It is estimated that between 32,000 and 37,000 miles of rivers and streams carve through Maine’s landscape, at least four of them being wide, deep rivers that provide vital links between the state’s coastal and interior regions. While these rivers, such as the Penobscot and Kennebec, have been crucial to industry and commerce for centuries, when winter settles in, they can get so clogged with ice that shipping traffic is threatened, and the memories of flooded riverside communities rise.

That’s why the U.S. Coast Guard gets to work, deploying cutter crews, who work through the winter to keep major rivers free of ice jams and open for commercial vessels.

Recently, I accompanied an ice-breaking mission on the Penobscot River aboard the cutter Tackle, whose homeport is in Rockland at the Coast Guard station. I had been instructed by Chief Jesse Deery, who is in command of Tackle, to link up with the cutter at the waterfront park in Bangor. Arriving there, I saw the Tackle in the middle of the frozen Penobscot River, and I was puzzled. How was I to board the vessel with no docks or piers in sight? This would not be the case of strolling down the dock onto the boat’s deck, and after a brief phone call to Chief Deery, it was evident that I was going to board the Tackle by walking over the frozen river.

As I stood on the shore, two survival suit-clad crew members, Tyler Heanssler and Steven Leavitt, lugged a 20-foot extension ladder across the ice toward me. The footing on the riverbank was too precarious, so I was directed to the walkway adjacent to the river, which was approximately 15 feet down the face of a concrete abutment. After a quick hop over the railing, I was standing on the frozen Penobscot, which Leavitt and Heanssler assured me was eight inches thick — more than enough to support a moderately overweight newspaper reporter. A short walk across the snow covered ice later and I was welcomed aboard Tackle.

The mission

According to Lt. Nick Barrow, of Coast Guard Sector Northern New England, ice breaking is among the Coast Guard missions that are mandated by Congress. No one wants flooding, such as what plagued the Augusta area last spring, or in 1987. In March and April, rains and warming temperatures, coupled with ice dams, cause rivers to rise above flood level, five, seven, 12 or 24 feet. Last spring, three cutters worked simultaneously during the incident to clear the river of ice and diminish the flooding.

“That was kind of an all-hands on deck evolution for us supporting FEMA over the course of three or four days,” said Barrow.

Areas considered most critical by the Coast Guard include the Penobscot River from the Penobscot Bay to Bangor, and the Kennebec River in the area of Bath Iron Works. Cutters will also clear ice from ports and harbors during severe winters. The Coast Guard occasionally breaks ice at the request of individuals and fishermen, whose boats may be frozen in harbor. Such requests are prioritized according to urgency and available resources.

The northern New England fleet of ice breaking Coast Guard vessels includes three 65-foot cutters, the South Portland-based Shackle, the Tackle, and the Southwest Harbor-based Bridle. Should a larger vessel be necessary, the 140-foot Thunder Bay can be called. Additionally, two 175-foot buoy tenders operate in the region and have limited ice-breaking capabilities.

Operations are coordinated through the sector headquarters in South Portland, which works with the National Weather Service, U.S. Geological Survey, and the Coast Guard Air Auxiliary to monitor ice conditions along the coast, as well as on Lake Champlain in Vermont and New York. The information gathered by these organizations is used to determine the allocation of ice-breaking resources.

“Ice is such a dynamic force and varies year to year, so we often see the sharing of resources and the placement of resources in New England that respond to the environmental conditions of that particular year,” said Barrow.

On the river

The Tackle is in impeccable condition, despite that it is almost a half-century old. The Northern New England fleet of 65-foot cutters is nearly 50 years old, and the Tackle was constructed in 1962. In spite of the physical demands of ramming through ice all winter for the last five decades, it is in perfect condition, thanks to the diligence of the crew as well as an intensive maintenance schedule.

“They built ships better back then and the crews over the years have taken real good care of the ships,” said Chief Deery.

Specifically designed for breaking ice, a 65-foot cutter features a single 500-horsepower engine designed to generate high torque and a steel hull capable of breaking through ice more than a foot thick. Its top speed is 10 knots, although while breaking an initial track through a frozen river, speeds are often five knots or less.

Although it is strong, the cutter’s interior space, which is shared by an eight-man crew for the duration of a three- to four-day ice-breaking mission, is tight.

“It gets a little cramped and there’s not a lot of room for us to move,” said Keith Nichols, Tackle’s second in command. “There’s 65 feet, but not all 65 feet of it is livable.”

In order to prevent claustrophobia, the crew conducts drills to stay active. They also take advantage of the onboard entertainment, including satellite television and a game system.

Watching the crew, it quickly became evident that the process of piloting a cutter through a frozen river required a combination of finesse and muscle. Turning the vessel for a run down the river required running the engines to generate enough prop wash to break the ice behind the ship in order to carve out a place for it to turn. The engines had to be rested for brief intervals during this process to avoid overheating. Making matters more difficult was the layer of snow on the surface of the ice. This created additional friction on the hull, which further impeded movement.

In general, an ice-breaking mission will only be conducted after high tide when currents will wash broken ice toward the ocean, thus clearing the track carved by the cutter.

Once under way, I had some difficult maintaining my footing. The overall sensation was similar to that of being in a car with no shocks while driving down a rough stretch of road. The sound of the ice shattering and grinding against the hull was deafening. Keeping the ship on a straight track required a noticeable degree of physical exertion on the part of the helmsman.

Although the hull of a cutter is designed to carve a path through ice, the wake produced by the vessel is actually the most useful method by which to clear a river. The method involves carving an initial swath and then reversing course and running back along that track at full speed. The resulting wake pulverizes the ice from bank to bank.

“Once you cut that initial track, we run that a few times and the wake will do a lot more damage than the ship will,” said Deery. “We try to use the wake as much as possible. Even though they’re designed to do what they do, it saves on the wear and tear of the ship.”

The effectiveness of this method was apparent during the return trip to the Bangor waterfront. As the cutter moved along the path it had just carved, fissures would first form in the ice before heaving and buckling under the wake and then finally disintegrating into chunks.

Upon returning to the Bangor Waterfront Park, I was again escorted across the ice by Heanssler and Leavitt. This time, I had a much shorter climb over the abutment as the rising tide had pushed the ice to within five feet of the walkway. As I settled into my truck for the drive back to Bar Harbor, I was surprised at how tired I felt. If I was fatigued after only two hours on an ice breaker, I couldn’t fathom how the crew of a cutter must feel after a week of it.