Blumenthal briefly takes helm of U.S. Coast Guard ice-breaker on Connecticut River

EAST HADDAM — The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Pendant was helmed briefly Thursday by the state’s senior senator, who spun her wheel port and starboard on the Connecticut River, driving the tug into huge floes of ice in an effort to clear the channel.

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who flew in from Washington, D.C., Thursday morning, was on the Boston-based cutter as it left from Goodspeed Landing to observe what crews aboard these boats do every day. He said he hoped to bring his impressions to the U.S. Capitol.

Moving north toward the East Haddam Swing Bridge, the giant, floating masses of ice that formed more than a week ago after frigid temperatures, seemed to compress into a massive field from the perspective of the bridge, where Chief Petty Officer Anthony Kaminski had Blumenthal take the helm.

The senator drove the Pendant into the giant ice floes in the water that had, just hours before, been packed up north of the bridge, Kaminski said.

“It really is harder than it looks to keep the boat on course when you’re hitting ice. This is one of the few places in the world where, when you hit something hard, people cheer,” the senator joked. “There are currents, the channel, there are ice floes — it’s not like playing a video game. I appreciate the importance of the skills these guys have, avoiding logs and debris, (working with) the current, the channel. They’re at it seven days a week.”

Right below the bridge on the mess deck, seven crew members talked among themselves. Outside the vessel , the sun sparkled against the moving water.

The plan was to head upriver toward Middletown during the senator’s tour, but the East Haddam Swing Bridge was having mechanical problems, which diverted traffic on the river and kept Route 82 closed for hours. The Pendant was redirected to make a circular tour of the area.

As the Cutter Hauser worked north of the swing bridge, Kaminski said the plan was to use a “back and ram technique between the two cutters and we will be trying to gain headway up the river to back and ram, break ice, then we come back down here.”

The goal is to break the ice floes so they move smoothly along with the current, he said.

The Bollard out of New Haven, the Hawser from New York and the Pendant have been out on the river since Sunday.

“We use the weight of the cutter, it’s 64 tons, it’s 500 horsepower, and we go full speed to hit the ice,” Kaminski said, describing what his crews have been doing for the past four days. “The cutter will hove to and rise up out of the water, and the weight sinks down and breaks the ice. We use the throttles on the engine to wash all the broken ice away.”

On Wednesday, all three tugs working together for five hours managed to break up the ice over a 2-mile span, Kaminski said.

“I want to be a very aggressive, effective advocate for the Coast Guard,” Blumenthal said. “Connecticut loves the Coast Guard for many reasons. I feel very close to it.”

The marine branch of the military tends to be neglected in public opinion, he said.

“We tend to think of all the other branches of our armed services sometimes before we think of the Coast Guard. I want to take this picture back to Washington, D.C., and say, ‘You may think of the Coast Guard in terms of saving folks at sea or interrupting drugs, but to have these personal experiences and pictures is much more effective than charts and statistics and numbers,’” said Blumenthal, who is on both the Armed Services and commerce, science, and transportation committees. “A picture is worth a thousand words.”

When the Coast Guard arrived Sunday in the Haddam/East Haddam area of the Connecticut River, there were two ice jams — one 3 miles long a mile north of Essex, and the other that crews are battling now, a 4- to 5-mile-long blockage above Haddam.

Chief Petty Officer Derek Strope, who runs the Bollard, said he’s been keeping in close touch with the captain of the Lady Katherine, which has been docked at Harbor Park in Middletown for more than a week.

“At one point, his boat was going over the seawall,” Strope said.

The original goal was to get to him in Middletown.

“I ask him every day what the water level is doing,” Strope said. “Each day, it either stays the same or is receding 4 or 5 inches.”

Mechanical issues are part of the nature of this type of work, said Coast Guard Sector Commander Capt. Andrew E. Tucci, who oversees all operations in Connecticut and Long Island Sound.

The Bollard’s rudder broke Wednesday, he said.

“You’re working in this really heavy ice and you’re smashing into it in a 50-year-old boat,” Tucci said. “Earlier today, they had a steering casualty. It broke and they had to rig their emergency steering gear and come back down underneath the bridge and emergency call the bridge to open up for them.

“So it was great seamanship on his part,” Tucci said, gesturing toward Stroup.

“When the ice breaks apart, it all starts coming down and it’ll jam up. It converges together, when you’re going with a 3 knot current, and if you get caught up in it, it just takes you with it,” Tucci said. “You have to fight to get in and out of it. We’re just high enough that our mast and antennas would hit the bridge if they didn’t open, so we had to go to emergency steering system.”

“They’re working on the open deck, literally with lines and pulleys and blocks to shift that heavy rudder around,” Tucci said.

Stroup has his crew go out at sunrise, “and go as long as we can. Usually we have a casualty every day or two on one of the boats where we’ll have to come back in for repairs.”

It’s often painstaking and sometimes backbreaking work.

“We aim for a long day and some of them are long — we get a lot of good work (done) — and others are abbreviated by a casualty,” Stroup said.

Locals are saying they’ve seen nothing like it in 25 years on the river.

The ice dam on the Connecticut River is the largest issue Coast Guard crews are currently tackling, Tucci said.

The Bollard started out in Bridgeport and Long Island right after New Year’s day, he said, working in the harbor areas that were freezing up.

“We had a power plant in New Haven. They were really worried about the water intake, so some of our crews were going over there to break them up a couple days ago,” Tucci said. “We’re working with limited crews, old boats, they’re slow. This thing will chug along at 11 knots, maybe 12 mph, downhill with a wind behind you. So they’re not fast boats — they’re hard, tough vessels. It’s not high-tech.”

What quickly became a tourist attraction over the past week and a half, has drawn people from throughout southern New England to places like Haddam Meadows and Goodspeed Landing to ogle the ice and its progress downstream.

“The environmental impact of ice on this river can be very costly and long lasting, so this service is tremendously valuable,” Blumenthal said. “There’s a reason why folks are on the shore cheering. They appreciate it. The damages to marinas, to commercial facilities, as well as the environmental impacts of ice can be devastating.”