As Others See It

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quoted from from Baltimore Sun, February 3, 2004, p.8A

by Lynn Anderson, Sun Staff

Freeze: Coast Guard cutters are working overtime this winter to keep open the shipping channels of the Chesapeake Bay, and with the forecast, reinforcements are on the way.

ABOARD THE 'FRANK DREW' - As commanding officer Dave Merrill piloted the 900-ton, black-hulled U.S. Coast Guard cutter up the Chesapeake Bay yesterday, he contemplated a world that resembled the South Pole: a wide expanse of glittering white, with its only boundary the pale blue horizon.

There's ice as far as you can see," said Merrill, whose rank is chief warrant officer. "It's hard to tell if we're in Baltimore or Antarctica."

Merrill's cutter and others like it are working overtime this winter.

A prolonged freeze coupled with snow, sleet and freezing rain have coated the lower bay with 2 to 12 inches of ice, and as much as 20 inches near the mouth of the Elk River to the north.

Commercial traffic in the bay has continued, but not without the aid of cutters such as the 'Frank Drew', based in Portsmouth, Va., and the 'James Rankin', a similar craft based in Baltimore.

The cutters have escorted tugs and barges, clearing the way through shipping channels clogged with ice chunks and icy plates as long as Maryland Transit Administration buses. They also have worked to keep lanes passable so ships could navigate them on their own.

The ice has virtually shut down the Coast Guard's Curtis Bay facility, grounding search and rescue boats and making ship repairs more laborious.

Worried that the ice could get worse - more snow and ice were expected overnight - Coast Guard officials have called in backup.

A 2.000-ton ice cutter called the 'Cypress', which can slice through 36-inch ice rafts, is on its way to Maryland from Mobile, Ala.

The 'Cypress' is expected to arrive tomorrow to bail out the smaller cutters. The 'James 'Rankin has been battling 20-inch ice islands in the northern reaches of the Chesapeake Bay for several days. The ice there is nearly too thick to cut, Merrill said.

It's a real tough go," said Merrill. "There's a lot of irregular shapes and thicknesses out there. It is especially bad in the northern bay. It is getting close to the limits of our icebreakers.,

Commissioned In 2000

The 19-member crew of the 'Frank Drew' - commissioned in 2000 and named after a lighthouse keeper on Lake Michigan - had been on the water for 10 days without a break. Although crew members will be on leave today, they will be back at work tomorrow.

Although the enclosed bridge from which Merrill steers the ship is heated to a balmy 70 degrees, many of the crew station themselves on the deck, listening to a portable radio in the frigid temperatures.

Merrill said there's no way of saying when the crew will be able to return home to Virginia. Forecasters are calling for more snow, sleet or freezing rain Thursday night and into Friday. Snow on top of ice makes ice cutting even more difficult, he said.

Long Absences

It's harder on the young folks," said Merrill, who is the father of two adult children. His wife, Toni, has grown accustomed to his absences after more than 20 years of marriage, he said.

Still, the opportunity to do battle with the ice intrigues his young crew, the average age of which is 22.

It is not unusual for ice to accumulate in spots but it is rare for the bay to freeze from shore to shore, as it has this year. Before last year's record-breaking winter, the last major freeze was 1994.

Merrill, who is near retirement, says he is taking advantage of the ice to train "the next generation" crew members such as Mike Brandt, 28, an operations petty officer from Corpus Christi, Texas, who wants to captain a cutter some day.

I've got a long way to go", said Brandt, who has been with the Coast Guard about seven years.

Mastering The Basics

He has mastered more than ice-cutting basics.

Early yesterday, Brandt used the ship's twin 1,000 horsepower propellers to clear the ice from a dry dock at the Coast Guard Yard. As the propellers whirred into action, they churned up green water, which caused giant fissures in the ice.

By turning the cutter in a slow circle, Brandt used the propellers to mince the broken ice into slush.

Next on the list: de-icing the bay.

Following the Craighill Channel from the Baltimore harbor south toward the Bay Bridge, the cutter cleared a wider swath through the Ice.

No one, except for perhaps the captains of two tugs and a barge, noted the activity.

It's Lonely'

It's lonely at this time of the year, but it's also easier to do our job," said Merrill.

