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The Coolest Ride Up the Bay

Winter boating on board the Coast Guard Cutter Chock

I can’t relate to the three things the chief of the boat is telling me.
    “Try to be holding onto something all the time.”
    “We’ll arrive in Chesapeake City at 1 or 2pm or maybe much later.”
    “We have ear protection if you want it.”
    It is 8am. We are smoothly and silently breaking through two inches of ice in Curtis Bay in Baltimore, heading out to the main channel of the Bay, then north. Making nine knots (about 10 mph) on a 53-mile trip, my math figures we will comfortably arrive in time for lunch.
    It will be several hours before I fully appreciate what Chief Tracy Randall is trying to tell me.
    “Last year at this time I was stationed in Key West, fishing and swimming and tanning,” the chief said. “This is different.”

Coast Guard Chief Tracy Randall and her crew aboard the ice cutter Chock had to plow through parts of the Bay frozen to 12 inches deep.

    This winter, the chief and her crew have been breaking ice.
    On this winter morning, the temperature hovers between 15 and 20 degrees. I’m supposed to be doing a ride-along on the Chock to write a story. In reality, I am curing a bad case of cabin fever. I want to be on the water; any water. Even ice water.
    The 65-foot Chock is built for ice breaking; it is rated for 18 inches of ice, although Coast Guard urban legend says it can handle 24 inches. I hope not to find out. It carries a crew of eight, and on this day, three passengers: two Coast Guard public information officers and one Bay Weekly writer.
    On my first military operational mission, I’m impressed with the knowledge, courtesy and professionalism of the crew. I have never been called sir so many times in one day.
    As we move up the channel, we’re breaking out a path through the Bay to the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal to Chesapeake City. Then, the Chock will continue its mission to points north and unknown to me. The Chock is an active U.S. military vessel, so its movements are classified.
    Heading out of the Patapsco River to the main channel, I see a Chesapeake Bay very different from the one I have experienced in my 20 years of boating here. On this beautiful, clear day (did I mention cold?), I alternate my time between the warmth of the wheelhouse or the cabin and the bitter cold of the deck.
    We are alone on the water. There’s an uneven coating of ice, mostly about two inches thick. The Chock pushes through easily. In some places, the water is clear of ice. I expect as we head north more ice, but within a short distance the variation in ice cover is unexpected. A solid ice cover suddenly becomes open water. Then a few hundred yards later, ice again. Also unexpected: the large number of birds, particularly bald eagles, on the ice.
    For the first four hours of the trip, we make steady progress. Then, in the area of the Sassafras River, the ice thickens. I am about to understand the three important things the chief told me on departure.
    Bowswain’s Mate Steve Klika is at the helm. At four to six inches, ice starts to slow the boat, but we are able to make steady progress. The ice seems to thicken, and our speed slows even more. Finally, we stop. If the Coast Guard icebreaker gets stuck, who do you call?
    It’s time for “back and ram,” Klika says.
    Back and ram is exactly what it sounds like. The boat is backed up about 100 feet, then thrown into forward, hitting the wall of ice at full speed. Everyone gets a handgrip as the boat crashes into the ice. The sound is deafening as we move forward again. Looking down, I see a good 12 inches of ice at our side.
    As we move farther north, we have to do the back and ram more often, until it’s the only way to move forward. One hundred feet back, then perhaps 30 feet forward. I estimate we were now making about one knot, and we’re still 17 miles from our destination. Now I understand what the chief meant.
    The crew is prepared for a multi-day mission. I’m not, and I ponder the prospect of spending a lot more time on this trip than I planned. A 65-foot boat is tight for a crew of eight, and there are an additional three of us on board. Given the close quarters and the prospect of many more hours together, I hope this is a friendly crew.
    Then a crewman asks the navigator where we are. “We’re half way to get a map. Figure it out yourself!” the navigator says, and everybody laughs. This is a good group, I conclude. I will survive spending the night with them — if I have to.
    My anxiety turns out to be premature. After an hour of back and ram, the ice eases. A steady pace brings us to Chesapeake City about 2:30pm.
    Passengers depart, and the Chock goes off to check on some problematic navigation aids and break more ice.
    After a long and cold day on the water, my itch had been scratched.
    A few days later, I get a call from Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Would I like to go out on one of their icebreakers?
    Forgetting how cold, tired and hungry I was when I stepped off the Chock, I say yes.
    So I find myself on the Chester River aboard the Sandusky, an 80-foot DNR hydrographic vessel out of the Kent Narrows area. Every bit as cold. I think I’ll wait until spring for my next  boating trip.