From the field: A sure sign of spring

>I know, I know, winter’s over for most of the Great Lakes. However, parts of Lake Superior remain in winter’s grasp long after spring has sprung else where in the Ninth Coast Guard District.

That’s why today’s post comes from Lt. Marshall Erickson, Public Affairs Officer for Land Forces Western Area of the Canadian Defence Forces in Thunder Bay, Ontario. His piece provides an international perspective on the importance of teamwork in keeping the Great Lakes open and safe for vessel traffic.

“For many people in Thunder Bay, the first sign of spring is not the quintessential robin; nor is it the budding birch in Marina Park. With the historical reliance on the seaway traffic as an economic driver in this community of 110,000 on the north shore of Lake Superior, the first sign of spring is the arrival of the first icebreaker.

The Canadian Coast Guard Ship Samuel Risley is an icebreaker with name recognition on the Great Lakes, but there are others. And they are establishing relationships with the communities that depend so heavily upon seaway traffic. For Thunder Bay, the vessels that arrived first this spring to liberate the harbour of its “hard water” were United States Coast Guard Cutters Alder, Biscayne Bay, Katmai Bay and Neah Bay.

United States Coast Guard Sault Ste. Marie Sector Commander Capt. Mark Huebschman explains that ‘Through a Memorandum of Understanding between the USCG and the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG), icebreaking information and resources are shared. Icebreaking on the Great Lakes is conducted by the vessels best positioned to do so.’

This approach sees CCG vessels conducting operations in U.S. ports and USCG vessels coming to Canadian ports like Thunder Bay. Arriving in Thunder Bay in mid-March, the USCG vessels took turns working the harbour as well as cutting channels in the ice up to 12 nautical miles from shore. In total this season, the USCG assisted the passage of 31 Canadian-flagged ships and conducted 370 hours of direct icebreaking in and around Thunder Bay.

(Right: In a reception at City Hall on 31 March 09, Thunder Bay Mayor Lynn Peterson takes time to recognize the important contribution the United States Coast Guard makes to the local economy by opening navigation channels at the earliest opportunity. USCG Cutters Alder, Neah Bay, Katmai Bay and Biscayne Bay were breaking ice in and around the Thunder Bay harbour for three weeks. Pictured (l to r) are LCdr John Bell, CO, HMCS Griffon; Lt William Woityra, CO USCGC Neah Bay; Thunder Bay Mayor Lynn Peterson; and Lt Cary Godwin, CO, USCGC Biscayne Bay.)

Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Griffon, Thunder Bay’s Naval Reserve Division, figures prominently in these new-found relationships. Griffon is responsible for coordinating USCG visits to the port, assisting with berthing and slipping parties, and coordinating logistics requirements with the CCG, Thunder Bay Port Authority and various private contractors.

This has been a MARLANT/Naval Reserve task for some time but the relationship between the USCG and Griffon has deepened in the last few years. Upon each visit to the city by a USCG vessel, Lieutenant-Commander John Bell, Commanding Officer, HMCS Griffon ensures the U.S. crew is invited to Griffon for a social event. For Capt. Huebschman, that personal connection between sailors is very important. As he puts it, ‘For our crews, when they are away from their homes and families, it’s so nice for them to see a friendly face on the pier to greet them.’

Capt. Huebschman goes on to say that it’s good for members of the USCG to get to know Canadian Naval Reservists because both services provide port security in their respective countries.

For LCdr Bell, it’s also about much more than socializing. The connection between HMCS Griffon and the USCG provides tangible benefits for his Ship. As LCdr Bell puts it, ‘The relationship provides a valuable opportunity for my Maritime Surface and Sub-surface (MARS) Officers and other hard sea trades to experience icebreaking, and to learn from their United States Coast Guard counterparts. This could be important if the Naval Reserve is eventually involved in crewing the new Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships.’

(Right: A frequent visitor to Thunder Bay, USCGC Alder is a 225-foot Juniper Class Buoy Tender whose primary missions are Aids to Navigation, icebreaking, law enforcement and search and rescue. It is pictured here breaking ice in its home port of Duluth, Minn.)

USCG Cutters Neah Bay, Katmai Bay and Biscayne Bay are 140-foot icebreaking tugs. Homeported in the cities of Cleveland, Ohio, Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. and St. Ignace, Mich. Each ship sails with a crew of 19. USCGC Alder, homeported in Duluth, Minnesota, is also a frequent visitor to Thunder Bay. At 225 feet, with a crew of 50, Alder’s presence in the harbour is quite noticeable and increasingly popular, perhaps even more so than the brightly-coloured robin – that other sure sign of spring.”

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