Icebreaker a vital lifeline for frozen Smith Island
Author: Susan Parker, Delmarva Now
Published: 9:00 AM EST January 9, 2018
Updated: 9:00 AM EST January 9, 2018

Icebreaker a vital lifeline for frozen Smith Island

Chapter 1

Aquatic Lifeline

SMITH ISLAND, MD (Delmarva Now) -- At 6 a.m., the ice-frosted dock at Somers Cove Marina in Crisfield sparkled in pale floodlights under a nearly full moon.

The J. Millard Tawes, an icebreaker owned and operated by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, waited at the dock, although it was difficult to see the ship in the early morning blackness.

“Be careful not to slip on the ice while boarding,” warned a face peering out of the warmth of a snug hat, jacket, scarf and gloves.

On board the J. Millard Tawes, deckhands were busy preparing for the morning trip across Tangier Sound. Today's mission: Maintain a channel cleared of the ice that would impede vital transportation of people and goods between Smith Island and the mainland.

“Make a trip around the deck every 20 minutes during this run,” Capt. Eddie Somers, a 27-year veteran, was telling his deckhands.

Eddie Somers, Captain of the J. Millard Tawes watches as he steers his boat towards Smith Island.

Smith Island is home to around 220 year-round residents, many of them watermen who harvest the bounties of the surrounding waters of the Chesapeake Bay and Tangier Sound. The tiny island with its three separate but intertwined villages — Ewell,Tylerton and Rhodes Point — is located nearly 10 miles from mainland Crisfield.

In good weather, the trip takes around 45 minutes by boat.

See Also: Bonfire on Ice - Tangier residents throw party while frozen in

The ice has been running around 5 inches thick for the past week. Although it doesn't cover the entire Tangier Sound, it tends to freeze near land, where the water is less salty and more shallow. That means boats at both harbors (Crisfield and Ewell) get iced in overnight during below-freezing weather.

The icebreaker's job is to keep crucial supplies and people moving by ensuring a clear channel is maintained on a daily basis.

The importance of maintaining that clear channel cannot be overstated.

Nothing gets there or back except by boat — or in extreme circumstances, by airlift. That includes mail, medicines, groceries, schoolkids, fuel oil and just about everything the islanders need in daily life. Except seafood, which is the island's main export.

Chapter 2

The DNR's biggest icebreaker

Gregg Bortz, chief public information officer for the Maryland DNR, was already on board to greet visitors as they boarded.

“This is just my second trip on this icebreaker,” he said. “The J. Millard Tawes was built in 1941 and operated as a Coast Guard vessel until the early '70s, when it was surplused by the Coast Guard and acquired by the DNR for use on the Chesapeake Bay.”

Bortz said the DNR owns four vessels used for breaking up ice on the bay: The Tawes, based at Somers Cove Marina (which the DNR also owns and operates), the Widener, based in Annapolis, the Sandusky, based at Kent Narrows and a tugboat that operates on the Choptank River as needed.

“The Tawes is the largest of the four at 100 feet, with an icebreaking draft, or width, of 18 feet,” he said. “It's used for various research cruises as needed, and when it's not breaking up ice, it sets navigation buoys.”

Buoys bearing directions like "Oyster Sanctuary" are neatly stacked near the front of the vessel.

Visitors were given a stern briefing about the potential dangers.

“Work in pairs while you're on the boat,” said Somers, after pointing out where life vests could be found. “If you walk around alone, and you fall overboard, nobody will know it until the barge behind us pulls your body out of the sound.”

Somers pointed out where life vests were located, just in case.

PHOTOS: Icebreaker helps supplies reach Smith Island

Chapter 3

Forging a path to Crisfield harbor

The boat, the captain explained, would be closely followed by a fuel barge delivering heating oil to the island communities.

As the icebreaker pulled away from the dock at 6:30 am, it was still dark, but a hint of sunrise was appearing on the horizon. The temperature was about 9 degrees, and the harbor was mostly frozen over. A small patch that looked like water turned out to be thinly iced.

“This is one of the reasons I love my job,” said deckhand Wardell Fennell, nodding at the almost-sunrise. “The beauty of Mother Nature. Every day it's something different to enjoy.”

