Coast Guard Cutter MACKINAW – Summer 1959

The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.

By Gordon Macaulay

To be aboard the United States Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw on one of her spring battles is a stirring and wonderful privilege. One who loves ships can’t help but feel part of the key turning in the lock of a massive door which will open to him in the months to come, untold hours of pleasure, as he joins the ranks of the “shipwatchers” who gather at points along these Great Lakes to watch the great ships glide gracefully by. In more lucid and practical moments he can reflect on mercenary reasons for unlocking the door, such as the economies and commerce of two nations. To be aboard this ship a second time is still a wonderful experience but it also brings into perspective the effort, planning and co-operation involved, from the Ninth Coast Guard Headquarters in Cleveland, to the Mackinaw’s skipper, Captain John P. German, Commander E. J. Bodenlos, Officer Commanding Sault Base, and the captains of the ore and grain carriers waiting for the way to be cleared.

Three years ago I was accorded permission to board the icebreaker as she made her preliminary run from the Sault to open water. This trip followed a comparatively mild winter and the ship made her task look almost ridiculously easy. Ice extended only from Gros Cap at the source of the St. Marys River, less than ten miles to Ile Parisienne in Whitefish Bay; and though the ice ranged in thickness from 18 to 30 inches, the powerful ship stopped only once and that time in a windrow estimated at 15 feet deep. The vessel did proceed past Whitefish Point to investigate a field of floating ice in the open lake but after nibbling at it for a few moments, disdainfully turned her back on it as not worthy of her attention.

Tackling the Whitefish Bay ice, the ship made seven parallel cuts about a mile apart, then cut diagonally across these, finally cavorting gaily here, there and everywhere like a playful puppy. Weather, particularly wind directions, is the all important factor on the icebreaking forays and on one day in particular Mother Nature was in a most generous mood, serving up rain, light, southeasterly winds, a heavy fog precipitated by the warm winds across the cold ice and climaxing with a spectacular evening show which included a violent electrical storm and a mixture of rain, snow and sleet driven briefly by a wind velocity of 70 miles per hour. The fog persisted through all this and so did the Mackinaw, working for eight hours in confined areas strictly on radar. It was a badly battered ice field that moved slowly toward the open lake. Capricious Mother Nature withdrew her favors quickly however, served up strong westerly gales for days on end and gave the Mackinaw and the freighters a hectic two weeks.

This spring I was again granted permission to board the ship. Conditions were different, vastly different. Aerial surveys were unable to accurately position the end of the ice field in Lake Superior. One of the severest winters since records were officially established had frozen Whitefish Bay solid, right to Whitefish Point. Beyond was a tumbled, up­heaved icy “Sahara” seemingly limitless. Weather conditions up to this point had been most unfavorable with no rain and well below freezing temperatures every night and indeed most days, including almost constant westerly winds. But the Great Lakes fleet was anxious to move, for it was imperative. American companies were desperate because of a threatened steel strike by early summer, also recession had curtailed operations in 1958. Recovery was sooner and much stronger than anticipated. Canadian companies were uncertain as to just what they faced with the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway but were anxious to get what business there was before foreign shipping could compete.

On the clear, bright and cold morning of April 15th, the powerful Mackinaw eased her bulk into the Sault Locks and shortly thereafter was outward bound to take up the challenge. Strategy dictated keeping the solid ice of Whitefish Bay as intact as possible, thus holding the heavy ice in the open lake where it was hoped that favorable easterly winds would get it moving and disperse it. With the sureness and confidence of a surgeon the ship knifed into 20 to 30 inch ice at Gros Cap and cut a thin incision through the main body of Whitefish, then tackled the jumbled mass beyond as the ship plowed head on into windrows and pressure ridges from six to over twenty feet in depth. She made no attempt to pick her way. Whatever lay in her course she hit and though nearly stopped on several occasions, clawed and pushed her way through. Ninety miles from where she entered the ice the vessel broke into the clear to chase the sun below the rim of the great Lake, shimmering in a magnificent mantle of golds, blues, purples, reds and greens.

The Mackinaw was now in a hurry. She was a lady with a date. Shortly after she had cleared the Sault Locks that Wednesday morning, three Pittsburgh Steamship Company vessels cleared Two Harbors, Minnesota, with the first iron ore cargoes of 1959 destined for the hungry blast furnaces of the Lower Lakes, whose pantries were becoming a bit bare. Shortly before dawn on April 16th, the Mackinaw met the Philip R. Clarke, the Arthur M Anderson and the Cason J. Callaway just to the east of the Keweenaw Peninsula and turned to meet the rising sun over the now cold, gun-metal grey lake, the temperature again being way below freezing. Well to the southwest of Caribou Island the ships entered the ice field which became steadily heavier as they progressed east. Now Captain John German and his crew had to exercise every care.

Daintily they guided the Mackinaw around the heavier windrows, the three ore carriers obediently following astern. Their presence created the need for even greater care. If the icebreaker got too far ahead, the ice closed behind, making progress for the ore carriers difficult, if not impossible. Regularly the Mackinaw was almost halted by heavy ridges and if the lead ship, the Clarke, were allowed too close and with nowhere to go but straight ahead, she could easily come climbing over the ice­ breaker’s stern as another vessel did several years ago. Constant radio phone contact was maintained, with the Anderson and Callaway taking their cues from the other vessels.

