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Navigating through thin ice, high water

By Kevin Boneske
Staff Writer

NORTHEAST WISCONSIN – When the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Mobile Bay went on an icebreaking training exercise Wednesday, Feb. 5, an abnormally low amount of ice was evident as the 140-foot vessel headed out into the Bay of Sturgeon Bay from where it is moored at Sawyer Park.

The Mobile Bay cruised through the channel toward the Bay of Green Bay while facing little resistance, with much of the journey featuring open water or a thin covering of ice.

Crew members of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Mobile Bay conduct an ice-rescue exercise Wednesday, Feb. 5, near where the Bay of Sturgeon Bay goes into the Bay of Green Bay.

The icebreaker then turned around and stopped near the mouth of the Bay of Sturgeon Bay, where four crew members temporarily exited the vessel for ice rescue training, after which the Mobile Bay headed back to port.

In addition to the crew, about 20 passengers were onboard for the training exercise as part of a Boss Lift, organized by Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR), for employers of Wisconsin’s National Guard and Reserve service members.

The Mobile Bay conducts its wintertime icebreaking mission from around mid-December through mid-April, operating mostly in the Bay of Green Bay, the Straits of Mackinac and St. Mary’s River.

Mobile Bay Lt. Commander Steve Kingsley said the Great Lakes presently have only about a 6 percent ice cover, compared to a 44 percent ice cover at this time last year.

Kingsley said the Bay of Green Bay is now limited to recreational use with its ice cover, which will be kept in place until March when the locks on the Great Lakes open for ship traffic.

He said the Mobile Bay wouldn’t begin its icebreaking operations on the Bay of Green Bay to open the water for ship traffic into the Port of Green Bay until mid to late March.

Green Bay port traffic

The 2020 shipping season into the Port of Green Bay will begin sometime between mid-March and mid-April when the first ships arrive, said Dean Haen, port director.

Haen said the locks are slated to open March 15, after which ships able to make the journey through the thin ice could arrive at the Port of Green Bay.

He said the port’s shipping season begins in spring and continues until around the middle of January.

Depending on ice thickness, Haen said icebreaking could be needed for ships to reach the Port of Green Bay with 8 inches or less of ice considered thin enough for a ship to travel through on its own.

The Port of Green Bay reported the 2019 season, which concluded last month, had the highest shipping totals since 2007.

The Coast Guard Cutter Mobile Bay leaves broken ice in its wake Wednesday, Feb. 5, while cruising past Bay Shipbuilding and returning from a training exercise.

Last season, 2,277,652 tons of cargo moved through the port, an increase of 25 percent from the 2018 season.

Domestic petroleum product imports increased 55 percent from 2018 to 132,630 tons, while foreign imports of petroleum products were up 135 percent to 94,167 tons.

Of the nearly 1.5 million tons of total domestic imports, limestone was the heaviest at 608,653 tons, an increase of 60 percent from the previous season.

The Port of Green Bay also reported strong foreign salt imports for the 2019 shipping season with more than 391,000 tons, an increase of 42 percent.

Haen said more of the same could be expected with shipping totals for the 2020 season as long as the economy continues to do well.

He also attributes high water levels on the Great Lakes for 177 vessels being able to move through the Port of Green Bay in the 2019 shipping season, an increase of 9 percent when compared to 162 vessels in 2018.

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