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MilitaryWe're Antarctic sailors who just returned from a four month voyage on a ~forty year old military vessel. We played with penguins, watched the ocean glow, burned way too much trash, and fought wildfires (unrelated). Ask us anything!

Mar 29th 2017 by Humak • 25 Questions • 126 Points

Hi, my shipmate and I just completed Operation Deep Freeze 2017 aboard the Coast Guard Cutter (CGC) POLAR STAR (wikipedia link below). We spent ~1.5 months breaking 70 miles of Antarctic ice to clear the way for resupply vessels to McMurdo Station and allow the U. S. Antarctic Research Program to continue for another year. Along our way, we stopped in Honolulu, Sydney (for New Year's nonetheless), New Zealand (where we fought wildfires*), and Tahiti.

Great things we saw on the trip:

Whales eating penguins Bio-Luminescent plankton Stood in the hut Shackleton built Lived through a month long earthquake (icebreaking) Stood in a ~200MPH Snowstorm

Please note that the views expressed herein are our own and don't represent those of the Coast Guard, the Commandant, or the U.S. Government. Please don't fire me for this? Please do promote me for this...

Proof: imgur.com/a/5ebDB

Links:

Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USCGC_Polar_Star_(WAGB-10)

Local News covering our return: http://q13fox.com/2017/03/16/seattle-based-polar-star-icebreaker-returning-home-following-antarctic-mission/

Official Coast Guard News on our return: http://coastguardnews.com/seattle-based-coast-guard-polar-icebreaker-returns-home-following-antarctic-mission/2017/03/17/

Q:

What is something you discovered/witnessed exploring which most individuals of society might not know?

A:

Well, stuff doesn't rot. We went into Shackleton's hut where they left things kinda as they were when they left Antarctica 100 years ago. There is a seal carcass in there that is older than mine. You could cook and eat it today (so I'm told).


Q:

Shackleton's hut is still there??? That's amazing. One of the best books I've read.

A:

Check out photos of it. If you can't find any message me and I'll link you to my Instagram.


Q:

How many penguins did you manage to kidnap and what are their names?

A:

Penguins I kidnapped: 9

In order of precedence:

  1. Sir Winston
  2. Emperor Norton
  3. Kaiser Wilhelm
  4. Theodore Rex
  5. Millicent Moneybags
  6. Charlie Chaplain (he doesn't squak alot)
  7. This is a sore subject, he died in route. Thanks for not bringing up this tragic memory.
  8. Hugin
  9. Shhh, he is legend.

Q:

Number 9 is the one that dances isnt it?

A:

Only on the head of a pin.


Q:

Ever unload a six shooter at its feet?

A:

No, only on one through six.


Q:

As kids, did you want to be pirates?

A:

As a kid, I wanted to be a writer. Clearly I fucked up somewhere.


Q:

Did you spit into the air and if so did it freeze before hitting the ground?

A:

It's Summer in Antarctica.


Q:

Hi! Thanks for doing this. I have to two questions. 1- I don't know much about ocean travel, so forgive me. Is it normal for these kinds of trips to be taken on 40 year old one? I assumed that voyages this far would be taken on newer ones.
2- What was the scariest part of being there?

A:

To be honest it's because congress hasn't approved any new icebreakers since the Polar Star and Polar Sea were built. We got the Healy more recently but it goes north to the arctic. There is also the Mackinaw but she's too big to ever leave the great lakes.

Quick google search revealed we've got the first 150 million towards a new one woohoo!

Reference: http://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/politics/trump-budget-to-include-first-payment-toward-a-coast-guard-icebreaker/

Scariest Part: For me, the scariest part was one night on deck near the equator. Staring off into the sky at the incomparable stars above me, it occurred to me that if I fell that's it. I'd be done despite a lifejacket.

So, the Coast Guard sends a perenially broken cutter down to the Antarcitc to break ice.


Q:

What did you do for fun? Did you have access to the Internet or was it more like books and boardgames?

