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Rockland crew leaves for long, icy journey to Great Lakes

Lt. Nicholas Barrow | U.S. Coast Guard
Lt. Nicholas Barrow | U.S. Coast Guard
Coast Guard Cutter Thunder Bay breaks ice along the Kennebec River near the Richmond Bridge in Maine on Saturday, March 12, 2011.
By Heather Steeves, BDN Staff

ROCKLAND, Maine — A Rockland-based Coast Guard boat left the salty waters of Penobscot Bay for the Great Lakes on Tuesday. After they arrive in 13 days, the boat and its Maine crew will cut ice in the lakes through April.

“It takes all 18 of us [in the crew] to get there. It’s a pretty long deployment. It will be a lot of long days breaking ice,” said Lt. Jerry Smith before he motored off Tuesday morning.

The cutter Thunder Bay will work to break thick ice so that cargo boats can make journeys through the lake.

According to Smith, about $2 billion in commerce happens across the lakes in a year, including large ships transporting heating oil, coal and other commodities in the winter. The Coast Guard helps keep the waterway clear and also helps the ships when they get stuck.

The Thunder Bay is a large vessel, weighing in at 700 tons and measuring 140 feet long and 37 feet wide.

“We’re wide and very heavy and the hull is designed to ride up on the ice and crush it,” Smith said.

The boat also has a special “bubbler” that pumps air under tough ice to help smash it.

“It’s like when you were a kid and you tried to break ice with your foot. If the ice had air under it and it’s white, the ice breaks, versus black ice,” Smith said.

The bubbler adds the equivalent of an extra 1,000 horsepower, he said.

Thunder Bay has made the journey to the Great Lakes before, Smith said, but only in the spring and for just a few weeks. This 5-month deployment will be much longer, but the crew members will get to see their families for Christmas, Smith said. The members will alternate having time over the holidays to see their families, he said.

For the crew, which last April returned from a trip to Florida to help with the oil spill, this 1,700-nautical-mile trip is especially exciting — they will have navigated almost half the country with one boat in a year.

“That is not something these ships usually experience. It’s something these guys will remember for the rest of their lives.”

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