Making Waves

When the lake freezes, the Coast Guard heats up.

Snow Day Official Site
Icebreaking can be dangerous for deckhands, who work one misstep from disaster. - Walter  Novak
Icebreaking can be dangerous for deckhands, who work one misstep from disaster.
Steve Stausbaugh is busy wrestling with rope thick as an overfed python when the horn bellows on the Neah Bay, announcing to everyone within earshot that the U.S. Coast Guard's icebreaker is about to leave port.

Since it's a typically blustery February morning, and the 140-foot-long ship is docked at the end of East Ninth Street, the number of people within earshot can be counted on two hands. The Port of Cleveland is a barren wasteland, with ice forming a solid sheet over the water, trapping the handful of rusty barges at rest in their winter hibernation.

The Neah Bay pulls out with surprising quickness, churning blue-gray water over the ice floes. When the ship is a few hundred yards offshore, it provides a unique view of the Cleveland skyline. The Great Lakes Science Center, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and new Browns Stadium, typically bathed in sunset colors on publicity posters, appear completely different against a gray sky, partly obscured by blowing snow.

The surreal scene is poetic justice of sorts, given the Neah Bay's singular mission. While venture capitalists and city politicians talk optimistically about the new service economy, the Neah Bay still plies a long-standing, no-frills trade: It smashes and crushes ice, blazing a trail through Lake Erie for ore boats and other large ships. And the cargo in the ships' hold is not software or exotic foods or cellular phones. It's usually taconite, iron ore, or coal -- materials that are the lifeblood of Cleveland's manufacturing economy and hearken back to the city's roots as a Great Lakes industrial center.

A placard hanging in the ship's cramped galley says it all: "Neah Bay: The Breaker That Shakes the Lake." It's accompanied by a cartoon of a billy club-wielding Taz, banging away at the ice.

"We help keep the traffic moving," says the ship's skipper, Lieutenant Commander James Jenkins. The native of Charleston, South Carolina, has been in the Coast Guard nearly 13 years, commanding the Neah Bay for the past 3.

"I'm starting to like the winters more and more. It's the most exciting time of the year for us," Jenkins says. "I even like the snow."

He had better, because running an icebreaker is brutal work, with ice chunks and water spraying over the bow as the ship heads directly into the fierce Canadian wind. The four men working on deck, dressed in black-and-orange insulated jumpsuits slick with water, black combat boots, and black ski masks pulled over their faces, look like special forces commandos.

The men all carry "personal marker lights" -- narrow tubes, clipped to their jumpsuits, that emit a light when activated. It's a stark reminder that one hard jolt into the ice, combined with carelessness or unsteady footing, can send a man plummeting into the frozen water. And it's unlikely the lake's frigid temperatures would allow the kind of time for pillow talk that Leonardo DiCaprio enjoyed in Titanic.

With their intimidating appearance, it's easy to forget that many of the men serving aboard the Neah Bay are still a few years shy of legally being served a beer. Stausbaugh, one of the four men working feverishly on deck, is the ship's baby, an 18-year-old just nine months out of high school in Newcastle, Pennsylvania.

"I've always liked to help people, and I like being on the water," Stausbaugh says, explaining why he joined the Coast Guard. Stausbaugh hopes to be a Pittsburgh firefighter one day and, like many recruits, was drawn to the Coast Guard by its emphasis on search-and-rescue and law enforcement missions.

But the Neah Bay's primary role is strictly commercial. The ship works year-round on rescue missions and appearances at civic air and boat shows, but earns its keep from November to April, when it breaks ice in Lake Erie, Lake Huron, and the Straits of Mackinac. Last year, the ship participated in 47 missions, though it has done as many as 80 in a single winter.

The ship does not go out randomly, just blasting through ice floes. It is summoned for specific missions and acts like something of a blocking back, rendezvousing with a freighter and carving a path for the ship. A typical mission, according to Jenkins, might involve leading a fuel ship from Cleveland out to the LTV Steel plant in Lorain.

Stuart Theiss, president of the Cleveland-based Oglebay Norton Marine Services Company, says icebreakers like the Neah Bay play a crucial role in keeping commerce moving on the Great Lakes, paving the way for more than $60 million worth of cargo during an average winter.

"If we didn't have them, we'd be shut down completely," says Theiss, whose company operates the largest shipping fleet on Lake Erie. "They're absolutely essential."

Cruising through the ice aboard the Neah Bay offers vistas akin to what Neil Armstrong might have found walking on the moon. Five miles from shore, the coast is no longer visible. Giant clouds of snow whip across endless stretches of jagged piles of ice.

In this quiet desolation, the Neah Bay's work is surprisingly loud. Rather than simply barreling through the ice, the ship has a specially designed hull and keel that allows it to ride up on the ice and then come down, slicing cleavages in the ice up to 20 feet long. Hundreds of seagulls follow in the vessel's wake, feasting on dead fish churned up by the impact.

And to guys like Stausbaugh, the Neah Bay is also home. While most of the 17-man crew rent apartments near the port, Stausbaugh and two other sailors live aboard the ship. They sleep in a tight triple-bunk rack, which has about two feet between bunks.

Stausbaugh says it's tough being away from home for the first time, especially because the ship is given little notice when called out on missions. Most last a day or two, but the crew has been out on the lake for weeks at a time, which makes it difficult for him to call his girlfriend back home. When he's not cruising Lake Erie, Stausbaugh goes where sailors and longshoremen used to go to relax, in an era when Cleveland was still a thriving international port city.

"We go to the Flats a lot," Stausbaugh says. Safe to assume it's not to watch the barges unload their taconite, iron ore, and coal.

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