The Ice Patrol
Coast Guard icebreakers keep commerce
flowing during Great Lakes winters
By JOHN C. MARCARIO, Associate Editor
Open for Transit
The five Great Lakes and their
connecting channels form the
largest surface fresh water system
on Earth, and during the winter ice
operations can account for up to
45 percent of the monthly mission
set for the district, which is headquartered in Cleveland and encom-passes eight states.
Icebreaking in the district is done
using six 140-foot icebreaking tugs
and one 240-foot Great Lakes-class
heavy icebreaker, USCGC Mackinaw.
Two 225-foot seagoing buoy tenders,
USCGC Alder and Hollyhock, are
used as well, with First District, headquartered in Boston, occasionally providing an additional
cutter or two to assist. The Great Lakes region does not use
the 399-foot polar icebreakers that are used in the Arctic.
This past winter, 10 Coast Guard icebreakers assisted
in 1,099 commercial vessel transits in the region over a
“Maritime response is challenging in the most ideal
conditions. When you freeze those conditions, everything, all of our operations, become more complex and
challenging,” Harris said.
The service said last year it saved more than 50 lives
during the winter. Over the last four winters, it has
responded to more than 400 incidents involving ice
rescue and saved more than 150 lives.
District officials acknowledge that it cannot possibly
patrol and break ice for all five Great Lakes, which consist of 6,700 miles of U.S. shoreline, without local and
“You would lose a lot more people out there if you
were just relying on Coast Guard response,” Harris said.
One such partnership is with the Canadian Coast
Guard. The two countries assist one another during the
ice season through Operation Taconite and Operation
The U.S. Coast Guard’s Ninth District uses partnerships with
Canada and local agencies to keep Great Lakes waterways open
to vessel traffic during the winter.
■ The U.S. and Canadian Coast Guards spent a total of 3,000
hours breaking ice last winter.
■ Nearly $2 billion worth of commerce flows through the Great
Lakes between December and April each year.
■ Icebreaking takes the lion’s share of the district’s operational
time during the winter.
The Great Lakes basin is a critical year-round commercial trade route, and it’s up to the U.S. Coast Guard — in concert with Canada and
industry — to make sure goods continue to flow even as
winter descends and ice begins to form on the waterways.
Icebreaking, one of the service’s 11 core missions,
also protects shore infrastructure along the Great
Lakes from flooding and the region serves as a proving
ground for equipment, processes and procedures that
might be useful in the Arctic.
This past winter, more than 28 million tons of dry
bulk and liquid cargo traveled through the Great Lakes
basin, which sees an average of $2 billion in goods flow
through during the winter months.
Service officials in the Coast Guard’s Ninth District
estimated that during this past ice season, which lasted
from December to late April, they spent more than
1,600 hours of direct vessel assistance and more than
3,200 hours establishing and maintaining navigable
tracks, flushing ice and assisting exigent island communities in need.
“The waterway is used extensively in the winter,”
said Mike Harris, the Ninth District ice rescue program