A Venerable Cutter

By C. William Bailey


Throughout her life the polar icebreaker EASTWIND had a history of being first: First of her class to go around the world and first to circumnavigate the Antarctic Continent. At one time she had the record for going farthest north and sighting the tallest iceberg on record. So, once again, on her final cruise she became the first polar-class icebreaker to navigate to the Great Lakes, setting the stage for WESTWIND’s eventual homeport.

EASTWIND’s normal draft was deeper than channels in the St. Lawrence Seaway could accommodate. A vessel that is lightened may find herself in a precarious balancing situation to remain stable, so much thought was required to determine the feasibility of taking a polar-class Cutter into the Lakes. In some places we had only inches of water under the keel.

The Coast Guard has many times in the past been called on to prove that the motto Semper Paratus is not just a phrase for public relations. While preparing for the forthcoming summer arctic operations, an emergency developed, which seriously impaired the U.S. Early Warning Missile Defense, in that a cable off Labrador was cut. EASTWIND was ordered out immediately to assist the Western Union cable repair ship Swenson, an elderly steam vessel laid down in 1922 and was not ice-strengthened. She looked like the J.P. Morgan’s yacht Corsair, clipper bow and all.

During the operation of locating the broken cable ends, EASTWIND was given the opportunity of acting like a buoy tender—Swenson wanted us to take aboard one end of the broken cable while they steamed off to search for the other end. EASTWIND was not equipped for this kind of seamanship, but it was accomplished in the dead of night surrounded by “bergy bits,” strong current, and high wind. Holding EASTWIND alongside the old cable ship for quite a time, using our deep sea anchor wire for the transfer, made me thankful for a warm parka and bridge engine controls. We were sure that if the ships touched each other, even lightly, we’d probably sink the old girl.

Once we had the cable end, Swenson sailed off with the parting admonition, “Don’t let the ship pull too hard on the cable or you’ll lose it.”

We didn’t see her for a day and a half as we stemmed the current with nothing but poor Loran lines to help determine position. Fortunately, the ice cooperated and stayed clear of us as it drifted by. We were happy to see the tall black stack of the Swenson heave over the horizon, towing her spliced-on end of the cable. Once the transfer was again accomplished, we breathed a sigh of relief and settled down to routine circles around the cable ship to keep the ice away from her as they did the usual eight-hour splice.

A Canadian icebreaker joined us and together we alternated our steaming circle patrol, which required us to come close aboard the bow of Swenson, than hard right to swing the stern up current to sweep the ice away from her bow. EASTWIND’s deck officers got their fill of close-aboard ship handling. And our Arctic cruise had not even yet begun. On our way back from this operation, we wondered if anyone back home realized how close the U.S. had been to an impaired Early Missile Warning.

The voyage through Canada was largely uneventful, once we got used to the requirement that we had to put our own line handlers on the lock wall. Ships that use this route regularly have a horizontal boom installed that allows them to quickly swing out with a man to drop him off. We used the ship’s crane, which was slow motion personified. Making up a wooden bucket to hold four men was the only way we could get the job done before the ship drifted out of position.

There was a moment of terror when dirty fuel caused a complete power shut down throughout the ship while we were in a narrow channel. Taking the conn quickly away from the nonplussed pilot, EASTWIND steered like the lady she usually wasn’t, and we were able to get over to the windward channel edge and anchor. Two hours later we got power back on the windlass and went on our way. This was before the navigation season, so there were no buoys or other navigational aids put out yet.

After fueling in Cleveland with 1,000,000 gallons of oil from a tank truck, we gave the crew time for liberty. We based in Buffalo, where the ice is heaviest and where the ‘Lakers’ wintered.

Too extensive to detail here, but EASTWIND developed a comprehensive report of lessons learned, occasionally the hard way, about Great Lakes-style icebreaking, especially when encumbered by crusty Chief Engineers who refused to develop more than half their available horsepower on freshly overhauled engines on ships that were low-powered to begin with. Slab-sided Lakers become very sticky in the ice and require the breaker to operate in close proximity. As might be expected, a collision hung like the Sword of Damocles over our head much of the time. 1968 was reputed to be one of the worst ice years and the worth of a polar breaker was proved in moving lake traffic two weeks earlier than expected.

