Ship’s log, Jan. 1, 1971: “Never realized why people come to one of the most barren regions of the earth until this very moment. It’s night, but the sun refuses to leave us. My eyes gaze upon majestic mountains rising 7,500 feet straight up from the water’s edge, covered with ice and snow.”
Dennis Boblet was a 21-year-old seaman aboard the U.S. Coast Guard’s Staten Island icebreaker when the officer on watch wrote that log entry, including a cheery “Happy New Year’s.”
Boblet, who lives near Everett’s Silver Lake, is 70. It’s been nearly a half-century since his voyage to Antarctica, but memories of that singular experience haven’t faded.
“It’s been a part of me,” Boblet said. On Tuesday, he talked about the long-ago mission to crack through thick ice, opening a channel in the Antarctic waters of McMurdo Sound.
He remembers a cold, clear Southern Hemisphere summer, and time spent sitting out on the ship’s bridge wing. He can’t forget what he describes as the “squeezing, scraping” sound of the ship breaking through ice.
Boblet’s vessel, the Staten Island, was decommissioned in 1974 and sold for scrap. Yet for the Coast Guard, annual operations in Antarctica continue to this day.
The Polar Star, the nation’s only heavy icebreaker, returned to its homeport of Seattle on Monday. With a 150-member crew, its homecoming completed a 105-day deployment to Antarctica in support of Operation Deep Freeze. The annual mission supports the National Science Foundation, lead agency for the United States Antarctic Program. That program — which includes conducting research and fostering international cooperation — bolsters U.S. goals as part of the Antarctic Treaty, signed by 12 nations in 1959.
“It’s the only continent in the world where the countries live together in peace,” Boblet said.
In McMurdo Sound this year, the Polar Star broke through 16.5 nautical miles of ice, up to 10 feet thick, to open a channel to the McMurdo Station pier, according to a Monday press release from the U.S. Coast Guard Pacific Area. McMurdo Station is the main U.S. hub in Antarctica.
Without the icebreaker clearing the way and acting as an escort Jan. 30, the Ocean Giant container ship couldn’t have delivered 10 million pounds of supplies needed for McMurdo Station, Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station and other U.S. sites. The U.S. Navy contracts with the cargo vessel.
Boblet hasn’t kept in touch with former Coasties from the Staten Island, but hopes to hear from anyone who served on the ship. The 1967 Cascade High School graduate was facing the draft in 1968, the deadliest year for the United States in the Vietnam War. A hernia kept him from being drafted, but after it was fixed he enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1969.
He was 20 when he finished 10 weeks of boot camp at Alameda, California. Before the mission to Antarctica, he voyaged on the Staten Island to the Arctic Ocean in 1969. That trip involved oceanography and “spying on the Russians,” he said.
Also in 1969, he was aboard the Staten Island when it escorted the tanker SS Manhattan through the Northwest Passage. From New York, Boblet and the crew came home to Seattle by way of the Panama Canal.
He joked Tuesday about major happenings he missed by being at sea in ‘69 — from Neil Armstrong walking on the moon and the Woodstock music festival to the “Miracle Mets” winning the World Series.
Boblet, who served four years in the Coast Guard, worked at Boeing and later in landscaping. For his final 18 months in the service, he was based close to home — on the 82-foot cutter Point Duran, which was moored near the old Everett Yacht Club.
The Coast Guard noted Monday that the United States maintains just two icebreakers, the 43-year-old Polar Star and the Healy, a medium icebreaker. In contrast, it said, Russia operates more than 50 icebreakers, some nuclear-powered.
Boblet said the Staten Island was one of several Wind-class icebreakers. He’d like to see the Coast Guard equipped with more today. And he has another idea.
“I think we ought to bring the icebreakers to Everett,” Boblet said.
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; firstname.lastname@example.org.