Navigation Center Website Top Header Banner
Home | LNMs | Nav Rules | AIS | AIS Data Request | MSI Data Downloads | GPS Constellation Status | GPS Testing | Almanacs | USCG Int'l Ice Patrol | Contact Us | Search
Mission Areas
Maritime Safety
Subscribe / Report (free)

Print friendly version  
International Ice Patrol:
For the Purpose of Safeguarding Life and Property at Sea

Dr. Donald L. Murphy
LCDR Jacob L. Cass


Long before RMS Titanic struck an iceberg and sank in 1912, the iceberg menace to safe navigation in the western North Atlantic was well known.  As early as 1909 the U. S. Hydrographic Office published a study showing the extent of the iceberg distribution for the previous ten years.  The maps showed that in some years icebergs were seen in the established shipping lanes. The Hydrographic Office also published monthly pilot charts showing ice conditions and a weekly Hydrographic Bulletin, which reported iceberg observations made by passing ships over the previous week .1 Ice warnings were sometimes passed from ship to ship using newly invented radio communications. Despite knowledge of the looming threat and informal warning system, many ships struck icebergs during the two decades bracketing the beginning of the 20th century.2 Ships were becoming bigger and faster, resulting in a smaller margin of error and setting the stage for disaster.
This article presents a brief history of the International Ice Patrol (IIP) with a focus on its foundation and operations. The evolution of the technology used to conduct the IIP mission is described in the companion article “From Sea, to Air, to Space: 100 Years of IIP Iceberg Tracking Technology and Beyond” in this issue. Ultimately, it is the people who shape the history of an organization. We will highlight the crews of the Ice Patrol vessels and a few of the key contributors over the last century. Most of the information presented was gleaned from the rich history contained in the IIP annual reports. 


All too frequently, it takes a disaster to galvanize the nations of the world to cooperate for the common good.  After the horrific loss of life due to RMS Titanic’s sinking on 15 April 1912, there was an international uproar and a universal demand for action.  The Government of the United States reacted quickly.  On 15 May, the U.S. Hydrographic Office recommended an ice patrol be established in the steamer lanes.  Shortly thereafter the U. S. Navy assigned two scout cruisers, USS Birmingham and USS Chester, to alternate in conducting patrols of the danger area and warning passing ships of the location of menacing icebergs. By 24 May, Birmingham was on station in the North Atlantic.1
In 1913, the U. S. Navy was unable to provide ships so the Revenue Cutter Service (RCS) assigned U.S. Revenue Cutter (USRC) Seneca and USRC Miami to the ice patrol task.  In addition, the British Government (Board of Trade) and shipping interests chartered the S.S. Scotia to study ice and meteorological conditions.3


  Figure 1. USRC Seneca on patrol in the North Atlantic in 1914.

Meanwhile, plans were being made to hold an International Convention on Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) in London. By the time it convened on 12 November 1913, the U.S. Government already had two successful years conducting the patrol, one by the U.S. Navy and the other by the RCS. Due in part to the success the RCS vessels had in conducting the ice patrol in 1913, Captain Commandant Ellsworth P. Bertholf, RCS, was chosen as one of the U.S. delegates.

The SOLAS Convention, which was signed on 20 January 1914, provided for the inauguration of an “international derelict destruction, ice observation, and ice patrol service”, with each of the 13 nations party to the treaty agreeing to pay its proportionate part of the expense. The U. S. Government was invited to undertake the management of the three services.4


  Figure 2. Captain Commandant Ellsworth P Bertholf, Revenue Cutter Service, was one of the U. S.representatives at the SOLAS Convention in 1913 -1914.

The primary of the three services was an ice patrol, which was tasked with monitoring the ice conditions nearest the transatlantic shipping lanes and providing warnings of the ice danger to mariners. The service for the study and observation of ice was conducted in conjunction with the patrols during the ice season and during the rest of the year.  The last of the three services was charged with destroying derelicts, primarily abandoned wooden vessels, drifting in the North Atlantic Ocean. 


