ABOARD THE U.S. COAST GUARD CUTTER TACKLE — Halfway through the U.S. Coast Guard’s ice-breaking mission Friday on the Penobscot River, the mood changed.
One minute, crew members for two identical 65-foot cutters, the Tackle out of Rockland and the Bridle out of Southwest Harbor, were chatting casually with various distinguished guests, including U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud.
The next minute, things turned serious.
The Bridle, which hosted a majority of the invited guests, experienced steering problems as the boat cruised up the river breaking up giant chunks of 8-inch-thick ice in its path. Crew members engaged the emergency steering mechanism but that failed, too. The boat wasn’t dead in the water, but it wasn’t fully functional either.
In an instant, Friday’s mission changed.
Crew members aboard the Tackle abandoned their ice-breaking responsibilities and responded quickly to assist its sister vessel. The new plan was to transfer the personnel from the disabled boat to the working boat, bring them back to shore and then return to guide the Bridle back home to Hancock County.
Chief Boatswain’s Mate Jesse Deery and Petty Officer 1st Class Keith Nichols made it look easy. Under Deery’s direction, Nichols steered the Tackle deftly through the water, black as night and littered with sheets of ice, toward the dormant Bridle. The boats met in the middle of the river between Hampden and Brewer, and the guests stepped effortlessly from one vessel to the other.
Michaud, a newly named member of the House Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee, got the full experience Friday.
“I think work like this that falls under the radar is vitally important,” Michaud said after he disembarked at the Cianbro manufacturing facility in Brewer.
Nichols even joked that the mechanical problems of the Bridle might have demonstrated to the congressman that the Coast Guard continually needs funding.
Before the Tackle postponed its mission Friday to assist the Bridle, the two cutters spent a couple of hours doing what they were supposed to do. The sturdy steel of the vessels’ hulls cut through the fresh ice, rocking the boats from side to side, clearing a path of flowing water that would run all the way to Penobscot Bay.
Maine’s ice-breaking season typically runs from late December to mid-March, and it’s the primary responsibility for the Bridle and Tackle during those months. The 65-foot cutters are the smallest vessels commissioned by the Coast Guard, and both are nearing their 50th birthday.
Ice-breaking has three primary purposes: to accommodate possible search and rescue missions, to guard against flooding and to facilitate navigation for commerce.
The enlisted Coast Guard personnel who call the cutters home during the winter months take the job seriously, but they have fun, too.
“This is the only place in the Coast Guard where you’re allowed to intentionally ram into stuff,” Nichols said. “Without repercussions.”
Along with Michaud, other guests on Friday included Rear Admiral Daniel Neptun, commander of the First Coast Guard District, U.S. Attorney Thomas Delahanty II and U.S. Marshal Noel March.
As the guests climbed from the Tackle onto the dock at Cianbro, snowflakes began to fall. The boat chugged back down the river, floating with the tide, breaking up the puzzle-like pieces of ice that already had begun to fuse back together.