ABOARD THE COAST GUARD CUTTER MORRO BAY - The crew of the 140-foot icebreaker began blasting ice chunks away from its hull with streams of compressed air and throttled up the ship's 1,250-horsepower diesel engines.
Slowly, the Morro Bay broke the grip of the ice pinning it to the pier at Rhinecliff early Wednesday and proceeded into the semi-frozen Hudson River.
The Morro Bay is one of five Coast Guard vessels that plow channels for tugs and barges - including some owned by a Long Island company - that make 300 trips each winter to keep residents and businesses in the Albany region supplied with home heating oil, gasoline and aviation fuel. The icebreakers also allow upstate companies to get commodities such as cement to markets to the south.
"Our mission is to maintain the navigable waterway and keep commerce moving," said Lt. Cmdr. Douglas Wyatt, the Morro Bay's captain for the past year and a half.
Some of that product travels on tug-and-barge combinations owned by Bouchard Transportation Co., which is based in Melville. Its owner, Mort Bouchard, said his vessels carry petroleum products up the river to Albany several times a week. "We couldn't operate on the Hudson in the winter without the Coast Guard," he said. "They do a fabulous job under extremely adverse conditions."
"We're having a cold winter," said Wyatt, 49. The crew of 17 has already encountered ice up to a foot thick and has seen ice accumulate as far south as West Point, 46 miles from lower Manhattan. " "It's getting much thicker every night."
The Morro Bay accelerated south to 12 mph, vibrating as it pushed through 6 to 8 inches of "brash," chunks of ice that had been broken up. The cutter's reinforced bow can chop through 3 feet of ice - even more by running up onto an ice sheet and using the ship's 660 tons to crush it.
Wyatt's first destination was Crum Elbow at Hyde Park. There, the river makes an S-turn and forms a choke point that traps ice. Blocks of ice the size of cars flowed downstream and filled the river, bank to bank. The Morro Bay shuddered, rumbled and swayed.
Scott Kanter, 18, of Wantagh, can feel the bumpy passage but doesn't see much of the ice because he is a fireman whose job is to tend to the twin diesels. He's been in the Coast Guard for three months. "I like it," he said of the icebreaking duty. "I learn a lot" and he's anticipating being promoted to machinery technician in a few months.
Crum Elbow is choked with ice, but it's not thick enough to stop the tugs, so Wyatt ordered a reversal of course. Approaching Kingston, the Morro Bay encountered the only commercial traffic of the day: the tugboat Zeus pushing a barge loaded with cement on a trip from Catskill to Flushing.
The tug's captain, Paul Nowacki, said he travels the river once a week during the winter. "A lot of times they have to come and get us out of the ice because we'll be at a complete stop," he said. "You can't do it without the ice being broken by the Coast Guard."