After repairs and replenishment, EASTWIND left Boston early in June for Arctic ’68. We did not know then that it was to be her swan song. Breakers traditionally arrive at Thule AFB on the 4th of July, and 1968 was no exception. In fact, we were early and had to loaf along to keep to the schedule. We had duties to perform en route, such as the annual courtesy call on the admiral commanding NATO Forces, Greenland, RADM Peterson, who made us welcome as we arrived on their mid-summer holiday.

We were tasked with a number of events in addition to escorting the supply ships into Thule. We were to host a Navy motion picture unit making an oceanographic training film, and of course, to do oceanographic duties of our own, together with a glacier study that had not been done since 1940. Passengers and guests were coming and going throughout the summer.

One task in which we were much interested was to locate and exhume the body of a 1871 polar explorer, Charles Francis Hall, who died under mysterious circumstances. We were to have a Smithsonian pathologist with us to attempt to determine if he had been poisoned. The grave was located well above the Humboldt Glacier, and would require EASTWIND to travel well north.

The voyage to Thule was routine, if an icebreaker’s travels can ever be called routine. Arriving on time on the day appointed, we were welcomed with the enthusiasm of those who have been isolated and were looking for renewed supplies of beer, mimeograph paper, and bathroom tissue, all essential to military operations.

Upon completion of our primary task of escorting the supply ships, we embarked on Glacier Survey duty. Again, another first for EASTWIND: To navigate a motor-propelled boat up the isolated Karrets Fiord (where only a German scientist has once paddled a kayak many years ago) to Rinks Glacier, one of the two largest ice-producing glaciers in Greenland. Air reconnaissance indicated that ice conditions might permit a small boat to run to the glacier at the head of the fiord. However, we only attempted it after making sure there was a way out in case the ice bottled up the fiord after all.

Anchored in the tiny harbor of Jacobshavn, our survey party flew off for an inspection. A few large bergs were drifting near the harbor mouth, which we were watching closely. It was time for our diving officer to make a qualification dive, so we off-handedly said, “Well, while you are down there, take a look at our wheels.”

He unexpectedly reported a near disaster for us: The starboard shaft strut bearing had worked out, shearing off fourteen massive bolts and leaving only a couple of inches of bearing supporting the heavy shaft. The Chief Engineer said, “Not another turn on that shaft or we’ll drop a $50,000 propeller in Davy Jone’s Locker.”

Attempting to continue the season on one shaft did not amuse us in the least, so I recommended to the Navy command that with EDISTO having rudder stem problems and WESTWIND drinking from a glacier ice pool often due to evaporator failures, “At least one of these three elderly Casualty Report-prone ships should go back to civilization for repairs.”

Our next problem was to get out of Jacobshavn before the bergs closed the harbor. This was gingerly done with much backing and filling, and EASTWIND was on her way to drydock.

Returning from Boston early in September to resume oceanographic duty, EASTWIND proceeded far north to 80-15 latitude before being recalled to evacuate a group of sick Eskimos to hospital at Thule. We arrived in what the called Phase One weather; we called it a hell-of-a-blow, and time to get on home.

Starting south we still had oceanographic obligations almost all the way to Labrador. However, we were once again were diverted to help a Canadian cable ship, this time for a break near Greenland.

EASTWIND reached Boston on 3 November to greet families on the dock and were told we were to be decommissioned. It seemed that EASTWIND was always the last of her class to receive Ship Alterations and improvements, and so she was far behind the other breakers. Thus the pencil pushers and budget analysts brought a gallant ship to her end.

Although we had been directed to turn over all remaining funds to Headquarters from our Ship’s Store, we felt that the final crew, representing all the shipmates who through the years had provided EASTWIND with her fine history, deserved a royal bash, complete with suckling pig and apple for ALL HANDS and their families.


  Return To Coast Guard Stories