Featured, Maritime, Politics

USCG Icebreaker Healy: America’s Presence in the Arctic Calls on Seward

by Kelley Lane for Seward City News-
Lieutenant Junior Grade Brian Hagerty, with Icebreaker Healy at Seward’s cruise ship dock. Photo: Kelley Lane

Last week, the US Coast Guard Icebreaker Healy spent a few days in Seward, on its way up from Seattle for their first patrol of the season in the Arctic. In Seward, the opportunities to connect with travelers who are passing through town abound. A week ago, I was fortunate to encounter a Coast Guard personnel member named Purcell at the Hertz Car Rental office on Port Avenue. I asked him about the possibility of getting a tour of the Healy. “If they are doing tours, it would be on Wednesday. Just go to the gate and they’ll call up to ask.”

The following day, I did just that. Lieutenant Junior Grade Brian Hagerty met two of us at Alaska Railroad’s recently updated security gate, walked us aboard the ship and took us to the ship’s bridge, a cavernous space with three separate locations from which to steer the 420 foot long icebreaker. Hagerty came to Coast Guard service through undergraduate studies at Virginia Tech, where in his senior year, he first learned about the possibility of working for the Coast Guard. He did the Corps Cadets program that final year of college, and continued his training by doing his first Coast Guard unit here in Seward, aboard the Healy in 2015.

Hagerty was the serving as the Deck Watch Officer, in addition to touring us around the Healy. The Healy left Seattle at the end of June and pulled into Seward to resupply on produce, and to pick up new Coast Guard personnel and a crew of scientists. The Healy has a crew of 85 permanent personnel and can carry up to 50 additional personnel. “This first mission we’re taking up almost every rack (sleeping berth).” There are four missions planned for this summer and between the missions, the Healy will use Seward as a base for resupply and exchange of scientific crew. Hagerty allowed us ample time to see the bridge, then we descended to a lower level of the ship to see the galley.

The galley is designed for wave movement and dozens of personnel to occupy it at meal times, which happen four times in each 24 hour period. The long eating tables are covered in ½ inch thick vinyl tablecloths that grip plates and glasses, preventing spillage. The lip of each table has a ½ inch rise, to catch food items that slide towards the edges. Even the fruit is contained within metal coils that allow fruit to be picked out one piece at a time. The usual fruit basket would risk being dumped by rough seas. The galley is equipped with a “Red Goat” food disposal, strictly for food waste items, which are ground into fine parts and discharged into the seas when the vessel is underway. Other garbage is stored on board in a conex container. It is sorted and compressed in order to use space efficiently because the vessel is often underway for more than a month at a time. The cooks on duty explained that most personnel choose to eat at restaurants in Seward while the ship is docked, but they provide meals for the 15 or so on-duty personnel.

The next afternoon, I received an invitation to come aboard the Healy and ride out of the Seward Harbor with other members of the media. I arrived again to the security gate on Friday morning. We walked aboard the Healy by way of the gangplank on the ship’s side, and all the way up to the flight deck.

View from flight deck on USCG Icebreaker Healy. The flight deck can receive up to two helicopters at a time. Photo: Kelley Lane

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The joint Navy and Coast Guard Department of Defense dive team was present in their respective uniforms. Diver First Class Geri Cabrera, supervisor of dive operations aboard the Healy, gave an interview to KTUU’s Heather Hintze explaining the significance of having a dive team aboard the Healy. Eleven years ago, there was a tragic accident aboard the Healy, in which two Coast Guard divers descended into the icy waters too deep and too quickly. In response, the Coast Guard has reconfigured their dive program, and created diving as a specific rating, meaning that divers now receive specialized training. This training is done by the Navy and includes cold water diving courses that take place in northern Canada in January and February. Part of the training is to remove the primary gear while underwater in a 37 degree NOAA cold water tank, and learn how to transition to their secondary dive gear. “I’m not a fan of cold water but we have to be comfortable with our gear” said Cabrera.

The Healy has a dive compression chamber on board that is on loan from the Navy. The crew performed a demonstration of how it would work, while KTVA filmed the process. The walk-through displayed the focus and incredible choreography that would be necessary to move an incapacitated diver into and out of the narrow chamber.

After the demo, I asked the joint Navy and Coast Guard team about their time in Seward. Two groups had gone hiking the day before. Three had hiked on Mount Marathon. Another group of them had hiked Exit Glacier, and then tried to call for their shuttle to come pick them up. There was no cell service in the valley, so instead they hitched a ride back into town. The team spent the evening downtown, enjoying the culinary delights of Woody’s Thai Cuisine, the Seward Brewing Company and the Seward Ale House.

Navy divers role play a rescue scenario using the Diving Decompression chamber, while camera crew from KTUU documents the scenario. Photo: Kelley Lane

Our next stop was a visit with Commanding Officer Greg Tlapa on the bridge. He explained in his relaxed and confident manner that the Healy’s work is, in part, tactical. “We project US power in the Arctic. We are the only US Military surface presence in the Arctic.” The Healy is the only Arctic Icebreaker in the Coast Guard fleet. It has the capability to support all of the Coast Guard’s other duties, such as search and rescue, marine response and scientific research. The other Coast Guard Icebreaker is the Polar Star, which patrols the Antarctic.

Commanding Officer Greg Tlapa on the Bridge of the Healy.

Our tour drew to a dramatic close when we passed Lowell Point. The media needed to be returned to land so that the Healy could continue its course towards Kodiak, where it planned to arrive by evening. A small boat was lowered over the side of the Healy. We motored towards the public dock near the Mustang, the Coast Guard Cutter permanently stationed in Seward. The Healy will return to Seward in mid August, to once again resupply on produce and scientific personnel. 

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