U.S. Coast Guard Crushes Ice on the Kennebec to Safeguard River Communities

By Bob Trapani, Jr.

“In central Maine, spring commences not with warm breezes…but rather with the arrival of icebreakers crashing up the frozen Kennebec River. You want drama with your seasons? This is noisy drama – big, 65-foot ships plowing through salty river ice, smashing it into pieces and sending it down to the ocean on an ebbing tide.” – Kennebec Journal, March 22, 2008

The U.S. Coast Guard cutters BRIDLE (WYTL 65607) cuts through the ice-laden Kennebec River
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

The U.S. Coast Guard cutters
BRIDLE (WYTL 65607) cuts through the
ice-laden Kennebec River

By the time late-March rolls around each year visions of spring may be in the air, but it’s the danger of Old Man Winter’s lingering handiwork on waterways like Maine’s Kennebec River that must be met head-on before river communities can fully relax with the arrival of warmer temperatures.

The United States Coast Guard is more than up for the task of facing down the annual scourge of winter on the Kennebec, having once again assembled a powerful group of black-hulled assets in Bath, Maine, for some serious business – to crush ice on the Kennebec River along a critical stretch from Bath north to Gardiner.

This particular Coast Guard domestic icebreaking mission is carried out in coordination with the Maine Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) to help mitigate the potential for flash flooding caused by a combination of ice jams, rapid snow-melt and heavy rains that can occur during the spring thaw.

Ice-covered Kennebec River
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

The ice-covered Kennebec River as seen
from the bow of the cutter TACKLE
(WYTL 65604) on March 18, 2008

On March 18, 2008 the U.S. Coast Guard demonstrated mission-excellence in support of MEMA as four cutters – the 140-foot THUNDER BAY (WTGB 108) and three 65-foot harbor tugs, TACKLE (WYTL 65604), SHACKLE (WYTL 65609) and BRIDLE (WYTL 65607), set out together to work on clearing the Kennebec River of ice above the Carlton Bridge in Bath. The goal was to cut up the ice and send it running harmlessly seaward on the morning’s ebbing tide.

The Kennebec River meanders some 150 miles in total length before it spills into the Gulf of Maine in the North Atlantic Ocean, but on this day, the rugged cutters were focusing on a defined 12-mile stretch of the river from Bath to the Richmond-Dresden Bridge in Richmond.

As the Kennebec Journal noted, “Of prime concern is the potential for ice jams at the Richmond-Dresden Bridge, where a major ice jam caused flooding and removed and destroyed large sections of the bridge in 1936.”

140-foot cutter THUNDER BAY
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

The 140-foot cutter THUNDER BAY
(WTGB 108) at the Richmond-Dresden
Bridge on the Kennebec River

The imposing THUNDER BAY led the black-hulled convoy upriver in a ‘search and destroy’ mission of the problematic ice fields, with the TACKLE, SHACKLE and BRIDLE running behind in staggered formations.

“If the ice is thick enough in the Kennebec River (over 12-inches) then the smaller WYTLs cannot handle that much ice,” said Lt. Thomas Crane, commanding officer of the THUNDER BAY. “Our cutter is needed to break the initial track through the 4-month old river ice. Once we break the initial track, we generally make a second pass down that broken track and allow our wake to break as much of the ice as possible. Sometimes we can "wake break" up to a 300-foot wide path.”

The THUNDER BAY is equipped with a system to lubricate their progress through the ice, by bubbling air through the hull, which can be seen in this picture
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

The THUNDER BAY is equipped with
a system to lubricate its progress
through the ice, by bubbling air through
the hull, which can be seen in this picture

A couple of miles above Bath the cutters encountered their first signs of the looming ice fields with frozen slush cluttering the river. As the ships plowed ahead, BM1 Randy Bucklin of the TACKLE noted with anticipation that the frozen slush is “pre-game warm-ups” for the real deal ahead.

Suddenly a stray ice floe lurking in the water collided hard with the bow of the TACKLE, momentarily pushing the cutter ever so slightly off its straight-ahead course and causing the crew to fight to maintain their balance inside the ship. At this moment, BMC John Anders, officer-in-charge of the ship, turned to his fellow crewmembers in the wheelhouse and said, “That’s a hip-check.”

