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Shipping season frozen as freighters battle thick ice

Wednesday, April 02, 2014   by: Bob Mihell

Two freighters bound from Duluth, Minn. are battling their way through what a United States Coast Guard spokesperson called “brutal” and “extreme” ice conditions on Lake Superior to reach the Soo Locks.

The vessels, John P. Munson and Cason J. Callaway, are following the USCG Cutter Mackinaw but are making very slow progress. 

Randy Elliott, vessel traffic manager with the USCG stationed in Soo Michigan, said Tuesday that the convoy left Duluth around the time the Soo locks opened for traffic on March 25. 

As of late yesterday, the southbound convoy was located about 40 kilometres south of Michipicoten Island, and were confronting ice three to three and a half feet thick with windrows six feet high in some places. 

The three vessels opted not to use their normal route across the lake, and instead are following the north shore of Lake Superior, Elliott said.  

No commercial ships, either north or southbound, have locked through since the official opening a week ago.

That also is not normal. 

“Usually at this time of the year we would see 12 to 15 vessels north and southbound a day using the locks,” Elliott said.

Meanwhile there are three northbound freighters parked just south of the entrance to the lower St. Marys River.

“They are waiting for the first downbound vessels to clear [the locks] before they head up,” Elliott said.

The Canadian Coast Guard Cutter Pierre Radisson, is expected to arrive in the Sault sometime today to assist its American counterparts, who "are stretched with the resources we have" in opening the shipping channel, Elliott said. 

On a separate note, he said Essar Steel Algoma has not had any freighter traffic yet, which is also abnormal for late March. 

“Their shipping season usually starts around the time the locks open even if the ships were not using the locks.”

As for comparisons with previous years, Elliott, who has been stationed in Sault, Mich. since 2002, said this winter has been the most severe in his memory.

He noted weather experts are comparing the extreme conditions this winter to those in 1996 and 1978.

(PHOTO: The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw pushes through thick ice last week as it passed through the Soo Locks enroute to Lake Superior. U.S. Coast Guard photo/Petty Officer 2nd Class Levi Read)

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bounder 4/2/2014 10:49:07 AM Report

WE have on the West side of Maple Island more than 4 1/2 feet of ice ,I imagine they have a bit more than reported like 6 ft and up.
mallet 4/2/2014 11:02:45 AM Report

Bounder ...

I think they are being a bit optomistic, that is going to be a continous battle to keep the lanes open especially when the temps are still well below the Zero mark at night. The lakers were not built to tackle ice, and certainly not that thick.. I saw a programme once on one of the lakers that started the season, hit some thick ice and damaged the hull that took 2 weeks to repair...
itsme29 4/2/2014 11:40:38 AM Report

I got an idea...why don't we wait a week or 2 let the sun and warm weather break the ice and save the ice breakers the problem? break it all day now and it freezes back up at night!
gowestyoungman 4/2/2014 11:41:58 AM Report


That was the Paul R. Tregurtha on Mighty Ships. It was only a few years ago that was filmed.

The Pierre Radisson is just coming through the north channel now. We are set for the worst start to the shipping season in recent memory. Hopefully the warm up in the next week is going to help out with the ice.
Slim Shady 4/2/2014 2:38:39 PM Report


Hundreds of millions of dollars are commercially at stake for both Canada and the USA. Businesses (and countless jobs) rely on the shipping channel being open as soon as possible. The comparative cost for the US & Canada to ice-break the channel is negligible compared to the economic benefits. Waiting for the sun to melt a zillion cubic feet of ice is just not a sensible option?!
Wicket 4/2/2014 3:04:40 PM Report

Slim Shady, how much has it cost to have one freighter and one ice breaker damaged and repaired. How much is it costing to have two freighters and two icebreakers in the lake moving a mile a day? Common sense tells us that this was an unusual winter (for decades) and that this could have/should have been delayed for at least two weeks.
No one is making any money on this venture right now....
Riverpilot 4/2/2014 6:07:39 PM Report

You know when things are tough when the Canadian governement requests to bring in the heavy artillery to assist with ice breaking operations. The Coast Guard ice breaker Pierre Radisson, a medium class ice breaker that normally works in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Arctic region has just moved up to lake Superior to join the flotilla. This is very rare to see this vessel so far inland. Also in the system is the Martha Black (also a coastal ice breaker)to assist in Lower Lake Huron-Detoit-St. Clair Rivers. In terms of economics, I don't know how anyone is making money at this! Typically, these ships will carry 25,000 to 50,000 tons of ore/coal in one run (equivalent to 5 to 10 full trains by rail). They consume fuel at a rate of tons/hour (roughly 800-1,500+ gallons/hr conservatively). Looks like rail transport is unfortuneatly a more viable option over the next 6 to 8 weeks! Should be an interesting start to the navigation season.
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