SAULT STE. MARIE, Mich. — An intricate boat ballet plays out each January on the frigid waters of the northern Great Lakes.
Thousand-foot freighters scramble to make final deliveries of iron ore to steel mills. The Coast Guard carves paths through ice-clogged shipping routes. And the Soo Locks, the engineering marvel connecting Lake Superior with points to the south and east, shut down for 10 weeks of maintenance while the weather is at its most brutal.
Last Friday, with the locks’ annual closing looming and temperatures hovering in the single digits, the crew members of the United States Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw were at work before dawn. The day’s first mission: Guide their ship through the locks to free a hulking westbound freighter marooned on the ice.
The Mackinaw, commissioned in 2006, is the largest American icebreaker on the Great Lakes. Since waterways began freezing in mid-December, the 57-member crew has focused on freeing commercial ships, often four or five a day, sometimes from sunup until midnight.
“If we push it a little further,” said Cmdr. John Stone, the Mackinaw’s commanding officer, “it just makes traffic that much better the next day.”
Round-fronted freighters are often overwhelmed by heavy ice, but the Mackinaw’s distinct bow can slice right through, riding up on the ice before the weight of the bow crushes through it.
The icebreaker’s sound is overwhelming and unrelenting, like a chain saw on a boulder. The whole ship vibrates. But in a noisy instant, the Mackinaw exposes bright blue water beneath a section of ice that had been thick enough to host a hockey game.
Commander Stone’s crew has spent much of the winter near Sault Ste. Marie, where the St. Marys River separates Michigan’s Upper Peninsula from Canada. The river, at points winding and narrow and stuffed full of ice chunks, is the only link between Lake Superior and the rest of the Great Lakes.
The Burns Harbor, a freighter, traveled through the Soo Locks early Friday on its way toward Lake Superior. Its crew had hoped to pick up a final load of iron ore, then make it back through the locks before they closed for the season. But the ship got stuck in the river as temperatures plunged to near zero.
As the Burns Harbor crew waited to be cut loose, the ship’s owners decided to cancel that last order and head to port for the winter, the Coast Guard said. Such cancellations can frustrate owners, who want cargo moved as quickly as possible.
“It’s the worst I’ve ever seen,” James H. I. Weakley, president of the Lake Carriers’ Association, which represents American commercial ships, said of this season’s pileup of iced-in boats. “Our ships are the lifeblood for the steel mills and right now that lifeblood is bleeding out.”
As the Mackinaw rounded a bend in the river, the Burns Harbor came into view, first as just a rusty speck on the horizon. When the cutter drew closer, Commander Stone’s crew told the freighter its plan over a crackly radio.
The icebreaker sliced in front of the Burns Harbor once, then swerved ahead to carve a path to follow. Smoke began rising from the Burns Harbor and it lurched forward. The Mackinaw carved back and forth, cutting ice loose as the Burns Harbor plodded behind.
“We kept it moving,” Commander Stone said.
Each time the icebreaker ushers a ship to safety, the crew records a mark on the ship’s window. The Burns Harbor brought a new tally for the season: 47.
Seafaring has been part of the local identity in Sault Ste. Marie since 1797, when the first lock was built here. Locks let boats be raised and lowered through a section of the St. Marys River that drops 21 feet. Without the locks, a section of rapids would make the water impassable for commercial ships.
A viewing platform on the American side of the border allows spectators to watch ships going through the locks, a pastime more popular in warmer months. It sat empty last week. But even in the winter, some onlookers, affectionately known as “boat nerds,” greet passing vessels from a piece of Canadian shoreline near the shipping lane.
This winter’s weather has been worse than the last couple years, but about average historically. Still, freighters have struggled to navigate waterways, sometimes enduring long waits for an icebreaker’s assistance.
The locks are engineering feats and economic linchpins, but they appear unassuming at first — tiny fingers of water flanked by century-old buildings and walled off from the rest of the river by giant gates.
As a freighter approaches, the gates swing open and the boat wiggles its way in, often with little room to spare. In minutes, the water either rises or falls dramatically, and the ship continues on its way.
The timing of this aquatic ritual becomes more fraught as the calendar nears Jan. 15, when the Soo Locks close and Lake Superior’s shipping season ends. Shipowners want to make as many trips as possible, but no one wants their freighter stranded on the wrong side of the locks for the winter.
Around 4,500 vessels with about 80 million tons of cargo travel through the locks each year.
There are four locks on the American side of the border, but only two are still used and only this one can accommodate large freighters. Federal officials have long considered building a new lock, but the costs of such a project could be as much as $1 billion.
Kevin Sprague, the area engineer for the Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the locks, said the annual closing is needed to keep them in working order. The newest lock is 50 years old.
“If we go out of service” during the shipping season, Mr. Sprague said, it “can actually cause steel mills to shut down.”
From his perch above the locks, Tom Soeltner, the chief lockmaster, directed ships in and out last week as they rushed to make it through before the deadline.
When temperatures plunged below zero early this month, boats struggled in the icy waters and machinery faltered.
“You hit that 20-below, nothing works. Nothing works on the boats. Nothing works here,” Mr. Soeltner said. “Every day was a battle.”
Around midday on Saturday, Mr. Soeltner guided the Indiana Harbor, an ice-encrusted freighter carrying a heavy load of iron ore, into the locks on its last run of the season.
The ship is one of the largest on the Great Lakes, but in good weather it can be raised or lowered through the locks in about an hour. With so much ice, it took around three hours on Saturday.
Not long before sunset, the ship was cruising south.
Sam Hodgson contributed reporting.
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