Iconic Icebreaker Makes Last Voyage — to Scrapyard

The retired Coast Guard icebreaker Glacier prepares for its final voyage.

A reminder of U.S. vulnerability in the polar seas?

The retired Coast Guard icebreaker Glacier prepares for its final voyage.

Glaciers are slipping away everywhere. It was tough to see this one go.

I’m talking about a ship, not an actual river of ice. This morning I watched the retired Coast Guard icebreaker Glacier cast off on what is likely to be its final voyage, from a Vallejo dry dock to a scrapyard in Brownsville, Texas. It seemed like a poignant moment, given the decline of the U.S. icebreaker fleet. Just as Arctic seas are opening up to unprecedented shipping activity, the Coast Guard is left with just one icebreaker in working order. Icebreakers are important research platforms and could play a vital role in responding to oil spills from offshore drilling in far northern waters.

Ben Koether sees it as more than poignant. “It’s a tragedy and a crisis,” he told me by phone from Connecticut. “It’s just ludicrous.” Koether is an electronics executive who was the Glacier’s navigator for two Antarctic voyages, in 1959 and 1962. In its heyday, the ship participated in annual re-supply missions to Antarctic bases and was used as a platform for oceanographic research in polar waters. Launched in 1954, the Glacier was decommissioned more than 20 years ago and is well beyond seeing active service. But Koether has been leading an effort to save the Glacier from the blowtorch and turn it into a floating museum of oceanography.

Seeing the ship’s 300-foot rusting form depart ADR’s Mare Island shipyard between two tugs, one might reasonably conclude that the battle has been lost. “Absolutely not,” says Koether, who says the dismantling contractor has agreed in principle to swap the Glacier for another one in the U.S. reserve fleet, managed by the federal Maritime Administration (MARAD), but MARAD has yet to approve the deal.

The Glacier rests in a Mare Island drydock while its hull is prepared for towing to Texas. Each of its twin propellers was 17 feet across.

Koether says the Glacier’s design is “unequaled even today.” Built originally for the Navy, the Glacier had a “heeling” system that could free it from heavy ice by rapidly pumping 140,000 gallons of water from side-to-side. Her power came from giant diesel engines and twin 17-foot propellers and Koether says she was built more stoutly than subsequent breakers in the fleet, with thicker steel and more ribbing.

As for beefing up the U.S. polar fleet, prospects appear dim, though the Coast Guard has asked for funding to build at least one more icebreaker. “As the ice melts, you need more icebreakers instead of less,” says Koether, noting that the Russians have more than a dozen in the works, some nuclear-powered.

The icebreaker Glacier in better days, approaches McMurdo Station in Antarctica.
Iconic Icebreaker Makes Last Voyage — to Scrapyard 7 May,2012Craig Miller

28 thoughts on “Iconic Icebreaker Makes Last Voyage — to Scrapyard”

  1. I served aboard 2 U.S. Coast Guard icebreakers, The Edisto and the Southwind. They traveled to both the Arctic and the Antarctic. Very tough boats, but due to their hull design, they would roll and pitch wildly in moderate seas. But they would cruise through pack ice several feet thick with no effort. I used to stand at the bow and look down at ice being cracked apart. Unforgettable experience.

    1. I was wondering about that exact thing. Looking at the hulls on these things, seemed like they might be on the “tender” side in unfrozen seas. We’re also interested in any anecdotes about research done from icebreakers.

      1. Craig Miller, The old Icebreaker fleet, did research, but a lot of the research is still T/P.

      2.  NP2OK here:
        Remember the samples we took in Baffin Bay etc. Read a book ICE, by a fellow from UM. The research lead to how the Gulf Stream flows and what happens when “fresh” water from the Arctic Ice pack meets the Gulf Stream and turns East then North. He references another professor from Florida who goes into great detail.
        Of course the 280 guys remember McMurdo where the scientists captured a penguin. The crew dressed the penguin ala the pig in the film Operation Petticoat and saved him from the knife. Later another ‘guin was captured and DDT was found in the fat.

        Here is a trivia question. When did yard birds become contractors?

  2. I also served on 2 breakers, The Southwind & the Westwind. Would pray for ice in rough weather as I got sick as a dog. Don’t regret one minute.

      1. Yes, and maybe you remember the Common People. We had a band on the ship, Earl,guitar, Roger,guitar,Ed,guitar, and me, drums.Played ( Back In The U.S.S.R.) in Murmansk, we were nuts. They weren’t happy but we were. Hell we were just kids. Saw lots been places I never dreamed of.One of the best periods of my life, next to my kids. Lots of fond memories. Looking forward to attendind my first reunion in Oct. with my son . Very glad I found out about the Southwind’s Association.

  3. First year in Guard aboard Southwind (Deep Freeze “71”) one of the best years in the service. 
    Saw more parts of the world than most at that time. For a boy from a small town in MA the guard  made me grow up fast.

    1. Sparky The Southwind is having a reunion in October in New London Ct. I was a DC-2 on the 71 South Trip 

  4. I too was on the Southwind and the Edisto. I am guessing you were in the lakes Tbmuscg70, I was stationed in Baltimore when we swapped ships. Amazing experience for a young man. I also transfered to San Pedro aboard the Burton Island. I really saw a good amount of the planet, more than most. The most adventure was towing the Edisto back from the ice through the north Atlantic in 40 foot seas. We broke one steel hauser but made it to calmer waters on the second. I have pictures of the hauser disappearing into the ocean and all you could see was the Edisto’s conning tower.

