Tug Boats to the Rescue!

By KBJR News 1

December 10, 2010 Updated Dec 10, 2010 at 8:20 PM CDT

DULUTH, MN (The Northland's NewsCenter) -- An early ice–over in the Duluth-Superior Harbor has slowed shipping traffic and has area tug boat operators working overtime.

Usually, Duluth's Coast Guard Cutter Alder is tasked with clearing the freezing crust. However, the Alder is gone on a mission in eastern Lake Superior tending navigational aids a this time.

That means local tugboats in Superior Bay are working extra hard to crack the 10-inch plus layers of ice quickly forming on the water. It also means vessels entering local shipping channels are losing time and money.

Tugboat owner Mike Ojard and the Nels J. are among the hard-working tug operators. Ojard has been working overtime for about a week, clearing ice from shipping channels in St. Louis Bay and the Duluth-Superior Harbor.

"Normally the coast guard handles all the main channels" Ojard says as he climbs to the bridge of his 52 year-old vintage tug, Nels J.

Now, tug boats like the Nels J. are breaking up to four miles of ice every day that Coast Guard operators would normally cut.

"We've been breaking ice this year that's been 10-inches deep, and that hasn't been really that tough, but that hard blue ice is just like running into plate steel," Ojard said describing the job.

"You run a lot of ice through your prop, you run a lot of ice through your bow. It's really hard on your equipment," he adds.

Although the extra work is good for his business, Ojard says it's hard on his four tugboats.

Other shipping industry representatives say ice isn't cheap for ships coming into the harbor.

"It's additional cost. It costs you money to break ice," said vessel agent Chuck Hilleren whose business Guthrie Hubner coordinates nearly every part of a ship's trip to and from Duluth and tracking expenses.

Hilleren says the extra cost isn't good, but it's not out of the ordinary.

"You send a ship up to Duluth in December, 99 percent of the time you're dealing with ice," he explains.

But it's how fast the bay has frozen that caught other experts off-guard this year.

"The ice formed a little bit faster than was expected, a little sooner than was expected," said shipping expert Jim Sharrow of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, describing the overall level of readiness in the Port.

Sharrow says the ice cover is thickest in upper St. Louis Bay, and until the Coast Guard Cutter Alder is back in the bay, towboat owners like Mike Ojard have their work cut out for them.

Coast Guard representatives from the Duluth Sector were contacted about the ice conditions, but did not return our phone calls.

However, Coast Guard officials from the Sault St. Marie Sector say they're sending a back-up ice breaking tug boat called the Biscayne Bay to assist in the operation. The Biscayne Bay is scheduled to arrive late Saturday evening. The mission is called "Operation Taconite."

Written for the web by Matt Standal