Ocean Giant to brave Arctic to resupply one of world's coldest military bases

The supply ship Ocean Giant transits to the National Science Foundation's McMurdo Station, Antarctica, through a turning basin opened in the ice by the crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star on Jan. 26, 2015.


By KATHERINE HAFNER | The Virginian-Pilot (Tribune News Service) | Published: June 30, 2015

The ice is breaking in Greenland.

For some at Norfolk Naval Station, the onset of the summer months means it's time to carry out the annual Operation Pacer Goose, a mission delivering heavy cargo and supplies to the northernmost Air Force base in the world.

Normally surrounded by too much ice to be accessed by water travel, the base depends on the once-a-year resupply from coordinating military agencies delivered by a vessel prepared for the elements.

Aptly named, the Ocean Giant sits on a pier in Norfolk, currently being loaded with 1,200 metric tons of cargo to be delivered to the Thule Air Force Base in Greenland.

Battalion and crew members in orange vests and hardhats work for 12 hours a day for almost a week to load the ship with cargo too heavy to be carried in by aircraft year round, including snow plows and other vehicles.

Each crane used to load the ship can carry around 30 tons, said Capt. Matthew Craven, captain of the Ocean Giant for the mission.

He points to a map chart in the commanding bridge room, his finger tracing the outline of the 3,600-mile journey into the Arctic. The route goes almost straight north into cold and colder waters, looping around the west coast of Greenland to land 750 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

Thule is the northernmost deepwater port in the world, Craven said.

About 500 miles from their destination, the Ocean Giant plans to meet with a Canadian Coast Guard vessel that will serve as an icebreaker just in case the conditions are not as ideal as anticipated, said Capt. Doug McGoff, commander of the Military Sealift Command, Atlantic.

"Fundamentally, Military Sealift Command is about moving the equipment and the fuel that DLA provides to these remote, austere areas like Greenland where if they didn’t have this capability, they wouldn’t be able to operate," McGoff said.

Operation Pacer Goose, the name of which is somewhat of a comic mystery to the leaders involved, began in 1952 with Navy combatants conducting the mission to support the quality of life at the Thule base, said Capt. Harry Thetford of the Defense Logistics Agency. The DLA became involved in 1997, and now carries out the delivery.

General Foreman George Brackett's role is to ensure safety across the board, equipment and people, and said challenges can include weather, if for example people become too hot and faint, or if anything falls behind the short window allotted.

But Brackett's been at the job for 28 years, most of which he's helped with Operation Pacer Goose.

"Nothing strange here to me," Brackett said with a laugh.

On the other hand, the mission is a first for Fletcher McCue, first officer and chief mate.

"It's my first time on this type of ship," he said. "I've always loved the cargo aspect, and then also being able to go to Greenland, is amazing. I'm kind of an ocean-minded guy, so going up that far north, and dealing with the elements, will broaden my experience."

The ship and its 19 crew members will set sail by the end of the week, taking 11 days or so to reach their destination, and then must both unload cargo and backload various debris and broken equipment to take back from the remote base.

"The idea is we get the cargo in there on time, safely and also safely in the environment," Craven said. "It’s an ecologically sensitive area up there, so we respect that. If we can just deliver the cargo on time without any damage ... it'll be considered a successful mission."

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