Fennell said the Crisfield harbor ice looked thicker than it had been the previous day.

“We'll see 4-5 inches of ice today, probably. There's a chunk of ice on deck from yesterday that shows how thick it was yesterday.” That chunk looked to be around 4 inches or so.

Would they be cutting through along the same channel as the day before?

“We don't have to go down the same track. The captain today will have his own track planned out,” said Fennell.

Wardell Fennell, a deckhand on the J. Millard Tawes, operates machinery.

Somerset County schools had announced the previous day the school boat would not make a run to the mainland Tuesday, giving those kids a day off.

But Fennell knew the rest of the story.

“The school boat isn't coming over at all this week because of icy conditions and low tides,” said Fennell. “We don't want anything to happen to the children on board. The tides were really low yesterday, very low.”

But why would a low tide, which had prompted the school boat cancellation the previous day, be more dangerous than a high tide?

“High tide would be fine, but the ice was so thick, didn't want to take a chance. Our normal time to be going out is probably 6 or 6:30 a.m., and we may leave a little early for the school boat,” he said.

Fennell explained how in a low tide, the boat could scrape bottom and get stuck in the mud.

“We can't take that chance with children on board,” he said.

Fennell said depending on weather conditions, more drastic measures are sometimes taken to make sure the kids get to school.

“Sometimes if it's really cold, we go over the night before and spend the night, so we can leave early. This saves us the time it takes to cross over from Crisfield,” he said.

Fennell also said it's never certain what conditions they might encounter until they get there.

“Further over, closer to Smith Island, the ice may be thicker — or it may not be. It depends on how the winds were blowing overnight. If wind is blowing west, it blows the ice away from Crisfield,” he said.

He recalled worse times.

Tangier Island is Smith Island's next-door neighbor in the bay, but the state line runs between them.

Eddie Somers, Captain of the J. Millard Tawes, calls out to his crew on the radio.

“2015 was far worse than this. We were even down in Tangier breaking ice for those folks that year. We don't normally go there,” he said. “They don't have an icebreaker, but the state needs to get approval for us to go in and help. It's not like going out your back door to help a neighbor. It's political, state government to state government.”

Bortz said the DNR works through the Maryland Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Coast Guard to break ice around Tangier Island -- if requested.

As the Tawes pulled out of the harbor, what appeared to be choppy waves were frozen for posterity, motionless and silent. They weren't really waves, but tumbled chunks of ice.

As promised, the fuel barge followed in the wake. It was transporting heating oil to Smith Island, a commodity of critical importance to island residents.

As daylight began to spread, the path forged through the ice the day before was revealed just on the left, frozen over but clearly visible.

Chapter 4

Tangier Sound

Somers has captained the Tawes for 27 years now. It's clear he not only enjoys his job, he is an expert.

His crew that day included Fennell, fellow deckhand Lee Daniels and Ozzie Wilkinson, the boat's engineer.

“We've been out daily this week so far,” said Somers, “but there will be no run tomorrow unless there's a dire emergency, a life or death situation.”

Beginning that evening and continuing throughout the following day, a severe snowstorm brought raging winds and heavy snow to Delmarva and most of the East Coast.

Like the previous day, the tide was running low. At one point the icebreaker was audibly scraping its way through 4 feet of iced-over water.

A view of the ice remnants of a dock in Smith Island.

“And the tide's still going out,” said Daniels, who is from Wenona. “See those trees over there to the right? That's Wenona.”

Up in the bridge, Somers discussed with Daniels whether to pull up one buoy on the return trip. It was iced in and the crew was concerned it might break off and become a danger to other boats in the area.

Despite the early-morning and overnight frigid temps, it turned out the channel forged the previous day was holding pretty well.

There was some freezing evident, but the mail boat and a couple other boats were able to get through without the icebreaker's help. Most of the central portion of the sound was completely free of ice.

That, said Daniels, was because the water's saltier in the middle of the sound, and unlike freshwater, which freezes at 32 degrees, saltwater doesn't begin to freeze until it drops to 28.4 degrees.

