PASCAGOULA, Miss. - It's sweltering hot in Pascagoula, Mississippi, a small coastal city flanked by popular beach towns. But Pascagoula is known more for shipbuilding than sunbathing, and that's where we caught up with Zachery Hoekwater, a 2005 Cadillac High School graduate - where he's building one heck of a ship.
He's overseeing the construction of a Coast Guard Polar Security Cutter, a polar icebreaker, the first heavy icebreaker this country has built, in more than four decades. And it comes with a price tag of $745 million.
So the question arises - why did the Pentagon approve beefing up the Coast Guard's fleet and how did a Cadillac graduate become the project manager for the new PSC.
We became aware of Hoekwater's role in the project when his father called the Cadillac News.
"Zach is in the Coast Guard," Steve Hoekwater said. "He always wanted to be an engineer. He's got scholarships and two degrees from the academy...he's a good kid. Now they are making ice breakers. With this new program he was one of five people selected, he's the engineer, he's in charge of the production."
Lieutenant Commander Hoekwater is the Production Officer, PSC Project Resident Office. The contract was awarded to VT Halter Marine.
"This position on this project was my number one choice on my dream sheet," Hoekwater said. "We are the onsite unit overseeing the finishing details of the design and the physical construction of the ship.
Home town talk
Hoekwater loved growing up in Cadillac and is still best friends with the guys he hung out with since grade school and middle school.
"We've been friends since sixth grade and we grew up playing hockey together," said Eric Sharp, a local UPS driver. "My dad coached us and we were inseparable. There was a group of eight or nine of us that did everything together."
One of Sharp's favorite memories is driving around in the Hoekwater conversion van on hot summer nights.
"When it was hot we would pile in and drive to this huge green lawn where we knew the sprinklers were on," Sharp said. "It looked like a giant slip and slide. We'd go there at midnight to cool off."
Being able to hang out without supervision, to go swimming or out in a boat by themselves, having the freedom to try new things and make mistakes are the small town experiences that Hoekwater believes benefitted his education and career.
"We were comfortable doing new things," he said. "We had autonomy. I observed that my classmates at the academy were never trusted to do new things or given a chance to make mistakes. And the service kids, they didn't have a home town. I still have a home town to come back to. I can't imagine what it would be like to not have a hometown."
Career decision aided by family friend
Hoekwater decided to become an architect in second grade because anything related to construction "looked like a challenging field."
In high school he played hockey and was the captain of the varsity football team senior year. One of his summer jobs was helping his dad build and install docks.
As his friends considered their after-high school options, Hoekwater had already decided to attend the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut.
"He had a close family friend that had graduated from the academy," said Sharp. "So I think that was on his radar."
Hoekwater graduated from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in 2009 with a B.S. in civil and environmental engineering and earned an M.S. in civil/structural engineering from the University of Washington in 2012. He is a licensed Professional Engineer (civil), a certified Project Management Professional, Certified Facility Manager and a DHS Level II Program Manager.
Now he's in charge of production in a new program as the Coast Guard reinvests in its polar icebreaking fleet to ensure access to both polar regions.
"It's a pretty rewarding cool job," he said. "Seldom in the service do you get to be part of a brand new unit, we are a completely new program and we are building a rare ship. There's a lot of excitement in the Coast Guard about what this vessel will accomplish for years to come."
He said that most people in Michigan are aware of the Coast Guard but not fully cognizant of their mission capabilities - saving lives, interdicting smugglers and illegal migrants, enforcing the nation's laws and treaties, and protecting our ports and natural resources.
New challenges in the Arctic
"The arctic is a competitive space," Hoekwater said. "There is more open water now. There is more shipping...there are resources there. The U.S. needs to exert its presence and sustain its role in the South Pole. We can't have the influence if we can't get to those places."
China and Russia have increased activity there - China with a large fleet of ice breakers.
"The Coast Guard's missions are expanding on both poles and as the maritime traffic and economic traffic increases in the Arctic, we need a presence up there," said Capt. Timothy Newton, commanding officer for the project in a media interview.
The United States readiness has been challenged by outdated assets. The Polar Security Cutter fleet has only one outdated, heavy ice breaker remaining.
"I love the Coast Guard," Hoekwater said. "The people here are great people - energetic and hopeful people because at our core, we are humanitarian. We do search and rescue and environmental protection. At our highest, we are helping people."