this very important work, essential work, that the Coast Guard carries on routinely. 

Your article is wonderful PR for the Coast Guard. 

Who knows, it may interest a young man or young woman to look at the Coast Guard as a wonderful career opportunity. Wouldn’t that be great?!

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