MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
To the Upper Peninsula of Michigan now for news about a major traffic backup. Those stuck aren't motorists. They're crews on ships. Eighteen freighters are blocked by ice on Lake Superior, some since Sunday. And that's been keeping Mark Gill busy. He's director of Vessel Traffic Services for the U.S. Coast Guard, and he joins from the traffic management Center in Sault Saint Marie, Mich. Welcome to the program.
MARK GILL: Hey, thanks for having me, appreciate it.
BLOCK: And this ice jam that we're talking about is on the eastern end of Lake Superior, near where you are. Why don't you describe the conditions and what happened - why these ships are blocked.
GILL: Sure. There's just east of Whitefish Point - there's a bay - Whitefish Bay - that is kind of acting as an obstruction. We've got a 35-square mile field of ice that's pressed up under pressure of wind, and it's created a blockage if you will. Strips of ice inside are reaching thicknesses of 8 feet, and it's given our icebreakers some - some challenges over the last couple of days. As a result, there are six ships that are eastbound or loaded down, and we have 12 empty ships that are headed up to gain cargo. They're waiting in a holding pattern here while we clear a path to get them through this field of ice.
BLOCK: OK, and how's that going, the path-clearing part of things?
GILL: Well, actually, we just made at least step one of our process to get through. A Canadian Coast Guard ship, Samuel Risley, with two of the down-bound vessels has managed to find a path through this ice. We've brought a second breaker from the Canadian Coast Guard, the Pierre Radisson, to the area. She's an arctic-breaker. She's double the horsepower of anything we have on scene. She's going to give us a hand for the next couple of days to get a track established, and we can move the rest of this traffic through in the next couple of days.
BLOCK: What do the folks on those icebreakers tell you about what that ice sounds like, looks like, feels like?
GILL: Well, some of the chunks that have come out of Lake Superior that are jammed up here our pickup truck-size...
GILL: So that gives you a visual reference. And those chunks that are that size are stacked on top of each other, and they've reached a thickness of 8 feet, as I've described.
BLOCK: And how do they break it up?
GILL: Well, it's so much a break-up. You're picking through it 'til you find openings, and you're kind of shoving pieces away as you make your way through. And then by working side to side, you open it up so that the ships that are following can kind of follow you into it. You're literally creating an open space and then sliding forward and then an open space and sliding forward. So it's very tedious. And it's risky because at night, obviously, you can't see and so you're almost at the behest of Mother Nature there as she blows her winds on it. It shifts around, and so you've got to be really careful. And some of the pieces are jagged. One of the ships took a hole in one of its ballast tanks.
BLOCK: Oh, really?
GILL: And so we're having to take some cargo off of her, put it onto another ship so that she can go to her fare (ph) facility and be fixed.
BLOCK: What are the ships carrying, the freighters that have been trapped there?
GILL: Most are carrying bulk iron ore. Some of them have coal. We still have some coal-fired power plants up here, so that's the two major commodities that are being moved.
BLOCK: We're hearing some of the radio traffic there behind you, Mr. Gill. What are you hearing from the crews on these vessels? What generally are they telling you - or asking you?
GILL: Well, generally, you know, a timeframe. They all want to know - time is money for these vessels. And so they want to know when are we moving?
GILL: When is this breaker going to get here? When am I going to see some movement? A lot of them are trying to coordinate their own activities around that. And when you're dealing with a multi-day event like that, that can be very frustrating to them. So generally, it's calm, cool and collected. But occasionally, you know, people's frustration gets the better of them and you get some flare-ups. But for the most part, it's civil.
BLOCK: Well, I'm going to let you get back to work. I know it's a busy time for you, Mr. Gill. Thanks for talking with us.
GILL: I appreciate you telling our story. And again, thanks for your time.
BLOCK: Mark Gill is director of Vessel Traffic Services for the U.S. Coast Guard at Sault Saint Marie, Mich.
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