Because the SOLAS agreement didn’t go into effect until 1 July 1915, Great Britain, on behalf of several nations, asked the United Statesto conduct patrols in 1914 and 1915. This request was made on 31 January 1914. President Woodrow Wilson agreed and on 7 February 1914 directed the RCS to conduct the patrols.  On 11 February, Seneca was ordered to fit out for the duty and eight days later sailed for the Grand Banks.
The Treasury Department’s orders, conveyed by Captain Commandant Bertholf to the Commanding Officer of Seneca on 11 February 1914 emphasized:

“The work of the Seneca on this duty will be of international character, and as the various maritime nations of the world have entrusted the management of the ice-observation and ice-patrol service to the United States, it is important that this work be done as thoroughly and in as satisfactory a manner as possible in order that the record of the United States, and the Revenue Cutter Service in particular, for efficiency, shall be sustained.” 3

Less than a year later, on 28 January 1915 the RCS united with the U.S. Lifesaving Service to form the United States Coast Guard, which has conducted the IIP mission ever since. 

Early Operations

The operational rhythm of Seneca and Miamiwas arduous. The two vessels took turns conducting the Ice Patrol, with each ship spending 15 days on station patrolling in the North Atlantic, six days transit to and from the patrol area, and nine days in Halifax for repairs and re-supply. The Senior Commanding Officer was directed to “regulate” the movements of the two patrol vessels, essentially establishing the leadership role now occupied by Commander, International Ice Patrol (CIIP).5
In addition to the primary duty of scouting for icebergs and warning the steamers of the ice limits, the crews were directed to study the ice, currents, etc., “in short, to gather all sorts of information that might help the navigator in those regions.”3
In 1922, Ice Patrol began the practice of leaving an Ice-Observation Officer, usually with assistants, at sea for the entire iceberg season to make the patrol effort uniform between the participating ships.6 The first Ice-Observation Officer to do this was Lieutenant Junior Grade (LTJG) Edward H. Smith, who was transferred from the departing patrol vessel to the arriving patrol vessel using a small boat. LTJG Smith later became better known by his nickname “Iceberg” Smith. The length of the time the Ice-Observation Officers and their assistants spent continuously at sea depended on the severity of the iceberg season. In some years it extended from early March through late July. This practice continued until World War II (WWII).

Service Spanned Two World Wars 

The Ice Observation and Ice Patrol Service in the North Atlantic was suspended in 1917 due to the “international complications” due to the raging war in Europe. By 1918 the U.S.was fully engaged in “The Great War” so no Ice Patrol was conducted and the patrol ships were sent to European waters.7 Miami, which had been renamed U.S. Coast Guard Cutter(USCGC) Tampaon 1 February 1916, and Seneca served on convoy duty between Gibraltarand Britain. Tampa was sunk with all hands on 26 September 1918 by a single torpedo from a U-boat.8
Shortly after the end of the war, plans were made to reestablish the Ice Patrol service for the 1919 iceberg season. The 1919 patrols were conducted by USCGC Androscoggin, replacing Seneca, which was still in European waters. USCGC Tallapoosa replaced Tampa.7
Similarly, WWII forced the suspension of the IIP for the 1942-1945 seasons.
This time, the war effort took great advantage of IIP’s unique expertise with Arctic ice and its knowledge of Greenlandand surrounding waters. The Greenland Patrol, formed in 1941, was placed under the command of then Commander Edward H. “Iceberg” Smith. Among the many missions of the Greenland Patrol were rescuing survivors from torpedoed vessels, finding and destroying enemy weather stations, and escorting ships. In 1943 the Greenland Patrol included 37 vessels.9 Many were Coast Guard vessels transferred to the Navy with crews that had Ice Patrol experience.


  Figure 3. Captain Edward H. “Iceberg” Smith

In 1942, Floyd M. Soule, IIP’s senior Physical Oceanographer, accepted a commission as a Lieutenant Commander in the Coast Guard Reserve and served as “Iceberg” Smith’s Operations Officer. In 1945, CDR Soule received a Bronze Star for his wartime service.10
By the end of WWII, Edward Smith had been promoted to the rank of Rear Admiral. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal “For exceptionally meritorious service as Commander of the GreenlandPatrol…a task force in the Atlantic Fleet”11 

