By Don Ford

VALLEJO (KPIX 5) — The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star, the nation’s last – and only – ocean going heavy ice breaker is in the dry dock again at the Mare Island Shipyard in Vallejo.

That’s because the ship is 43 years old and operates in the harshest place on earth, Antarctica. Every year for the last 43 years, she breaks ice paths into the McMurdo Station in Antarctica for resupply ships.

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But Polar Star Executive Officer Bill Woityra says there’s a serious problem. “It’s really, really difficult to keep this ship running, said Woityra. “The United States would be in a really difficult position [without the ship].”

The Russians dominate the North Pole region with dozens of super ice breakers, most nuclear-powered. The United States is building only one new ice breaker, but it will be years before it launches.

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Meanwhile, on the Polar Star’s last trip, fire broke out in the middle of the ship, in a waste disposal area. “I just heard a really loud bang and a couple seconds later, I heard the general emergency alarm go off,” said Polar Star Damage Control Officer Amy Kimura.

Fire crews battled the flames for two hours. Then the main propeller shaft seal failed and water started coming into the ship. Kimura says divers went below to make repairs – with plastic wrap from the galley.

The crew kept a running list of all the things that happened on the mission. Woityra says help in on the way. “The Coast Guard has budgeted another $75 million over the next five years to do a service life extension on Polar Star.”

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The ship is scheduled to return to Antarctica this fall.