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Ice Breakers on the Hudson

The Hudson River is no longer the commercial highway it once was but it’s still an important route for the state economy. To keep the river open for business in the freezing winter months the Coast Guard runs its cutter boats up and down the river opening a navigable track through the ice.

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Its freezing cold on the bridge of the Penobscot Bay, 17 crew members carefully guide the 140 foot ship through a river that looks more like a gorge lined with thick chunks of white rock, rather than ice.

“We’ve seen some, what we consider moderate ice conditions which is 8 inches or greater, it can stop some of these tug and barges from navigating and a coast guard cutter will have to come a break a path so they can get through or get to the dock they are going to.”

That’s basically their job, making sure commerce ships can safely navigate the river during the winter months.

Lieutenant Commander James McCormack is in charge of this cutter and he says all types of businesses still use the river for transport.

“We’ve talked to guys shipping grain, GE generators, kind of a variety of goods, the tug and barges for the most part are petroleum products. So, home heating oil and gasoline.”

For the Coast Guard, ice breaking season begins December 16th and lasts until the spring thaw.

What sets this ice braking tug apart is its ‘bubbler system.’ A white conex box on the rear of the ship houses a low pressure air compressor. It pushes air down through the hull into openings along the keel which help the boat glide through the thick ice.

“The last design feature we have is the bow is flared out so when we hit significant ice, we’ll actually ride up on to the ice and the weight of the cutter will come down and break it.”

Despite the half a foot of ice along the center of the river, the cutter seamlessly tacks along at 10-knots, until the river traffic picks up.

A barge is headed down river through the track the Coast Guard has been maintaining. McCormack has his crew steered aside into something called fast ice.

Lieutenant Zack Ballard explains the move.

“We like to maintain a groomed track in these areas of thicker ice, so they were headed south in that groomed and open track and we just kind of pulled over to the side into some fast ice, that’s frozen solid to the shore.”

Once the barge passes we pull back into the main river track.

Fast ice - or non-moving ice - drifting ice and plate ice are all part of the Hudson River winter geography that Commander McCormack’s crew must navigate.

“Pressure ridges are basically what happens when you have two plates that push up against each other the ice has nowhere to go but up and it will pile up on top of each other and that pressure is actually tougher for ships to get through and you can get a foot or two of ice.”

McCormack says it’s crucial for commerce ships to stay on the river track when traveling the Hudson in winter. He says trying to forge your own path will dislodge too much ice, and allow more of the river to freeze over at night, forcing his crew to start from scratch in the morning.

The Coast Guard will send ice breakers as far north as Albany to keep the river open in all seasons.

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