Post-WWII Era 

The improvements of long-range aircraft during WWII had a profound effect on IIP operations and ushered in the era of aerial ice reconnaissance, which continues to this day. It also initiated the long and enormously successful partnership between IIP and USCG Air Station Elizabeth City, the primary base of the aircraft used for iceberg reconnaissance.
The value of using aircraft to conduct iceberg reconnaissance was anticipated in 1919 by CAPT H. G. Fisher, Commanding Officerof theAndroscogginand senior Ice Patrol Officer:

”It seems to me a splendid practical use can be made of aeroplanes (sic) of the type which flew across the Atlantic, the NC (type of plane)...(They) could with practically no trouble at all make a flying observation of the Banks and locate reported and unreported bergs during the short periods of clear weather”  7

At first, aircraft were considered to be supplemental to the iceberg scouting ships.  In the early post-war years, the aircraft conducted early season searches when visibility was more likely to be good. The surface patrols were reserved for periods when fog was prevalent, typically May through July. Throughout the 1950’s, IIP gained more confidence in the aerial reconnaissance and the surface patrols were limited to the severe iceberg years.  While the aircraft bore the load of the reconnaissance operations the ships focused on obtaining ocean current data. 

Oceanographic Observations Support IIP Operations

The Secretary of the Treasury and Captain Commandant Bertholf made it clear from the beginning that scientific investigations conducted as part of the ice-observation service were a secondary mission of the patrol vessels. However, it was also clear that the significance of such work was recognized early in IIP’s history. The first observations of the ocean currents and the physical property of ice were made by the ships’ officers and crews in 1913.
By the following year, the Secretary of the Treasury arranged for scientists and equipment from the Bureau of Standards and Bureau of Fisheries to accompany Seneca on ice patrols.
In July 1914, Seneca undertook a special ice observation cruise to Labrador and Greenland after the conclusion of the regular ice patrol season specifically to study oceanography and meteorology. This was the first of many oceanographic cruises conducted in support of the International Ice Patrol.7 By far, the most famous was the summer 1928 USCGC Marion survey of the waters between North America and Greenland. The 73-day, 8,100 nm expedition, led by Lieutenant Commander Edward “Iceberg” Smith, studied the origins of the icebergs that menace the shipping lanes each year and the currents that brought them there.12 Reports from this cruise are still referenced in scientific literature.
USCGC General Greenewas the ice observation and oceanographic vessel from 1931 to WWII. Staffed with the senior Ice Patrol Oceanographer Olav Mosby in 1931-2 and thereafter Floyd Soule and several assistants, the vessel conducted monthly oceanographic surveys in the vicinity of the Grand Banks. Soule used the survey results to create a current map that was delivered to the patrol vessel to use for planning iceberg searches. The maps were delivered within hours of the completion of the survey. The fact that General Greene was out conducting surveys in 1941 as the Battle of the Atlantic was raging is an indication of the importance that IIP attached to obtaining oceanographic information. While on patrol, the oceanographic vessel saved the survivors of the steamer Marconi, which had been sunk by German forces.
In 1948,USCGC Evergreen began service as IIP’soceanographic vessel, continuing the work of mapping the ocean currents near the Grand Banks. Evergreen served in that capacity until1978. The current maps were delivered to the IIP office in Argentia, Newfoundland, and the surface patrol vessel, if present.


  Figure 4. USCGC Evergreen maneuvering in rough seas on Ice Patrol during the 1951 iceberg season.

In 1979, IIP began using satellite-tracked oceanographic drifters to determine the currents and no longer had need for an oceanographic vessel to conduct surveys in support of operations. 

Bases of Operations

The center of IIP’s operations and its forward operating bases have moved several times during its history.

