The Fine Art Of Breaking The Ice

`Captain on the bridge!" Four crewmen snap to and salute Lieutenant John K. Little as he bounds up the steps to the nerve center of the Katmai Bay, a Coast Guard icebreaker. "O.K.," says the tall, lean officer. At that, a switch is flipped. Compressed air hisses from underneath the cutter's hull. It bubbles up, breaking off ice that has formed between the ship and the dock a few hundred yards from the giant locks at Sault Sainte Marie, Mich., the most strategic spot for shipping on the Great Lakes.

Outside, an eerie mist floats over the St. Marys River, the temperature -13F. On the foredeck, crewmen in face masks and bright red, orange, and white survival suits struggle to loosen an ice-encrusted bowline. Diesels throb. The Katmai Bay eases into the ice field. "Rudder amidships," sings out Seaman Apprentice Justin Boes, who has the helm. The ship moves along the river, which connects Lake Superior with Lake Huron, to check on ice conditions.

Captain Little sips his coffee. The crew eases up, too. It's two days after the Soo locks closed for the winter. The last commercial ship to go through was a 1,013-foot ore carrier named the Paul R. Tregurtha, the largest vessel on the lakes. It passed the locks just hours before a blizzard. So the little Katmai Bay wasn't needed. "We really dodged the bullet on that one," says Boes.

For the next six weeks, the 17-member crew will have light duty: mostly icebreaking to keep ferries running between the St. Marys River islands and clearing commercial shipping lanes in northern Lakes Huron and Michigan. In mid-March, work starts again in earnest. A parade of lake boats, many almost as big as the Tregurtha, will need clear passage when the Soo locks reopen. Ice season for the Katmai Bay starts in December and usually ends in April.

TRAPPED. The Katmai Bay, a big, boxy 140-foot tugboat, is not the largest icebreaker on the Great Lakes. That distinction goes to the 298-foot Mackinaw, a 52-year-old vessel that can plow through ice three feet thick at a steady clip. But the Katmai Bay's smaller size doesn't diminish the job it does. She can chop through ice 30 inches thick. Commercial lake traffic plays a critical role in the economies of the U.S. and Canada. More cargo passes over the lakes each year than goes through the Panama Canal. Some 5,000 ships pass through the Soo locks alone.

The most important cargo is taconite, a high-grade iron ore from Minnesota and Upper Michigan, going to steel mills in Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Ontario, and Pennsylvania. Coal from Wyoming and Montana is shipped to Midwestern utilities. Oil, grain, limestone, cement, and machine parts round out the manifests.

For the Katmai Bay's crew, this winter has been relatively easy. The cutter had to break out only three iced-in ships before the locks closed. Last winter was much harsher. The cutter assisted 50 trapped vessels by sailing around them and breaking ice. She also answered an emergency call in April when the Algoma Steel Works across the Soo locks in Canada ran short of taconite. An uncommonly cold winter and a fluky northwest wind had iced in the port of Marquette, Mich., from which Algoma gets most of its taconite. So the Katmai Bay joined other vessels to open the port. "It certainly did help us big time," says Jack Ross, Algoma's manager of traffic.

There's more to icebreaking than simply smashing through the ice. "We call it ice management," says Little, 39, who got his start on the water as a riverboat deckhand in Tennessee. Plowing ahead too fast, for example, creates "brash," which is ice that breaks, then refreezes over other ice. Harder to break than the smooth "plate" ice, brash can also be driven by the wind into "windrows," which are big ice fences up to 12 feet high. Breaking too much ice too late in the season creates rushing ice floes that smash private docks and destroy wetlands.

On this trip, Captain Little's mission is to check out an "ice bridge" that has formed naturally, stretching for hundreds of yards over the river's center channel. It keeps ice from blocking a ferry route downstream. Little wants to ensure the bridge isn't disturbed. Otherwise, the cruise is routine for the all-male crew, mostly in their teens and twenties.

BROOMBALL. Keeping them happy is a big part of Little's management duty. The work can be lonely, exhausting, and dangerous, and the crew can stay out for weeks. One diversion is food, and on the Katmai Bay, it is good. Lunch one day is shrimp; on another, steak.

Letting the crew work off steam also helps. After a hard day's labor, Little directs the cutter onto remote spots that the crew calls "KOA" sites, for Kampgrounds of America. The boat is iced in and searchlights switched on. Then the crew goes onto the ice for "broomball"--ice hockey played with brooms, not sticks. They wear heavy-duty flotation suits called "Gumbys," in case they fall through the ice. Parties also help: One Christmas Eve, the Katmai Bay joined a Canadian icebreaker for a celebration. And the cutter has satellite TV.


Despite the harsh weather and remote location of Sault Sainte Marie, crew members say they prefer icebreaking to other Coast Guard duties. Quartermaster David Pilitowski says Michigan is better duty than the areas around the Caribbean. "Miami was rough," he says. "Lots of hyped-up, top-secret drug patrols." And while some might regard the Coast Guard as a police force, many Midwesterners view it as a savior. Post-ice-season work includes search-and-rescue missions and lighthouse maintenance. The Katmai Bay tours summer festivals in lakefront towns and helps oversee sailboat races.

By now, the cutter is following the track it made when leaving port. The lane has already frozen over. After docking the ship, Little goes ashore to advise a sister cutter about the ice bridge. Back on board, the crew gets ready for lunch. The insulated suits come off, old jokes fly, and someone turns on the mess room TV to what is, next to sports, the most watched show on ship: the Weather Channel.