During the spring and summer, when cutter crews repair navigational aides such as buoys and speed markers, the bay is dotted with pleasure boats, he said.

Merrill is well-versed in ice. He can talk about "new ice," "brash ice," raft ice" and "ridge Ice."

Each sort has its own attributes: New ice is easier to break; brash ice, formed from refrozen shards, is more difficult.

As the 'Frank Drew' cut through a field of brash ice near Gibson Island, the ship suddenly slowed as the metal huU dueled with the frozen water.

The sound of breaking ice - loud cracks and snaps - and grinding rumblings - a nervewracking baritone that awakens the crew at night - filled the air.

Ice eats away at the paint on cutter hulls, and by winter's end, the Frank Drew' will need a new coat.

On the ice yesterday, traces of red and black paint were evident on ice shards and ridges.

This ice is not going away," said Joshua Gonzalez, 26, a yeoman 3rd class from Brooklyn, N.Y., who had never set foot on a boat until he joined the Coast Guard. "It's amazing how fast it freezes again. It looks like Alaska."

As the cutter neared the Bay Bridge, the crew spotted a disabled buoy leaning into the icy water, its cage encrusted and heavy with ice pack and icicles.

The buoy's light isn't visible to anyone," Merrill said. "The only ones who benefit from that buoy are the fish and the birds."

The buoy, a summer model, was quickly lifted out of the water with a crane and replaced with an ice buoy, a toy top- shaped model that stands up better to ice.

With the new buoy in place, the 'Frank Drew' turned north toward Baltimore.

On the way back, the crew recounted serene moments on ice- encrusted waterways.

Last week, a pair of red foxes crossed the frozen Potomac River near downtown Washington. Bald eagles have been near constant companions: Eagles - as well as other birds - take advantage of the ice cutter as it exposes schools of fish otherwise cached by milky-white ice.

Eagles 'Everywhere'

If you were concerned about the bald eagles on the bay, your mind should be at ease," said Merrill. "They are everywhere."

When the cutter is anchored on the ice, the silence is deep and purifying.

Memories in tow, the 'Frank Drew' returned to the Baltimore harbor about 3 p.m. As the ship approached the Key Bridge, Merrill spotted the coming storm.

Here comes another storm," Merrill shouted out. "More snow, freezing rain and ice. It won't bother us."

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from Chesapeake Bay Magazine, February 2004, p.50

by Marty LeGrand, Contributing Writer

You think last winter was cold?
Hah! Compared to 1936 and 1977, it was a picnic. And 1918?
Oy, that was a winter....

It was February 18, 1958, and Captain Tom Goldie had seen plenty of ice in his years of hauling half-ton rolls of newsprint from Newfoundland to the Chesapeake Bay on the cargo steamer Berylstone'. In fact, on this very run a severe storm of Nantucket had thoruoughly encrusted his vessel, smothering her hatches under a foot of ice and leaving the ship's whistle with a 10-foot-long glacial beard. But that was Nantucket, where such things are routine in winter; Goldie never imagined he'd find eight inches of ice at the mouth of the Potomac River, in the comparitively temperate waters of the Chesapeake.

But he did. We know this because his pilot that day was Captain Arthur C. Johnson, who later described the encounter in his Guardians of the Capes', a history of Virginia piloting. "The sound was awesome," writes Johnson, whose warnings of icy conditions Goldie had dismissed. "If you have ever been on a fast train and had another fast train flash by in the opposite direction, then you know how 'Berylstone' sounded in ice. Crunching along without power, she went only two ship's lengths before banging to a halt. A neat cut behind us in the ice, with our red bottom paint trimming both edges, looked like an incision." The normally unflappable Goldie, a Scotsman, stared out the small wheelhouse window in disbelief and then, Johnson says, said something he would repeat many times as the 'Berylstone' struggled slowly up the Potomac over the next several days. "His right elbow on the window sill, his chin in his right palm, he murmured, 'This is friggin' arctic ice, it is!"'

The Chesapeake is well outside the Arctic Circle, but that's never been much comfort to the captains, pilots, watermen and waterfront property owners who have endured one of the Bay's infrequent but inevitable deep freezes. The freeze of 1958 was not especially memorable - just a light frosting compared with the double glazed winters of, say, 1856-57, 1898-99, 1903-04, 1917-18, 1935-36, 1960-61 and 1976-77. In those years shipping came to a standstill, the oyster fleet was shore-bound for weeks, heating supplies ran low, ice floes swept away boats, piers and entire lighthouses, and people in ordinarily remote places were stranded for weeks on end.

