Christmas came early this year for the crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Healy – Sept. 30, to be exact. That’s the day the 420-foot medium icebreaker reached the North Pole. It was only the second time a U.S. ship has made it there on its own. The first was also the Healy in 2015.
What was it like to travel to the top of the world? As a holiday treat for the rest of us, MyCG reached out to some of the crew to find out. (And no, we didn’t do it just to get the scoop on Santa’s elves and a certain red-nosed reindeer. But yes, we asked about them, too.)
What were you guys doing up there?
The Healy regularly goes to the Arctic to demonstrate the Coast Guard’s capabilities and support research in this rapidly changing, critical region. In addition to a crew of about 100 Coast Guard members, 34 scientists came along on this trip.
Seaman Marquise Nelson primarily helped showing the cutter’s capabilities side, standing watch and working on the deck. Originally from Trinidad and Tobago, he joined the Coast Guard in July and just turned 18 in November. “If you had told me a year ago that I would be in America and going to the North Pole,” he said, “I never would have believed it.”
Nelson says he got used to losing feeling in his fingers and toes while on lookout at the highest part of the ship. But spotting whales or the occasional walrus made it worth it. He also enjoyed watching researchers checking oxygen levels and sediment to evaluate living conditions for sea life. “The scientists were nice and tried to explain what they were doing,” he said, “I’m still not sure I understood it.”
What cool things did you see along the way?
Petty Officer 2nd Class Regan Collins learned her ship would be going to the North Pole at the end of the 2021 patrol. As a culinary specialist, she brought an artist’s eye on this voyage, baking citrus crinkle cookies coated with powdered sugar that reflected the snowy terrain. And while some grew bored seeing endless ice, she found its cool light blue tint relaxing. She was also thrilled to see the Northern Lights, although they appeared to be a very faded dark green to gray. “When you took a picture, the colors would show up better on your phone than actually seeing them,” Collins said.
Her favorite sighting? A polar bear, though it was far away.
Seaman Tony Cascadden, a fireman who was also on his first deployment, got a little luckier with polar bears. He saw a bunch of them, just a couple dozen meters away. “They were just walking on the ice, and came close to the boat,” he said. “Just right off our bow, snooping around. One of them was waiting at the hull.”
Cascadden also remembers everyone being ecstatic about the Northern Lights. The last couple days heading North were pretty surreal, too. “It looked like our boat was going through a desert of white. The ice was so dense. Ice was scraping against our hull. It looked like an early morning 24/7. It was never super bright.”
How did you know when the ship was getting close to the North Pole?
Collins remembers hearing the ship reversing, then crushing forward when the ice got really thick. Nelson noticed certain systems started acting up or not working as they got further north. “For example, we have a map on a screen that tells us where an island is coming up,” he said. “When you get that far north, you literally go off the map.”
Fortunately, the ovens were still operating, which was good for Collins, as she was preparing a cake and mint pies to celebrate their arrival at the North Pole.
At about 20 nautical miles out, the crew received an update. Then, a countdown started for the last couple of miles. “As the Healy reached 80 degrees, then 87 degrees, 88 degrees, 89 degrees...you could feel the excitement building among the crew" Cascadden said. “When we got to 90 degrees – I think it was sometime in the afternoon – they said, ‘Congratulations, you all made it,’ on the loudspeaker.”
What did you do when you arrived?
Following the announcement, some members took pictures at the focsle. Meanwhile, ice rescue crews did safety checks and got the ship ready for people to disembark. The best place to do that was right by the bow, so they used a crane to set up a big metal walkway to go onshore.
The ice rescue team went first. This included a bear observer, who was armed in case they came upon any polar bears, who would be lethal and less cuddly up close. (They didn’t).
On Oct. 2, the rest of the crew and the scientists made it down to the ice. “In my command on the engineering side, we have some pretty seasoned Arctic sailors,” said Cascadden, who comes from a military family in California. “Our MPA (Main Propulsion Assistant) has been on a Polar icebreaker. But even with how seasoned people were, when we got two hours of ice liberty to walk on the North Pole, everyone was pretty stoked!”
Once on the ground, people played, football, soccer, and ultimate frisbee. “It was like we were doing it on a beach only it was ice.” Nelson said. Others brought ice skates or snapped photos near the boat where someone had erected North Pole marker. “You could stand there, and it looked like you were holding up the ship,” Nelson said.
If you weren’t moving, Collins said, it got cold quickly. Even in those big red Coast Guard parkas. During a formal meeting on the ice, two very brave members earned extra props for being advanced in just their tropical long uniforms. After that, people were ready to warm up.
What about Santa, already?
Yes, during the day and a half the Healy was at the North Pole, Santa and Mrs. Claus both came to visit. Everyone got to take pictures with them.
Nobody saw any elves though.
“I think we didn’t get to see his workshop because Santa wanted to keep everything a surprise,” Collins said. “It wasn’t Christmas yet, remember. It was only October.”
And his reindeer?
Cascadden was disappointed to report there was no sign of Rudolph either.
But the rest of the reindeer were there, according to Collins, who says she ran into them when many of her crewmates were playing games.
“They were super friendly,” she said. “Especially Dasher. He was the nicest of all of them. We got to feed them carrots and see them fly.”
“We’re actually not allowed to say,” Cascadden said. “You have to go up there and see for yourself.”
Sounds like a trip the Healy crew would recommend.