In the Midnight Sun

Willow among icebergs

ATLANTIC OCEAN - U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Willow navigates through icebergs in Baffin Bay during joint Operation Nanook, August 23, 2011. The international operation, designed to enhance maritime interoperability, featured the Canadian navy, army and air force, Danish military components, Royal Canadian Mounted Police and numerous other forces. U.S. Coast Guard Cutter photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Luke Clayton.

written by Petty Officer 3rd Class Luke Clayton

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Willow’s officer of the day’s (OOD) eyes narrowed. Glancing at several different monitors, reading navigation information, the OOD was only focused on one thing: the 20-foot waves barring down on the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Willow.

It had been a few days since Operation Nanook was completed. The crew made their way to Nuuk, Greenland to re-supply and fuel. Crews worked hard to ensure the cutter was ready for the long journey to the north that would take wit, stamina and dedication to duty.

After departing Nuuk, crews ran a man-overboard drill to set a record for the furthest Coast Guard surface swimmer to be deployed in the north. Seas were calm and glass like, but not for long.

The enormous waves smashed into the boat, shooting sea spray over the 225-foot length of the cutter to the fantail. Crews hunkered down and secured for the anticipated seas. Watchstanders inside the skin of the ship could feel every wave, slamming into the cutter. The crew was ready.

“The seas were rough,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Lazano, the lead cook of the Willow, “but as long as there are duties to be performed, they’ll get done.”

After a few days the seas became calm once again. Glass-like. The crew remained vigilant through the rough weather. Standing watches, cooking meals, ensuring engines were running in perfect synchronicity was a daily task with or with out the monstrous waves battering the cutter. 

The Willow’s crew met with the Danish naval vessel Ejnar Mikkelsen, a three-year old ship with 19 crewmembers onboard. The ship’s crew acted as coast guard and navy, while maintaining master seamanship in their region.

Steaming behind the Mikkelsen, the Willow’s operations department began to draw a plan for the mission at hand. Navigating through ice fields to reach the goal of setting the record for being the northern most U.S. Coast Guard cutter.

Several members gathered on the buoy deck to embark the Mikkelsen. Crews donned thick orange and black survival suits before climbing into the bouncing Danish small boat that hugged the side of the Willow. Crews, both Danish and American, sped to Mikkelsen to discuss navigation techniques and create a communications plan, just incase the worst happened. The Danish seamen know the icy waters above the Arctic Circle. It is their bread and butter.

“Working with the EJNAR MIKKELSEN was a great learning experience for our crew since the Danish Navy are experts in navigating in ice and taught us their best practices for operating in areas very few have navigated,” said Lt. Erin Chlum, Willow’s operations officer..

The waters by northern Greenland were filled with ice and danger. The Willows crew had Danish experts to learn from. These experts lived and worked in the waters for years. Some, including their chief of the deck, had been in that area for more than 20 years.

Willow soaked up knowledge about communications, testing limitations of endurance along with addressing logistical issues and navigating through different forms of ice.

Icebergs were easy to spot for Willow’s look-out crewmembers. They ranged from the size of a small truck to the size of a super market and glowed in an electric blue from the purity of the water content. Towering above the ship, it made the Willow look dwarf-like compared to the ancient chunks of ice, which broke free from a glacier and migrated away.

Bergy bits were a little harder to spot. Smaller on the surface of the water, but what lay beneath was the larger portion of ice that could still be dangerous to the steel skin of the Willow.

Growlers were completely submerged. Small, but difficult for a lookout to spot from the Willow’s bridge. To make navigating even more so challenging to the bridge watchstanders, Mother Nature added a thick, misty fog that acted as a blindfold in the seas.

By this time at midnight when the junior officer of the day, a record keeper, went to look at a small screen telling them the sunrise/sunset information, the small screen only read one thing. “Sun never sets.” This was locally called the “Mid-night Sun.”

“If it wasn’t stressful enough with 100 yards of visibility,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Mathew Renner, the break-in OOD “Add navigating through ice fields and growlers that don’t show up on radar.”

Renner and the other watchstanders came to a sluggish speed, keeping in contact with the Danish crews to sync speeds and maintain a reasonable distance. After several four-hour watches, the ships crawled from the fog into a valley of ice.

Icebergs, bergy bits and growlers grew closer together making narrow paths of vivid blue water in between the glazed ice. The Willow’s black hull stood out as the cutter carved a path to the north, while cliff faces of Greenland and Canadian provinces on both sides created Narles Straight.

A breeze began to push the ice together making a barrier between the record of the northern-most Coast Guard vessel and the Willow. Not finding a safe path, the cutter came to slow halt at 81.04 degrees north. Only 60 miles short of the record. But another record, for the northern-most buoy tender, had been well-beaten.

“”It’s great we had a chance to set a mark for today’s cutterman,” said Lt. Cmdr Donahue, Willow’s commanding officer.  “Good seamanship is what got us up there. It was a product of good teamwork,” said Donahue.

Crewmembers gathered on the deck to view the never-ending ice before turning around to head back to Thule Air Force Base, the northern-most U.S. base, and the last stretch of their mission.