David McDonald, petty officer of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Shackle, watches as the crew of the Bridle, a 65-foot ice-breaking tug for the U.S. Coast Guard, ties the cutter to its mate. The cutters left Bath to break ice on the Kennebec River to Gardiner Tuesday morning. The annual ice-breaking operation is necessary to reduce the risk of coastal flooding as snow and ice melt, sending water out to sea.  Kathleen O’Brien / The Times Record

BATH — Three U.S. Coast Guard cutters launched from Merrymeeting Bay Tuesday to cut ice on the Kennebec River to Gardiner.

Lieutenant Matthew Odom, chief of waterways management and public affairs officer for the Coast Guard, said the annual operation, known as the Kennebec River Spring Break-Out, prevents coastal flooding and keep the river open for commercial shipping.

According to Odom, 90% of the home heating oil consumed by the Northeast is delivered by barge.

Cutting the ice also reduces the risk of ice jams, which form when broken pieces of ice get caught in the river. Ice jams can change rapidly with the tide, causing new jams to settle, further restricting the flow of water.

“As the temperature in the spring begins to warm, you have a lot of water run-off and there’s a high probability of flooding on those coastal communities,” said Odom. “Our goal is not only to break the ice but to also flush the water down the river so the water has somewhere to go during the spring.”

Officials in Augusta kept a close eye on one such ice jam in January, which caused the Kennebec River to rise just shy of flood stage, as reported by the Kennebec Journal. The water level peaked at 11.84 feet, closing in on its 12-foot maximum, causing officials to block off a portion of a parking lot on Front Street in Augusta.

In 2015, a combination of high tidewaters and heavy rain caused the river to flood a Central Maine Power substation across the street from Bath Iron Works. As a result, Central Maine Power was forced to cut the power to the shipyard and 4,000 customers in Bath, West Bath and Phippsburg until the water level receded.

The Northern New England sector of the Coast Guard manages the operation in close partnership with Maine Emergency Management Agency, National Weather Service, U.S. Geological Survey, Maine Department of Transportation and Maine Marine Patrol. Representatives from each agency have been meeting weekly to assess the risk of flooding along the Kennebec River.

Seaman Travis Glenn Loomis (left) and BM1 David McDonald, petty officer of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Shackle, (right) stand aboard the ice-breaking tug. The Shackle and its mate, the Bridle, left Bath to break ice on the Kennebec River to Gardiner Tuesday morning. Kathleen O’Brien / The Times Record 

“The Coast Guard always stands ready to help the citizens of Maine,” said Chief Warrant Officer Kevin Morgan, ice mission manager for Coast Guard Sector Northern New England. “We are the only agency in Maine equipped with icebreakers and we’re proud to lead this effort that protects citizens and resources along the Kennebec.”

Coast Guard cutters Shackle, Bridle, and Tackle, all 65-foot ice-breaking tugs stationed across Maine, participate in the multi-day operation. The cutters are capable of cutting ice up to a foot thick.

David McDonald, executive petty officer aboard USCGC Shackle, said he expects the cutting process will only take a few days compared to years past due to the mild weather. He said the crew anticipates seeing ice only two to three inches thick, which is good news for the crew who stay on board.

The wheelhouse, small and packed full of everything from equipment that monitors river conditions to coffee mugs, provides respite from the cold, constant wind, but steep steps lead down to a homier space where the crew shares small bunks and one head.

“It’s small, but we make it work,” said McDonald.

Odom said the public should remove their ice fishing shacks as soon as possible, if safe to do so, and should refrain from being on the river during icebreaking operations.

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