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Sault Ste. Marie — Spring has officially arrived in Michigan, at least on the calendar. To the U.S. Coast Guard, it’s still winter and Operation Taconite is underway.

Its mission is to break up the ice fields of the upper Great Lakes, where the duty of opening shipping lanes for vessels falls to the Coast Guard and its only heavy icebreaker, the USCGC Mackinaw.

“This year has not been as challenging as the past couple of years; there is less ice,” said Commander Vasilios Tasikas of the USCGC Mackinaw. “Whitefish Bay has the most ice, and we will escort the first vessels through this weekend.”

In an average year, the Coast Guard breaks ice for 120 days, helping half a billion dollars in commodities maneuver through the Great Lakes.

“It’s very gratifying to do what we do,” Tasikas said.

But concerns over keeping the state’s commodities moving following recent harsh winters have renewed interest in having a second heavy icebreaker join forces with the Mackinaw to clear the frigid waterways.

Two years ago, then President Barack Obama signed into law the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2015, appropriating $17.5 billion for Coast Guard activities. It provides funds for the design and construction of an icebreaker that is capable of buoy tending and to enhance icebreaking on the Great Lakes.

But funding for it is on hold as the new Trump administration pours over financial appropriations for all facets of government.

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, a member of the Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee of Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard, is pushing, along with U.S. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, for another heavy icebreaker.

“It is essential that Congress provides the men and women of the Coast Guard with the resources they need to keep open shipping lanes in the Great Lakes,” wrote Peters and Stabenow in a letter to the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Coast Guard.

Mathew Paxton, president of the Shipbuilders Council of America, spoke to the House subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation in 2016, stating it would take years to build a new polar icebreaker but less time to complete a new Great Lakes icebreaker. It took 28 months to complete the construction of the Mackinaw in 2005 in Marinette, Wisconsin.

The U.S. Coast Guard operates nine icebreaking-capable cutters on the Great Lakes, including heavy icebreaker USCGC Mackinaw.

A home port for a new heavy icebreaker could be a financial boon to the city that is selected. Mackinaw City, Charlevoix and several other ports have expressed interest in becoming that port.

Cheboygan County District One commissioner Chris Brown of Cheboygan, where the Mackinaw is stationed, said the icebreaker would have at least a $7 million to $9 million impact on the chosen community

“The ship has the potential of up to 40 families living wherever the new vessel is stationed,” Brown said.

Low risk of slowdowns

Whitefish Bay, which is on the eastern end of the southern shore of Lake Superior, has eight inches of ice with some windrows up to 28 inches this season.

According to Scott Sutherland, meteorologist for the Weather Network, there is near-record low ice cover on the Great Lakes this season, which is partly caused by the warmest water temperatures in 16 years.

Ice coverage has averaged around 12 percent of the Great Lakes, with the North Channel on Lake Huron, Whitefish Bay on Lake Superior and Green Bay on Lake Michigan all holding the most ice.

The conditions are a dramatic change from only a few years ago. The heavy ice of the winters of 2013-15 was legendary, with freighters stuck for days in Lake Superior and Lake Huron, waiting for escort through the ice.

The heavy ice winter of 2013-14, when losses were estimated at nearly 7 million tons, caused two steel mills and coal power plants to reduce production at an estimated loss of nearly 4,000 jobs and $700 million in revenue.

The winter of 2014-15 saw the Great Lakes almost entirely covered in thick ice, causing shipping losses of 3.2 million tons, according to the offices of Peters and Stabenow, costing $355 million in lost revenue and nearly 2,000 jobs.

But the shipping season this year should not have any slowdowns.

Five Coast Guard vessels — the Biscayne Bay, Katmai Bay, Morro Bay, Mobile Bay and the 240-foot USCGC Mackinaw — were preparing the St. Mary’s River and the Soo Locks this past week by cutting lanes through the ice fields for the shipping season, which officially began at midnight Friday.

The Mackinaw was the first vessel through the Poe Lock on March 15. The heavy cutter freed the ice-bound lock and traveled north toward Whitefish Bay and Lake Superior, opening a channel. Cold nights will refreeze the passage, which will be kept open by the ship as needed.

The locks close in early January each year for winter maintenance and open for the shipping season in late March as steel factories along the shores of the lower lakes need fresh supplies of ore for production. Coal-fired electric facilities also need to replenish their supplies of coal.

“Ore, coal, fuel and grain will be some of the cargo being carried to distant ports,” said Lt. j.g. Chantal Early of the USCG Mackinaw.

Inside the Mackinaw

The history of using heavy icebreakers on the Great Lakes dates back to an acquisition program in 1936. The mission continues today, with the addition of tending buoys for safe navigation, search-and-rescue operations and law enforcement.

The original Mackinaw, commissioned in 1944, was 290 feet in length with a beam of more than 74 feet. It was built during WWII to keep shipping lanes on the Great Lakes open so iron ore and copper from the Upper Peninsula could be delivered to the steel mills along the lower Great Lakes, providing raw material to produce tanks, airplanes, jeeps and other critical machinery to the war effort.

Replacing the aging icebreaker after its 62 years of service was another Mackinaw in 2006. Displacing 3,500 tons, the icebreaker has worked the Great Lakes for 10 seasons.

“I was pleased they kept the Mackinaw name on this new ship,” Tasikas said. “The legacy continues.”

Carrying a crew of nine officers, five chief petty officers and 41 crew, the ship is the only one in the Coast Guard fleet with Azipods, a brand of electric thrusters in two pods with 10-foot propellers that can be turned 360 degrees, allowing them to direct their thrust in any direction.

The pods remove the need for a rudder and the traditional wheel in the pilot house. Two control paddles can operate independently by the pilot. The ship has four stations with similar controls, allowing the pilot to maneuver the vessel from several locations onboard, giving maximum visual control.

“The ship can spin on a dime,“ Tasikas said. “We can be very creative in how we maneuver the ship.“

Coupled with a 550 horsepower bow thruster, the ship is exceptionally maneuverable. Maximum speed is 15 knots, and the ship can break through 32 inches of fresh water ice and up to 10 feet of refrozen brash ice or ridge ice.

Tasikas said he has enjoyed his three years on the Great Lakes. He heads to the classrooms at the Marine Corps War College in Virginia this summer.

“I feel very fortunate to be part of this Great Lakes crew,” he said. “It’s been a real joy.”

John L. Russell is a photojournalist and writer from Traverse City.

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