“They are the narrowest channels and pretty much
the vast majority of [lake] traffic goes through them,”
The schedules of when aids-to-navigation equipment
is pulled and then reset in the Great Lakes have been
tested over the past three years due to inconsistencies in
temperatures and ice throughout the year. In 2011,
warm weather in the region meant minimal ice coverage
on the lakes, but an unusually long winter in 2012 saw
ice covering parts of the Great Lakes until late April.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association
(NOAA) scientists estimated that 32 percent of the
Great Lakes were covered in ice during the 2012-2013
season. This was up from 13 percent in 2011-2012.
The annual average ice cover, however, has shown
an overall decline of 63 percent on the Great Lakes
from 1973 to 2011, according to NOAA.
“The seasons change every year. You just never know
when a slow start can mean a long winter,” ten Berge said.
Vessel traffic, though, is pretty predictable on the
lakes, based on population and where boaters and
commercial vessels are comfortable traveling.
Lt. Cmdr. John Henry has been the commanding
officer of Bristol Bay for more than a year and he said
the seasonal change — from icebreaking to aids-to-navigation work — is difficult because of the change in
Talking to Seapower aboard the cutter, he said,
“Icebreaking is about solving a puzzle. When a ship
gets stuck or trapped in the ice, you have to find a way
to get them out. The ship also drives differently in the
open water versus ice water, where it mainly focuses
“When you are doing [aids-to-navigation work], it’s
not as agile; your tactics for getting [buoys] is differ-
ent than icebreaking and, after a while, it gets to be
challenging sometimes because the crew gets fatigued
due to the weather conditions. Every trip is different
and it’s not easy.”
The Bristol Bay has a standard crew of 32 during
aids-to-navigation season that drops to 20 in icebreak-
“[Aids-to-navigation] work is a lot more all hands
on deck than icebreaking,” Henry said. ■