Stranded ships on Great Lakes create icebreaking logjam

So many freighters are stuck in ice on the Great Lakes that it has created a waiting list for icebreaking assistance.

'It's almost unmanageable,' says freighter captain who was stuck twice in a day

The Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Griffon has been busy this winter. It's still got six ships to free from ice this week. 1:44

Several freighters are stuck in ice on the Great Lakes.

The list of frozen freighters in just the Lake St. Clair and Detroit River region stands at six.

Lara Barrett, the commanding officer on the Canadian Coast Guard's icebreaker Griffon, said the the vessel's crew of 28 is running day and night, from Windsor, Ont., to Quebec City.

"There's been lots of requests for icebreaker assistance from ourselves and the American Coast Guard," Barrett said. "There's been some vessels stuck in the ice. They're unable to move any longer."

Barrett said the icebreaker has been working all month. The hardest-hit region has been the western basin of Lake Erie, where ice is jamming up.

The Griffon has been breaking ice in front of ships and escorting them out of the lakes, up toward the St. Lawrence River.

Doug Ireland, captain of the cargo ship Algoway, and his crew were stuck in ice Toledo, Ohio, for nearly three days.

They were freed by a U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Tuesday morning.

"This has been going on since December all the way down from the St. Lawrence," Ireland said late Tuesday from a dock in Windsor. "It’s as bad as I can ever remember. It’s not going to get much better the next day and a half, either."

The Great Lakes are under the largest cover of ice in 20 years.

The Great Lakes are experience their biggest ice coverage in decades. (Courtesy National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

The last time the lakes had this much ice cover this early in the year was during the 1993-94 winter season. Lake Erie, while the southernmost lake, is also shallowest of the lakes. It is virtually locked in ice, with 95 per cent coverage.

Ireland got stuck twice between Toledo and Windsor. He needed coast guard assistance the first time and freed himself the second time.

"We backed up. We don’t like to do that too much. We’re putting the business end of the ship – the stern – back into the ice," Ireland said.

The thickness of the ice varies. "Brash ice" is a little slushier and approximately 35 centimetres deep.

It's more like running into glue than ... a hard iceberg.- Doug Ireland, Algoway captain

"It’s more like running into glue than running into a hard iceberg. It’s not a sudden stop, it’s gradual. It just gets slower and slower," Ireland said. "And we have 6,500 horsepower behind us.

"Wind rows" of ice are solid and run about a metre deep.

"It’s almost unmanageable when it gets like that," Ireland said.

Ireland said it takes a strong icebreaker and skilled crew to cut through ice a metre deep.

The Griffon spent Tuesday night docked at Dieppe Gardens in Windsor on the Detroit River. On Wednesday morning, the crew changed and sailed off to Sarnia, Ont.

Season winding down

That's also where Ireland and his crew are headed after one last load of salt, picked up in Windsor. It's the last run of the season for the Algoway.

Cargo shipments on the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway generate $34.6 billion in economic activity in Canada and the U.S. every year.

Meanwhile, residents of Boblo Island on the Detroit River, between Amherstburg, Ont., and Detroit, have no ferry service.

An icebreaker freed the frozen Boblo Island Ferry on Monday night, but in temperatures that dipped below –22 C, the river has already iced over again. It will likely be another week before the ferry is free again.

The ferry company has been using airboats or fanboats to bring the private island's 70 residents to and from the mainland.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.