September 29, 2015 — On Sept. 5, 2015, Coast Guard Cutter Healy, a 420-foot icebreaker homeported in Seattle, became the first U.S. surface vessel to reach the North Pole unaccompanied, and the fourth U.S. surface vessel to reach the pole, a transit so difficult it is only possible for Healy to accomplish during the summer Arctic months.
Healy arrived at 90 degrees north latitude, the northernmost point on the globe, at approximately 7:47 a.m., marking an historic accomplishment for both cutter and crew.
“The United States is a proud Arctic nation,” said Capt. Jason Hamilton, commanding officer of Coast Guard Cutter Healy. “Since the acquisition of Alaska in the 1860s, the U.S. Coast Guard has and continues to provide presence and access throughout the Arctic region.”
Healy is underway on a National Science Foundation funded mission in support of Geotraces, a global endeavor to study the geochemistry of the world’s oceans. This research cruise has taken the cutter’s crew and 50 scientists from Dutch Harbor, Alaska to the North Pole, after which Healy will head south to return to Dutch Harbor along a different route, making several stops to gather water and sediment samples.
After arriving at the pole, the Coast Guard crew and science party disembarked onto the ice and held quarters where Hamilton congratulated the group on achieving this historic goal and reminded them of the Coast Guard’s Arctic legacy and the significance of their presence at the pole.
“By becoming the first unaccompanied U.S. surface vessel to reach the North Pole, Healy has clearly demonstrated our capability to operate throughout one of the most challenging operational environments on the planet,” said Hamilton.
Following an official crew photograph with Healy in the background, the group was granted ice liberty. Smiling people, bundled up in everything from fur-lined parkas to foul-weather coveralls, could be seen spread out across the ice taking photos, socializing, and reveling in a sublime sense of accomplishment.
Chief Petty Officer Shannon Riley, a machinery technician aboard Healy, donned a traditional Santa Claus costume and posed for photos with crew members as they held up letters to Santa written by their children. Others posed holding the National Ensign and the Coast Guard flag. A large, red and white spiraled “north pole” capped with a golden ball was another popular backdrop for photos.
“I’m proud of the crew,” said Hamilton. “Reaching this milestone is a testament to the initiative and cooperation of a crew that continually strives for excellence. By striving for excellence we have risen to meet every challenge on this arduous expedition that culminated with our arrival here at the top of the world.”
On Sept. 7, Healy was joined at the North Pole by Polarstern, a German icebreaker homeported in Bremerhaven, Germany. The scientists aboard Polarstern are also underway in the Arctic gathering data in support of Geotraces. The crews and science parties of both icebreakers enjoyed several hours of camaraderie, touring each other’s ships, reconnecting with old friends, and making new ones.
“I particularly enjoyed hosting Kapitaen Stefan Schwaize and senior scientist Ursula Schauer aboard Healy where we discussed ice conditions as well as the data each of us has collected thus far,” said Hamilton.
Many countries were represented in the gathering, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, and Italy, among others. It was inspiring to witness this impromptu meeting of individuals from many countries, united by a shared scientific drive to study, understand, and care for our planet’s oceans.
“Conducting an international engagement with one of our closest allies at the North Pole is a day all of us will remember with pride,” said Hamilton.
Reaching the North Pole is no easy task. It requires transiting hundreds of miles of sea ice of varying thicknesses, some floes reaching over 10 feet.
“It takes a highly capable icebreaker optimally operated by a team of professional mariners,” said Hamilton. “Aboard Healy our crew embodies the command philosophy of ‘initiative and cooperation leading to excellence’ (ICE).”
Like the running cracks in the ice that shoot out beneath Healy’s hull, the commanding officer and crew hope the effects of this historic expedition reach far and wide.
“Let this expedition serve as a reminder of the Coast Guard’s proud history of Arctic service and our continued commitment to ensure safe, secure, and environmentally responsible maritime activity throughout the Arctic,” said Hamilton. “Polar icebreaking is an important mission that enables access for all of the Coast Guard’s statutory missions, including the facilitation of groundbreaking science. It is a great time to be a polar icebreaker sailor, especially considering the strong backing President Obama and the Commandant of the Coast Guard have recently given the polar icebreaking program.”
As Healy’s crew and science party now turn their gaze southward, they can sail proudly knowing each did their part to successfully push their cutter to the furthest regions of the Arctic. While much science remains to be conducted on the return route to Dutch Harbor, an historic milestone was reached by these 145 souls, and the memory of a formidable goal achieved will be carried with them for all time, wherever they may go.
Written by Petty Officer 2nd Class Cory Mendenhall