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Credit: Hans Marx
Credit: Hans Marx

Tugboats Breaking Ice

Winter on the upper regions of the Chesapeake Bay can be quite treacherous and unpredictable. Gone are the seemingly hundreds of pleasure power, sail and fishing boats of summer. The thousands of recreational craft are safely on the hard, covered by shrink wrap, or double tied in slips protected by ice eaters. However, the ships, barges, naval vessels and tugboats continue to ply their trade. The “cargo”, whether it is coal, petroleum, cars or even cruise passengers, must still go through.

The Chesapeake’s last big freeze came in the winter of 1977, when the Bay completely froze over. People actually walked out to the Chesapeake Bay Bridges and some drove their pickup trucks onto the ice. Maritime traffic slowed but was kept moving with the assistance of the Coast Guard. Some of the smaller tributaries were inaccessible. Heating oil to the Eastern Shore’s smaller towns had to be delivered by truck. This past winter, the ice was significantly worse than it had been for several years, according to Captain Erik Hansen, of the Vane Brothers tug ENDEAVOR. He said, “That three- or four-inch ice takes surprisingly little time to develop, and the heavy patches of pack can cause serious problems for smaller commercial traffic. The larger ships headed to Baltimore “pretty regularly break up the ice, but as they go, the ice fills in and the pack becomes thicker and thicker.”

In addition to high winds and reduced visibility, ice continues to cause the professional ship and tug captain the most difficulty. Tugboats are increasingly called on to perform ice-breaking duties. Baltimore Harbor Captain Reid Sprague, reports that he was “often sent into an iced-in berth before a ship arrived, to break up the solid ice and blow out the bits. It was great banging fun. We’d first run back and forth to break up the sheet of ice and then, catching a line at one end of the berth, we’d run strongly ahead to create a current to move the broken bits out of the way. When the berth was clear, we’d run out to meet the ship and dock her.”

One challenge during a heavy ice season was navigation, Reid remembers. “The Coast Guard would change out the usual summer buoys for winter buoys, which had a sleek profile with few appendages. They could take being pulled under the ice with less damage, and were less likely to be pulled off station by moving ice.” Reid goes on to say, “There was no napping when going up the Bay in winter, because you never knew what buoys had been moved or damaged since you last came that way.”

Captain Henry Gamp, once one of the Bay’s younger tugboat skippers, often found himself ordered to assist a vessel stranded in the ice. Making circles around the ship, being careful not to push the dangerously sharp shelving ice against its thin-skinned hull, the tug widened a clear path.  Once the vessel was free and underway again, the tugboat positioned itself ahead, but purposely a little off to the side of the ship’s bow. Should the tug itself become stuck or its plant overheat from the strain, the freighter, unable to stop due to its momentum, could easily ram it. “Ice duty”, said Gamp, “could be demanding work. The boat grinds continually; sleep is almost impossible. Rising high above water level, ice spires are understandably mistaken on radar for all-important markers. The ice produces an eerie feeling — more like being out in a field in the Midwest. It doesn’t seem like water at all.”

Working barges can be especially dangerous in icy conditions. Captain Erik Hansen tells of experiences towing barges through the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal and upper Bay, “areas notorious for collecting ice, especially with a sustained wind blowing out of the south which drives the ice north, creating pack. With a tow on the wire, you must stay extremely cognizant of conditions and constantly check ice reports,” Hansen says. “You may encounter impassable pack ice or enough to significantly slow progress, allowing the barge astern to catch up and overtake the tug, even coming up over the stern and forcing the boat down.”

Surprisingly, Captain Reid, who worked the length of the Patapsco River and the Bay, found the increased paperwork associated with “ice ops,” to be an annoyance.

The wheelhouse crew had to carefully log times in and out of the ice, as well as its character and thickness. This was done so that the “company could bill appropriately due to the increased time and effort as well as the possibility of damage.”

Running convoy duty, rescuing vessels in distress, and freeing troublesome barges, while hazardous and distasteful work, does, however, have its small rewards. Captain Sprague found, “ice work operations overwhelmingly positive, fun, if difficult at times.” Crewmen have been known to stop the tug, take the aluminum ladder usually used for ship boarding, and climb down to the ice.  Such times became a perfect opportunity for rare photographs of one’s own vessel and an occasion for a good-natured, if somewhat potentially dangerous, snowball fight.

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