USCGC Polar Sea

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USCGC Polar Sea (WAGB 11)
USCGC Polar Sea (WAGB 11)
United States
BuilderLockheed Shipbuilding and Construction Company, Seattle, WA
Commissioned23 February 1977
IdentificationIMO number7391252
MottoAlways Summer, Never Warm
Nickname(s)Building 11, Polar Roller, What a Great Boat, Wandering Arctic Garbage Barge, Red Tubs of Fun, We Always Go Bye-Bye[1]
StatusOut of service since 2010[2]
General characteristics [3]
Class and typePolar-class icebreaker - Heavy
  • 10,863 long tons (11,037 t) (standard)
  • 13,623 long tons (13,842 t) (full)
Length399 ft (122 m)
Beam83 ft 6 in (25.45 m)
Draft31 ft (9.4 m)[4]
Installed power
  • 18 knots (33 km/h; 21 mph)
  • 3 knots (5.6 km/h; 3.5 mph) in 6-foot (1.8 m) ice
  • 16,000 nautical miles (30,000 km; 18,000 mi) at 18 knots (33 km/h; 21 mph)
  • 28,275 nautical miles (52,365 km; 32,538 mi) at 13 knots (24 km/h; 15 mph)
  • 15 officers
  • 127 enlisted
  • 33 scientists
  • 12-person helicopter detachment
Aircraft carried2 HH-65C Dolphin helicopters

USCGC Polar Sea (WAGB-11) is a United States Coast Guard heavy icebreaker. Commissioned on 23 February 1977, the ship was built by Lockheed Shipbuilding and Construction Company of Seattle along with her sister ship, Polar Star (WAGB-10). Her home port is Seattle, Washington.

Polar Sea has been out of service as of 2010 due to failure of five of her six Alco main diesel engines.


Polar Sea has a computerized propulsion control system to effectively manage six diesel-powered propulsion generators, three diesel-powered ship's service generators, three propulsion gas turbines, and other equipment vital to the operation of the ship. Its three shafts are each turned by either one gas turbine or two diesel-electric power plants. Each shaft is connected to a 16-foot (4.9-m) diameter, four-bladed, controllable-pitch propeller. For all three shafts, the diesel-electric plants can produce a total of 18,000 shaft horsepower (13,425 kilowatts) and the gas turbine plants a total of 75,000 demand shaft horsepower (56 MW) or 60,000 continuous horsepower (44.8 MW).[5]

Hull design and strength[edit]

Polar Sea has sufficient hull strength to absorb the high-powered icebreaking common to her operations. The shell plating and associated internal support structure are fabricated from steel with superior low-temperature strength. The portion of the hull designed to ram ice is 134 inches thick (44 mm) in the bow and stern sections, and 114 inches thick (32 mm) amidships. The hull strength is produced almost entirely from a sophisticated internal support structure that features canted ribs for approximately the forward two-thirds of the ship's frame. Polar Sea's hull shape is designed to maximize icebreaking by efficiently combining the forces of the ship's forward motion, the downward pull of gravity on the bow, and the upward push of the inherent buoyancy of the stern. The curved bow and heavy weight allows Polar Sea to force ice edges to break off downward as cusps. This design does not use sharp edges or hammer-like blows to cut or break the ice, as the round bow and massive weight are sufficient. With high power to back it up, the 13,000-ton (13,200-metric ton) Polar Sea is able to continuously progress through 6 feet (1.8 m) of new hard ice at 3 knots (6 km/h) and break up to 21 feet when using back-and-ram methods. An extreme exception to this occurred during a rapid transit to Pt. Barrow, Alaska between January 29 and February 11, 1981. While traversing 1000 miles of sea ice, Polar Sea was able to break through ice up to 40 ft thick.[6]

Polar Sea alongside her sister ship Polar Star (WAGB-10) near McMurdo Station, Antarctica.


There is a crew of 24 officers, 20 chief petty officers and 102 enlisted.[5] The ship has four sizable lounges, a library, gym (in an engineering space), and a small ship's store. It also has its own U.S. Post Office, satellite pay telephones, amateur radio equipment, photo lab, and movie library.


Polar Sea has a variety of missions while operating in polar regions. During Antarctic deployments, the primary missions include breaking a channel through the sea ice to resupply the McMurdo Station in the Ross Sea. Resupply ships use the channel to bring food, fuel, and other goods to make it through another winter. In addition to these duties, Polar Sea also serves as a scientific research platform with five laboratories, additional space for seven portable laboratories on deck and accommodations for up to 35 scientists.[7] The J-shaped cranes and work areas near the stern and port side of ship give scientists the capability to do at-sea studies in the fields of geology, vulcanology, oceanography, sea-ice physics and other disciplines.

