If you've looked out on the Connecticut River this winter, you may have seen something a bit unexpected: a Coast Guard cutter. It's called the USCG Bollard, and it's been on the river for weeks, dutifully breaking up ice.
Generally, there's one really important rule when you're piloting a ship: don't hit stuff. But when Aron Brewer was driving the Bollard recently, he ignored that. "It's not often the Coast Guard actually pays you money to run into something," he said. "Now, I got ice, and they're telling me, 'Hey, go hit it!' It's nice."
Brewer is the officer in charge of a seven-man crew aboard the Bollard, a 65-foot Coast Guard cutter that's been breaking ice since the 1960s. The ship has a powerful engine and a thick steel hull that's great for smashing ice. Our journey began at a dock in Middletown. Brewer's crew ran through a quick safety check, assessing conditions on the Connecticut River.
After a few minutes, we were ready to head out, but the Bollard was frozen to where it was docked on the river. Brewer spent a few minutes ramming the ship back and forth to shake ice loose. "There's times where it gets thick enough that you're just backing and ramming," he said.
Eventually, the ship set out upon the river, cutting through cold winds under a bright sun. "This is actually going to be a good day to break ice," Brewer said. "Even though it's brutally cold, it's the sunlight -- those UV rays -- that help break some of this stuff up in conjunction with what we're doing."
The ship set a course north, against the current. Brewer said the technique behind ice breaking is simple. "There's not a real science to it. You just hit it and keep hitting it," he joked. He throttled the ship forward and we slammed right into a large chunk of stacked ice. Cracks rippled across the river's frozen surface and smaller chunks of ice broke free, flowing downstream.
Brewer said the Bollard's mission is vital. If the ship isn't breaking ice, the river will freeze, and refreeze, creating stacked layers of ice. When spring comes, whatever's on the river is going to go with it. That means those mini icebergs will unmoor, flowing downstream in large groups, causing damage to docks and riverfront property. "If you're not breaking it," Brewer said, "...when it goes to melt, it's going to melt all in their yard."
There's also a commercial component to the Bollard's mission, despite traffic on the river not being what it used to be. "My understanding," Brewer said, "is back in the 80s, mid-90s, the commercial barge traffic that'd come up and down the Connecticut River was pretty heavy. Allowing those paths to be broke for the heating oil and the coal barges that would come up to Hartford was pretty vital, but that's slowed down significantly now."
These days, Brewer said, the Bollard responds to commercial requests as they come in. As we headed back to the dock, he told me the ship's next mission is to clear ice for a company that runs bald eagle tours on the river. Then the Bollard will head back north, continuing to break apart ice on a river that seems to never stop freezing.