One of the oldest documented accounts of a hard Bay freeze comes from the January 28, 1780, edition of the Maryland Gazette, published in Annapolis. "Several persons have gone from this [town] to Poplar Island, Rock-Hall, and Baltimore-Town, on the ice," the newspaper reported, "and are crossing to and from Kent Island every day, which has not been known before by our oldest inhabitants, nor has the like ever happened, we believe, since the memory of man." What was more remarkable (even more remarkable than a newspaper that had access to the entire memory of man) was that the Bay was frozen over even at its southern end, where warmer, deeper and saltier water makes that less likely. Writing for the Norfolk Historical Society, George Holbert Tucker says that on January 14,1780, "the mercury dropped into the bulbs of the thermometers," and horse-drawn vehicles were able to cross the ice from shore to shore as far south as Cape Henry.

The amount of ice on the bay and everywhere else, of course - is a function of air and water temperatures, salinity, wind, current, water depth, surface area and even precipitation. In a normal winter, ice will form on only about 10 percent of the Bay, but in the coldest months (January and February) of brutally cold years, like 1918 and 1977, that figure has been as high as 85 percent. In January 1857 a deep freeze that coincided with a blizzard reportedly buried Norfolk under 20-foot snowdrifts and so thoroughly froze the waters of the lower Bay that it was possible to walk on ocean ice for 100 yards off the Cape Henry lighthouse. A local newspaper reported that "one hardy soul had strolled twenty miles from Nansemond County [present-day Suffolk] on the ice, had dined with the captain of an ice-bound steamer off Craney Island, and then finished his promenade to Norfolk."

The conditions offered rewards for the enterprising. One businessman erected a temporary pub on the frozen Elizabeth River - where he peddled liquor and oysters to pedestrians crossing between Norfolk and Portsmouth. "On account of the novelty many had given him a call and partook of his 'creature comforts,' " a correspondent told the Evening Star of Washington, D.C. When some got too comfortable, another local entrepreneur employed a donkey cart to collect drunken patrons from the ice and, for a fee, haul them to land.

More often, however, ice is cause for commercial disaster. "An ice blockade of unusual duration and severity partially suspended navigation on the Chesapeake Bay and tributaries during nearly the whole of January," wrote Oliver L. Fassig, director of the U.S. Weather Bureau's Maryland and Delaware section in 1904. "The result of this embargo on the great fleet that plies the harbor of Baltimore and carries her commerce was very costly. The oyster industry suffered greatly; many packing establishments were forced to close and thousands of employees thrown out of work."

1904 was brutally cold. The mean daily temperature in Baltimore in January of that year was 27.4 degrees - almost 7 degrees lower than normal. Fourteen inches of ice in the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal forced steamboats to abandon the route; they traveled by ocean instead. The canal didn't reopen until the last week of February. On the Bay itself, ice was reported from Cape Henry northward. On January 6, the ice off Sharps Island was eight inches thick. Even where the Bay was navigable, there were big problems; with huge five-foot-thick ice floes careening around like runaway bumper cars, some hapless ships were shoved miles off course - or even run aground, like the schooner Henry B. Little, which was being towed to Baltimore but ended up pinned against the shore near Sandy Point. By January 21, weatherman Fassig reported, the Bay was covered with solid ice - 18 inches thick in some places - as far south as the Potomac. Conditions continued to make water travel extremely hazardous, if not impossible, for most of February. And on the night of February 7, 1904, the bureau's station in Solomons reported a truly chilling sight: reflected off the glassy Bay was the light of the great fire that, 75 miles away, destroyed downtown Baltimore.

And this was only one of three deep freezes that happened near the turn of the 20th century. There was a significant freeze in 1898-99, and 1917-18 was a doozy - one of the coldest winters ever. That freeze came quickly, stopping even big passenger and cargo steamers in their tracks. The Potomac River Line's 'Potomac', already four days late returning to Norfolk after Christmas 1917, was fighting its way south when the ice finally hemmed her in near Virginia's Old Point Comfort. For two days and two nights, passengers stayed aboard, eating food brought in by Navy boats - and oysters from the steamer's own cargo hold. One passenger, just 10 years old at the time, described the ordeal to her uncle years later. "You could almost see the water freeze," she said. "I saw a duck frozen in the ice."

