Through a sea of ice

Mother nature doesn't like to be tampered with. Tornadoes twist telephone poles into pretzels in the Midwest. Flash floods belittle cordons of sandbags in the Southwest. Hurricanes defy everything in their paths along the Gulf Coast.

But in the Northeast, nature unsheathes a different kind of weapon: cold. Along with it comes ice -- often miles of it, thick and hard, headstrong and antisocial.

The 57-member crew of the United States Coast Guard cutter Bittersweet know only too well. In winter, when harbors and channels etching the New England coast solidify, the 1,000-gross-ton Bittersweet and other Coast Guard buoy tenders take on the tough task of breaking ice. This year the ice man has cometh with a vengeance. The region has recorded the coldest January since the 1870s.

For the Bittersweet crew, ice-breaking usually means 14- hour days and few free weekends. It also means cold fingers and numbed noses -- the types of conditions somehow not mentioned in the recruiting brochures. Crew members have their own ways of lightening the toil, however: friendly free- for-alls in the corridors, grudge-match backgammon games, a favorite soap opera. Jan. 15 was no exception.

At 8 a.m. on a steel-gray day, the bulky cutter edged away from the ice-crystallized wharf in Nantucket harbor. Nearby, snow-dusted fishing trawlers sat benumbed in their solidified moorings. Encrusted docks poked into the inert harbor like icy fingers. Nantucket harbor freezes over almost every year, usually in February. But this year the inlet froze early, threatening to seal off the island's 5,000 year-round residents from food and fuel supplies.

The ship's task for the day was simple enough: Cut a path through ice-choked Nantucket Sound for the Uncatena, the ferry that shuttles people and supplies between the island and Woods Hole, Mass. First, however, the ship had to escort an oil barge back to the mainland. The 47-foot-wide tanker had slipped into Nantucket the night before, under Coast Guard escort, to drop off 425,000 gallons of overdue fuel oil.

"Captain, it looks like a fine Florida day," a crew member quipped as the ship groaned a parting whistle to Nantucket.

Leo Tyo grinned. A 21-year veteran of the Coast Guard, 13 of them at sea, the captain knew they weren't in for a tropical day. But any sign of a sense of humor after nine long days of breaking ice was no bad omen. Much of the joviality could probably be attributed to the captain himself. His low-key brand of skippering has earned him the kind of popularity a politician would envy. No mutinies likely aboard this ship.

Overnight a northerly wind had "rafted" some of the ice into two-foot ridges in the area. Nantucket is particularly vulnerable to such rafting, since the island is shaped like a crab and the harbor sits at the pivot of the two pincers. Nevertheless, the ship convoy slowly sliced through.

On the bridge crew members were busy plotting the course on navigation charts. Norman Smith, lean and spare, stood rigid at the helm, twirling the brass wheel to the command of the bridge officer.

Below deck, the sweet smell of Canadian bacon wafted through the olive drab corridors. Ernie Whatley and Richard Gabrielski, two of five cooks aboard, had just served breakfast. They were hunched over a stainless-steel grill filled with sizzling peppers, steaks, and onions.

Cooking three meals a day for a deck crew of 50 (plus seven officers) is no short order. Appetites run large and the compliments run small. But Whatley and Gabrielski have learned just when to sprinkle a few extra chocolate jimmies on the cake or add a little more sweetener to the sweet-and- sour sauce.

"You just have to treat them like kids," Gabrielski says, twisting his Pancho Villa mustache. But even cooking to order doesn't always work. "A lot of guys don't like liver," Gabrielski adds. "So if we serve liver, we get some flak."

"When people can't complain about anything else," Whatley chimes in, "they complain about the cooking."

Sometimes, however, the beefing is warranted. When a cook gets up on the wrong side of the bed, it seems, so do the eggs.

