Listen: Mackinaw icebreaker still beloved despite age and inefficiency

Mainstreet Radio’s Amy Radil reports on the U.S. Coast Guard's Mackinaw and the debate to replace it. The 55-year-old ship is the biggest icebreaker on the Great Lakes, and always greeted enthusiastically by commercial shippers and idle boat watchers alike. The U.S. House approved spending 130-million dollars to replace the Mackinaw, but its fans are nothing if not loyal, and are trying to keep it around.


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AMY RADIL: The Duluth Harbor has a resident ice cutter, the Sundew, which is pretty capable of doing the job in a relatively mild winter like this one. But when the 290-foot-long, 10,000-horsepower Mackinaw comes into port, people just feel safer. The bright-red, flag-bedecked ship has come to liberate the port from winter's grip to inaugurate the spring shipping season, one swath of open water at a time.

The Mackinaw doesn't use blades or motors to break up the ice, just its own 5,000 tons behind a reinforced hull. As the ship makes its way through the harbor and under the Aerial Lift Bridge, it seems to almost coast on the ice. Then slowly, the ice buckles like a wave and goes under as pent-up lake water surges to the surface.

As impressive and capable as the Mackinaw appears, its critics, including the Coast Guard, complain that breaking ice well is all the Mackinaw does. Its advanced age also means a lot of time for maintenance and repairs. The ship's captain is Edward Sinclair.

EDWARD SINCLAIR: When you look at efficiencies with people, machinery, operations, this is no longer state of the art like it was in 1945. And you look at the lifespan of a ship that comes to an end. We've got three engine rooms, whereas most ships now have one engine room. And that means different manning requirements.

AMY RADIL: Specifically, the Mackinaw has a crew of 77 people and an operating budget of $350,000 a year, plus engineering costs. The government has been trying to decommission the ship for over a decade. But somehow, it's always been saved.

Davis Helberg directs the Seaway Port Authority in Duluth, which has lobbied to keep the Mackinaw at least until a suitable replacement is found. The Great Lakes Carriers' Association has even helped pay for repairs to the ship. Helberg says he can see the drawbacks to operating the Mackinaw. But it's the only one commercial shipping companies think can do the job.

DAVIS HELBERG: The shortcoming of the Mackinaw, principally for most of these years since it's been getting some negative attention, is that it only has one purpose. It has one mission. That's icebreaking. When it's needed, it's critically needed. It's absolutely essential, late season, early season. But for the rest of the year, it doesn't, frankly, have a lot to do.

AMY RADIL: The Coast Guard is considering several options for replacing the Mackinaw with more versatile ships, including one option to create two smaller icebreakers instead of one big one. Commercial shipping companies insist if they can't have the Mackinaw indefinitely, they want a breaker with the same capabilities. As the crust of ice gives way to open water, the Mackinaw cuts a path out of the harbor for the first ship of the season, the 1,013-foot Paul Tregurtha, taking a load of coal to Marquette, Michigan.


Mike McClellan, President of the SA McClellan Company of Vessel Agents, echoes the popular sentiment that the Mackinaw is still very much needed.

MIKE MCCLELLAN: I'd like to see them keep the Mackinaw out. It's obviously a very effective icebreaking machine. I mean, we're going through ice that the Sundew probably would get stuck in. And the fact that it helped the Paul Tregurtha get out of the harbor this morning is pretty evident that it's very much required.

AMY RADIL: This year, the ice in the Duluth harbor reached a maximum of 2 feet thick. And the shipping season is starting right on schedule. The Port Authority's Davis Helberg says it was a relatively light winter compared to such recent shipping seasons as 1995 and 1996, when the Mackinaw services were in great demand, and some years when even the Mackinaw couldn't free the ships.

DAVIS HELBERG: The worst that I've seen in 40 years on the waterfront was 1972, when we had about 30 days of northeasterly weather. It's like every vagabond ice cube on Lake Superior and shoved it into this funnel, into this little triangle at the western tip of Lake Superior. And we had ships stuck in the ice in June.

AMY RADIL: This June, the Duluth harbor will likely be ice free. This July, the Coast Guard will announce its decision for an appropriate replacement for the Mackinaw. But no matter what, the ship won't disappear anytime soon. It will remain in use at least until 2006, after which it's expected to become a museum. In Duluth, I'm Amy Radil, Minnesota Public Radio.


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