A:

Board games are incredibly popular. I learned how to play Catan and got to be pretty damn good at it (I think). Morale also put on trivia nights, bingo, and movie screenings against the hanger door. Holidays always had events (ugly sweater contest, gingerbread house building contest).

There was limited access to the Armed Forces Network (AFN) which let us keep up with the news until we got to the ice. Once we were on the ice, the ship had six channels they played music videos and movies on. We had pretty recent movies thanks to a deal the Navy had worked out with Hollywood.

I had my kindle and blew through 100+ books personally. Plus Boardwalk Empire, Luther, and Preacher.


Q:

How much trash did you burn? Why didn't you dump it in the ocean? (as I understand, its a choice between two evils that doesn't have many other options)

A:

We burned a few Conex (metal containers you see on shipping vessels) boxes worth of trash in the ice or so.

The Antarctic treaty prevents us from dumping trash of sewage within a certain range of the continent. We can burn it for some reason (I'll never be a diplomat nor scientist). So, in order to not overflow we burn it down until we can dump it.


Q:

As someone who has traveled to Antarctica, what is your opinion on the "recent" resurgence of the flat Earth theory (I hesitate to use "theory")?

A:

Earth isn't flat in my opinion. I can see the curvature of the earth from the crows nest. Having traveled from the ends of the Earth (Seattle to Antarctica) and seen the shift in daylight it seems pretty obvious that the Earth is round. I'm not a scientist though so I take everything I think with a grain of salt.


Q:

Did you see any immediate impacts of climate change?

A:

Well, not being scientists I don't think we have the ability to say whether we did or did not. We were there for the hottest day on record or so we're told. MASSXJ did get some pretty awesome Antarctic sunburn.


Q:

It would be a tie between getting seasick and how insanely hot it was while crossing the equator.

A:

Well, we had more shipboard emergencies than we had days with full access to potable water. Shipboard emergencies are referred to as "GEs", or General Emergencies, and consist of the big three Fs (Fire, Flooding, and Fornication). When you have a GE, the whole ship turns out to fight the fire, oil leak, fuel leak, toxic gas, or flooding. Not sure what we'd do to fight fornication.

Anyway, most days we couldn't do laundry and we had extremely limited or no showers. Despite bringing two weeks of clothes in my 20 cubic feet of storage space wearing the same outfits wears on you (pun intended).


Q:

Not much. Most of the spare parts are mainly propulsion related, and if they don't have it then its either wait for a part or get creative with finding a temporary alternate. Other shops might not have spares on board, so some systems (not propulsion related) went into an OOC (out of commission status) and got fixed at some point if the part has reached the ship.

A:

To start with, I'm the farthest from an engineer. If I ever have to fix something, we've already sunk.

I probably shouldn't go into the capabilities beyond what's publicly available but I will say that our Machinery Technicians (MKs) and Damage Controlmen (DCs) are freaking geniuses. The cutter is always experiencing some issue and those folks work 20 hour days routinely keeping her running. I have nothing but mad respect for them.

The system I will bitch about though are our evaporators. We have two evaporators onboard that came factory standard with Noah's Ark and show their age. They were constantly breaking down and led to nice long stinky stretches of no bathing for everyone. I don't think we ever really had laundry except for short stints. Some days we didn't have real food because we couldn't wash the cooking dishes.


Q:

The worst three weeks of my life was being a Fireman on the CGC Mellon WHEC-717 when our Evap broke hard. No showers if you are a Yoeman or Storekeeper is one thing, but no shower after eight hours of watch in the engine room off the coast of Central America is pretty cruel.

A:

Yeah. I'm still trying to see the upside to being an engineer. Y'all get the shortest stick I can imagine. There's a reason I try and buy snipes drinks whenever we hit port.


Q:

What was the quality of the food? Is it like high school cafeteria level?

A:

Definitely above high school and cafeteria/buffet style restuarants. The only complaint you can make IMO is that they don't go edgy enough. They try and please ~150 odd sailors so you don't get spicy food often. So it goes, I guess.


