The New York Power Authority (NYPA) has added a new icebreaking tugboat that supports hydropower generation on the Niagara River.
The 56-foot Breaker II typically works in far eastern Lake Erie and along the Niagara River as far north as Niagara Falls. Its primary function is the placement and retrieval of a 9,000-foot ice boom that blocks ice sheets from entering the Niagara River. The tug also works as a secondary icebreaker.
Blount Boats of Warren, R.I., delivered the 750-hp tugboat last fall, and it spent the 2020-21 ice season working from its home port of Buffalo. Bristol Harbor Group of Bristol, R.I., designed the tugboat and a sibling, Joncaire II, built six years ago by Great Lakes Shipyard in Cleveland.
“Breaker II’s main function is to pull the 500-foot spans of the ice boom onto Lake Erie near the mouth of the Niagara River in the late fall, and pull them back to the shore up the Buffalo River in early spring,” said Kenneth Burgio, general maintenance supervisor at NYPA’s Niagara Power Project.
“The boat’s best attributes are that it has a fortified hull for icebreaking capabilities, power to maneuver through the Niagara River, and low air draft to allow the vessel passage under area bridges,” he continued.
Plans for Breaker II started coming together more than six years ago when NYPA hired Bristol Harbor Group to design two tugboats. The 45-foot Joncaire II, which entered service in 2016, primarily pushes NYPA’s 80-foot crane barge Havasu II. Breaker II represents something of a new design that melds different aspects of the original Breaker and William H. Latham, NYPA’s primary icebreaker. The 500-hp Breaker was built in 1962.
Bill Jordan, senior naval architect with Bristol Harbor Group, said the firm held extensive discussions with NYPA captains and crew to better understand their goals and objectives for the second vessel. Those conversations highlighted the value of a tugboat with shallow draft, low air draft, low freeboard and excellent visibility in all directions. Towing and icebreaking capabilities were other must-haves.
“We went to a complete redesign for the second one,” Jordan said of Breaker II. “In the end, we were able to give them a multipurpose boat that does a pretty good job of everything they need it to do.”
The lines on Breaker II are reminiscent of its namesake tugboat, Breaker, with the high forepeak and bulwarks that get shorter as they move aft. Unlike the knife-edge bow stem on the older tug, Breaker II has a flattening of the keel that narrows as it approaches the forepeak.
“The bow is based on an existing boat in that fleet that (NYPA) liked (for) clearing a path,” Jordan said. “You would rather have a knife-edge bow for icebreaking, but this does let the bow ride up on the ice to act somewhat like a full-scale large icebreaker.”
Ice management in the Niagara River is an ongoing concern for NYPA crews. NYPA’s four-tugboat fleet exists in large measure to facilitate electrical production from the 2,675-megawatt Niagara Power Project and the Sir Adam Beck Hydroelectric Generating Stations on the Ontario side of the Niagara River. NYPA’s Niagara facility alone generates enough electricity for more than 2.6 million homes.
Left unchecked, ice sheets from Lake Erie would blow into the Niagara River and create dams. These dams alter water levels in the river, threatening property and infrastructure along the banks and output at the hydropower stations.
Utility crews install nearly 9,000 feet of ice boom to block the largest sheets from entering the river. The floating boom consists of 244 interconnected steel pontoons anchored to the riverbed.
Ice can, and still does, form in the Niagara River. Some ice gets past the boom and some forms on cold winter nights. NYPA uses its icebreaking vessels to clear paths in the river, allowing currents to push the ice harmlessly downstream. NYPA dispatches tugs to clear ice and slush from massive intakes that ensure a steady supply of water to the hydropower station.
“Keeping electricity flowing means keeping the Niagara River running,” the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has said of ice management efforts overseen by utility tugboat crews.
Breaker II’s hull is reinforced with thicker steel to safely operate in ice. The bottom plate that runs up the bow is .75-inch steel, while the keel is made from 5/8-inch segments and the sides are made from half-inch plates.
“When we fortified the hull, we also increased the grade of the steel we utilized for the hull from grade A to grade D to allow us to operate in low temperature conditions,” said Mike Doyle, a NYPA project manager. “This allows you to work in ice conditions and below-zero conditions.”
Breaker II primarily functions as a day boat. Doors on the main deck open to a companionway and the split-level layout of the deckhouse. Stairs lead up to the wheelhouse and down to a crew area with head and a settee. Stairs leading aft from the companionway access the engine room.
The vessel is outfitted with heating units in every compartment. It has an air conditioning system in the pilothouse for hot summer days.
The propulsion package on Breaker II consists of twin 375-hp Caterpillar C9.3 engines turning 38-by-34-inch Michigan Wheel stainless-steel props through Twin Disc reduction gears.
Breaker II will occasionally work close to Niagara Falls, a location where any loss of propulsion could be catastrophic. As a fail-safe, the vessel is equipped with “snorkels” that draw outside air into the engines from stainless-steel ductwork that runs up the stacks.
This system could prove invaluable if Breaker II had an engine room fire upriver from the falls. The snorkels would allow the operator to deploy the Kidde Novec 1230 fire suppression system while continuing to run the engines and steering away from danger.
Breaker II is equipped with a sturdy H-bitt on deck, aft of the engine room trunk, that facilitates towing off the stern. This bitt is often used when towing the ice boom from storage along the Buffalo River out into Lake Erie. The wheelhouse has large 360-degree windows equipped with heaters to melt ice and snow during the winter months. Port and starboard helm stations give the operator better views when crews work over the sides.
“That is what I was most impressed with (about) the vessel, the full 360-degree view it creates,” said Mike Asklar, NYPA’s superintendent of general maintenance at Niagara.
Bob Pelletier, vice president of Blount Boats, praised the yard’s working relationship with Bristol Harbor Group. The two Rhode Island firms worked together to ensure a successful project.
“NYPA did a very thorough job to make sure they got what they wanted,” he said.