Cargo ships are moving on the Great Lakes, but Coast Guard icebreakers are still on duty on the north side of the Lakes. The Coast Guard’s massive icebreaker, the “Mackinaw,” smashed ice from its home in Michigan all the way across Lake Superior to Duluth. And the Coast Guard cutter “Sundew” has been chipping away at the ice in Duluth for weeks. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chris Julin has this report:
Cargo ships are moving on the Great Lakes, but Coast Guard icebreakers are still on duty on the
north side of the Lakes. The Coast Guard’s massive icebreaker, the “Mackinaw,” smashed ice
from its home in Michigan all the way across Lake Superior to Duluth. And the Coast Guard
cutter “Sundew” has been chipping away at the ice in Duluth for weeks. The Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Chris Julin has this report:
There’s a whiff of spring in the air in lots of places, but parts of Lake Superior are still covered
with ice. Cargo ships are leaving their berths where they spent the winter. But when the first
ships got ready to go, the ice on the Duluth Harbor was still two feet thick. That’s thick enough to
keep a ship locked in place.
The Coast Guard cutter Sundew carved a path through the ice so ships could leave.
(sound of chop, splash)
As the Sundew churns away, slabs of ice tip on edge under the bow. Each slab looks like the
floor of a single-car garage turned on edge. The Sundew will cut a swath several miles long, and
then come back along the same path. With each pass, the shipping lane gets a little bit wider.
Bev Havlik is the commanding officer on the Sundew.
“We’re taking out just little shaved bits of it at a time to make the ice chunks smaller. It’s like
sawing a log, just shaving off a bit of it at a time.”
“The Sundew wasn’t built as an icebreaker. It’s usual duty is tending buoys. The ship places, and
maintains about 200 navigational buoys on Lake Superior. But a couple decades ago, the Sundew
got some extra steel added to its hull, and a new, bigger engine. Since then, it’s done double duty
as an icebreaker.”
Commander Bev Havlik says the Sundew slices through thin ice like a butter knife. But in
thicker ice, like this stuff, the hull actually rides up on top of the ice and pushes down through it.
That’s why there are three mini-van-sized chunks of concrete on the ship’s deck. Each one weighs
“It helps us bite into it with the bow, instead of riding up too high.” It keeps the weight down
A little bit like putting sandbags in the back of your pickup in the wintertime?
“It’s a similar sort of principle, right. It gives you the bite you need.”
Icebreaking is serious business. It gets ship traffic moving weeks before the ice melts. But
beyond that, Bev Havlik says it’s really fun.
“This is awesome. It’s the only job that I’d ever had where they pay us to come out and break
The Sundew is 180 feet long. That’s about the length of 10 canoes lined up end to end. It has
about 50 crew members. One of the junior crew members is usually at the wheel. The real
“driver” is an officer who’s standing 20 feet away, out on the deck through an open door. The
officer adjusts the ship’s speed, and calls out a steady stream of steering commands to the
“helmsman” — that’s the guy at the wheel.
(sound of Helsman)
“Right five-degrees rudder … steady as she goes, aye.”
Ensign Jason Frank is about to take his turn driving the Sundew. He wears a big rabbit fur hat
when he’s out on the deck driving the ship.
“We actually have face masks and goggles for when it really gets cold. It gets so cold out here
sometimes it feels like your eyes are going to freeze out, or something.”
Jason Frank is halfway through his two-year stint on the Sundew. Then he’ll be stationed
somewhere else, and the Sundew will be removed from service. The ship was built in Duluth in
1944, and it’s retiring next year. Jason Frank wanted to work on the Sundew because aren’t many
ships like this still in service. On newer vessels, the officer driving the ship stands inside. And
here’s something right out of the movies – the Sundew has a big, brass steering wheel.
“Whereas with the new ships, most the new ships have just a little joystick. It’s very similar to
like a joystick you’d have maybe when you’re playing a computer game or something. All you
have to do is turn that joystick and the computer tells the rudder what to do. We’re actually
maneuvering the throttles, we’re actually driving. With the new ship, basically it has an
The ice is melting in the Duluth Harbor, but it still clumps together on windy days and makes
trouble for ships. The Coast Guard cutter Sundew will stay on ice-breaking duty until the
weather warms up, and a good southwest wind pushes the rest of the ice out of the harbor into
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Chris Julin.