Coast Guard Marks 50th Anniversary of Northwest Passage Mission

WASHINGTON – The U. S. Coast Guard is marking the 50th anniversary of an historic expedition to chart a passage through the Northwest Passage at a time of renewed interest in Arctic research and exploration.

In the summer of 1957, the Coast Guard cutters Storis, Spar, and Bramble sailed though the Bering Strait and into the Arctic Ocean to determine the feasibility of the Northwest Passage as a route for cargo vessels to resupply the early warning radar network – a critical front for national defense at the height of the Cold War. The cutters’ three-month voyage across the northern edge of the North American continent helped resolve much of the uncertainty about the 4,500 miles of semi-charted waters through which they sailed. The cutters put out continuous soundings and placed aids to navigation to mark passable waterways.

“Like their counterparts in today’s Coast Guard, these pioneers lived in a world of dynamic threats and hazards,” said Thad Allen, Coast Guard commandant. “And like the Coast Guard men and women of today, they met these challenges through a unique combination of competence, capability and courage.”

The three cutters were staffed with volunteer crews for the unique mission, which departed Seattle on July 1. After rounding Alaska and leaving Point Barrow, the convoy skirted the coast of Canada’s Northwest Territories for much of the voyage. Once they passed through the Simpson Strait, the three ships turned northward and traversed the Rae, James, Ross, and Franklin straits to Ballot Strait. While in Franklin Strait, the convoy was trapped in an ice floe field for several days before Spar managed to break free before helping the other two vessels reach clear water. The cutters continued to chart and record water depths and became the first deep draft vessels to transit the 17-mile Ballot Strait from west to east.

Spar, homeported in Bristol, Conn., set another record when it returned to port on Sept. 22 to become the first American vessel to circumnavigate the North American continent within one year.

The Coast Guard continues to support U. S. interest in the Arctic. The Cutter Healy is carrying on the legacy of its forebearers with a current mission with the National Science Foundation to map the sea floor in the Arctic region.

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