Before long the frozen slush floating atop the water gave way to a relatively solid winter wasteland confined only by the riverbanks of the Kennebec. Undaunted, the THUNDER BAY hit the frozen white mass first and began cutting up the ice, leaving a defined channel of blue water in the ship’s wake, littered with small chunks of ice strewn about the free flow.

The TACKLE's bow cuts through the ice as it heads up the Kennebec River
USCG Photo

The TACKLE's bow cuts through
the ice as it heads up the Kennebec River

The three 65-foot cutters bringing up the rear purposely ignored the new path cut by the THUNDER BAY, and instead, rumbled through sections of the river to the left and right ‘carving out their own niche’ through ice fields ranging in thickness from four to eight inches. As the cutters entered the ice fields, the TACKLE’s BM1 Bucklin noted that icebreaking “is the only time a ship looks to hit something.”

THUNDER BAY’s Lt. Crane touched on the strategy of the cutters when icebreaking as a group, noting, “Generally the plate ice is broken into small floes up to 10 feet in diameter. The WYTLs follow behind the WTGB and break the 10-foot floes into smaller pieces that more easily float downriver and are less likely to become wedged together at the choke points in the Kennebec River such as ‘The Chops,’ Thorne Head, Lovejoy Narrows, etc.”

A can buoy fights to hold station in the midst of river ice
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

A can buoy holds station
in the midst of river ice
 

As the TACKLE ripped through the ice, BMC Anders reminded his crew to keep a sharp lookout for aids to navigation mired in the frozen clutches of the ice fields. Crews were asked to verify the positions of each buoy, as well as the status of any fixed aids in the river such as day beacons.

The suffocating effects of ice can often times cause buoys to be partially or totally submerged under the weighty cover of the frozen rime, and on occasion, break a buoy from its moorings, sending it aimlessly adrift.

Slender steel post day beacons are also no match for the shifting mass and strength of ice floes. These vulnerable aids to navigation are often times the victims of rampaging ice floes whose destructive powers are enhanced by the swift tidal currents of a river like the Kennebec.

The 65-foot tug SHACKLE is all business as it hits the edge of the ice fields
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

The 65-foot tug SHACKLE is all business
as it hits the edge of the ice fields

The biting wind strafed the Kennebec River as the cutters pushed forward through the ice at about 6-knots, with only an occasional hawk or eagle swooping low in the sky to break up the inescapable feeling of cold desolation that firmly gripped the waterway.

Large trees that had been previously ripped from their riverbank roots by erosion or the scouring effects of moving floes were found temporarily ensnared in the ice, accentuating winter’s profound and unforgiving impact.

At other spots in the river the ice presented the appearance of a giant jig-saw puzzle, slightly ajar, revealing lines of blue water between the edges of the floes. The ‘puzzle’ pieces separated further then returned closer together, with each rolling swell caused by the passing wake of the cutters.

BMC John Anders, officer-in-charge of the TACKLE, with the passing SHACKLE visible out the window
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

BMC John Anders, officer-in-charge of
the TACKLE, with the passing
SHACKLE visible out the window

When the convoy reached Lovejoy Narrows at Goodwin Point on the Kennebec River, the condition of the ice was no longer a ‘puzzle’ but rather a ‘choked up’ and dicey mess in part because of the tight bend in the river and the point’s swift, converging currents.

Despite the ice jams present in Lovejoy Narrows, the cutters were undeterred, smashing through the frozen floes and filling the air with a frenzied noise of steel colliding with ice in a series of violent encounters throughout one of the river’s most notorious bends.

The experience of hitting ‘choked-up’ ice can inspire many analogies, but one that surely applies is that of a rodeo.

For smaller cutters like the TACKLE, SHACKLE and BRIDLE, plowing through an ice jam causes the ship to absorb bone-jarring jolts, which inevitably creates an upheaval of forward crunching motion, punctuated with sudden deflections off stout ice floes in a side-to-side manner. As the TACKLE’s BMC Anders aptly noted, this untamable encounter is “like riding a bull.”

