U.S. Coast Guard cutter completes North American circumnavigation


During its 2021 circumnavigation of North America, the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) Cutter Healy encountered a rapidly transforming Arctic.

More open water. More activity. Less ice.

“The climate is changing,” Capt. Ken Boda, commander of the Healy, said on October 21, 2021, when the medium icebreaker made a port call in Baltimore, Maryland, according to the defense news website Janes.

“You see a lot more vessels up there. You see a lot more people up there.”

The Healy made a transit of the Northwest Passage during its 133-day voyage before returning to its home of Seattle, Washington, on November 20.

Boda, who has made five icebreaker deployments to the Arctic, said the increase in activity brought on by climate change is affecting operations in the region, leading to more search-and- rescue operations for the service and its partners from Canada and other nations.

“As you get more and more traffic, that’s really in the forefront of our minds,” Boda said, according to Janes.

During the Healy’s deployment, the crew trained for rescue missions with Canadian forces. “While we didn’t see traffic in the Northwest Passage, we started seeing more vessels in Baffin Bay,” said Boda, according to Janes. “We saw less ice on the eastern side of Northwest Passage than I expected.

“It was open water once we got past Resolute [Bay].”

One casualty of that ice scarcity was the ship’s “ice liberty,” a maritime tradition in the Arctic. At a thick floe, theUSCG crews get to disembark from the confines of their vessel.

Not this year.

“A lot of the floes had melt ponds with holes in them like Swiss cheese,” Boda told the Seattle Times newspaper by phone during an October port call in Boston. “We couldn’t get the right floe.”

The 22,000-mile voyage was, in part, a training mission for the crew of the 420-foot vessel, a task that takes on more importance as the USCG prepares to increase its Arctic presence with three new icebreakers planned for laterin the decade, according to the Times.

“The best way to train is just to get there and do it,” Boda told the newspaper. “To see where they started and where they are today is just amazing.”

(Pictured: U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy crew members conduct cutter boat training in Baffin Bay on September27, 2021.)

The transit of the Northwest Passage was the first for the Healy since 2005.

The passage has several routes that have become more accessible as sea ice has diminished in recent decades, according to the Times.

The Healy also hosted scientists who conducted research on the warming maritime environment. On Prince of Wales Strait, a narrow stretch of water separating two islands in Canada’s Northwest Territories, shoreline had collapsed because of permafrost thaw, Boda told the Times. He said the ship was largely able to find open water.

“We were surprised at the condition of the ice,” Boda said. “All the heavy stuff, we were able to maneuver around.”