A former Navy icebreaker is reborn as a floating classroom

  Pamela McLoughlin , Register Staff
New Haven Register
June 6, 2004

BRIDGEPORT — Call it a way to keep the Ice Bucket from becoming a rust bucket.

A thick-hulled 40-foot Ice Bucket boat once used by the Navy for smashing through ice during Arctic exploration is likely to become a troop headquarters of sorts for the Boy Scouts of America’s Sea Scouts program from Connecticut to Florida.

"It’s a great boat to learn on," said Ben Koether II of Stratford, chairman and founder of the Glacier Society, which now owns the vessel.

"It will operate in heavy seas, it handles well. They can drive it into a brick wall and it will bounce," he said.

The unique use of the Ice Bucket — known only as a number in its Navy days — puts the boat back to good use, said Koether.

He ought to know: In 1959, Koether, a commissioned Navy officer, was navigator of the Ice Bucket’s mother ship, the USS Glacier and spent hours exploring uncharted Arctic territory on the smaller boat. Admiral Richard E. Byrd was on board the Glacier with Koether.

Koether, who is firming up plans with the Scout organization, said his aim is to have ships — the term Sea Scouts use for troops — formed in several locations along the coast, including Milford, Westport, Norwalk, Stamford, Greenwich, Georgia, Virginia, Florida and other places along the East Coast.

The Ice Bucket, 40 feet long and 13 feet wide, would stay in Connecticut five or so months a year when weather is nice then set sail to warmer places where scouts there could take advantage of the boat as a learning tool. Koether envisions that the Scouts will sail the inland waterways from Connecticut to Florida as part of their lessons on seamanship and the environment, including learning about sea life in various regions. In addition, the junior ROTC group at Norwalk High School would become involved.

Jonathan Glassman, field director for Boy Scouts of America’s Connecticut Yankee Council, said his organization is working on a plan with Koether. Sea Scouting is coed for people ages 14-21 and aims to instill the same values as scouting on land: character, citizenship and fitness education.

"Eventually, I’d like to see a Sea Scout ship (troop) in every town in New Haven County," Glassman said. "I think it’s the most exciting program Boy Scouts has to offer."

The Connecticut Yankee Council covers most of Fairfield County, with the exception of Greenwich and Shelton, and New Haven County from Madison to Milford. There are eight Sea Scout ships in the council; seven of them in Fairfield County, Glassman said. The New Haven County group is run out of Milford. If the deal goes through, this would be the first ship here to have a boat with a motor, because all the others use sailboats.

Under Koether’s plan, graduating scouts would get a captain’s license from the Coast Guard, allowing them to pilot a boat carrying up to six people, commonly known as a six-pack license. Koether said the challenge to Scouts for use of the boat and opportunities it will bring would be to tell their communities the story of the Ice Bucket and its Arctic endeavors with Byrd, to raise money for a trust fund.

That fund, Koether said, would be used to allow one or two college students to spend a semester for credit aboard the USS Glacier when its restoration is complete.

The focus of the Glacier Society, formed in 1999, is restoration of the USS Glacier. The plan for the big ship, 310 feet long and 74 feet wide, is to raise millions of dollars to turn it into a state-of-the art hospital to bring humanitarian aide to the hard to reach people of the Arctic. The restored ship will also be a research center for environmental issues.

The Ice Bucket was discovered five years ago at a shipyard in Baltimore. It’s now dry docked at Captain’s Cove Marina, waiting for a purpose and a facelift.

The Glacier Society is aiming to raise $200 million to restore the USS Glacier, being stored in San Francisco, and so far has raised $5 million, with growing support from politicians and business people.

Koether, a retired electronics business owner, said doctors from Yale University, Brown University and University of Alaska are part of the effort to restore the Glacier. In port, the ship will be a learning center for kindergartners through twelfth graders.

Dr. David Leffell of Yale-New Haven Hospital, director of the Yale Medical Group, is helping coordinate medical consulting between the Glacier Society and medical faculty who may have an interest in the venture.

Leffell said he became involved because he is impressed by the commitment of those leading the effort and thought helping to identify medical needs for the ship would be a "valuable contribution."

Koether’s inspiration came in 1997 at a U.S. Navy reunion when the fate of the hulking vessel that Koether lived on for two years came up in conversation. The late Jim Tinch, former chief signalman aboard the icebreaker, playfully ordered Koether to "save the Glacier" and after three months of cajoling, Koether went into action.

On her maiden voyage, Glacier sailed south to participate in the first Operation Deep Freeze in preparation for the International Geophysical Year. Glacier made 39 trips to the Arctic and Antarctic and two of her mottoes are: "Follow Me" and "The Big Red One." In it’s day, Glacier was the largest ice breaker ever. The Glacier Society’s motto is, "Uniting Polar Interest Around the Globe."