Things got considerably worse as the freeze tightened its grip. By mid-January even the great 300-foot steel-hull flagships of the Norfolk and Washington Steamboat Company, the 'Northland' and Southland', were socked in. For a time the only vessels moving on the Potomac River (where the ice crust sometimes increased by an inch a night) were a pair of tugs that supplied the naval depot at Indian Head, Md. In Baltimore, more than 60 vessels were trapped in their docks as ice-breaking boats struggled, and even crippled themselves, trying in vain to keep the harbor open. It was a bleak winter for oysterman too, who faced these perilous winter weeks away from home with stoicism and longing. While iced in along the Potomac one season, a Smith Island captain noted in his log: "Lying here in Brittain's [sic] Bay. All across the mouth the ice has jammed. We can't get out. You can see the lonesome acomin' right aboard."

Winter set in so early in 1917 that many Maryland farmers were able to fill their icehouses before Christmas. The truly biting weather arrived with the new year, however, when even high temperatures failed to reach double digits in many places. In January, the average temperature in ports such as Annapolis, Baltimore, Cambridge and Solomons was 24 degrees. Overall, the mean mercury reading for this very mean winter in Maryland was more than 11 degrees below normal. (To put it in perspective, last year's bone chilling months of January and February were, on average, only four and five degrees below normal, respectively). The winter of 1917-18 was also quite bad in Virginia, which endured the coldest December and January on record. The morning after a New Year's Day fire destroyed the Monticello Hotel in Norfolk, the ruins were said to be a mass of ice. The same week, two servicemen in Hampton Roads, one guarding government piers in Newport News, reportedly froze to death at their posts.

One of the most hazardous duties on the Bay during harsh winters was - at least before the automated age - lighthouse keeping. Until the U.S. Lighthouse Board learned to protect its manned structures with stone rip-rap and iron-sheathed pilings, keepers of the Chesapeake's picturesque screwpile lighthouses truly quaked at the sight of floating ice. On February 13, 1895, the keeper of Smith Point Light at the mouth of the Potomac River, James Bennett Williams, reported the only thing moving on the Bay was drifting ice. The station shakes very badly. It is supported by only a few iron piles and I have seen it sway back and forth like a rocking chair," he wrote in his log. "Tomorrow, if the station is holding up, I feel that my brother (Fred) and I will be forced to abandon this station, even though we do not want to." The brothers did just that, taking an entire day to push their small skiff two and a half miles over the ice to safety, according to Frederick Tilp's 'This Was Potomac River'. Apparently they left none too soon. That evening a passing steamer sighted Smith Point lighthouse drifting downstream on an ice floe. That, in fact, is how many lighthouses and lightships have met their ends over the years. Just a day after the Williams brothers' Smith Point Light hitchhiked down the Bay, the lightship stationed at Bush Bluff on the Elizabeth River was carried away by heavy ice. It was temporarily replaced by the converted schooner 'Drift' - which lived up to its name by getting shoved off station by ice four years later. Floes also claimed lighthouses at Pungoteague Creek on Virginia's Eastern Shore (in 1856), Deep Water Shoals on the James River (1867), Janes Island near Crisfield (1879 and again in 1935) and on the Choptank River at Benoni Point (1917).

During the cold and snowy winter of 1935-36, the most frigid since 1917-18, heavy ice on the Bay destroyed 163 unattended lights (pile structures with automated electric or gas beacons) and 39 unlighted aids. For the Coast Guard, of course, there was more to do that winter than de-ice and retrieve buoys. Cutters were called on to not only clear frozen channels for commercial shipping, but also to free iced-in boats. At the height of the freeze, the cutter 'Mohawk' alone freed nine large ships near Thomas Point, as well as a dozen small steamers stuck at the entrance to the Severn River.

