Operation Taconite

The 140-foot Mobile Bay is unique in that it is one of nine cutters in the Coast Guard’s Bay class of icebreaking tugs, capable of continuously breaking approximately two feet of solid, plate ice. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Lt. Bryan Estell.

When we last checked in with Coast Guard Cutter Mobile Bay they were working day and night to finish up the largest buoy retrieval operation in the nation. There is no rest for the weary though, as Mobile Bay and her crew have made the transition to breaking ice on the St. Mary’s River.

As part of Operation Taconite – a name that is derived from one of the lake’s chief commodities, taconite – Mobile Bay is taking part in the largest domestic icebreaking operation in the United States. Keeping these waterways open is crucial to the transportation of vast amounts of iron ore, needed to meet the demands of steel mills in Lake Erie and Lake Michigan.

Beset vessel

This past December Mobile Bay was called to assist a motor vessel that declared themselves beset in the ice. Mobile Bay reworked the ice around the vessel and was able to get the vessel moving again within 55 minutes. U.S. Coast Guard photo courtesy of Vessel Traffic Service Sault Ste. Marie.

On a typical day, Mobile Bay will break ice from sunrise to sunset. While some of their ice breaking duties are scheduled as they maintain winter shipping lanes, the ice breaking can also become a response to escort or assist vessels that are beset in the ice – a risky operation that requires skill and finesse.

“Direct assistance is by far the most dangerous, as it usually requires close-aboard, high-speed passes of vessels that can be more than 1,000 feet in length,” said Lt. Bryan Estell, Mobile Bay’s executive officer. “During these evolutions, the conning officers must be constantly mindful of the weakened ice around the stuck vessel.”

After completing a day of breaking ice, pulling into port is a luxury often denied to the cutter’s crew who more often stay on the river and remain aboard the cutter overnight by finding a portion of strong plate ice away from the established track – a practice known as being “hove to.”


Coast Guard Cutters Mackinaw, Katmai Bay, Biscayne Bay and Mobile Bay flush the ice from the lower St Mary’s River. This is a maneuver to help Mother Nature move ice out into Lake Huron where it eventually dissipates. U.S. Coast Guard photo courtesy of Air Station Traverse City.

Anyone who has served on an icebreaker quickly learns there is nothing routine about this mission. Crews out on the Great Lakes system know all too well how quickly Mother Nature can affect their work. This past December Mobile Bay was caught in a winter storm and can testify how quickly “ops normal” can become a response.

“We had just anchored in the lower St. Mary’s River before gale force winds, white-out conditions, and bitter cold hit the area,” said Estell. “After the storm subsided, Mobile Bay found itself surrounded by no less than 17 ships that had waited out the storm and were awaiting our assistance to head up the river.”

Weathering winter storms, cutting through ice and maneuvering close to vessels is all in a days work for ice breaking tugs like Mobile Bay. With fellow icebreakers Mackinaw, Katmai Bay, and Biscayne Bay to keep the St. Mary’s River open for commerce, Mobile Bay is in good company, and the Great Lakes communities can be rest assured that Operation Taconite is in full force.

Mobile Bay breaking ice

To aid in its duties, Mobile Bay has a hull reinforced by a substantial ice-belt, meaning there is a thicker hull around the water line. The cutter also has a hull air lubricating system, or “bubbler.” The bubbles from this system help reduce the friction between the hull and ice allowing the cutter to maintain more speed when breaking ice of more significant thickness. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Lt. Bryan Estell.

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