Reports from smaller cutters working in the lower St. Marys River, Straits of Mackinac and in Green Bay had to be gathered and compiled with the Mackinaw’s progress, then relayed to Cleveland from whence would flash the green light for other anxious carriers to set out when conditions were deemed suitable. The helicopter was on a standby basis with her pilot, Lieutenant Commander James Sigman, of Michigan, uncomfortably ready for emergency in his rubber survival suit, while from all parts of the ship came one of the most common sounds on shipboard, the clatter of chipping hammers, while other crew members scurried and climbed about with paint brushes and cans of paint, moving one newsman to remark that if one stood too long in one place he would find himself painted to the ship!

Slow, but steady time was made by the ships in clear beautiful weather as the icebreaker finally entered the solid ice of Whitefish Bay by the precise channel she had broken from it the day before. Not if it could possibly be helped should this ice be disturbed. By early afternoon the ships had reached Gros Cap and like a proud general the icebreaker pulled to one side as her three charges slipped gracefully by, according her the full marine salute of three long and two short.

Grateful that the initial operation had gone so smoothly, Coast Guard officials knew the job was only begun and they were proved to be so right. On Friday a heavy rain, accompanied by strong east winds, swept the area. This would have been ideal if it had kept up but by Saturday the wind was back in the prevailing westerlies and there it stayed for days. The ice broke up in Whitefish Bay allowing the heavy lake ice to pile into the bottleneck formed by Whitefish Bay narrowing at the St. Marys River. It was up to the Mackinaw to “pop the cork.” Vessels were converging on the area from both directions. Commander Bodenlos at Sault Base put his finger on them as they entered the St. Marys River at DeTour, sent a dozen or so at a time into the Upper River, making sure the higher powered ships were leading the way and that the Mackinaw convoyed them to the open lake. Hard, – sometimes dangerous, – always tedious work, the ship would meet a downbound convoy and escort it back. Vessels valued at many millions of dollars, cargoes adding more millions, and the lives of crewmen, as well as the necessity of getting the cargoes through with utmost dispatch, rested on this one ship and the care and skill of her crew. Two weeks after she started into Lake Superior the ship had completed this phase of her work for another year, – no damage, no injury, hundreds of ships and thousands of tons of cargo speeded on their way.

Before tackling the Whitefish area, the ship had opened Thunder Bay, in Lake Huron, into Bay City; released the limestone carriers in the Rogers City area; and opened up Traverse Bay, the Straits of Mackinac and Green Bay into Escanaba. Indeed the vessel had had little rest since last autumn. She operated almost all winter in the St. Clair and Detroit River area and into Toledo. Other times she was down in Lake Michigan clearing harbors and generally assisting the railroad ferries in Lake Michigan having troubles occasioned by the unusually severe winter conditions. On her springtime icebreaking duties, after opening an area she then turned it over to smaller consorts such as the Kaw from Cleveland, Acacia from Port Huron, Mesquite from the Sault and the Sundew, Woodbine and tug Arundel. This task force was directed by radio phone from the Mackinaw.

The icebreaker operated this spring with a crew of 15 officers and 115 enlisted men in addition to 17 Coast Guard Reserve personnel and the helicopter pilot. Home port for the ship is Cheboygan, Michigan, on the northwest shoulder of Lake Huron, where she is only hours running time from any trouble spot on Lakes Huron, Michigan or Superior. In 1958 she spent 213 days out of home port and travelled nearly 16,000 miles. She participated in saving two lives, assisted 37 other persons in danger from capsizings and similar mishaps. In addition to standing by several ships in danger, she aided 288 other vessels valued at many millions of dollars. She has saved untold thousands of dollars of shore property by breaking ice jams, particularly in the St. Clair and Detroit areas, through eliminating flooding danger from ice jams.

Much of her work is done at the time of year that most navigation aids are ashore, adding to the difficulties of her navigating officers. When other things fail they are usually capable of improvisation. This March, leading a Columbia Transportation vessel into Bay City, the ships were stopped by fog. There was too much interference from shore installations such as buildings, tall stacks, etc., to make radar dependable. One of the ship’s officers and several of her crew went out on the ice with all the cardboard boxes they could find. Nearly three miles from the ship they sighted the range lights leading into Bay City. Lining these up they backtracked, laying the boxes on the ice. The icebreaker followed these “navigation aids” safely in, with the Columbia vessel behind, then safely followed them out again.

It would be unfair to close a story of the Mackinaw without specific mention of her crew.  In several dealings with the Coast Guard I could not be convinced other than that “Public Relations” must be an integral part of their training. It is exemplified aboard the Mackinaw to the fullest degree. Their courtesy, co-operations and friendliness is overwhelming. Each expression of appreciation is met with a cheery, “It’s a pleasure to have you aboard, sir.” By word and deed they are able to make you feel they really mean it even though one is aware at mealtime and at bedtime they must put themselves out to accommodate you.  Between times you are underfoot asking questions or peering over their shoulders as they attempt to plot the ship’s position. Tour of this amazing vessel are arranged below decks but guests are pretty well given the run of the ship otherwise. Every care is taken to assure the safety of guests. Let one wander into a dangerous position or place, as “landlubbers” display a peculiar knack of doing, and instantly a crewman courteously, but firmly, sets him straight, fully explaining the danger. If risk must be taken, as sometimes in the case of newsmen, they are fully briefed and decked out in survival equipment, safety belts, life preservers – and no nonsense! It would be impossible to make all those who contribute so much, but through the pages of Inland Seas, I should like to say publicly to Captain John German, Connecticut; Commander James Bills, Michigan; Commander Robert Burkheimer, Wisconsin; Lieutenant Charles Leckron, Illinois; Lieutenant James McLeaish, Texas; and to all the other officers and the crew of the Mackinaw, “Gentlemen, you made it a pleasure to be aboard.”

Read More of Inland Seas Online


Learn more about our award-winning Inland Seas© journal and become an Inland Seas member