Prior to WWII, the patrol vessels served both as the center of ice reconnaissance and product distribution. Most of the time, Halifax, Nova Scotia was chosen as Ice Patrol’s forward operating base.  This is where the patrol vessels were provisioned, but the actual operations center was aboard the vessel on patrol.
After WWII, the IIP aircraft were assigned to Coast Guard Air Detachment Argentia, which was located at the U. S. Navy's Air Station in Argentia, Newfoundland. The U.S. Naval Station, also located in Argentia, served as a base for the IIP ship operations, IIP offices, and as a radio station that broadcasted ice bulletins twice a day.
After the 1966 iceberg season, the IIP offices were moved from Argentia to Governor’s Island, New York. Commander, Coast Guard Eastern Area (later Commander, Atlantic Area) assumed responsibility as Commander, International Ice Patrol.  He assigned an officer on his staff to oversee the Ice Patrol mission.
IIP’s aircraft continued to operate as an ice reconnaissance detachment (IRD) based at the Naval Air Station, Argentia, until 1970. Since then, the base of IIP’s IRD has moved several times, first to Summer side, Prince Edward Island, and later to Gander and St. John’s, both in Newfoundland.13


  Figure 5. Pre-flight warm-up and testing of a Coast Guard PB-1G “Flying Fortress” preparing for an ice patrol at U.S. Naval Air Station Argentia, Newfoundland.

In 1983, IIP became an independent unit of Atlantic Area and moved the operations center to Groton, Connecticut, offices of the U. S. Coast Guard Research and Development Center (RDC). In 2009, IIP became a unit of First Coast Guard District and moved with the RDC to new facilities in FortTrumbullin New London, Connecticut. IIP’s IRD is now based in St. John’s, Newfoundland.
For the purpose of safeguarding lives and property at sea”
These are the first words of the orders to Seneca, the first Ice Patrol vessel in 1913.
The essential elements of IIP’s mission today are little changed since the first patrol vessel steamed into the Grand Banks fog in 1913 to “determine the southerly, easterly, and westerly limits of the ice and to keep in touch with these fields as they move” so that “messages may be sent out daily, giving the whereabouts of the ice” 5
The technology of accomplishing this mission has continually evolved over the decades as described in the companion article in this issue. Regardless of the technology used, IIP has carried out its mission “as thoroughly and in as satisfactory a manner as possible in order that the record of the United States, and the Revenue Cutter Service in particular, for efficiency, shall be sustained.”
No ship that has heeded IIP warnings has struck an iceberg.


This article is dedicated to the crews of the numerous ships and aircraft that have conducted the Ice Patrol from 1913 though the present.

1U. S. Navy, The Titanic Disaster, Steamship Lanes, and the Establishment of the Ice Patrol: The 1912 Report of the Hydrographer, U.S. Navy.

2Hill, B.,  Ship Collision with Iceberg Database, ICETECH 06, 7th International Conference and Exhibition on Performance of Ships and Structures in Ice, Banff, Alberta, Canada.  2006.
3International Ice Patrol, International Ice Observation and Ice Patrol Service in the North Atlantic Ocean, From February to August 1914, Bulletin No. 3, 78 p.  1914.
4SOLAS, International Convention on Safety of Life at Sea, 1914. Retrieved 30 November 2011.

5 International Ice Patrol, Reports of Vessels on Ice Patrol in the North Atlantic Ocean, April, May, June 1913, Revenue Cutter Service Bulletin No.1, 25 p.1913. 
6International Ice Patrol, International Ice Observation and Ice Patrol Service in the North Atlantic Ocean, Season of 1922, Bulletin No. 10, 98 p. 1922.
7International Ice Patrol, International Ice Observation and Ice Patrol Service in the North Atlantic Ocean, Seasons of 1916 and 1919, Bulletin No. 7, 37 p. 1919
8Tampa, 1912, Retrieved from 8 December 2011.
9Northland, 1927, WPG-49
10Morgan, Charles W., Oceanography of the Grand Banks Region of Newfoundland in 1967, United States Coast Guard Oceanographic Report No. 19, CG 373-19, 1968.
11U. S. Coast Guard Awards, 9 December 2011.
12Marion, 1927 WSC-145.
13Murray, J. J., Coast Guard Aviation’s Role in International Ice Patrol,
Appendix D to Report of the International Ice Patrol in the North Atlantic, 1991 Season, Bulletin No. 77, pp. 50-51, 1991.
Note: This page depicts an advance copy of an article that will be published in the Spring or Summer of 2012 edition of Proceedings magazine. The article may be subject to minor revision before final publication. The Summer issue of Proceedings magazine will commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic and is dedicated to showcasing improvements to marine safety since that tragedy. For further information please follow the provided link to Proceedings magazine.