U.S., Canadian Coast Guards Cooperate In Sarnia

By Kyle Lohmeier, Voice Staff Writer

Originally published March 24, 2004
Copyright © 2004, The Blue Water Voice, reprinted by permission

Sitting on Front Street in Sarnia, Canada, is a nondescript, two story, decidedly utilitarian looking building which houses many offices of the Canadian government. What it also contains is something unique among all the various districts of the US Coast Guard, the Regional Operations Center, a two-year-old joint effort manned by members of both the Canadian Coast Guard and the US Coast Guard.

“Operations Officer, Lt. Commander Brad Clark, him and I developed this idea,” said Chief Jeff Dale, an ice officer with Operation Coal Shuttle, one of three operations run out of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Ninth District along with operations taconite and oil can, so named for the cargo typically hauled along the routes they keep clear of ice.

The joint operations between the United States and Canadian coast guards are unique to Operation Coal Shuttle and after some early bugs were worked out last year, during the joint operation’s first season of cooperation, the teamwork has helped immensely.

U.S. Coast Guard Chief Jeff Dale stands before one of the large maps that helps members of the Regional Operations Center keep track of their vessels.
“Last year we decided to send officers up here and it went fair. This year it’s worked very well,” Dale said. “Just being here, being able to talk across the desk with Canadian ice officers make it work real smoothly.”

Dale added that problems with getting the two coast guards’ computers to work together were the main source of difficulty last year.

When a small plane crashed in Lake Erie on Jan. 17, 2004, that cooperation became apparent. While a Canadian Coast Guard cutter was scrambled to the crash site, the U.S. Coast Guard’s icebreaking tug, The Neah Bay, took over the ice breaking chores of the Canadian Coast Guard’s Sam Risley after the Risley relieved the Neah Bay, which was the first vessel on scene.

While the boats attached to Operation Coal Shuttle perform all of the tasks any Coast Guard vessel performs, the main purpose of the Joint Operations Center is ice breaking.

Operation Coal Shuttle gets its name from the steady stream of coal-laden transports hauling coal from Canada, across Lake Erie to Ohio. While western Lake Erie usually has light ice cover, it can get very thick on the eastern end of the lake where the coal shuttle route between Canada and Ohio lies and at Port Colborne, where freighters tie up for the winter.

The Canadian Coast Guard’s area of responsibility covers roughly the same area on the Great Lakes as does the U.S. Coast Guards but also includes the arctic where Canadian icebreakers make it possible for freighters to supply northern Canadian towns in late spring.

As winter approaches each year, members of the United States Coast Guard are reassigned temporarily to the Joint Operations Center for the season. There they share resources with the Canadian Coast Guard to keep shipping lanes free of ice as well as break up ice jams that threaten to flood coastal regions and occasionally free up the North Channel so Champion’s Auto Ferry can run back and forth between Harsen’s Island and the mainland.

Breaking the ice jams between the mainland and Harsen’s Island is a more involved task than one might initially think. Firstly, the sort of ice that clogs that channel is what’s known as brash ice, huge chunks of ice that freeze, thaw, re-freeze, thaw and freeze again several times over the course of several days. Brash ice is the most difficult sort of ice to break, according to Dale, and breaking it isn’t just a matter of smashing an icebreaking tugboat into it over and over.

“We can’t just have the Neah Bay going back and forth there all day, there’s other places it has to go,” Dale said.

The first thing the Neah Bay had to do when it unclogged the North Channel earlier this year was to create a pool where broken chunks of brash ice could go after being knocked out of the ferry’s route.

“The ferry operators call here saying they were having difficulty running their ferries. We looked at it and made sure assistance was necessary. The Neah Bay was in Toledo, so we sent her powering up here,” Dale said. “She has to make relief pools for the ice to go to. She can’t sit at the Harsen’s Island ferry, she has to break it out so it’ll stay stable for a long time. She did a fine job because we haven’t had to go back.”

To perform their task, the operations center brings a lot of tools to bear on the problem. Whirling above the planet are satellites that beam back images of ice cover to the center. A long bank of computer monitors keeps track of the entire region of responsibility as well as all commercial vessels traveling on it. The captains of those vessels call in information about ice cover. The satellite images give the Coast Guard what Dale calls the “strategic” picture, or a large overview. The reports from individual boats give the Coast Guard the “tactical” or smaller picture.

The ice season itself comes in three segments, according to Dale. The first is lay up, where shipping vessels complete their runs and tie up in port for the season. Following that is mid-season, where there’s little traffic on the rivers and lakes. The last, which is fast approaching, is spring break-out when the Soo Locks and Welland Canal are first opened and ships leave port for the first time since winter set in.

“The Soo Locks and Welland Canal opens up and things start moving and you break ice until it’s gone,” Dale said.

Although every winter contains those three ice seasons, each year is different and predicting ice formation and flow is a game of educated guesses at best, according to Dale. Wind speed and direction are major factors in ice flow. A strong south wind, Dale said, will keep ice from flowing out of Lake Huron and down the St. Clair River but will push ice out of Saginaw Bay and will also push ice up toward Colborne Bay on Lake Erie. One of those working at the Regional Operations Center is an ice specialist with a strong background in meteorology, whose job is to predict ice conditions and movement.

“He’s good with weather but about three days is the most you can guess, depending on the weather,” Dale said.

According to the satellites, there’s not much ice left on Lake Huron to make its way down the St. Clair River. Satellite images did, however, show a large ice sheet over Port Colborne on western Lake Erie.

“The challenge coming this spring is there’s a lot of boats in Port Colborne. We’ll have to get them out and get them to the shipping channel,” Dale said.

In all, as the second season winds down, Dale is comfortable calling the joint operation a success.

“I’m very pleased with the cooperation and communication we have developed in Canada. The Coast Guard has an innovation award program and we’re putting this operation in for that award. We feel we’ve come up with something good here,” Dale said. “This doesn’t exist anywhere else in the Coast Guard, two countries running a joint operation. If you look at the big picture it’s a major operation. There’s millions of tons and millions of dollars of cargo moving every year and it’s vital to both countries... it’s our mission those ships run even when ice conditions aren’t so good.