Royal Navy sailors make history on winter mission to Arctic

Two Royal Navy officers sailed closer to the top of the world in winter than any other Britons on a scientific mission in the Polar Night.

Lieutenants Jacob Stein and Max Friswell came within about 1,200 miles from the North Pole after punching through ice more than six feet thick aboard the US Coast Guard cutter Polar Star.

The pair, who normally serve as warfare officers aboard the Royal Navy’s own ice ship, HMS Protector, spent the winter on exchange with their US counterpart while their vessel underwent a refit.

Polar Star typically spends the winter – summer in the Southern Hemisphere – in the Antarctic, clearing a path through thick ice for supply ships to reach McMurdo Station, the US’s main operating base on the frozen continent.

The pandemic put a stop to that mission, so instead Polar Star was sent north – the first winter deployment to the Arctic in nearly 40 years.

The ship sailed through the Bering Sea – separating Alaska from Russia – and continued north through the Chukchi Sea in constant darkness to reach a record latitude: 72 degrees 11 minutes North, the furthest north ever reached by a US surface vessel during the winter months – about 160 miles off the northern coast of Alaska… and 1,200 from the North Pole.

Lieutenant Stein, aged 30 and from Portsmouth, and 25-year-old Lieutenant Friswell, from Essex, used their experience to earn bridge and ice pilot qualifications which will help them when they sail south with Protector this winter.

The deployment to the Arctic on Polar Star has been a fantastic experience. The US Coast Guard are highly experienced in operating in the ice, and we have taken away a number of lessons that we will look to implement when we return to HMS Protector.

Lieutenant Jacob Stein

“The deployment to the Arctic on Polar Star has been a fantastic experience, especially as this is their first winter deployment to the region in nearly 40 years,” said Jacob.

“The US Coast Guard are highly experienced in operating in the ice, and we have taken away a number of lessons that we will look to implement when we return to HMS Protector.

“It has been great to get to know and work with the US Coast Guard, and we look forward to returning the courtesy when a member of Polar Star’s crew joins HMS Protector for a reciprocal exchange later this summer.”

And with the Arctic and High North assuming renewed importance for nations with interests in the region, Polar Star has returned with a greater understanding of what it takes to operate at such latitudes in the depths of winter.

The scientists aboard have returned with vast amounts of data to pore over about ice floes, water temperature, salinity, and natural life in Arctic waters.

Polar Star’s Commanding Officer Captain Bill Woityra found the Arctic “cold, dark, and difficult to navigate in the winter”, with his ship returning home to Seattle with a better understanding of the challenges seafarers face in such a harsh and unforgiving environment – and how they can cope with them.

HMS Protector is currently in Devonport preparing for the training and assessment which will determine that she’s ready to deploy to Antarctica in the autumn.