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Changing Arctic

U.S., Canadian Coast Guards Hold Exercise to Ready for Big Cruise Ships Plying Arctic Waters

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Training to respond to trouble on a cruise ship in Arctic waters …

Local, state and federal emergency-responders in Alaska and Canada got their first chance last week to train for this summer’s voyage of the first big cruise ship to sail through the Northwest Passage.

Peter Garapick headed up the Canadian Coast Guard’s participation in the training exercise, which he says helped agencies coordinate capabilities, plans and responses, if something goes wrong when the 900-passenger Crystal Serenity transits the legendary sea route in August.

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Credit Shawn Eggert/U.S. Coast Guard
Representatives with the U.S. and Canadian Coast Guards, along with local, state, industry and military emergency-response personnel, conduct the April 13-14 tabletop exercise at the Federal Building annex in Anchorage.

“We identified where are strengths are, where the weaknesses might be,” Garapick said, “and that’s exactly what an exercise is all about – is, do test the systems before you have to in a real-life situation.”

The Northwest Passage, like other Arctic sea routes, has opened up in recent years, due to the warming climate. But Garapick says the Crystal Serenity will encounter what he calls a “dynamic ice situation,” one in which ice floes move about, sometimes quickly, requiring a change of course or other maneuver.

“There is less ice,” he said, “but then the ice that breaks up moves. And together the floes can clog up channels...”

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Credit Crystal Cruises
The Crystal Serenity's 32-day voyage through the Northwest Passage is scheduled to begin Aug. 16 at the Port of Anchorage.

Last week’s so-called “tabletop exercise” was conducted remotely, mainly between emergency-response centers and other facilities. But Garapick says all the players know they’re training to operate in a vast mainly uninhabited area, with few facilities to stage rescues or other assistance.

“Yeah, without a doubt, that’s one of the main issues we looked at – we are in an isolated area,” he said.

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Credit Crystal Cruises
Smaller cruise ships and other vessels have traveled through the Northwest Passage in recent years, but the 900-passenger Crystal Serenity will be the biggest yet to attempt the transit.

U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Jason Boyle says the training exercise helped participants understand the logistics of operating in that remote region, and responding in case of mishap.

“If folks had to go into lifeboats and life rafts,” he said, “where would you take them? Which remote community? That’s a challenge. Ensuring those remote communities are prepared. There’s a lot of significant challenges.”

Boyle says lessons learned from last week’s dry run will be incorporated in larger-scale exercises in August, including some involving U.S. Defense Department assets. And e says this time, the training will take place out in the field.

Editor's note: This story was revised to correct the Crystal Serenity's capacity to 900 passengers, not including crew and other personnel.