Keeping vessels moving by land, air and sea

The closure of the locks in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., on Jan. 18 marked the end of the 2010-2011 shipping season on the Great Lakes.

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Morro Bay, a 140-foot icebreaking tug temporarily assigned to augment the Great Lakes Icebreaking Fleet for the 2010-2011 icebreaking season, clears a path through the ice near Neebish Island, Mich., Jan. 17, 2011. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class George Degener.

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Morro Bay, a 140-foot icebreaking tug temporarily assigned to augment the Great Lakes Icebreaking Fleet for the 2010-2011 icebreaking season, clears a path through the ice near Neebish Island, Mich., Jan. 17, 2011. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class George Degener.

In order to ensure that the commercial vessels that need to pass through the locks were able to do so, the Coast Guard Sector Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., oversees Operation Taconite, the largest domestic ice breaking operation covering Lake Superior, the St. Marys River, the Straits of Mackinac and northern Lake Huron.

The Coast Guard Vessel Traffic Service in Sault Ste. Marie is responsible for facilitating safe and efficient waterborne commerce. VTS also shares information and implements appropriate measures in order to prevent collisions, rammings and groundings through education and intervention.

These entities also help direct the movement of the Ninth District icebreakers in the region. These vessels help to open up the tracks that make it possible for commercial vessels to transit through iced-over waterways.

One of the most important methods that VTS uses to determine where cutters are, or will be needed, is overflights of heavily traveled waterways. Normally, the closest air station will be able to send an aircrew on a flight over a specified area, but when those aircraft are unavailable, the Coast Guard turns to its volunteer guardians, the Coast Guard Auxiliary.

The Honorable Thomas G. Power, Chief Judge of the 13th Circuit Court in Traverse City, Mich., conducts a shoreline survey of ice formations as part of the Coast Guard Auxiliary Air, Jan. 17, 2011. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class George Degener.

The Honorable Thomas G. Power, Chief Judge of the 13th Circuit Court in Traverse City, Mich., conducts a shoreline survey of ice formations as part of the Coast Guard Auxiliary Air, Jan. 17, 2011. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class George Degener.

Coast Guard Auxiliary Air pilots volunteer their time and aircraft, just like surface operators volunteer their boats.

“AUX Air is a huge force multiplier for us,” said Cmdr. Karl Willis, chief of the Ninth District Auxiliary Branch. “They are a well-run organization that adds great value to our service throughout the year. Not only do they help with search and rescue, but by utilizing their services for operations like ice reconnaissance and our ports, waterways and coastal security mission, they help save our service more than $4 million per year.”