Building Icebreakers

by Nichole Penne
Shore Publishing Staff Writer
March 9, 2006

Madison, CT- Magnificent and desolate with air so clean you can see for miles. That's how Don Epperson describes Antarctica.

Duty to the Naval Reserve took him to the stark land twice before, but it is Don's dream to again, one day, sail in the ice.

“That will be the ultimate fulfillment,” he says.

In the 1960s, Don served as a communications officer aboard the USS Glacier, which initially brought him to Antarctica.

“Each cruise was approximately six months in duration,” Don explains. “We would leave our homeport, which was Boston, in August, sail south to the Caribbean, go through the Panama Canal, and head across the Pacific Ocean to Christchurch, New Zealand, which was our home away from home. There we would re-supply, refuel, and then head south to Antarctica and the Ross Ice Shelf, which is where McMurdo Sound, the main U.S. base is located. 

Among his favorite memories of the trip are the “evenings” Don spent alone on-deck. 

He says, “Remember the sun never sets during the Antarctic summer, so it actually broad daylight. If we were tied up to a large ice flow and no one else was around, it was amazing quiet, and beautiful, looking at the enormous glaciers and tabular ice flows nearby.”

Currently, the international organization The Glacier Society, of which Don is a member, is working on restoring the two ships that they now own—the Glacier and the Arctic Scout. The Glacier, called an icebreaker, was originally launched in 1954 and made 29 total cruises until it was retired in 1987. The ship first served the Navy and later the Coast Guard.

Don explains that the United States has several bases on Antarctica, and the Glacier went down there to escort supplies needed to replenish those bases. The big station was the McMurdo Station, located south of New Zealand. 

“It's all about maintaining a presence in Antarctica,” Don notes.

Don says the United States has not funded the ice breaking operations as much as needed, so if the Glacier can become operational again, it could pick up the slack. The USS Glacier is one the few ships that can go into the ice packs. The State of Alaska is interested in the icebreaker so that it may deliver medical supplies to the natives of the Arctic Circle; the idea is to use the ship as a medical platform. 

The Arctic Scout, a 39-foot arctic survey boat, was the vessel carried aboard the Glacier and is currently at Brewer Pilot's Point Marina in Westbrook and will remain, once restored, in Connecticut to train boys and girls over age 14 in the Sea Cadets, Sea Scouts, or other maritime-oriented youth organizations. It is scheduled to go into the water this summer. 

“We're hopeful for early summer,” says Don. 

Don is serving as a youth leader for the Arctic Scout. 

“This is a way to give back,” he says. “You want to do something fun but hopefully will have some benefit.”

For Don, it's not just about having the Glacier restored; it's about teaching kids sea navigation skills aboard the Arctic Scout. 

“I think it's important to offer an exposure to this,” says Don. “Here's a way to open up a whole area.”

In order to restore the Glacier to its original shape, professionals must be hired, because the volunteers, who spend their own money to travel to San Francisco to restore the ship, have taken it as far as they can. The work with the ships started about five years ago when crewmembers from the original ship asked that it be saved. 

The Glacier Society is on the verge of raising millions in order to move the Glacier to a shipyard on the West Coast in order to do the major work that it needs, such as rebuilding engines and getting new navigational and radar systems. 

Ben Koether, once a navigator on the Glacier, is the point person for fundraising and recruited Don to help him raise money. 

Don has been working with Ben over the last few years to organize and fundraise. Don explains that a lot of ships that are restored are sent to museums. The Glacier, however, is going back into commission and will be an operational ship once again. Don considers going back into commission and serving as a medical platform to be two “give backs” of the ship. 

Once the Glacier is moved to another shipyard it will take about four years to restore. 

Don is now in his third career—he retired from the Naval Reserve after 20 years, retired from GE Medical Systems about three years ago, and is now a Realtor for Coldwell Banker in Madison. Don has been married for 40 years to Mary Ann. The couple, Madison residents since the late 1970s, has two grown sons, Don Jr. and Jon, and three grandchildren. He is a member of the North Madison Congregational Church, where he's been a mentor for kids going through Confirmation and is part of the executive committee.