By noon, the Bittersweet (named, like all Coast Guard buoy tenders, after a plant) had escorted the oil barge back to Cape Cod. It picked up the Uncatena, which by now was well on its way to Nantucket from Woods Hole. Although a slushy soup stretched the entire 30-mile route, the ship was slicing through in good time.

The ship is muscled by a 1,200 horsepower electric motor. Two 700 horsepower diesel engines power twin electric generators, which, in turn, provide the current to run the electric motor that turns an eight-foot screw (propeller). Part of the task of keeping the diesel-electric workhorses tuned falls to red-haired Dean Soper, a machinery technician first class. To him, the throaty growl coming from the paint-can-sized pistons in the diesels resembles a Bach concerto. A skewed note instinctively sends him running for a crescent wrench.

Stocky and flush-faced, Soper first began tinkering with carburetors and drive shafts in a service station when he was 16. Like most of the other 16 engine-room workers, he doesn't mind the sweaty conditions (85 degrees F. in winter, 105 in summer).

"I've always liked engines," he yells over the roar of the engine. (Ear plugs are standard equipment in the engine room.) "I don't think I could work out on the cold deck."

By early afternoon, the Bittersweet was bulling its way back out to sea. The only task that lay ahead was to escort the Uncatena on its return run to Woods Hole. So far, so good. The ferry trip out had taken about five hours, compared with the 15-hour marathon a few days before. A quick three-hour journey home, the crew thought, and they could enjoy their first night out in 10 days. It wasn't to be.

By midafternoon an incoming tide had layered icy Nantucket harbor with a foot-thick sea of oatmeal. Worse, it was starting to snow. And wet snow bonds the ice together, acting as a cushion against the butt of the ship's bow. "The snow makes it a lot harder to move," Captain Tyo fretted, sculpturing breathy ghosts as he spoke. "It is even more difficult than having hard ice up against the bow."

With the Uncatena trailing behind, the cutter inched out of the harbor. Just beyond the island jetty the cutter plowed to a stop. The snow oatmeal had turned into toffee. The bridge officer backed the ship and rammed forward a few yards.* Again he backed up. Again only a few yards.

Three hours later the Nantucket lighthouse still lay just off the ship's stern. For all the backing and ramming, the ship had moved only a few hundred yards. In fact, for a while, the deck officers would mark their progress like a football linesman. They tossed cups of coffee overboard after each ram.

"We made about a yard on that one," one hand announced after surveying the brown spot on the snow.

"I don't think so," another quipped. "I think the ice just shifted backward."

The Bittersweet wasn't the only one struggling with an obstinate ice. Earlier, another Coast Guard cutter, the Evergreen, had set out from Woods Hole to help carve a route for the ferry. But that cutter, too, soon stuck in the snowy quicksand, about two miles outside the harbor.

There are no nautical tricks to help punch through ice. So the crew of the Bittersweet used what seems to work best: perseverance. They rammed and retreated for nearly four hours, finally opening up a fissure off the port side. The captain was summoned on deck. Soon the bridge was aswarm with curious crew members.

"Left ten," the bridge officer crowed, squinting into the sleety night.

"Left ten," the helmsman echoed.

The black snout of the ship lumbered toward the fissure in the morass of ice and snow.

"Midships."

"Midships."

"Right standard."

"Aye, right standard."

"C'mon get through there," an enthusiastic deck hand joined in. Several thrusts later the ship pried open the crack, crawling forward into more open water with the Uncatena in slow pursuit. "I think we have reached the end of Loch Lomond," a relieved Captain said.

Yet one task still lay ahead: breaking out the Evergreen and leading the ferry back to the mainland. A short time later, a pinhole of light shone through the sooty night. It was the Evergreen's searchlight. The Bittersweet snuggled up alongside and helped ease the sister ship out of its icy mooring. The convoy headed on for Woods Hole.

The Bittersweet docked that night at 10:30, 14 1/2 hours after its day had begun. As the ship edged into a chilly berth, word has passed from the bridge: Be at the ship by 7:30 the next morning for more ice-breaking.

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