Two Marine Atlantic ferries with 800 passengers on board are free from thick ice after being trapped off the coast of Cape Breton overnight into Thursday.

The MV Highlanders and the MV Blue Puttees became stuck Wednesday night in three metres of thick set ice.

Marine Atlantic said the Highlanders freed itself from the ice and made its way to Port aux Basques, in southwestern Newfoundland, at 1:30 p.m. AT.

The Blue Puttees docked in North Sydney just before 4 p.m. AT after being helped by a third Marine Atlantic vessel — the MV Atlantic Vision — which was able to clear a patch from the North Sydney ferry terminal. 

Mark MacDonald, a passenger on the Blue Puttees, said he was grateful to see the Atlantic Vision arrive.

Marine Atlantic Blue Puttees stuck on ice

Mark MacDonald, a passenger on the MV Blue Puttees, tweeted this photo off the coast of Cape Breton as the ship waited for a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker. (Courtesy: Mark MacDonald)

"Everybody was kind of up on the decks and up on the top of the ship and the same thing for the Atlantic Vision, you could see most of their crew and passengers out on the rails kind of giving a wave," he said.

"Each ship honked their horns and on they went."

A Canadian Coast Guard said the heaviest ice from the Cabot Strait had pushed onto shore in Cape Breton and it could be a couple of days before conditions improve.

"The next 48 hours, really, the conditions will be significant to work with," said Paul Veber, the coast guard's superintendent of ice operations for the Atlantic region.

"But once Saturday afternoon, evening rolls around there should be a reprieve with the wind."

Icebreaker sent to scene

The Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Henry Larsen was sent to the area to help with icebreaking services over the next couple of days and was expected to arrive Thursday evening.

Darrell Mercer, a spokesman with Marine Atlantic, said the vessels became trapped when the wind shifted on Wednesday.

Marine Atlantic ferries stuck on ice

Passengers stuck on the Marine Atlantic ferries anxiously waited for Coast Guard icebreakers to free the vessels from the ice. (Courtesy: Caraleigh Wyllie)

"We've been manoeuvring through the ice all winter long, so we've been planning our sailing patterns and looking at the ice charts. We take all of that information into account when planning the routes that we're going to take," he told CBC News on Thursday.

"Unfortunately you cannot predict exactly where all of the ice is going to be thickest at any given time and of course with the latest storm and all the winds that blew the ice toward shore, some of that stacking took place and of course that's where we encountered the problem."

Marine Atlantic said scheduled crossings over the next 48 hours will be disrupted. It said those on board the vessels were served free food, after some people complained about paying for food while the vessels were stuck.

Passengers face long trips

Adam Penney, a St. John's filmmaker who was aboard the Blue Puttees, was travelling with colleagues to the East Coast Music Awards in Prince Edward Island. He said he had already endured quite a bit to make it to the ferry. 

"We drove from St. John's on through the blizzard on Monday evening to get out," said Penney, who ran into snow-clogged highways in western Newfoundland. "It's taken us four days to get this far."

Among the hundreds of people stuck on the ships was a hockey team from Prince Edward Island trying to get to the regional championships in Deer Lake, N.L.

Jill MacPhee, the coach for the Kings County Midget AAA girls' team, said the group was 12 hours late leaving Montague because of the weather on Tuesday and their luck hasn't gotten any better.

"We departed Montague around midnight on Tuesday in hopes of catching an 11:45 crossing on Wednesday. We boarded the boat around 12:30 and we didn't set sail until about 5:00 p.m. Here we are now, still aboard the boat, just a few kilometres off shore," she said earlier on Thursday.

"We have been fed, but choices are becoming fairly limited."

Three of the five teams in the Atlantic Midget Female Hockey Championship were on the same boat, including a team from New Brunswick. Organizers of the tournament were expected to meet on Thursday to come up with an alternate schedule.

Marine Atlantic says there is no safety concern.

Crossings between North Sydney, in Cape Breton, and Port aux Basques got underway Wednesday after being stalled earlier this week by high winds.

The schedule disruptions led to a significant backlog of truck traffic at the Nova Scotia and Newfoundland terminals.