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Breaking the ice: Coast Guard’s vital role in maritime shipping

Special fleet keeps commerce flowing on America’s frozen waterways in winter

The Coast Guard cutter Thunder Bay clears a channel for vessels to navigate the frozen Hudson River near Poughkeepsie, New York. (Photo: Juliancolton/Photography/Public Domain)

When it comes to smoothing out shipping lanes, the Coast Guard sure knows how to break the ice. It has ships specially designed to keep commerce — especially oil — flowing on America’s frozen waters during the winter.

“We’re helping keep facilities open and channels open for the movement of vessels,” Lt. Dan Jones, commanding officer of the icebreaker Thunder Bay, told FreightWaves. “The goal is meeting at least 95% of petroleum product deliveries on time during the ice season.”

Jones is in charge of one of the permanent crews operating aboard 23 icebreakers that are stationed in the continental U.S. His ship is stationed out of Rockland, Maine, and is currently deployed on the Hudson River.


Related: Coast Guard’s only heavy icebreaker on special Arctic mission


‘The business of America is business’

The abridged quote above from President Calvin Coolidge certainly applies to Coast Guard icebreaking. Jones said more than 85% of the nation’s heating oil — about 3 billion gallons each winter — is used by people in the Northeast. Ninety percent of that oil comes by barge on the Hudson River, the Coast Guard’s main area of operation in the Northeast.

“We have to make sure that these barges keep flowing up the river and get to the places they need to get to, especially the way we operate with our low inventory and just-in-time delivery,” Jones explained. “We’re never more than three or five days, if we turned off the proverbial fuel pipe, before we start running out of fuel at the end of the line.”


It’s part of the big picture painted by America’s marine economy, which contributed about $397 billion to the nation’s gross domestic product in 2019. The sector grew faster than the nation’s economy as a whole, according to the first official Marine Economy Satellite Account released by two Department of Commerce agencies last June.

“If we can meet our goals of making sure these ships are moving on time, it can really keep industry afloat and keep people employed and keep money in their pockets,” Jones added.

The weight

Icebreaking typically starts in mid-December in the Northeast and lasts until late March or early April. Crews have to hustle, sometimes racking up more than 10,000 icebreaking hours a season and spending more than a week at a time on the Hudson before catching their breath.

They go through a solid month of preparation running the lakes and rivers in the fall while waters are “soft,” or unfrozen, as well as getting briefed on what to expect for the season.

“Since we started the ice season on Dec. 13, we have had about 370 vessels through the Hudson River,” Jones stated. “They’re moving petroleum products, scrap iron, salt, stone and asphalt.”

The Hudson averages 340 transits and 8.6 million barrels of petroleum a season, so activity has already been higher than normal.

The Great Lakes region also carries a lot of the weight, averaging 90 million tons of bulk cargo annually — iron ore, coal byproducts, limestone, coal, cement, salt, sand and grains — 15% of it during icebreaking season.

Measuring up

Most icebreakers range in length from 65 to 140 feet. However, the largest, the Polar Star, is nearly 400 feet long. Crew range from about seven members on the 65-footers to 18 on the 140-footers. The Mackinaw, a heavy icebreaker in the Great Lakes, has a crew of 55, while the Polar Star boasts the largest crew, with 145 members.

Jones said much of the icebreaking tradition dates back to an executive order issued by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1936, giving the Coast Guard the mission of “meeting the reasonable demands of commerce.”

“The main factor for icebreakers is the design of the hull,” Jones said. “Most have a sloping stem and reinforcement through either thicker steel in an ice belt, or closer frame spacing.”

Most days are routine, but Jones mentioned one unusual situation that just popped earlier this month when six vessels got in a traffic jam. It happened on the Hudson, just south of the Rip Van Winkle Bridge.

Barge on the icy Hudson River with the Sleepy Hollow Lighthouse in the foreground. (Photo: Colin D. Young/Shutterstock)

The vessels were carrying a total of 427,000 barrels of petroleum products. Four were heading downriver. The other two, a tug and a barge, were heading up river. Although the ice had been broken in the middle, the tug and barge duo were a bit wider than average and got stuck in thick ice on one side of the river. Crews called the Coast Guard for help.

“We ended up having them all stuck in this one little, tiny, less-than-a-mile area, and it required me coming in from behind on the outbound side and doing about 15 passes to widen the track and break up the ice next to these guys,” Jones recalled.

He got them moving after about an hour.

Along came COVID

Jones said there have been some COVID-19 complications during the past two ice seasons, but he’s been able to mitigate most of the disruptions.

“We’ve had times where we’ve had to keep one ship out longer or cover for another ship due to COVID outbreaks,” Jones explained. “It’s definitely something that has affected us.”

Fortunately, last year’s ice season was light and crews completed all of their icebreaking missions. Jones said there are currently no COVID-19 issues on Northeast ships.

Spring jams

Near the end of the season, as the early spring thaw begins, the icebreakers often have to clear ice jams to make sure rivers can flow unimpeded. This not only helps commercial vessels but protects the lives of people onshore.


Related: Glimmer of hope: Has the ship gridlock off ports finally peaked?


“A lot of times the ice breaks up in the upper parts of the rivers and flows down to where the river takes a few sharp turns. We call those chokepoints, where the ice tends to stack up and gets stuck there,” Jones explained. “There can be severe flooding for communities and areas along the river.”

Aging gracefully?

Perhaps the biggest thorn in the side of the icebreakers is age since they take a beating each season. The 65-footers are approaching 60 years of service and need either face-lifts or replacements. Despite overhauls, the 140-footers, built between 1979 and 1989, also need help.

“We try to find creative ways to make sure that we keep running and that we meet the mission. Some seasons we may lose two or three ships due to maintenance issues, and then the rest of us are running harder just to keep up and pick up the slack from the ships that are down,” Jones said.

There’s a bill in the Senate directing the Coast Guard to acquire a new Great Lakes heavy icebreaker that’s at least as capable as the Mackinaw. A contract has to be awarded for the work before moving forward. There are no bills related to new icebreakers for the Northeast.

The Polar Star runs icebreaking missions in the Arctic, which require intense training and often keep crews on deployments lasting five to six months. These missions are very rough on the ship as well as the crew.

Jones said the Coast Guard’s Arctic needs assessment identified the need for six new Arctic icebreakers, three medium and three heavy. But the soonest any of them may be ready is next year, followed by others in 2025 and 2026, pending congressional approval of funding.

“I think we need every single one of them,” Jones said.

He went on to say there will always be Arctic ice in the winter, despite global warming. The question is how long the Coast Guard can stretch the navigable season, which is dependent on the size of the fleet.

“It’s a much shorter distance across the Arctic than some of our conventional shipping routes,” Jones added. “So, if it’s navigable, it’s quickly going to be something that is enticing to shipping companies.”

Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Nick Austin.

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Nick Austin

Nick is a meteorologist with 20 years of forecasting and broadcasting experience. He was nominated for a Midsouth Emmy for his coverage during a 2008 western Tennessee tornado outbreak. He received his Bachelor of Science in Meteorology from Florida State University, as well as a Bachelor of Science in Management from the Georgia Tech. Nick is a member of the American Meteorological Society and National Weather Association. As a member of the weather team at WBBJ-TV in Jackson, Tennessee, Nick was nominated for a Mid-South Emmy for live coverage of a major tornado outbreak in February 2008. As part of the weather team at WRCB-TV in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Nick shared the Chattanooga Times-Free Press Best of the Best award for “Best Weather Team” eight consecutive years.