Cutter Crosses Arctic Circle on Anniversary of Northwest Passage

By Petty Officer 1st Class Kurt Fredrickson

KODIAK, Alaska – In 1865 the first U.S. Light House Service tender reached the shores of Russian Alaska and sparked the beginning of what has been more than 145 years of Coast Guard history in the Bering Sea. While the wooden ships of the Light House and Revenue Cutter Service have given way to the modern steel cutters of today’s Coast Guard, the sights and experiences of the sailors crossing the Arctic Circle are much the same.

Today the Kodiak based Coast Guard Cutter SPAR is adding to the services rich history of operating in Alaska’s remote northern waters. As a fitting historical reminder the SPAR crossed the Artic Circle Thursday on the 50th anniversary of the completion of the Northwest Passage by the Cutters Bramble, Storis and original SPAR.

The Coast Guard Cutter SPAR off the coast of Barrow, Alaska

The Cutter SPAR off the coast of Barrow, Alaska

“The existence of a Northwest Passage connecting the Atlantic to the Pacific through the Arctic had tantalized and frustrated explorers and navigators for centuries,” said Lt.j.g. Tim Brown, navigator of the SPAR. “The route offers an alternative to transit through the Panama Canal or around South America and can save hundreds of miles off of a ship’s voyage.”

The successful completion of the Northwest Passage by the Storis, Bramble and SPAR on September 6, 1957 was a nationally celebrated achievement, Brown noted. Today the SPAR’s mission in the Bering Sea is directly connected to economic, strategic and humanitarian missions, reminiscent of those conducted by its namesake decades ago as well as the first Bering Sea patrols of the 1860s. While the predecessors of the Coast Guard were called to service to regulate the booming fur trade, a large source of national income, today the region is still of vital economic importance and international debate.

“The Arctic is rich in natural resources, including petroleum reserves, commercially important metals, and fisheries,” Brown explained. “The Northwest Passage is being considered as an alternative for transit again, especially by for Asian-European trade since it cuts time from the Panama Canal transit.”

As the desire to use the Northwest Passage increases, the mission of the SPAR becomes a focal point to ensuring the safety of mariners in the region. The SPAR, a 225-foot buoy tender, has the capabilities necessary to create a waterway safe for navigation by commercial shipping.

“The aids to navigation that we establish can make the area more desirable for general navigation,” Brown explained. “As a buoy tender, we are responsible for 155 fixed and floating aids to navigation ranging from Kodiak, to False Pass and Dutch Harbor in the eastern Aleutians, all the way west to Adak and Attu at the end of the Aleutian chain, and north to Bethel and the Pribilof Islands.”

As part of this mission the SPAR is conducting a comprehensive review of traffic patterns, nautical charts, port facilities and existing aids to navigation to assess the efficiency of the aids to navigation system in the area. The SPAR also carries a hydrographic survey system that can map the bottom of the ocean in small areas leading to harbors and can forward the data to NOAA’s National Ocean Service for inclusion in future editions of nautical charts, Brown explained. This data can then be used to assist in establishing new aids in specific locations.

The SPAR is also heavily involved in fisheries law enforcement, has an advanced electronics and communications suite to support homeland security operations, and carries oil skimming equipment to support environmental protection. The five week deployment will cover 6,000 miles and will conclude with aids to navigation servicing stops throughout the Aleutian Chain and Western Alaska. While the cutter will be heavily involved with aids to navigation, it will also patrol the maritime boundary line with Russia and the Bering Sea for illegal fishing activity and conduct community service projects in rural communities as has been done since the first cutters entered the region more than 100 years ago.

“SPAR is equipped with a modern sickbay and carries a health services technician aboard at all times to respond to emergency needs, both onboard and in the communities we visit,” explained Lt. Tim Howard, executive officer of the SPAR. “SPAR is also providing mechanics to conduct repairs on a boat ramp and borough owned skiff in Barrow.”

While the SPAR’s north trip is largely based on modern technology, the unchanging Bering Sea is a reminder to the crew of the Coast Guard’s history in the region.

“This trip gives us the opportunity to honor the legacy of the Coast Guard in Alaska at the same time that we work to build a new one,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Mindy Tucker, SPAR crewmember. “It’s a great feeling to follow in the footsteps of the famous crews of the Bear, Storis and other Bering Sea patrol ships.”

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