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Ja­son Hamil­ton nav­i­gates the USCGC Healy through wa­ters that other cap­tains would fear about as much as a hur­ri­cane. If he makes a mis­take, help is thou­sands of miles away. But how do you ac­tu­ally read an ice field? How do you cleave a wall of ice­bergs? And how do you stay on track in the po­lar win­ter? id reached out to an ice­breaker cap­tain on his way back from an Arc­tic mis­sion…

I “t feels like an earth­quake, when around 16,000 tons of steel are hurled against a moun­tain made of ice at about 8 miles per hour,” ex­plains Cap­tain Ja­son R. Hamil­ton, who has been liv­ing in earth­quakestricken Cal­i­for­nia for a long time. The 420-foot-long U.S. Coast Guard ice­breaker ves­sel Healy shud­ders, as if it were about to lose this fight against the for­mi­da­ble field of ice. Min­gling with the crack­ing, burst­ing sound of the ice giv­ing way is the deep rum­ble of the bro­ken pieces scrap­ing along the ship’s hull. The colos­sus moves ever more slowly be­fore sud­denly groan­ing to a halt. Si­lence. On deck, the rag­ing – 20°F squall drowns out the four en­gines churn­ing deep in the en­gine room. Their 30,000 hp is not enough. Still, the ma­neu­ver is a suc­cess: Healy is now a few yards closer to its goal…


The crit­i­cal mo­ment is now at hand, as Hamil­ton ex­poses the ves­sel’s Achilles heel to the Arc­tic Ocean: In a pro­ce­dure known as “box­ing,” Healy re­verses for two or three ship lengths ev­ery 20 to 30 min­utes to build up a run­ning start for ram­ming. But when the ship is in re­verse gear, the pro­pel­lers and rud­der at its rear are un­pro­tected against ice and can sus­tain ma­jor dam­age in a col­li­sion.

“Some­times we have to ham­mer into a tow­er­ing 10-foot-tall ice wall cre­ated by ice floes to get through,” ex­plains Hamil­ton on his re­turn trip from an Arc­tic ex­pe­di­tion, dur­ing which he spoke to id by phone from the bridge of his ship. The whole thing works like felling a tree: Al­ways aim side­ways and make the notch big­ger with ev­ery stroke, oth­er­wise an ax—or a ship—can get stuck. There are places where ice reaches 40 feet down into the ocean. “At that point if a storm came, you’d need a week to go 2 miles,” says Hamil­ton.

But such a dan­ger­ous ride is the ex­cep­tion rather than the rule, as it can place peo­ple’s lives in dan­ger. And if Cap­tain Hamil­ton and his crew can­not get through, no one else can. They are the last best hope: De­spite what ex­pe­di­tion pho­tos may show, the Arc­tic Ocean is al­ways in mo­tion.

ICE SHATTERER The strong­est ice­breaker ship can bust through ice that’s 15-feet-thick as it passes through. The bow then pushes the tons of re­main­ing ice to the left and right. Mod­ern ice­break­ers even use com­pressed air to shoot the huge ice chunks to th

LAST RE­SORT Storms and frozen con­di­tions of­ten make ac­cess roads to out­ly­ing ci­ties such as Nome in Alaska im­pass­able. That means ice­break­ers such as the Healy (shown here) are the only hope for res­i­dents who are trapped by the ice. Healy has cleared the

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