A view of a navigational chart depicting the dicey location of Lovejoy Narrows in the Kennebec River
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

A view of a navigational chart
depicting the location of
Lovejoy Narrows in the
Kennebec River, which is
prone to ice jams

BMC Anders went on to say, “Sometimes you hit a brick wall when breaking thick ice – stopping you in your tracks. You then do a lot of ramming to get through.” But on this day, the black-hulled ships cut through the ice with relative ease, sending the jagged ice cakes moving downriver on the irresistible lure of the tides.

The Maine Emergency Management Agency’s website expounds on the dangers of ice jams along rivers like the Kennebec, noting, “The formation of a jam results in a rapid rise of water at the point of the jam and upstream. Failure of the jam results in sudden flooding downstream. Huge ice masses moving downstream can shear off trees and destroy buildings and bridges above the level of the flood waters. Massive blocks of ice can cause significant damage to homes, roads, and bridges when an ice jam releases.”

The MEMA website goes on to say, “Rapid increase in discharge from snow melt and rainfall can rapidly break up a thick ice cover and carry it downstream as an ice run. Ice runs can jam in river bends or against the sheet ice covering flatter reaches. The resulting ice jams can block flow so thoroughly that serious flooding may result within an hour of their formation. Failure of the jam can result in sudden downstream flooding because of higher than predicted flood elevations, rapid increase in water levels upstream and downstream, and the physical damage caused by the impacts.”

A view of the running ice after it was broken up earlier in the day as it passes the Carlton Bridge in Bath and heads downriver on the Kennebec
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

A view of the running ice after it was
broken up earlier in the day as it
passes the Carlton Bridge in Bath and
heads downriver on the Kennebec

One such example of ice jams causing destructive flooding occurred on April 1, 1987, when melting snow and 4 to 6 inches of rain in the mountains forced the river to overflow its banks. Less than 24-hours later the peak of the flooding was 34.1 feet above flood stage, inundating some 2,100 homes and causing an approximate $100 million in damage.

The Coast Guard’s icebreaking efforts on March 18th effectively covered the entire 12-mile stretch from Bath to the Richmond-Dresden Bridge. Areas north on the Kennebec River such as Gardiner were tackled by the cutters in the ensuing days of the week-long project.

Once the ships returned to temporary mooring stations at Bath Iron Works on the 18th it wasn’t long before evidence of their good work was seen floating downriver in the form of an endless stream of small ice floes heading to the Gulf of Maine.

Standing in the wheelhouse of the moored-up TACKLE and overlooking the satisfying scene, BM1 Randy Bucklin summed up the U.S. Coast Guard’s fine service to the Kennebec River region, saying, “Look at the ice running now – it’s a beautiful sight.”

The ice conditions varied in the Kennebec River, with the average thickness of the ice ranging from 4 to 8 inches
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

The ice conditions varied in the Kennebec
River, with the average thickness of
the ice ranging from 4 to 8 inches

 
At certain locations along the Kennebec, thinner ice fields presented the appearance of a giant "jig-saw puzzle"
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

At certain locations along the Kennebec,
thinner ice fields presented the
appearance of a giant "jig-saw puzzle"

The Team of USCG Cutters That Participated in the 2008 Icebreaking Mission on the Kennebec River...

Lt. Thomas Crane is the commanding officer of the 140-foot THUNDER BAY (WTGB 108), which is based in Rockland, Maine
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

Lt. Thomas Crane is the commanding
officer of the 140-foot THUNDER BAY
(WTGB 108), based in Rockland, Maine

 
BMC John Anders is the officer-in-charge of the 65-foot TACKLE (WYTL 65604), which is based in Rockland, Maine
USCG Photo

BMC John Anders is the
officer-in-charge of the 65-foot TACKLE
(WYTL 65604), based in Rockland, Maine

BMCS Rob Pump is the officer-in-charge of the 65-foot SHACKLE, which is based in South Portland, Maine
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

BMCS Rob Pump is the officer-in-charge
of the 65-foot SHACKLE,
based in South Portland, Maine

 
BMC Charles Petronis is the officer-in-charge of the 65-foot BRIDLE, which is based in Southwest Harbor, Maine
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

BMC Charles Petronis is the
officer-in-charge of the 65-foot BRIDLE,
based in Southwest Harbor, Maine

Posted: March 2008