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

BRASH ICE: Conglomerations of small cakes and chunks from other ice formations, coalesced and refrozen into irregular shapes, often with sharp projections.

We’re underway, eight nautical miles or thereabouts into the solid white mass of what I’ve been assured is Lake Erie. But it may as well be 8 trillion nautical miles and it may as well be Neptune, because from up here on the bridge of the USCG Morro Bay (WTGB 106), an icebreaking tug, the view is that of a deep-galactic wasteland.

Our speed right now is 0.0 knots, which for the uninitiated means we’re stopped, squatting in the ice like a hypothermic otter. It’s early February, and the Great Lakes are 88-percent covered in ice. Lake Erie, where we’re now stalled, is the smallest and shallowest of the lakes and has reached a staggering 96-percent coverage. “Knot,” by the way, is the maritime abbreviation for “nautical miles per hour.” The nautical mile is slightly longer than a standard land mile, measuring 2,000 yards compared to 1,670.

For the record, there is nothing visibly nautical about our current location.

We’re immobilized because an oil leak has sprung from a beveled injector in one of the ship’s two huge diesel engines. I’ve been warned that the repairs are both time-consuming and mechanically complex. Initial ETR was radioed as one hour but has since been broadly amended to “two or two-and-a-half.” It’s a little after 1100 hours and we are bound, the 15-man Coast Guard crew and I, at the opposite of breakneck speed, for a media junket to Algonac, Mich., after which I am to be jettisoned and the crew is to commence an ice breaking mission of terrific regional and commercial urgency. Only now, maybe not.

Moments ago, the crew had joked that nothing could bring a Coast Guard cutter back to port. This news was received with managed anxiety by Seaman Messina, a fresh-faced Boatswain’s Mate whose Corvette, he’d just been texted, was illegally parked in front of his apartment building and had been hit. He wanted to know if there was any chance the leak might bring the Morro Bay back home so he could deal with it in person. Executive Officer Dan Swaim gently said no way.

FS2 Adams tells me in the galley a while later that “nine times out of ten” these oil leaks get repaired. “But they’re old ships,” he says, “the whole fleet. It’s not a question of if they’ll break but when.”

Up on the bridge, Swaim and Captain Kenny Pepper are wearing the two-piece blue uniforms and polished black boots of everyone on board. The electrician-types, “Firemen” in Coastie parlance, are distinguished by helmets and orange jackets. Pepper and Swaim also carry coffee mugs, in the relaxed way that ship’s officers are often seen to be holding coffee mugs in movies , i.e. in a way which seems incompatible with a vessel that rattles migrainally while breaking ice and pitches and rolls upon higher seas. For now, they can do little but gaze at the vast whiteness and shake their heads while they wait for an update from the engineers. They are not looking so much as marveling at the ferocity and depth of the jagged expanse before them. I’ve been given to understand that it almost never gets this rough or this heavy at these bearings.

For some perspective, the trip from Cleveland to Pelee Island, north of Sandusky, typically takes about four hours in open water, traveling at speeds of 12-13 knots. But 15 minutes after unmooring, we’d already crunched to a halt, forced to reverse and then ram ahead again like a car doing that rocking technique as it maneuvers out of a parking spot after heavy snow. Our average speed through the gapless brash this morning has been just under 5 knots.

“I hope you brought clean underwear,” Captain Pepper joked early on. We were scheduled to be to Detroit by evening, but that’s looking less and less likely. The oil leak isn’t the Morro Bay’s first mishap of the day, and there is a growing sense -- not a fear, but an internal acknowledgement; a frustration, if anything -- that the ice does not intend to be conquered.

Through the bridge’s tinted windows, little crystallized teepees appear in tenement clumps as far as the eye can see. I’ll reiterate that what I’m looking at isn’t even abstractly recognizable as a body of water.

“It’s like ice crushed up in a blender,” Captain Pepper says, describing the brash. “Crushed up in a blender and then put in a freezer overnight.”

Swaim takes a sip of his coffee and murmurs to himself, not for the first time, “This is the worst I’ve ever seen.”

PANCAKE ICE: Predominantly circular pieces of ice from 30 centimeters to 3 meters in diameter, up to about 10 centimeters in thickness, with raised rims due to pieces striking against one another.

On the Monday morning when the Morro Bay unmoors, a 60-year-old man near Pelee has alerted the relevant authorities that he’s retracing some ancestral path from the United States to Canada and will be traversing the lake on foot. (The thing to take away there is that such a feat is possible).

