The "Wind" class icebreakers of the US Coast Guard were an annnual and welcome sight in Thule waters. During their "Arctic East Summer Tours", the vessels would open up the shipping lanes thru Baffin Bay to Thule and beyond in preparation for the vital summer resupply missions. The ability to deal with heavy ice for extended periods drove the requirements for this new class of icebreaker. To meet this requirement, the "Wind" class icebreakers were contracted in November, 1941. All the expertise gained in years of study on the subject bore fruit in these four (later seven plus the similar Mackinaw) vessels, making them the most powerful and strongly built such ships in existence.
The general characteristics of these icebreakers were based on those of the Swedish vessel Ymer. These included the utilization of a bow propeller, diesel electric powerplant, and relatively short length in proportion to the great power developed. The bow propeller, though considered useful for occasions when the vessel would be forced to back herself out of surrounding ice, was of more importance as a means of creating a wash which would force broken ice from the sides of the vessel. Relatively short length was required to allow the vessel to follow tortuous, winding leads through the ice. Diesel electric power was the most compact, economical, and powerful propulsion system, and had the advantage of flexibility of operation: a necessary trait for the operation of fore and aft propellers. Furthermore, the division between the power supply diesels and the motors which direct that supply to the shafts themselves is an important feature: the shocks and great power to speed ratios inherent in ice operations would seriously derange direct connected reciprocating machinery, but could be handled routinely by rotating (as opposed to reciprocating) electric motors.
These features were incorporated into the four original 269 foot Wind class vessels: Northwind, Southwind, Eastwind, and Westwind, as well as the Great Lakes icebreaker Mackinaw. (And, as will be seen, three further units of the same design eventually were added to the Coast Guard inventory). The vessels were 269 feet in length, 63'6" beam, and displaced 6,500 tons. The.three propellers were driven by electric motors, which in turn were supplied power from six Fairbanks Morse diesels, for a total of 12,000 horsepower. The forward propeller was detachable and used only for dredging broken ice forward and creating a wash along the bottom of the vessel.
The hull of each of these vessels was of unprecedented strength and structural integrity. This was acheived first by close spacing of frames (16 inches apart), then by careful engineering design of the trusses and plating to resist 3000 pounds per square inch along the waterline. The hull plating itself was 1 5/8 inch in thickness and welded rather than rivetted. These requirements were so imposing that only one builder submitted bids: Western Pipe and Steel Company, of Los Angeles. All four were completed in 1944.
Other notable features of these ships were compressed cork insulation in the hull; fore, aft and side heeling tanks with pumps to enable fast movement of water weight within the vessel to aid in "rocking" the ship free from ice; strengthened steering apparatus; and a padded "notch" at the stern in which to nestle the bow of any vessel being towed through the ice. The latter was necessary to prevent collisions which might occur should the icebreaker stop abruptly due to thickening ice.
New responsibilities arose in the Arctic areas in the late 1940s and 50s. U.S. military bases in the region now required periodical resupplying. In the early 1950s, Coast Guard vessels were involved in facilitating the construction of Thule Air Base and the DEW (Distant Early Warning) line of far northern radar installations by keeping the sea lanes to the bases open. Later, these same stations would require icebreakers for their resupply.
The icebreakers also participated in purely scientific work, such as meteorological and oceanographic studies. Also invaluable were the helicopters launched from the icebreakers. These aircraft provided a vast range of services: surveying, meteorological data gathering, transportation, and logistical support.
During the early 1960s, the Coast Guard had eight major ocean going icebreakers. This number remained stable until 1968, when the Eastwind was decommissioned. She had been in service 24 years. The remainder of the fleet, though some as old as the Eastwind, continued their arduous assignments.
The Coast Guard's inventory of first-line icebreakers gradually decreased from the late '60s through the '80s, leaving the two "Polar" class ships alone in 1989. First to go was Eastwind, in 1968, followed by Southwind in 1976. The remainder of the "Winds" (Westwind and Northwind) were decomissioned in 1988 and 1989 respectively.
narrative courtesy of USCG Office of the Historian
1999......It was the end of an era, 28 July 1945 to 20 January 1989, as the "Grand Old lady Of The North" ( WAGB-282) faced the cutter's torch at the International Shipbreakers, Port of Brownsville Texas. The scrapping procedure took upwards of 6 months to complete.