Breaking ice on the Hudson River | Always Ready: Inside the Coast Guard

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A single rudder turns and a single prop drives the 32-year-old U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Sturgeon Bay, chewing through its alphabet soup mouthful of a mission—OpRENEW, short for Operation Reliable Energy for Northeast Winters—to plow a channel of open water through the frozen Hudson River for the transport of supplies, emergency resources and—most crucially—the majority of this nation's heating oil to the river communities that need them. 

"Normally, you're supposed to avoid hitting things when you're driving ships," Lt. Cmdr. John Forster said from the Sturgeon Bay's bridge, while the ship he captained accelerated south down the Hudson toward New York City.

The Coast Guard devoted nine years to teaching Forster that rule and then assigned him a post as commanding officer of a 140-foot exception to it.

"It's like being a little kid with a big truck or something and just smashing it into ice," he said.

On this mild and rainy late-winter morning, Forster stood on the Sturgeon Bay's bridge and looked out over the prow not north toward upstate Siberia but downriver, where a mere 60 miles away the high temperature in this nation's largest city climbed above 60 degrees.

The splashing and sloshing around the ship's hull near Newburgh solidified to grinding, clinking and groaning as the vessel entered the river's S-curve near West Point, chosen during the American Revolution as a strategic choke point for the Continental Army to control this waterway and on this day, two and a half centuries later, a bottleneck for icebergs on their journey to the sea.

"Occasionally we'll do breakouts," Forster said. "We'll come up and do a few laps around them to kind of relieve that pressure that's on their hull."

Just minutes after the captain offered that explanation of how an icebreaker frees another vessel stuck in the ice, the southbound Sturgeon Bay passed a doomed tug pushing a barge upriver through the passage the Coast Guard cutter just carved.

"We'll do a pass and then turn around and come back a few hours later and you'll be able to see where it's already started to freeze back up," Forster said.

We saw on example of that freezing back up on this afternoon's return journey, when Forster and his crew of 20 encountered that same tug and barge from hours before, now immobilized in the tidal river flow of ice.

"This is Sturgeon Bay," one of the ship's crew said over the radio. "We're going to be holding this right turn and end up in front of your bow there."

Three laps of the commercial vessel, each tighter than the last, aided by a compressed air system to lubricate the icebreaker's hull with a barrier of air to help push the ice off the cutter's sides, and the tug and barge began to move upriver once more.

"They teach us all different types of ice," Seaman Nevin Connors said, "thickness, how we go about breaking it."

Just 21, Connors took the wheel to steer the cutter to the dock where this vessel and its crew would spend the night.

"We play a lot of board games," he said.

On the Sturgeon Bay, Connors, who joined the Coast Guard a year before, learns beneath veterans who've served all across the country.

"We were interdicting drugs and migrants," Forster said of an earlier posting, "and that was a totally different world of work for me."

From counter-narcotics in the clear blue waters of the Caribbean to this frozen river realm of ice and cold where plates and chunks and bergs up to a foot thick roil beneath the Sturgeon Bay's hull, obscuring the gray-brown abyss below, the Coast Guard fulfills a range of duties for this nation—this one diesel-electric powered and not particularly stealthy.

Back and forth, upstream and down, near every day, every winter, Coast Guard cutters like the Sturgeon Bay, able to break up to 27 inches of continuous solid ice and ram chunks up to six feet in thickness, churn the Hudson's solid surface into a pulpy passage, aiming their prows toward the ice-bound stretches of river civilian vessels hope to avoid.