Thunder Bay·Photos

'Here to serve the safety of mariners': On board the Samuel Risley Great Lakes icebreaker

It's a sure sign of winter in Thunder Bay, Ont., when icebreakers with the Canadian and U.S. Coast Guards visit the northwestern Ontario city's harbour.

Canadian Coast Guard ship has worked the Great Lakes since 1985

The Samuel Risley's designer installed a classic-style wheel on the ship to go along with the rest of the more modern controls. (Matt Prokopchuk / CBC)
It's a common winter sight in Thunder Bay, Sault Ste. Marie and other Great Lakes port cities. Icebreakers working to make sure that the cold-weather months of the shipping season go smoothly. Commercial vessels stop moving on the upper lakes for about two months when the Soo Locks close in mid-January. But Icebreakers do more than just smash their way through frozen waters. The CBC's Matt Prokopchuk got to tour the Samuel Risley over the weekend. It's one of two Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers assigned to the Great Lakes... and is currently in Thunder Bay's harbour. Here's what Matt learned. 6:46

It's a sure sign of winter in Thunder Bay, Ont., when icebreakers with the Canadian and U.S. Coast Guards visit the northwestern Ontario city's harbour.

This year, the Samuel Risley was in port in early January, helping the last of the shipping season's commercial vessels. The warmer-than-average temperatures in the Thunder Bay area, however, have meant there isn't nearly as much ice in the harbour as usual.

Ice in Thunder Bay's harbour in 2019 is much lighter than usual. (Matt Prokopchuk / CBC)

Over 1-metre-thick ice at times

Definitely not as much as last winter, said Darryl Clow, the Samuel Risley's commanding officer while the ship was in Thunder Bay in January 2019.

"The former captains described (the 2017-2018 winter) as the heaviest they'd seen," Clow said. "And they've both been here for 10 to 15 years."

Ice conditions can vary widely from year to year he said. The Samuel Risley is one of two Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers assigned to the Great Lakes, with the Griffon being the other.

"I've broke 48 inches of ice ... in the past, a friend of mine was captain on here, he broke close to 50 inches," Clow said.

"It's an easy job some years; I've [also] been on for very heavy years and you're working 18, 20 hours a day."

Darryl Clow is the commanding officer for the CCGS Samuel Risley. (Matt Prokopchuk / CBC)

'Back and ram again'

Icebreakers do their work by ramming into the ice as fast as possible — for the Samuel Risley that can range in speed anywhere from six or seven knots up to about 14 knots — and carving their way through, Clow said, adding that the bow of the ship is formed into a V shape.

That causes the ship to rise out of the water and drop down onto the ice, eventually smashing it.

"It's back [up] and ram," he said. "If that doesn't work, back and ram again."

"We've always gotten through."

The engineering centre on the Samuel Risley. Crews monitor the ship's systems and control the propulsion systems from here. (Matt Prokopchuk / CBC)

'It's like a badly-loaded washing machine'

All that physical impact on the ship means the Samuel Risley's engineering crew has to keep a watchful eye on its systems and maintenance.

"The great thing about breaking ice is it shakes the ship a lot — it's like a badly-loaded washing machine," said Michael Paynter, the Samuel Risley's senior engineer.

"There's a lot of equipment that needs to be monitored, make sure we don't get any leaks or any sort of vibration damage."

Paynter added that the ice itself can get into the ship's systems, so engineers have to keep an eye on making sure nothing overheats.

Still, Clow said, the thickness of the ice on the Great Lakes has never severely damaged the Samuel Risley.

Michael Paynter is the senior engineer on the CCGS Samuel Risley. (Matt Prokopchuk / CBC)

Changing conditions

Not only can ice conditions change from year to year, Clow said, but they can also be quite different from location to location within the Great Lakes and associated rivers and waterways.

Each lake has its own particular ice conditions," he said. "Thunder Bay, of course, is [typically] lots of ice, heavy ice and ice that doesn't really go anywhere because it's an enclosed basin."

That means the wind plays a big part in where the smashed up ice will drift.

Officers on the Samuel Risley use both electronic and hard-copy charts for navigation. (Matt Prokopchuk / CBC)

28 days at a time

Tours for each crew typically last 28 days, Clow said. The ship operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

It carries a complement of 22 people.

The Samuel Risley is equipped with amenities, like crew accommodations, a galley and dining hall, a small canteen where people can buy supplies, laundry facilities and a multi-purpose room with some exercise and gym equipment set up.

The ship also has Wi-Fi and a communal computer for crew members who don't have their own laptops or other devices. Electricity for the Samuel Risley is supplied by diesel generators; the ship can also plug in when it's in port.

A multi-purpose room on the Samuel Risley contains gym equipment. The crew is generally on the water for 28 days at a time. (Matt Prokopchuk / CBC)

More than just an icebreaker

While the Samuel Risley is classified as an icebreaker, it and its crew perform other tasks as well.

That often includes the installation, removal and maintenance of buoys throughout the Great Lakes. The buoys mark underwater hazards that could affect passing ships. Some of the buoys also light up.

They're lifted on and off the ship by a giant onboard crane.
The Samuel Risley doesn't just break ice. It's also responsible for installing, removing and maintaining buoys throughout the Great Lakes. The buoys mark hazards for large ships. (Matt Prokopchuk / CBC)

Clow said they're also responsible for some search and rescue operations and — although rarely used — the Samuel Risley is also equipped with a heavy tow cable.

Deck hands are even sometimes deployed to paint lighthouses, he added.

"The coast guard is here to serve the safety of mariners, so we're providing buoys, we're providing icebreaking for them, we're providing search and rescue services on occasion," Clow said.

"You feel like you've done a good day's work."

The Samuel Risley has been in service on the Great Lakes since 1985. It effectively replaced the Alexander Henry, which now sits as a museum vessel in Thunder Bay's harbour. (Matt Prokopchuk / CBC)