“You could drive across,” MK2 Colby Bradford says over a cigarette while the Morro Bay’s still in port. “You could take a truck out if you wanted to.” It’s as if another option might be the Megabus. Bradford’s not bothering with gloves out here, though the Mercury hasn’t yet climbed to 10 degrees.

Petty Officer Walter “Sean” Vitou, an ops guy down at Cleveland’s E. 9th station, verifies later that among Lake Erie’s Western Islands, people commute by snowmobile across the water.

Turns out that percentage-wise, the winter of 1994 and the fabled winter of ’89 delivered a bit more total ice coverage. But stats are for almanacs. Pepper says the endurance of 2014’s winter -- Coast Guard vessels were breaking ice in early December -- and the recurring bouts of extremely low temperatures have made this season hostile in an unprecedented way.

‘We’ve had the polar vortex.” Pepper says in the officers’ quarters the Friday before our departure. “We’ve had the polar plunge. Since ’89, nothing’s even come close.”

We’d be wise to recall, before too long, that the Coast Guard is one of the five branches of the United States Military. And it’s unique. It’s housed under the administrative auspices of the Department of Homeland Security (not Defense) and totes the authority of a federal law enforcement agency more or less in its back pocket.

“We’re like the FBI of the waters,” says Pepper.

Per the official literature: “The Coast Guard is an adaptable, responsive military force of maritime professionals whose broad legal authorities, capable assets, geographic diversity and expansive partnerships provide a persistent presence along our rivers, in the ports, littoral regions and on the high seas.

Coast Guard vessels serve alongside the Navy’s during wartime but otherwise just sort of drift around and, you know, guard the coasts. They’ve got what you might call a PR problem, though, because so much of what they do is mind-numbingly boring on paper: In 2012, they screened more than 436,000 vessels. They verified more than 70,000 worker credentials. They conducted over 11,600 annual inspections of U.S. flag vessels. They boarded and searched--zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Other than sporadic cocaine interdictions in the Caribbean and an occasional dramatic rescue, the Coast Guard’s rote operations are much more bureaucratic than military. Which is a big reason why they’re seizing on the fiendish media interest now; Semper Paratus and all that.

“Ice is the story,” admits the Coast Guard’s Midwest external affairs guy, Kyle Niemi. He says he’s been entertaining media requests by the literal boatload -- Hell, he’s got an AP photographer on a helicopter right now -- and that the press junket with the Morro Bay up in Algonac before the bona-fide ice-breaking gets going is basically to appease a slew of reporters en masse. Two days later, the crew is scheduled to take a Congresswoman out for a spin.

People want the details, Niemi says. They want photos. They want to see how all this treacherous arctic stuff gets done...

PRESSURE RIDGE: A line or wall of broken ice forced up by pressure; a seismic feature.

Ergo: The USCG Morro Bay (WTGB 106) is one of nine vessels in the Coast Guard’s Great Lakes icebreaking fleet. Through the winter, the fleet’s activities are choreographed “like chess pieces on a chessboard” to facilitate the reasonable demands of commerce. Essentially, that means creating navigable paths through the ice and providing direct assistance to stuck ships.

The Great Lakes region is split into two strategic ops: Operation Taconite (Sector Sault St. Marie) and Operation Coal Shovel (Sector Detroit). They are so named -- should be clear -- for the principal products supported by those regions. Operation Taconite is the largest ongoing icebreaking op in the United States. Its primary goal is enabling the cargo transport of iron ore (aka taconite) to the steel mills on Lake Michigan and Lake Erie. Operation Coal Shovel encompasses southern Lake Huron, the Detroit/St. Mary’s River, Lake St. Clair, Lake Erie, and Lake Ontario.

The Morro Bay, whose slogan or tagline is “Jack of All Trades,” is a 140-foot tug like all of the Coast Guard’s Bay-Class vessels and is moored, along with the Neah Bay (WTGB 105), in Cleveland, Ohio, USCG’s District 9 HQ. The Morro Bay was commissioned in 1981 and was used as a training vessel in Chesapeake Bay until 1998, when it was decommissioned. After 9/11, its services were required for beefed-up security on the East Coast. It was stationed in New London, Conn., until last year, when the Coast Guard recognized that the Great Lakes needed another permanent icebreaking asset around these parts.

“If any year proved the wisdom of that decision,” says Captain Pepper. “It was this year.”

