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My Life In the Coast Guard
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3A
Chapter 3B
Chapter 3C
Chapter 3D
Chapter 4
Chapter 5A
Chapter 5B
Chapter 5C
Chapter 6

    Before we left that night we were told to return to work in the morning and that we were getting underway because several freighters had gotten stock in the ice in the St. Clair River. At the time we thought this might turn out to be nothing more than a day mission. Boy were we wrong!

    We got under way the next morning without our cook because he had received orders to go to a cooking school. I had been asked to fill in for one day, which later became permanent extra duty for me when they found out I wasn't half bad at it.  When we arrived at the St. Clair River we found that the river had been turned into slush. It had the consistency of a snow cone. What had happened is that as the storm system moved east the winds shifted from the west to the north. These winds blew whatever ice was in Lake Huron straight into the bay formed at the entrance to the St. Clair River which filled it full of ice. We got in front of the lead ship and began to clear a path but as we advanced forward the slush would seal up again behind us leaving only a tiny clear trail in our wake. This was of little benefit to the freighters which were almost three times wider than we were and a plug of slush would form on their bows. When this happened the freighter was stuck and we would have to come up to the bow of the ship as close as we could and make a hard turn so that we pointed our stern at their bow. At that precise moment we went to full power and blasted the plug loose with our prop wash. During the course of this mission we collided with the freighters about eight times. Each time we collided with a freighter there was a large jolt to the ship that could knock you to the floor. Consequently there was a lot of falling down. You had to be extra careful when you were walking down any ladders or you might get seriously hurt. This was about the most dangerous and ineffective way of dealing with this problem but there wasn't anything else we could do. Later in the day we discovered that there were over 1000 freighters tied up to the city pier in Detroit waiting to go through the St. Clair River. We were totally overwhelmed and when the full extent of the situation became apparent additional units were sent to help us out including the Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers the Griffon and the De Grosellier. These Canadian icebreakers were almost as wide as the freighters. Consequently they cleared a wider path and were more effective in dealing with the slush.

The Griffon

I was unable to locate a picture of the De Grosellier but she is the same class of vessel and approximately the same size.  As you can see the Griffon was built as a multi-purpose vessel and is able to operate not only as an icebreaker, but a buoy tender as well.  The Canadians are some very resourceful people.

        As our efforts to free the stuck freighters continued our main engines began to overheat. This was caused by the fact that the St. Clair River had no water in it and was composed of slush all the way to the bottom. The minute chunks of ice were being sucked up into our sea chest and filling up the strainers in such large quantities that the engine coolant re-circulation through the sea chest was unable to melt it fast enough. To remedy the problem we removed the strainers from the sea chest but this was only a minor improvement. With our backs to the wall Chief Catrell decided to try something off the wall. He hooked up a one-half inch fire hose to a firefighting station and put a four foot applicator into the nozzle. Using a hacksaw he sawed off the bent portion of the applicator so that all that remained was a straight section of pipe. Then he inserted the applicator into the sea chest vent pipe on the upper deck and energized the firefighting system. With the strainers removed this flushed any accumulations of slush out of the sea chest and back into the river. His idea worked great and we were able to continue operations with brief stops periodically to repeat the procedure when the main engines began to overheat.

        During this operation the people who lived on Harsons Island were cut off from civilization due to the fact that the ferry boat which carries people and automobiles to and from the Island was unable to navigate the slush filled river. Because we were the first unit on scene we began providing humanitarian relief to the Island. In addition to that we shuttled the residence of Harsons Island back and forth so they would be able to continue their jobs. After the Neah Bay had finished their escort of the damage freighter they took over this function, which allowed us to turn our attention to the freighters along with another sister ship to us called the Katmai Bay. Unfortunately having all of these vessels working the problem wasn't enough so the Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw (The Mighty Mac) was called from the upper peninsula to give us a hand. The Mackinaw is a ship that has to be seen to be believed. It is so wide it can't fit through the Welland Canal which makes it the perfect vessel for clearing a path for freighters in slush.  This operation made national news and some very important television news personalities were there covering the story.

The Mackinaw

        As the operation progressed it became apparent that the traditional method for clearing a path with an icebreaker wasn't working and it was very frustrating. There were about three occasions when my ship participated in a maneuver we called ice management. We would sail to the entrance of the St. Clair River and make a high-speed pass down its full length with several other ships following closely behind. This created multiple wakes that moved downstream with us which helped to move the slush downstream and out of the river. Unfortunately for us the commander in charge of the entire operation was concerned about possible damage to the privately owned piers and boat docks that dotted the shoreline that this procedure might cause. As a result would only did ice management about three times, but the Canadian Coast Guard wasn't concerned about it all and performed ice management a lot more times than we did. Most of these boat docks were nothing more than a few poles stuck in the mud with a dock tied to them. Personally I did not see the need for the concern about damaging them because the slush was doing a good job of that on its own without our help.

        Our participation in this operation would have taken place without a flaw if it hadn't been for one mistake that we made. Because we were underway for this operation a solid month we were forced to refuel four times. This cause this to tie up to the city pier in Algonac, Michigan which is also part of a park that is located in the middle of town. An 18 wheeler would park on the side of the road next to the park and we would connect multiple sections of 6 inch in diameter fuel supply hose and run them through the park all the way to the ship. Because of the possibility of small leaks at each connection with place a five gallon bucket under each one of them. Once the hoses were connected to each other the man on the fueling manifold would notify the main deck that the valves were open and the ship was ready to receive fuel. Then the 18 wheeler would turn on its pumps and deliver fuel under pressure to the ship. On our fourth and last refueling operation there was some miscommunication between the man on the fueling manifold and the main deck which resulted in the rupture of the fuel supply hose and the discharge of several hundred gallons of number two diesel fuel right in the middle of the park in the center of town. We immediately put out oil booms to contain the mess and soaked up as much as we could with oil absorbing pads before its soaked into the ground. It was such a large mess that this was very difficult. I would not be surprised if nothing grows in those spots to this day. After the operation was over it became known as Operation Coal Shovel 83 and the Bristol Bay received a meritorious unit commendation. The entire crew received a letter of appreciation and thanks from the Michigan House of Representatives and when we pulled into our dock in Detroit we hoisted a broom on the mast to indicate a clean sweep. We were true to the Coast Guard motto, "First on scene and the last to leave." About two weeks later I received orders to go to machinist technician school in Yorktown, VA. I was glad to leave the ship, but I was sorry to leave some of those people behind.


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