Q:

My cousin told me that when he was on a long deployment, hot sauce was basically as good as hard currency. Still true?

A:

Not really. Being on a boat means tons of storage which means the boat brought tons of hot sauce. It's just different when it's not cooked into the food.


Q:

That's a great question. I don't know a TON about other vessels that go down there, but in all honesty when our boat was new (40+ years ago), we might have fallen into that category. These days, not so much. There is another vessel owned by National Science Foundation, the R/V Nathaniel B. Palmer that was built in 1992. They do way more science than us these days.

https://www.nsf.gov/geo/plr/support/nathpalm.jsp

A:

The cruise ships that sneak down there. 12k USD and you can ride in luxury to Antarctica!


Q:

Haha as a Polie it is much worse but perhaps more warranted. We winterovers give the McMurdoites the same attitude they gave you. It mostly has to do with the inability for people who haven't lived there to relate to those who have so we become quote clannish.

A:

So much for finding common ground, eh?

Seriously though I get it. It took me awhile to "turn off" after four months with the same people.


Q:

It's similar in that people what haven't lived on a ship don't really "get" what it's like. They don't get the jargon, experiences, inside jokes etc... It's not intentional. I'm quite gregarious and friendlier than most but we all are usually a little standoffish at first meeting of someone. Quite frankly there's also a general somewhat negative view of military types among the civilian scientists and contractors there because the Air National Guard and Air Force will sometimes do things like make "military only" tables in the galley and get to have WiFi in their dorms etc...

I'm not a McMurdoite so I can't comment further than that but our crew experienced it going through McMurdo on our way to Pole. I suggest coming to Pole when you get out of the military if you want to come back. We're such a small community that the scientists, contractors, firefighters, military etc... all blend in together much better IMO.

A:

We're in agreement and I hope you don't think I was attacking the folks down there. It's just an interesting perspective and probably worth some anthropologist's time.

Some military folks are dicks so I can see where the impression of cliqueishness is appropriate. That being said, there's a pronounced tendency to bond over storytelling in the military (or atleast the seagoing services) that I don't find as often in civilian circles. It's one of my favorite qualities about shard service.

Y'all don't get the same luxuries as military folks? How's that work? Or is it heirachy based there?

Maybe that's the next step. I made it to McMurdo so I might as well push the boundaries.

When's your AMA? "I live at the South Pole and... AMA!"


Q:

What type/brand of clothing do you all wear? Must be pretty robust to endure the weather y'all go through.

A:

Uh, I hate to admit this and if anyone ever asks I'll deny it but NorthFace.

Please don't tell my mother.


Q:

Did you meet any pirates?

A:

Any other pirates you mean.


Q:

What was the most fun city you visited? Did you hear and good music or meet any weirdos?

A:

Oh Christchruch. I would happily emigrate once I retire. It's a very hip city that seems aware of itself and what it wants to be. There are scars everywhere of the 2011 earthquake. Buildings either in ruin or being demolished for structural damage. There are numerous bars, restaurants, and shops that operate out of a connex box because of the lack of space downtown.

The people were ridiculously friendly especially away from the city center. We were the second US military ship to visit in ~30 years so folks weren't used to having a bunch of military around. I don't carry my passport while drinking so everytime I'd order a drink at a bar I'd have to show my US military ID. Which prompted me to explain that we didn't use our passport to enter the country. Which led to a discussion of where we had been, what we had been doing, and where to go in Christchurch. On several occasions, the bartender actually stepped away from the bar and shot the shit with us.

Outside the city was beautiful. The people were beautiful. The food was great. The coffee was great. 10/10 city.

We met the Wizard of New Zealand and his blues playing apprentice.

Wizard of NZ: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wizard_of_New_Zealand

His Official Website (warning, annoying background noise): http://wizard.gen.nz/


Q:

See any UFOs?

A:

I can neither confirm nor deny the existence of Antarctic Extraterrestrials.


Q:

Do you like pancakes?

A:

For you, I'll say waffles coupled with chocolate pie.