Though the official shipping season doesn’t really get underway until late March, when the Soo Locks at Sault St. Marie open up, freighters carrying Great-Lakes-specific or winter-specific cargo are active even during the icy months. At multiple points this season, freighters have been stranded for days, helpless as they wait for an overtaxed icebreaking fleet.

On January 29, six freighters awaited assistance throughout the region. And though the Coast Guard often urges ships to remain in port when conditions are this ghastly, it’s hard for business to just cease and desist. Cargo shipments on the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway annually generate more than $30 billion in economic activity in Canada and the U.S. In 2011, an estimated $2 billion in actual cargo was shipped. Not exactly chump change.

The icebreaking itself is fairly simple. The Morro Bay is equipped with a “bubbler,” an enormous air pump which propels 7,500 cubic feet of air up the sides of the ship at 9 PSI (“low-pressure, high-volume,”) from four holes in the hull. That process creates a lubrication which allows the boats to glide more easily through the thickest ice.

Electrician Dave Auslander -- “Oz” -- says it’s like being a puck on an air hockey table. MK2 Bradford says it’s like being aboard a hovercraft. Captain Pepper says it’s not quite like either of those things, but “you can really feel the friction when it’s turned off.”

Strictly speaking, you can feel the friction when it’s turned on, too. This boat will not quit with the vibrations. It’s like being an ant caught on a paint mixing machine.

“I say that it’s like living in a rock tumbler,” says Pepper. “A big cement mixer with enormous rocks rolling around the whole time.”

Pepper says the Morro Bay doesn’t always need the bubbler for 6-10 inch plate ice. The wake action of the ship does the job for the minor-league stuff. But when they get out into the 16-20 inch plate, or the brash, or the formidable pressure ridges, the bubbler is the only feasible weapon in the ship’s arsenal. The bubbler’s air is not hot, but it still dissolves the ice in the immediate vicinity. In moments of stasis, the growing pool around the perimeter creates the improbable effect of a boat very deliberately wetting its pants.

Sometimes on a direct assist, when the ice is rough, the crew will position themselves in front of the helpless ship and simply run the bubbler. The goal is often to relieve built-up pressure and create space for ships to move.

Out on the Lake, when the Morro Bay affects a waterborne three-point turn, the displaced plate and brash look like garbage at a junkyard, pushed around and jumbled in grotesque white bouquets.

We weren’t supposed to see Pressure Ridges until Pelee, but they’ve mushroomed up everywhere, spiky and salient, not long after we hit open water .

“We call it ‘Superman’s Crib,” Pepper says of the pressure ridges. “You know, the Fortress of Solitude?”

The crew may be on to something, for there is an almost otherworldly quality to these formations, formations which yet again reinforce the illusion that we have crossed some dimensional boundary out on the ice. Here the water has turned to rock, and the rock has turned to blue crystal.

But it’s not yet blue when we unmoor. Seaman Jahns is at the helm, taking navigational orders from Swaim. They’ve got this call-and-response type communication which seems almost parodic given the brotherly banter below deck.

One thing’s clear up here, though: Every goofy verb you’ve heard in deep-space sci-fi TV shows -- “engage,” “initialize,” “re-engage,” usually in reference to assorted thrusters -- are in fact borrowed wholesale from the bridge-speak of military vessels. The words “aye” and “Roger” are perhaps the most frequently employed this morning, but various abbreviations and words most of us still associate with Mutiny on the Bounty -- helm, valve, starboard, aft -- are equally prevalent.

“Rudder midships,” commands Swaim.

“Midships aye,” Jahns responds.

“Very well,” says Swaim.

Once we’ve pulled away and are crunching through the layer-cake snow-covered plate, Jahns peers through his sunglasses and remarks over the background noise: “I spy with my little eye something….white.”

BLUE ICE: The oldest and densest ice in a glacier or ice formation, distinguished by a pale-blue color.

Clouse. Clegg. Slack. Swaim. These men and their names seem optimized for maritime service, do they not? They are short, (the names are). They are aggressively monosyllabic, not to mention apt: Swaim? It’s like some obscure pluperfect tense or regional pronunciation of “swam.”

The first crew member with whom I interact early Monday morning, before departure, before the deep rumble of the engines activate beneath my feet, is BMC Dale Janetka. He makes his home in Avon Lake and has been assigned, this morning, to apprise me of safety protocol.

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.”

About The Author

Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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