    1. standswithfist, I was not stationed in the lakes I was on the Southwind when we took the Edisto in tow after her skipper lost power due to some bad decisions. We got a Unit Accomodation for that rescue. Our reward? We got to give up our beloved and well cared for Southwind, and in return we got the Edisto. She was a neglected mess compared to our boat. Been run by lakers with no respect. We had to literally peel the filth off her before we could live in her. My boat, the Southwind was stationed out of Curtis Bay, Maryland. Our motto was “Top and bottom of the world”

      1. My bad, I concure with what you are saying, not only was the Edisto in a state of disarray but I remember having to leave the Southwind in the Lakes and we were told to leave everything behind. All we took was our sea bags. We could have easily put everything in the C130 we flew home in. When we got home to Baltimore we found that they had taken everything when they left so as a damage controlman there wasn’t even a cresent wrench to be found. The upside NEW TOOLS. I made muster in October as I remember in 1971, went to Palmer Station that winter then made the next trip north. I have somewhere the dual patch Top and Bottom of the World.

  5. I was the Electronics/Communications division officer for DF-81 and navigator for DF-82.  That was the best two years of sea duty I had in the CG.  For those of you who don’t remember (or don’t know) GLACIER had 3 engine rooms (B1, B2 & B3).  10 diesel generators producing 25,000 SHP, and 4 generators for hotel services (such as it was).  Nothing could beat controlling that monster from the aloft conning station.  I’m sorry to see her go.

  6. I was a FN working in the DC shop on Southwind as a member of the re-commissioning crew in 1966 when we got her back from the Navy. I probably have the only movies of the ship sailing into Boston Naval Shipyard and the Navy crew casting the lines on the dock. I am in the process of having the film copied to disc. I made two trips, Toolie Greenland and Palmer Antarctica. Glacier was there in Palmer when we ran aground and punched a Cadillac size hole in the bottom. It was good to have another Icebreaker there as there was no place to go if Southwind sank. Hope the museum plan works out, will take a lot of funding. Dave Hauser DCCM (retired) 

  7. It’s all about the “new Coast Guard”. Homeland Security has the Coast guardsman looking like some kind of “swat team”. Instead of Search and Rescue they do drug interdiction and guard bridges. I think we were all better off when the Guard was under the Treasurery Dept.I spent 4 years in the guard and 30 in the Aux. but it’s just not the same.

    1. I was an Ocean Station Coastie, RM2 aboard Sebago. Completely agree that movement to Homeland Security was not in the best interest of the CG mission.  I suspect that soon enough we will see the service split apart – back to separate agencies similar to the stance prior to 1915. Lifesaving Service, Lighthouse (ATON), and the LE mission. The LE guys won’t be called ‘Hammerheads,’ probably be tagged with something far less respectful. 

  8. Also a breaker sailor, Westwind and Southwind 66-68, for three trips as a junior engineering officer, great ships, never home but what the heck, a sailor is for sea duty or repairs for going to sea.  Sad to see these ships becoming razor blades as they were wonderful platforms for research and extreme operations.  Expensive to operate and took way too many men by modern standards, newer ones similar to the Polar Sea class operate with half the crew and the remaining one of them is under utilized as well.  From a peak of TEN of these herky boats to one sometimes used is a shame.

  9. I was a twidget on 280 from 70 to 72.  Still in touch with my EMO. Worked with a guy from NYC  Traffic in the ’80s, he was an RM on Atka (Navy type AGB 280) in the ’50’s. I stayed on as a (r) got activated a couple of times. LE patrols just don’t cut it compared Ice patrols. Carrying the scientists to do research and visiting McMurdo before it became a tourist trap.
    Best of luck on your restoration efforts. Bring it to San Juan and I’ll volunteer to help refit her.

  10. Wow, what a shame.  Glacier was ‘home’ for 25 months.  Made 2 trips to Antarctica.  My youth was invigorated by the work, challenges and sites & sounds not only aboard Glacier but in the ports-o-call we made.  Good luck ole’ shipmate, thanks for bringing home so many sailors safely.

  11. Served on the Edisto November 1st 1968 to Jan 1971.  Made two trips south; McMurdo and Palmer Station and one North to Thule. Prior to that served on the Cook Inlet out of Portland, ME.  Met alot of people seen alot of places.  Good Times.  Stay tuned for Coasties!

  12. I did duty just out of boot camp, south at the end of 69 and two north in 70, She was still white, anyone else on board at that time? Glacier

  13. I spent a day on the Polar Sea when it was cutting through the sea ice to McMurdo Station in December 2001. It was an incredible experience as a lay person to feel the icebreaker slam down on the ice to break it up. Both the UACG vessels Polar Sea and the Polar Star used to operate in Antarctica and now they are out of commission as well and NSF has to rely on foreign icebreakers to bring in the supply ships to the science station every year. 

  14. Two north trips on the ‘282’ Northwind .. it’s a sad day if this actually becomes reality.

Comments are closed.


Craig Miller

Craig is a former KQED Science editor, specializing in weather, climate, water & energy issues, with a little seismology thrown in just to shake things up. Prior to that, he launched and led the station's award-winning multimedia project, Climate Watch. Craig is also an accomplished writer/producer of television documentaries, with a focus on natural resource issues.

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