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Ice creates tough start for shipping season

The U.S. Coast Guard icebreaking cutter Mackinaw moves through thick ice on Lake Superior north of Whitefish Point last weekend. The thick ice on the lake has been an obstacle to the start of the shipping season. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

Towing the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Morro Bay into the Duluth harbor on Friday was an unusual experience for the crew of the fellow Coast Guard cutter Alder.

“That’s the first time that we had to do a side tow,” said Holly Burgarbe, petty officer on the Alder. “It’s not something that we do.”

The 140-foot Morro Bay sustained damage last week while helping with icebreaking operations on Lake Superior and needed assistance to get back to Duluth; the extent and cause of the damage are still unknown. And it’s not the only vessel forced to return to the Twin Ports; the freighter Presque Isle was back on Saturday, also suffering from damage sustained on its season-opening attempt to cross ice-choked Lake Superior.

“It has been an unusually tough start to the shipping season with the thickness of ice and the pressure of ice buildup across Lake Superior,” said Adele Yorde, Duluth Port Authority spokeswoman.

The Morro Bay, along with the icebreaking cutters Katmai Bay and Mackinaw, left the Twin Ports last week to escort the freighters Cason J. Callaway, John G. Munson and Presque Isle to the Soo Locks. The Morro Bay and Katmai Bay went to Thunder Bay, Ontario, to assist with icebreaking there while the Mackinaw continued to lead the convoy of freighters, Yorde said.

The damaged Morro Bay needed to be towed the 151 nautical miles to Duluth, Burgarbe said Saturday, because it has the closest and most easily accessible shipyard.

The Katmai Bay towed the Morro Bay most of the way, with the Alder picking up the final eight miles, Burgarbe said. But the Alder took over from the side because the Morro Bay’s rudder was free-moving and couldn’t be locked into position. That meant the Alder couldn’t tow it from the front through the Duluth ship canal, because the Morro Bay would have been swinging from side to side.

The Morro Bay was docked next to the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center by about 6:30 p.m. Friday, Burgarbe said, awaiting divers who would assess the damage. The Presque Isle arrived Saturday morning.

Meanwhile, the other freighters in the season-opening eastbound convoy — the Callaway and the Munson — on Saturday were northwest of Michipicoten Island toward the eastern end of the lake in Canadian waters, said Ken Curry, vessel traffic management specialist for the Coast Guard in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. They were awaiting the return of the Mackinaw, which had been diverted to Thunder Bay to help with icebreaking there, he said.

Curry said he didn’t know what ice conditions were like northwest of Michipicoten, but closer to the St. Mary’s River ice was 2 feet thick with an additional foot of packed snow. Ridges of ice rise as high as 12 feet, he said.