2011-03-10 / Front Page

Aboard the Biscayne Bay Straits Icebreaking Excursion

By Ted Booker


Passengers aboard the U.S. Coast Guard’s Biscayne Bay travel near the Mackinac Bridge Wednesday, March 2, during a public tour. Passengers aboard the U.S. Coast Guard’s Biscayne Bay travel near the Mackinac Bridge Wednesday, March 2, during a public tour. Standing on the deck of the 140- foot-long U.S. Coast Guard cutter Biscayne Bay, spectators watched in awe as its 2,500 horsepower engines pushed it almost effortlessly through sheets of plate ice during the first stretch of a public tour in the Straits of Mackinac Wednesday, March 2.

About half a mile from the Mackinac Bridge, Petty Officer Dan Dean pointed out large windrows blanketed in snow, thick ridges of ice formed by the wind.

Rumbling like an earthquake, the ship advanced through this chunky portion, while those standing inside reached for something to steady their balance and those outside on the stern watched the thick layers of ice collide with the hull of the ship, a workhorse determined to hold its ground.


The U.S. Coast Guard’s ice cutter Biscayne Bay travels through windrows of thick ice Wednesday, March 2, during a public tour. The 140-foot, 2,500-horsepower boat became stuck several times before advancing through this rough portion and back into a thin layer of plate ice. The U.S. Coast Guard’s ice cutter Biscayne Bay travels through windrows of thick ice Wednesday, March 2, during a public tour. The 140-foot, 2,500-horsepower boat became stuck several times before advancing through this rough portion and back into a thin layer of plate ice. Losing its battle with the ice, the ship slowed, and eventually came to a halt. For a moment, some on the tour wondered if something had gone awry, if there might have been an emergency. But getting stuck in the ice is a common occurrence for the Biscayne Bay, said Petty Officer Dean, as it spends the winter months plowing through ice to ensure safe commercial travel for ships.

Backing up about three ship lengths, the ship lurched forward once again toward the windrows, this time at its full speed of 14.5 knots, about 17 miles per hour. After repeating this process a handful of times, the ship eventually freed itself and advanced back into the thin sheets of plate ice, continuing its course underneath the Mackinac Bridge.


The Biscayne Bay cuts a wake through ice on Lake Huron Wednesday, March 2. Ice that is mixed up by ships and freezes overnight is called brash ice. The Biscayne Bay cuts a wake through ice on Lake Huron Wednesday, March 2. Ice that is mixed up by ships and freezes overnight is called brash ice. Unpredictable winds continually change the ice conditions in the Straits, said Petty Officer Dean, adding that the windrows were likely a foot thick based on the ship’s slow speed, which dropped down to about 3 miles per hour.

“This ice was flat yesterday, but heavy winds over the last 24 hours shifted the ice plates around and created these pressure ridges,” he said, referring to northwest winds cutting across Lake Michigan overnight. “This is a good day for a tour; a lot of people don’t get to see this.”

In addition to its brute force, the ship uses other mechanisms to break through thick ice. As Petty Officer Kyle Elliot steers the ship through the thick ice, for example, he alternately rotates the steering wheel five degrees left and right, a technique called sallying. As the rudder oscillates back and forth, the ship displaces its weight unevenly as it advances, Petty Officer Dean said, helping it break through the ice as it sways from side to side.

The ship’s also equipped with a bubbler system powered by a large engine in the back, he said, which sends jets of oxygen out of four ports stationed on the hull. The air effectively works as a lubricant, creating a thin layer of air between the hull and ice that makes traveling easier by reducing its stranglehold. Looking out the side of the ship, spectators could see a burst of air bubbles rising from the water as the bubbling system was turned on.

But while the boat sometimes plays a round of tug of war with the ice like it did today, Petty Officer Dean stressed that the ice cutter, which weighs 664 tons, is designed to do just this kind of gritty work. In addition to breaking ice in the Straits area, the ship also travels to the St. Marys River and Lake St. Clair during the winter, he said. The crew will oftentimes break ice in a particular region for weeks, he said, depending on the circumstances.

“Ice conditions and temperatures dictate what we’re doing through the winter months. Sometimes we escort ships, making a path in front of them, and sometimes we’ll take trips for two days straight, prepping tracks and turns before ships travel, to stay ahead of the game,” he said.

In addition to plate ice, the ship also breaks through brash ice, which is ice that’s mixed up by boat travel and frozen, he said.

“As boats go up and down the channel, they churn up the ice, and it then freezes again like a margarita at night,” he said, adding that it can often be harder to break through than plate ice.

Spectators had the chance to take a full tour of the boat, manned by 14 seamen, during the tour while the crew fielded questions. After disembarking from the ship, each had a better understanding of how the ice is navigated.

“We have to make sure commerce can move safely through the ice, and that’s the bottom line,” Petty Officer Dean said.

The Biscayne Bay’s home port is St. Ignace.

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