Extreme cold snap impacts shipping from Seaway to Ohio Valley

Cold Weather 1

Shortly before noon on a bitterly cold New Year’s Day, the bulk carrier Federal Biscay came to a halt halfway inside Snell Lock in the icy St. Lawrence Seaway. It remained frozen in place for nearly five days.

The Marshall Islands-flagged vessel blocked four other outbound ships, contributing to the latest closing of the Seaway in its history. It also was the first time a ship had frozen inside a U.S. lock, and the longest such incident on either side of the border.

Federal Biscay was perhaps the highest-profile incident during the historic cold snap that closed 2017 and opened the new year, but it was not the only one. Cargo loading was affected in the upper Great Lakes, ferry transits were canceled due to icy docks near Boston, and the new littoral combat ship USS Little Rock — bound for its home port in Florida — was forced to remain in Montreal through the winter.

On the Ohio River, authorities attributed separate barge breakaways on Jan. 13 near Pittsburgh, Pa., and Moundsville, W.Va., to ice and high water. And on the Hudson River, U.S. Coast Guard icebreakers assisted more than a dozen commercial vessels unable to proceed in surface ice.

“Starting on Christmas, the highs for the day were below freezing, which was dropping the river temperature,” said Chief Petty Officer Justin Kaczynski, commanding officer on the Coast Guard cutter Wire, a 65-foot icebreaking tugboat based in Saugerties, N.Y. “The week after Christmas it got really cold, with lows of negative 4 and negative 11. The river temperature was already hovering around freezing and … it caused significant ice formation.”

The tugboat Brooklyn was among the first commercial vessels threatened by thickening ice in the Hudson. The vessel sought help on Dec. 31 near Saugerties after it was unable to continue its voyage to Albany. The 140-foot Coast Guard cutter Penobscot Bay reached the tug later that same day and cleared a path. Another cutter, the 65-foot Hawser, escorted Brooklyn to its destination.

The tugboat Robinson Bay attempts to extricate Federal Biscay from Snell Lock on the St. Lawrence Seaway during the first week of January. High-pressure steam was used to melt the ice holding the ship.

Courtesy Tugster.Wordpress.com

On Jan. 1, the tugboat Stephanie Dann was surrounded by ice near Kingston, N.Y., while pushing a barge upriver. The tug remained there overnight until Penobscot Bay arrived the next morning.

“They were backing up and trying to ram the ice a little if they could,” Kaczynski said. “They weren’t completely locked in, but they could not travel forward at a substantial speed. They needed assistance getting up the river.”

During the first week of the year, the Coast Guard’s icebreakers were stationed strategically on the Hudson, assisting commercial vessels as needed. Depending on the situation, Wire and its sister icebreakers opened tracklines, widened tracks along bends and escorted vessels through the ice. They also helped remove ice that had accumulated around terminals and moorings.

Wire assisted at least 10 vessels through January, and Kaczynski said other icebreakers responded to a similar number. “In the beginning when it was so cold, the ice was freezing within hours behind our tracklines (and) we were running from sunup to sundown,” he said.

The severe cold finally eased around Jan. 10, but ice-related problems continued in Pennsylvania and West Virginia after heavy rain. On Jan. 13 on the Ohio River, 27 barges broke free from a fleeting area at mile marker 4 near Pittsburgh, and another 34 broke free downriver at mile marker 94 near Moundsville, W.Va. Both incidents occurred due to ice and high water, the Coast Guard said.

The tugboat Brooklyn awaits assistance from the Coast Guard cutter Penobscot Bay on the Hudson River near Saugerties, N.Y., on Dec. 31. The tug was en route to Albany with a barge when it became unable to navigate through the ice.

Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard

Salvage crews were still working to clear sunken barges a month after the breakaways. Jeff Hawk, spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Pittsburgh District, said 17 barges were pinned against Emsworth Lock and Dam downriver from the Pittsburgh area breakaway, and nine or 10 went over the dam. One barge also went over Dashields Lock and Dam and was recovered against Montgomery Dam about 32 miles from Pittsburgh.

