Duluth dive crews inspect rudder "hanging on with one bolt" on disabled Coast Guard cutter

By KBJR News 1

March 29, 2014 Updated Mar 31, 2014 at 12:07 PM CDT

Duluth, MN (NNCNOW.com) - As the Presque Isle sat damaged at the Port Terminal dock in the Duluth Superior Harbor Saturday afternoon, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Morro Bay sat across the bay near the Aerial Lift Bridge nursing its own wounds.

Both vessels were forced to return to the Twin Ports Friday after Lake Superior's ice cover—as thick as 8 feet in some places—put a halt on any forward progress.

"This has been an historic ice year," said Lieutenant Kenny Pepper, Captain of the Morro Bay. "This has been one of the more active ice years on record. In my four years of experience breaking ice, this has been the heaviest ice that I've seen."

LT Pepper is Captain of the Morro Bay, and says cutters are doing everything they can around the clock to keep this shipping season moving.

But while breaking ice near Thunder Bay Thursday the Morro Bay lost rudder control, which forced her to be towed back into port by the cutter Katmai Bay.

"The problem that we're having was definitely exacerbated by the ice conditions this year," added LT Pepper.

And when the very vessel that's built to cut through the ice breaks down in the midst of an historic ice season on the Great Lakes there's no time to waste, which means it's down into the depths of the ice coated harbor for dive crews to figure out the problem.

"The rudder's basically hanging on with one bolt," Peter Norick of Duluth–based PJ Norick & Sons Diving, standing above a partially submerged ladder hanging by a chain, dipping into the harbor water, hooked to a pick-up truck. "We're making it stable until they can figure out what they want to do for a permanent solution."

Norick is a 5th generation diver. In his 14 years of hands–on experience with diving inspections for Great Lakes vessels, this year has been one for the record books.

On Saturday it was co–diver Tom Champagne's turn to inspect the Morro Bay's rudder—a potentially dangerous task that Norick says requires a diver to be ever focused on safety.

"You have to," said Norick, "it's something you always keep in the back of your mind; are you getting hypothermic?"

Once crews center in on the issue, LT Pepper says it's then a matter of finding parts.

Depending on how severe of a problem the broken rudder poses, the Morro Bay may also have to be dry docked for further repairs. That means more precious time lost during a shipping season that's trying to break loose from the grips of an icy strangle hold.

Meanwhile, crews are still working to determine the cause, and extent, of the Presque Isle's damage.

The freighter may need to unload some of its cargo to relieve pressure on the hull, and allow for better inspection of the damage.

Billy Wagness
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