Much waving and yelling ensued as the two boats passed the icebreaker on their way to Crisfield. The barge behind the Tawes, however, needed help getting close enough to the fuel dock.

Somers recalled a time in the early 2000s when it got so cold, the Wicomico River froze. That year, he said, the Tawes needed extra help from the Coast Guard to free a couple of fuel oil barges from the iced-up river.

“My father remembers 1936 that way, when the sound was frozen over for an extended period of time,” Somers said. “And I can recall 1977, when the Wicomico River stayed frozen from February through March.”

“It still isn't as bad today as it was the winter of 2015,” said Daniels, referencing the same storm Fennell had mentioned earlier.

The bridge contains an array of instruments and complex maps of the water and seabed designed to assist the captain as he makes the trek. Even though he's made this voyage thousands of times in his nearly three decades as captain, Somers relies heavily on this technology to avoid unexpected changes in this constantly changing and fluid environment.

A fuel barge follows the J. Millard Tawes in its wake during an icebreaking journey to Smith Island.

However, the captain and crew are not only well-versed in the latest technology, they can also read the sky and the wind the way most of us read a newspaper or magazine.

Somers said he had spotted a sun dog.

A sun dog?

“Come up on deck and I'll show you,” said Daniels.

He pointed to a pair of short sections of rainbow, one on either side of the sun.

“That's a sun dog,” he said. “That means there's rain or other precipitation coming in the next day or so.”

In this case, it was snow on the way.

“It's probably light shining through those cirrus clouds gathering on the horizon,” said Daniels, pointing skyward.

Chapter 5

Relying on technology and experience

Out on the water, it's critical to be able to read weather signs as well as constantly listening to the radio and keeping an eye on the computer screens and instruments.

"They're both important," said Somers. "Technology and experience."

“The wind pushed the ice toward Crisfield overnight,” Daniels pointed out. “That's why it was so thick and choppy looking when we started out.”

In the ice in front of the boat, an irregularly notched pattern of cracks was visible.

“The ice always looks like that when there's new ice forming,” Daniels said.

Shards of ice could be seen breaking away as the Tawes sliced through, sliding under or skittering across the top of the remaining ice sheet.

As the icebreaker approached Ewell, on the left was another channel that met the vessel's track at a 45-degree angle. It was one the Tawes had cut through the previous day, leading to Tylerton, another Smith Island village.

A white boat was visible in the distance.

A stack of crab pots sits on top of a dock surrounded by ice.

“That's the Tylerton ferry, or mail boat,” Somers said. “If they can get all the way through, they'll be able to get across to Crisfield without our help.”

The radio in the bridge crackled.

“Looks like I'm going to make it,” said the ferry captain.

“You're still moving,” responded Somers drily. “That's a good sign.”

Moments later, the radio crackled again.

“We're in the clear,” said the ferry captain.

Somers, meanwhile, pointed to a cluster of houses that makes up the village of Tylerton.

“See that tall skinny building?” he asked. “That's mine.”

The islanders' reliance on this boat traffic creates an interdependence and cooperative spirit in this community that's often not evident in today's society.

Then there was the buoy question.

“Think we ought to pull up that buoy?” asked Somers again.

“I think so,” said Daniels.

Chapter 6

The end of the journey

As the boat pulled into the Ewell harbor, a tall gray pole on the side deck, one of a pair of identical beams bookending the bridge, began sliding downward.

“That's spuds,” said Somers.

"Spuds" anchors on the floor of the harbor and allows the boat to pivot around for the return trip.

“And it helps us determine the depth of the water,” Somers said.

Eddie Somers, Captain of the J. Millard Tawes, looks for ice in the distance as he steers his boat towards Smith Island.

The icebreaker scraped at the ice surrounding the fuel dock.

The Ewell harbor was iced in around the banks, but the water in the center of the harbor was free of ice, much clearer than Crisfield's harbor.

The icebreaker coasted past crab pots stacked neatly on docks next to shanties. A group of ducks waddled up onto the ice along the bank. But not much else appeared to be happening.

The tug that pushed the fuel barge to Smith Island followed the Tawes back to Crisfield, an uneventful trip, and the journey ended.

The questionable buoy was left for another day.