Aircraft carried[edit]

Polar Sea carried two HH-65 Dolphin helicopters during major deployments. They support scientific parties, do ice reconnaissance, cargo transfer, and search and rescue as required. The Aviation Detachment comes from the Polar Operations Division at Coast Guard Aviation Training Center, Mobile, Alabama.

Notable operations[edit]

Polar Sea, RV Nathaniel Palmer, and tanker Paul Buck, in Antarctica

On 11 February 1981, Polar Sea made history when she became the first ship ever to reach Point Barrow, Alaska in the middle of winter.[8] She is also just one of only three ships[clarification needed] that has ever completely transited the Arctic Ocean and circumnavigated North America. On 22 August 1994, Polar Sea was one of the first two North American surface vessels to reach the North Pole; she sailed together with CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent.

1985 controversy[edit]

In 1985, Polar Sea triggered a diplomatic event by navigating the Northwest Passage from Greenland to Alaska without authorization from the Canadian government. It was the United States' position that the Northwest Passage was an international strait open to shipping and it sought only to notify Canada rather than ask for permission. Publication of the plans enraged the Canadian public opinion as it was regarded as a breach and disregard of sovereignty and prompted the government to take preventive measures in defending Canada's arctic territories. The U.S. never recognized Canada's claim over the Northwest passage but nevertheless, the two countries reached an agreement two years later which stipulated that in the future, the U.S. would ask permission before navigating the disputed waters.

Service Status[edit]

Polar Sea has been out of service since 2010 due to failure of five of her six Alco main diesel engines. Examination of her engines indicated excessive engine wear, with engine pistons welded to their sleeves.[9] In 2011 the Coast Guard slated Polar Sea for demolition in 2012,[10] but the scrapping of the 35-year-old icebreaker was postponed by Congress for at least six months in June.[2] A congressional authorization required the Coast Guard to make a report to Congress on the feasibility of retrofitting Polar Sea. The report was submitted in November 2013 and indicated that it is feasible to retrofit and reactivate Polar Sea.[11] As of September 25, 2022 the laid up ship was still in limbo alongside a pier at the Coast Guard Station on Elliott Bay, Seattle. It has not been determined if a new class will be funded, commercial icebreaker leasing options will be explored, and/or if the ship should be scrapped.[12] In February 2017, it was stated that Polar Sea would not be refurbished due to high cost; instead, the icebreaker would be used as a "parts donor" for Polar Star.[13]


  1. ^ U.S. Department of Homeland Security. United States Coast Guard Historian's Office. Archived 2011-08-25 at the Wayback Machine Retrieved 2012-01-15.
  2. ^ a b Reprieve for Seattle-based icebreaker Polar Sea Archived 2012-07-19 at the Wayback Machine. Seattle Times, 15 June 2012. Retrieved 2012-07-04.
  3. ^ Baker 1998, p. 1119.
  4. ^ Moore 1985, p. 772.
  5. ^ a b "USCGC Polar Sea". USCGC. Archived from the original on 2010-12-04. Retrieved 2010-09-20.
  6. ^ USCG Commandant's Bulletin 14-81, March 30, 1981, page 11
  7. ^ "USCGC Polar Sea". USCGC. Archived from the original on 2010-10-27. Retrieved 2010-09-20.
  8. ^ Shuhy, Joseph. "USCGC POLAR SEA Drift Project '81" (PDF).
  9. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 2015-04-02. Retrieved 2015-04-04.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  10. ^ "USCG Message". USCG. Archived from the original on 2011-11-21. Retrieved 2011-07-20.
  11. ^ "Guest: U.S. Will lose race across the Arctic Sea without more icebreakers | Opinion | the Seattle Times". Archived from the original on 2013-12-12. Retrieved 2014-01-05.
  12. ^ "Rebuild or scrap in 2015". 25 February 2015. Archived from the original on 2015-09-17. Retrieved 2015-09-15.
  13. ^ Coast Guard: Icebreaker Polar Sea Now a 'Parts Donor;' Refurbishment Deemed Too Expensive Archived 2017-02-19 at the Wayback Machine. USNI News, 17 February 2017. Retrieved 2017-02-18.


  • Baker, A. D. (1998). The Naval Institute Guide to Combat Fleets of the World 1998–1999. Annapolis, Maryland, USA: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 1-55750-111-4.
  • Moore, John (1985). Jane's Fighting Ships 1985–86. London: Jane's Yearbooks. ISBN 0-7106-0814-4.

External links[edit]