Times Herald (Port Huron)
---- — PORT HURON (AP) — Seventeen crew members and one cat have spent more than a month — including Christmas and New Year’s — breaking through a frozen landscape.
The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Neah Bay left its home port of Cleveland on Dec. 14, and hasn’t returned since because of an early onset of ice on Midwest waterways, according to the Times Herald of Port Huron.
“At least in the couple seasons I’ve been on board, this has been significantly colder earlier in the year than I’ve seen in the past,” said Neah Bay Commanding Officer Molly Waters. “We’ve seen some pretty extraordinary ice conditions.”
The 140-foot Neah Bay is part of Operation Coal Shovel, a group of four ice breakers assigned to the Detroit and St. Clair rivers, and the western basin of Lake Erie.
Waters said the crew’s priority on the St. Clair River is to break ice to prevent flooding. But the vessel spends much of its time clearing the way for commercial traffic on the rivers.
Waters said the long time away from port and the loud rattle and shake of constant ice breaking takes its toll on the crew and the ship.
“Ice breaking is a fairly violent industry, even in the sloppier brash we’re in right now,” Waters said.
The demand for a clear path through the broken piles of ice turns what should be a 12-hour day into a 16- or 18-hour battle against the ice.
“It’s been an icy year,” Boatswain Mate Second Class Mike Klopp said.
It’s not just any old ice that’s clogging the St. Clair River. It’s brash ice, or broken ice, that swallows the cutter’s path almost as soon as it’s made.
Ice breakers on the St. Mary’s River connecting Lake Superior with Lake Huron typically deal with plate ice, which holds a path better after it’s cut, Klopp said.
“Brash ice is much worse because it plugs up an area more than just plate ice,” Klopp said.
Fireman Zack Seyfried has spent about two years on the Neah Bay. The Great Lakes are a change of pace and temperature from his hometown of Pensacola, Fla.
“I went from no seasons and 70 and above all year round to minus 13 here,” Seyfried said. “I want to get back to warmer weather, that’s for sure.”
The crew has a full-time cook, workout equipment, berthing areas and the company of Casca, a Himalayan cat Waters rescued during a stint in Alaska.
With the Soo Locks closure Wednesday, the extended navigation season is over until March 25.
But the Neah Bay still had work Wednesday, clearing the southeast bend of the St. Clair River for local traffic and the ships still trickling in from farther north.
The 33-year-old Neah Bay left Algonac shortly after 7 a.m. Wednesday, about an hour before sunrise. It broke its way into the river and headed south, where it began to loosen a path in the southeast bend of the St. Clair River.
Boatswain Mate Chief Matt Disco said the southeast bend is notorious for ice buildup. The Neah Bay breaks up that clog so ice continues flushing down the river into Lake St. Clair.
Passing vessels — like the Philip R. Clarke, Algosea and Algo Canada — took advantage of the path cleared by the Neah Bay.
Waters said the football-shaped hull of the Neah Bay breaks up the ice and leaves a wake that also helps to clear the brash.
The effort to widen and maintain a clear path through the St. Clair River is a constant struggle. But with a decrease in traffic after the Soo Locks closure, the Neah Bay crew hopes to return to Cleveland on Sunday.
“Christmas and New Year’s were canceled and so we spent those far away from home,” Waters said. “Hopefully, when we get home for maintenance period, we’ll be able to catch up with our families, get a little down time.”