100 years after the tragedy of the Titanic, the Ice Patrol looks out for mariners

United States Coast Guard Lt. Commander Jessica Worst, Executive Officer of the Coast Guard's International Ice Patrol, loads gear into vehicles to transport an IIP team to the airport Wednesday, February 29, 2012 for their annual patrol of the north Atlantic sea lanes.
United States Coast Guard Lt. Commander Jessica Worst, Executive Officer of the Coast Guard's International Ice Patrol, loads gear into vehicles to transport an IIP team to the airport Wednesday, February 29, 2012 for their annual patrol of the north Atlantic sea lanes. Sean D. Elliot photo

Dressed in a one-piece, dark green flight suit, Lt. Cmdr. Jessica Worst prepared her remarks for a recent morning meeting.

A bell sounded at 8:30 a.m. sharp. On cue, everyone from the unit known as the International Ice Patrol gathered in the operations center in New London.

It is here, in this center, that a small group of Coast Guardsmen are keeping mariners in the trans-Atlantic shipping lanes — one of the busiest shipping routes in the world — safe from colliding with icebergs.

Worst — who serves as deputy commander of the patrol — and several others were outfitted to deploy to St. John's, Newfoundland and spend a week flying over a 500,000-square-mile area off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland to track icebergs.

They would relay the locations back to the center at Fort Trumbull, where the information could be fed into a computer model that uses ocean current and wind data to predict how the icebergs will drift. The Ice Patrol, which was formed after the RMS Titanic hit an iceberg and sank in 1912, shares its charts with mariners worldwide.

The members of the Ice Patrol went on to spot 20 icebergs during the patrol in early March. It was easy to find the icebergs at first, Worst said, but farther north there were areas covered by sea ice, which makes it a challenge to locate the icebergs.

"Our model depends on accurate positions for each iceberg so each of us needs to be vigilant in our sighting techniques," she said. "This will become even more important later in the season as the bergs make their way south and possibly into the shipping lanes."

Icebergs typically drift into the shipping lanes from February to July. The number of icebergs that survive the two- to three-year trip south from West Greenland varies annually depending on atmospheric and oceanographic conditions.

The Ice Patrol has a perfect record — not one ship that has heeded its warnings and steered clear of the "bergy water," has struck an iceberg.

"It gives me a real sense of worth, a sense that I'm actually doing something I can see the benefit in and an immediate result," said Worst. "We're producing a product that is used and relied upon by the mariners."

But when Worst tells people what she does for a living, their reaction is often a mix of surprise and confusion.

"A lot of people have heard about the Coast Guard and they do know our mission, particularly search and rescue, but they don't really know we do iceberg detection or that the Ice Patrol even exists," she said. "I explain it to them and I try to relate it back to the Titanic and why we were formed. Then they kind of understand how it is that we're protecting the mariners."

This month is the centennial anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic.

At the morning meeting, the 16 members of the Ice Patrol discussed the weather conditions in St. John's and the final preparations for the deployment.

With brown hair pulled back in a bun and no noticeable makeup, Worst told the group that a Coast Guard helicopter had crashed into Mobile Bay, Ala. on a training mission the night before.

"If you could just remember those guys in your thoughts today," she said.

The crash, which killed the four crew members on board, was a reminder that the Coast Guard's work is dangerous, Worst said later.

The making of a leader

Worst, 33, was raised in Gales Ferry, not far from her current office and her alma mater, the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. She grew up on the water; her parents own a local scuba diving business. Her father had served in the Navy.

But it wasn't until high school that she considered the Coast Guard as a potential career path.

"It seemed like a perfect fit," she said. "I could go out on the water and I felt a responsibility to serve my country. I also wanted an opportunity to help others."

Worst has served on two buoy tenders, commanded an 87-foot patrol boat and holds a master's degree in oceanography. She lives in Westerly, R.I.

In her current position since August, Worst is responsible for leading the unit on a daily basis so the commanding officer is free to focus on strategic issues and the unit's international partnerships.

The biggest challenge Worst has faced in the Coast Guard, she said, has been the increasing responsibility with each new job and the pressure that comes with it.

"I was a very shy individual growing up and reluctant to speak up or give my opinion. When I joined the Coast Guard, I set goals for myself and I wanted to tackle my childhood fears," she said.

Worst said she did that on her first cutter, and then while in command of a patrol boat at the age of 23. That opportunity allowed her to quickly grow as a leader.

The March deployment to Canada was her first with the Ice Patrol. As an "ice observer," Worst looked out of the aircraft window and noted the locations of icebergs in her log. Another patrol member looked for icebergs on the radar.

Because the Ice Patrol's mission is unique in the Coast Guard, there is a steep learning curve for new personnel, said Cmdr. Lisa Mack, the unit's commanding officer. Worst's expertise in oceanography gave her a good foundation to work in the operations center and her enthusiasm and optimism are additional strengths, Mack added.

"She has done a great job in fostering cooperation and teamwork within the unit," she said.

Worst expects to be at the Ice Patrol for three years but she plans to stay in the Coast Guard for at least 20.

"I don't know what I'd do on the outside," she said with a laugh. "I enjoy my job so much at this point, I don't foresee getting out any time soon."

Lt. Cmdr. Worst makes notes in her log during the International Ice Patrol’s annual survey.
Lt. Cmdr. Worst makes notes in her log during the International Ice Patrol’s annual survey. Courtesy of the International Ice Patrol
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