Wednesday’s mission for the men aboard the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Mobile Bay was to deliver the Algosar and its cargo — described as 10,783 metric tons of refined petroleum products — to the Purvis Marine Pier in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada.

Wednesday’s mission for the men aboard the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Mobile Bay was to deliver the Algosar and its cargo — described as 10,783 metric tons of refined petroleum products — to the Purvis Marine Pier in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada.

Ice, more than 2 feet thick in many places, stood in the way. If there was any question whether the icebreaker was needed to make the journey it was quickly answered just north of DeTour Village, Mich., where the Algosar was beset in ice.

With very little shipping traffic at this time of year, the U.S. Coast Guard launched a two-pronged attack on the thick sheet of ice that nearly covered the entire length of the St. Marys River. The 140-foot Biscayne Bay led the charge Wednesday morning — breaking the first trail — while the Mobile Bay was responsible for freeing the stuck vessel and widening the path.

“It’s more efficient to put two breakers here when there is no other shipping traffic,” explained Director of Vessel Traffic Services Mark Gill early Wednesday morning before the Mobile Bay’s departure. “Our mission is to provide safe and efficient movement for the tanker Algosar.”

Gill said that while shipping traffic certainly falls in the winter season with the closure of the Soo Locks, the work required to move the vessels greatly increases once the ice forms.

“In the harshest winter climate we are working harder to move less cargo,” he admitted, quickly adding that the shipping lanes must remain open even during the off season.

In addition to petroleum products that are delivered via boat for heating throughout the region, there are other vessels that haul salt to provide traction for those attempting to navigate icy roads.

The Mobile Bay, based out of Sturgeon Bay, Wis., is powered by two diesel generators fueling an electric motor to the tune of 2,500 horsepower. Sheathed in 5/8 of an inch of steel and a reinforced ice belt, it is capable of breaking 30 inches of ice.

The ship is designed to ride up on the ice sheet, bending and breaking the thick covering that is capable of bogging down much larger boats.

Engineer Officer Chris Harrison said the cutter’s hull lubrication system, nicknamed “The Bubbler” forces air beneath the waterline when activated and reduces friction between the steel and ice -- essentially adding another 800 horsepower.

The electric motor powers the 140-foot Mobile Bay through the ice. The hull essentially is lifted onto the sheet of ice, allowing the full weight of the boat to crush and crack the large plates -- leaving hundreds of broken pieces, both big and small, in her wake.

Captain Vasilios Tasikas explained there are advantages to having the the 22,540-gallon diesel fuel tanks at or near the full level for this kind of operation.

“The extra weight aids in ice breaking,” he said.

The Mobile Bay is capable of breaking ice up to 30-inches thick, according to Coast Guard documents, but Tasikas expressed even more confidence in this vessel.

“Backing and ramming,” the captain explained of the technique required for anything deeper. “One way or another we will get through.”

There was no backing and ramming on Wednesday with a relatively smooth trip up the river. Smooth, however, is a relative term for those who make their living sailing on the ice-covered Great Lakes. A steady vibration rumbled through the boat for nearly nine hours with the occasional shift causing even the crustiest of sailors to lurch at times —there is a difference it seems, between sea legs and ice legs.

The vibration was infrequently interrupted during Wednesday’s run, only when the Algosar became hung up did the constant grind and vibration temporarily abate. The Mobile Bay would then turn back, circle the stuck vessel to relieve the ice pressure, and again set a course back up the river.

The crew was rewarded with baby-back ribs, fried potatoes, corn on the cob and fresh salad upon reaching port in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., eating their dinner as the Algosar was churning into its own port on the other side of the St. Marys River.

Mission accomplished.

Sault Ste. Marie Evening News