Aging U.S. Icebreakers Left Idle

Icebreakers — heavy ships designed to carve a path through frozen waterways — are needed to keep winter maritime traffic moving. But this year, the U.S. fleet of two heavy icebreakers is at port in Seattle.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

In a few minutes, we investigate the age-old sport of jousting with our intrepid contributors, Randy and Jason Sklar.

Unidentified Man: James Zoppe, the founder of the AJA, American Jousting Alliance, put me, a Jew from St. Louis, on a horse and we got our joust on.

(Soundbite of jousting)

Mr. JAMES ZOPPE (Founder, AJA): All right. Good hit. Good hit. Good hit. Good hit. Good hit.

Mr. RANDY SKLAR (Sports Writer): Yeah! Whoo-ha, whew-hoo!

BRAND: But first, it's high summer in Antarctica, the only time of year when supply ships can get through to the McMurdo Research Station. And they can get through only after a heavily armored icebreaker clears a path through dozens of miles of sea ice. This year, a hired ship from Russia is doing that job, while America's heavy icebreakers sit idle. NPR's Martin Kaste reports from the icebreaker's home port, Seattle.

MARTIN KASTE reporting:

January is usually the month when US icebreaker crews spend long days listening to the booming and grinding of steel on ice as captured in this National Science Foundation audio.

(Soundbite from National Science Foundation audio of ice breaking)

KASTE: But this year, things are a lot quieter on the Coast Guard's two heavy icebreakers. The Polar Sea is in dry dock getting major repairs, while the Polar Star is simply on standby, moored just a few hundred yards away from the Seattle Mariners ballpark. Things are so quiet, Captain Bruce Toney has time to give tours.

(Soundbite of metal creaking)

Captain BRUCE TONEY (Polar Star): This is an example of the voice tube. It's an old technology system where you're simply speaking into a pipe.

KASTE: Toney cheerfully rattles off the ship's impressive statistics. The steel hull is nearly two inches thick, and the ship has as much horsepower as 25 train locomotives. When the Polar Star and the Polar Sea were built 35 years ago, they were state-of-the-art.

(Soundbite of metal clanging)

KASTE: But when you go below decks, you see that what was once impressive in the early 1970s has now come to resemble the boiler room in an aging middle school. Even Captain Toney admits that 30 years of icebreaking takes a toll.

Capt. TONEY: There's a tremendous amount of strain on the engines to come up to full power and then to come to a complete stop in just a few feet where you're again intentionally hitting something with a ship, which is unnatural for most ships.

KASTE: When this aging ship is at sea, a team of welders has to run around looking for loose pipes and breaking joints. The ship's creakiness may explain why the government agency in charge, the National Science Foundation, decided to outsource the icebreaking job to a Russian ship this year. The NSF would not comment on exactly why it decided to keep the American fleet home, but it's a decision that clearly disappoints Captain Toney. He says the Polar Star is still available to go help out in the Antarctic if called upon.

Capt. TONEY: The crew's in this 48-hour standby. They're ready to go. We've all got our personal gear as well as the professional stuff that we work with ready to go.

KASTE: Retired Rear Admiral Jeffrey Garrett spent most of his Coast Guard career in icebreaking and he understands the crew's disappointment.

Rear Admiral JEFFREY GARRETT (Retired): You know, the ships are, of course, very proud of what they do and have done and can do. They don't want to sit at the pier. They want to go out and do that.

KASTE: Garrett is now on a National Academy of Sciences panel that's studying the future of the icebreaker fleet. In a preliminary report, the panel says the Coast Guard's two heavy-duty icebreakers will soon be unusable. Garrett says it's like running an old car into the ground.

Rear Adm. GARRETT: If you car breaks down, you may be stuck by the side of the road. It may be inconvenient. But if a ship breaks down in a major way in the polar regions, you may have folks that have to winter over or you may have a major rescue operation on your hands.

KASTE: The ships have a few more years in them, Garrett says, if they're overhauled. But the big concern for him and the rest of the panel is what happens after that.

Rear Adm. GARRETT: You know, at some point, we're going to have to make an investment or the capability will go away and we won't have the US influence and presence in the two polar regions that we've had historically.

KASTE: The next few decades could be a bad time for the US to go without icebreakers. As global warming shrinks the polar ice sheets, more commercial ships are venturing into the icy straights around Alaska where they risk getting stuck in moving pack ice. Garrett says he'd like to see the US clearing the ice under its own flag, but new ships will be expensive and the panel is also looking into the possibility of renting foreign icebreakers for the long term. That option is not likely to go over well with the crew of the Polar Star as it sits on standby waiting to be called back into action. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

BRAND: More coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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