Design by Robert Nixon.
The Icemen Cometh
Tales from the U.S. Coast Guard on the frozen Great Lakes.
Published: February 25, 2014
The icebreaking itself is fairly simple. The Morro Bay is equipped with a “bubbler,” an enormous air pump that 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 that allows the boats to glide more easily through the thickest ice.
Electrician Dave “Oz” Auslander 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 water6. “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 that 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 that 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, Ohio, 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, FS27 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 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 time8.
“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 in downtown Cleveland, confides during a quiet moment that he had drinks with Cavaliers star point guard 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’re 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’re 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,” Pepper says, “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.”
1 Estimated Time of Repair, presumably.
2 This story’s biggest surprise: Neither Pepper nor Swaim has seen the Oscar-nominated 2013 maritime drama Captain Phillips.
3 No legit fables to report, other than: “It was bad.”
4 Littoral” means “having to do with shores,” and is gross to say for obvious reasons.
5 In order (101-109): Katmai Bay, Bristol Bay, Mobile Bay, Biscayne Bay, Neah Bay, Morro Bay, Penobscot Bay, Thunder Bay, Sturgeon Bay.
6 So to speak.
7 FS = Food Services. Formerly SS = Subsistence Specialist (via BMC Janetka).
8 Biggest oversight in my reporting: Failure to ask Pepper and Swaim whether they’d seen the Kevin Costner / Ashton Kutcher 2006 Coast Guard action flick The Guardian.
Sam Allard is a staff writer at Metro Times’ sister paper Cleveland Scene.
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