“Three to four barges out there are still submerged,” Hawk said in mid-February, adding that Emsworth Lock and Dam reopened to traffic a week after the breakaway. The dam was not damaged.

“We are able to pass traffic so we are fully operational, but salvage crews contracted by the navigation industry are still working to raise three barges,” he said. “One barge is still missing and we believe that might be against the dam, too.”

According to the Coast Guard, the breakaways were the worst the region has experienced since 1985.

U.S. and Canadian authorities that jointly oversee the St. Lawrence Seaway are currently reviewing the 2017 season, including issues at the end that delayed its closing. Temperature data show that December was generally tracking close to the historical average until about Dec. 21, when data points virtually fell off the table.

Craig Middlebrook, deputy administrator and acting head of the Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corp., said the length and intensity of the cold spell, particularly after Jan. 1, was “uncharted territory.”

The Coast Guard cutter Mobile Bay approaches the bulk carrier Indiana Harbor in the St. Marys River on Jan. 13. Indiana Harbor was beset by ice at Point Louise, Ontario, and resumed its voyage after receiving assistance.

Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard

“As a practical matter, the river ice formation occurred over a wide area and with great intensity,” Middlebrook told Professional Mariner. “That was the true anomaly here and that was the true contributing factor in what was influencing the operations of the Seaway. After (Dec. 26) it got really, really cold and it didn’t let up … and that produced ice formation of an unprecedented nature.”

Federal Biscay was loaded with soybeans and bound for Montreal when it became stuck in Snell Lock in Massena, N.Y. Ice either formed around the bulker as it entered the lock, or it was already present and wedged against the hull as the ship moved forward.

Starting on Jan. 4, workers used mobile boilers generating high-pressure steam to melt ice around the hull and the lock. Workers stayed at it for nearly 36 hours in conditions reaching minus-35 degrees to loosen the vessel. Similar methods have been used on the Canadian portion of the waterway, but this was the first time Americans have used boilers and steam in response to ice, Middlebrook said.

On Jan. 6, crewmembers aboard Federal Biscay attached stationary lines to the vessel’s winches. The winches then hauled in the lines, propelling the ship out of the lock stern-first while tugboats stood by just in case. Federal Biscay tied up against an approach wall while the four waiting ships continued their outbound transit.

The last time a ship froze inside a Seaway lock was in 2005, in Lock No. 7 on the Canadian side of the waterway. It was there for two days in that instance. “We have never had an occurrence like this on the U.S. side,” Middlebrook said.

Federal Biscay cleared Snell Lock on Jan. 9 and exited through St. Lambert Lock near Montreal on Jan. 11, signaling the end of the 2017 Seaway shipping season. Authorities had planned to close on Dec. 31.

Salvage crews dewater a partially submerged barge at Emsworth Lock and Dam on the Ohio River on Jan. 21. Seventeen barges were pinned against the dam, with several of them sinking, after a breakaway caused by heavy rain and heavy ice.

Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard

There were other weather-related challenges in the waterway even before Federal Biscay got jammed in the lock. Robert Lemire, chief executive of the Great Lakes Pilotage Authority, said ice knocked out navigation aids in the first half of December, and by Dec. 16 the Coast Guard removed the remaining ones.

“So when that happens, every ship needs two pilots,” he said. “There are two reasons: One, the transits are treacherous, and two, with no markers they take from 12 to 18 hours. That is too long for one pilot to be on board. So then right away, the number of pilots you have is insufficient, so everything slows down.”

Middlebrook and his staff are working through the challenges caused by the extreme cold. One key takeaway, he said, is the value of the mobile boilers and pressurized steam to thaw ice.

The St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp., the agency that oversees the 13 locks on Canada’s portion of the waterway, is undergoing a similar effort to improve overall resiliency — even during historic cold weather.

“I think it’s fair to say there will be a number of occasions for a debriefing, both within the Seaway itself as well as with partner agencies and within the trade,” said Andrew Bagora, spokesman for the agency. “The amount of adversity we encountered simply points to how formidable winters can be. On the whole these events occur infrequently, but it is undeniable the closing of 2017 was a historic event and one we will glean some insights from.”

By Professional Mariner Staff