The Icemen Cometh: Travels with the U.S. Coast Guard on the Frozen Great Lakes 

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I am instructed precisely where to scamper in the event of an “all hands evacuate” order -- (the ship’s rear fantail), a fire or other emergency (the bridge), and what to do if I see a man go overboard (scream ‘Man Overboard’ and do not stop pointing at him, with all due zealotry, until another crew mate has identified his location). This final directive is met with a few sallies from the passing engineers, who point out, not unreasonably, that someone standing there shouting and pointing at a poor soul who’d fallen overboard onto really thick ice might seem just dickish or at the very least impolite when the guy’s in much more serious risk of having bruised his tailbone than drowning.

There are currently 15 members on board the Morro Bay. The ship is outfitted, berthing-wise, for 17 -- three officers and 14 enlisted men -- but as part of the military budget cuts (the same cuts that canceled the Cleveland Air Show) the crew size has shrunk by one. On this voyage, the Chief Engineering Officer is not present either, so they’re down an extra man. Even the cook, FS2 Adams, was a last-minute replacement. He was flown in from Syracuse just last night.

The shortage of men has meant a more intricate management of sleep and duties for the crew, upon whom it is incumbent to shower, sleep, eat and variously recreate in six-hour shifts, assuming things go according to plan, which they habitually do not.

“It’s been a full-court press this winter,” says Pepper. All nine Coast Guard vessels have been working every day and the crews have been taxed by harsh conditions, so the mental and physical strain starts showing earlier and earlier on missions, which as a rule last six weeks.

“The heavier the ice gets, it’s more arduous because we can only go through 22 inches of ice continually at 3 knots,” Pepper says. “So when the ice starts to get thicker than that, we’ve got to back and ram. Things just rattle and shake. It can be fatiguing over a long period of time.”

Swaim adds, when I ask whether or not the work itself is all that rigorous, that “when you’re rattling that much, the engineers definitely have their hands full.”

An engineer is on duty at all times, plus a roving oilman who checks for leaks and ensures the integrity of the ship’s assorted mechanical systems. Deckside, there’s always someone in official control of the ship -- “So-and-so has the con” literally gets said when they’re switching shifts, even informally -- plus a helmsman to steer and a quartermaster (boatswain mate types) primarily for navigation. On that score, the Morro Bay uses an advanced GPS system with a primary and backup server, so most of the navigating consists of looking at a monitor and taking notes. Swaim confesses that only a “handful” of guys in the entire Coast Guard can still navigate celestially.

It’s steady as she goes, though, as we make our way into Lake Erie and points west. On morning one of day one, all human and nonhuman systems are, for the time being, fully operational. Spirits are high.

Captain Pepper requests that I repeat the safety instructions I’d been given, “just for [his] knowledge,” and this strikes me as awfully captainly. Once satisfied, he proceeds to recount his weekend, the highlights of which included a round of “epic sledding” with his kids and seeing The Lego Movie yesterday. He sings its praises for some time .

“Legos are anti-terrorism,” Pepper says. “Scatter them on the battlefield of the enemy. There is nothing more painful than a lego shooting up your foot."

XO Swaim, who lives on East Fourth Street downtown, confides during a quiet moment that he had drinks with Kyrie Irving a few weeks back.

The camaraderie among the crew isn’t even veiled. These men enjoy each other’s company and say so. After Oz manages to patch the navigation system by bypassing a recently installed power filter, high-fives are readily (and almost ritually) disbursed.

BMC Janetka says that one of the most commendable aspects of this crew in particular is the way they are able to remain lighthearted for the most part, but never fail to take each other (and certainly their superiors) deadly seriously in moments of crisis. To boot, there is a deep and universal respect for Captain Pepper, a former enlisted man who has created on the Morro Bay an atmosphere of comfort and trust, an atmosphere that’s heightened during and after the oil leak. Communication over the radios is swift and succinct. Modified courses of action are formally discussed and gauged.

By 1300h, the media event in Algonac the following morning has been canceled and the beveled injector is beveled to such extremes that a new part will be required. A Canadian freighter is frozen up North and the Morro Bay’s services have been enlisted. But first, we are bound for Cleveland, back the way we came but on the strength of a single engine. As we retrace our morning’s path, Janetka reminds me that getting back like this would be impossible had we not already cleared a path. As it is, much of it has refrozen. The single strip of ice is differentiated only by a marginal opacity against the horizon’s high-watt whiteness.

The sun has come out by now and is reflecting blindingly off the shattered and re-shattered plate in our wake. And as we near Cleveland once again, the ice fragments behind us congregate on the wake’s edges. They are like thousands of flat-screen TVs bearing witness to our passage, flat-screen TVs in sizes diverse enough to accommodate every possible living room. Janetka, from the bridge, appraises our progress.

“Icebreakers are unique because often, just going somewhere is the mission. We break ice as we go.” He gestures astern and smiles proudly: “The fruits of our labors.”

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