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Coast Guard Steps Up Rescue Training as Ship Traffic Grows in Increasingly Ice-free Arctic

Preparing for emergencies in Arctic waters …

Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mike McAllister had to hit the ground running last month when he assumed command of Alaska-area District 17 in order to take over planning for a large field-training exercise to be held in Alaska next month called Arctic Chinook. The exercise is intended to prepare the Coast Guard and other federal, tribal, state and local agencies to jointly respond in case a cruise ship runs into trouble in waters off Alaska.

“We’ll practice our collective response to what we call a mass-rescue operation – getting people safely off of a cruise ship – along the western coast of Alaska,” McAllister said.

Credit U.S. Coast Guard
The Coast Guard Cutter Healy breaks through Arctic ice during a 2015 search-and-rescue exercise.

Arctic Chinook will begin Aug. 22 – a day after a real cruise ship, the Crystal Serenity, will be pulling out of Nome harbor with more than 1,000 passengers and about 600 crew members aboard. That ship isn’t involved in the exercise, but the Coast Guard has been working with the company that owns it for more than two years to help prepare it and its crew for a cruise around Alaska and through the icy waters of the Northwest Passage, along the northern Canadian coast.

“We’re satisfied that there’s been adequate safety measures put in place to prevent something bad from happening,” McAllister said.

Credit Crystal Cruises
The Crystal Serenity is scheduled to depart Anchorage on Aug. 16 and arrive in New York City on Sept. 16.

The training exercise scenario calls for responders to evacuate some 250 people from a simulated ship-in-distress off northwestern Alaska to Tin City, an old Air Force surveillance station located at the westernmost tip of the Seward Peninsula. There they’ll be evaluated, treated, then transported – mainly to Anchorage.

“Y’know, there’s no guarantees in our business, so we also have to be ready to respond.”

McAllister says Arctic Chinook is part of an ongoing series of exercises the Coast Guard is conducting to prepare for increasing ship traffic in waters off Alaska, due to shipping lanes opening up as sea-ice melts and recedes.

Credit U.S. Coast Guard/Jon-Paul Rios
Members of Coast Guard's Sector Juneau inspections division prepare to conduct a certificate of compliance exam aboard the cruise ship Crystal Serenity while it was moored in Juneau last month. Agency officials say the exam tests the crew’s ability to respond to various emergency scenarios.

“It’s kind of a campaign plan for the Coast Guard to experiment with how we’re going to operate in the future, in anticipation of those waters being more accessible in the future,” he said.

The Crystal Serenity sets sail from Anchorage on Aug. 16th and is scheduled to arrive in New York City on Sept. 16th.

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.