The U.S. Weather Bureau's report for the "Maryland-Delaware district" in January 1936 read: "The upper Chesapeake Bay, the tributaries of Chesapeake Bay and the rivers within the section froze over on the 23rd, and continued frozen to the close of the month, with thickening ice. During the closing week much difficulty was experienced by steam vessels with ice in the main channel between Baltimore harbor and the lower Bay, and ice-breaker convoys were required." As during other deep freezes, hundreds of people walked from Annapolis to Kent Island (and back again, presumably), simply because they could. Elsewhere on the Bay, according to one news account, a ferryboat picked up six hitchhikers "who were standing on the ice thumbing a ride."

The Norfolk and Washington Steamboat Company again suspended operations, with its captains reporting thick ice on the Potomac, increasing amounts of drift ice in the Bay's main stem and yet more ice in Norfolk harbor. On the Potomac, the ice piled up and smashed piers in Colonial Beach, Va. Across the Bay, a Coast Guard cutter was called in to free the oyster fleet by breaking up ice-choked Tangier Sound and Crisfield harbor. Yet even the Coast Guard could do little that year to help residents of Smith and Tangier islands, who by mid-February had been marooned by the ice for two weeks. The cutters were simply too large to get close enough. In late January, tragedy had already befallen a young Smith Island woman, who had gone into labor and needed desperately to get to the hospital in Crisfield. Her neighbors put her aboard the island's mail boat, 'Island Belle' and then took turns with axes and hatchets, literally chopping their way across the Bay through four- to six-inch ice. They eventually made it to the mainland, but, sadly, neither the mother nor the baby survived the ordeal. On nearby Tangier Island, residents were down to about two days worth of food when a privately owned dirigible finally came to the rescue February 1, delivering 1,000 pounds of fresh and canned food. Later deliveries by airplane kept the islanders supplied with food and necessities for the rest of the cold spell.

Of all the harsh winters of the last two centuries perhaps none will be remembered longer than the winter of 1976-77, when the Chesapeake froze so hard for so long that large portions of Maryland and Virginia were declared federal disaster areas. Supplies of heating fuel fell to critical levels as tankers and barges became icebound or ran aground. Watermen once more could only wait and worry as their boats remained stuck in the harbor and their debts mounted as slowly and steadily as the ice. More than 5,000 idled seafood industry workers became eligible for federal assistance.

Recreational boaters and marina owners were equally helpless against the elements as ice lifted pilings and piers out of the water and grew so thick in cockpits that only sledgehammers and chain saws could budge it. The Coast Guard had similar difficulties maintaining navigational aids. The cutter Madrona, for example, spent more than an hour freeing just one Craighill Channel buoy, then repairing and repositioning it. Coast Guardsmen used everything from chemicals and chisels to baseball bats and even shotguns in their battle against the ice.

Ice was reported a foot thick in the upper Bay's main stem, and twice that in some tributaries. A covering up to 18 inches halted commercial fishing in Virginia, where large vessels required Coast Guard interference to plow narrow passages through the ice. The nuclear power plant at Surry, Va., closed when ice floes on the James River clogged its water intake screens. Although the suffering was Bay-wide, the cold undoubtedly dealt the Eastern Shore the worst hand. After several oil barges were stranded and one cutter broke down, the Coast Guard halted all navigation in Tangier Sound. Thereafter helicopters dangling barrels of oil delivered their cargo gingerly to Smith and Tangier islanders. On January 20, the National Guard airlifted 3,000 pounds of food and 15 cartons of medical supplies to the islands via helicopter, promising another delivery the following week.

From late December to mid-February, temperatures were below freezing for 58 consecutive nights, according to Crisfield resident and photojournalist Norris "Scorchy" Tawes, who photographed the island airlifts. National Weather Service records show the chill bottoming out on January 17, 1977. On that day, Somers Cove Marina in Crisfield, Md., registered a high of 29 degrees that day and a low of 5 - though that was downright balmy compared to Chestertown's high of 14 and low of 3 below. Little wonder then that later that month the Coast Guard spotted a massive iceberg - 100 feet long, 40 feet wide and 20 feet tall - in the Bay just above the mouth of the Chester River. When asked by a Washington Post reporter what would be done about the island of ice, Coast Guard spokesman Russ Peridns said: "Mother Nature put it there and she's going to have to come and get it."

Icebergs in the Chesapeake? Perhaps Captain Goldie was right after all: During its worst winters the Bay does a pretty fair impersonation of the North Pole.

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