ON BOARD THE CHOCK -- Breaking ice is a dogged and fleeting business.
Yesterday, the Chock -- a 65-foot Coast Guard cutter out of Norfolk -- pulled away from the dock at Crisfield and pointed her reinforced steel nose with its underwater "hammer" toward Tangier Island, setting off on a route she had already plowed twice in the previous 18 hours.
Much of the way, it might as well have been the first time.
Wind, tide and the hard freeze overnight had ensured there would be no neat channel of open water to follow.
The 34-year-old Chock splashed through slushy ice. She shimmied and shivered when she came upon thicker floes. Thicker still, the ice rumbled down below. Chief Petty Officer David Jones, his crew of six and a small group of passengers could feel it in their feet.
At times, the Chock broke off sheets of ice or she sent floes, broken as if pieces of a mosaic, scooting out on top of others. Sometimes, her passing sent water spewing out of holes in the ice like geysers. She crossed one patch of thin dark ice -- so smooth and clear it looked like clear water. Here, the cutter's bow sent chips of broken ice skittering across the surface while, behind, the thin ice flexibly accommodated itself to the Chock's wake.
The thickest ice vibrated in anticipation of the ship's arrival, the sun flashing off it like sheet lightning.
"This is a very sturdy boat," said Pat Duffy, 35, boatswain's mate first class. "The bay will kick our butts sometimes, but she's broken a lot of ice. She'll come through."
The Tangier Islanders were glad she did.
Since Friday, the Chock has been the only link to the mainland for the 700 residents of Tangier. She carried seven people with urgent business to Crisfield yesterday morning and 12 in the afternoon. Plenty more wanted to go.
As the Chock approached the dock in Tangier about 2:15 p.m., with nearly half the town standing on the shore to watch, Chief Petty Officer Jones said he just has to set priorities and take only those who really need to get off the island.
"I guess they're not too mad at me," he said. "Nobody's shooting."
Betty McMann, 63, had hitched a ride back to Tangier, cutting short a visit with her daughter when she learned that the Chock would be going -- there will be no boat today. In an era when people are quick to disparage the government, Mrs. McMann and the other islanders were making a big exception.
"The Coast Guard -- that's important to us," she said. "They come to our rescue many times."
"The Coast Guard's always there. They always respond when we need them," said Bill Parks, who runs two grocery stores on the island.
Chief Petty Officer Jones had agreed to carry Mr. Parks' weekly order back to Tangier. Stacked fore, aft and along the side decks were cartons full of the kind of staples that a modern American community can't do without:
Brooms, bananas, cabbages, grapes from Chile, cat food, disposable diapers, macaroni and cheese, potato chips (Bar-B-Q flavored), Lucky Charms, Snickers, Honey Nut Cheerios, scrapple, malt liquor, whipped topping, coconut custard, stuffing mix, cat litter, taco shells, chocolate syrup, frozen waffles and -- oh, yes -- flour, eggs, chicken and evaporated milk.
"I'm glad you didn't have a lot," the chief told Mr. Parks, who at the age of 65 remembers one winter in the 1930s when a blimp dropped supplies on Tangier after a hard freeze.
Kelley Dentry, a boatswain's mate third class, joined willingly in helping to stow Mr. Parks' cartons.
"These people out there need that stuff," he said. But he can afford to be philosophical about ice duty: After three years with the Chock, he is being reassigned to Honolulu.
After stopping at the Tangier dock, Chief Petty Officer Jones decided to break up the ice that held the rest of the little harbor in its grip. It was a ticklish job. The Chock draws 6 1/2 feet, which means there were only inches of water between her keel and the bottom.
If Chief Petty Officer Jones moved too aggressively, the wash from the cutter could suck the pilings loose from the dock, or worse yet, he might send a chunk of ice flying right through the fiberglass hull of one of the local boats. That would bring a quick halt to admiring comments about the Coast Guard.
But Chief Petty Officer Jones, who served previous stints in Ashtabula, Ohio, and Erie, Pa., where ice is a serious matter, handled his 72-ton vessel with finesse. The shoreside spectators were pleased.
At one point, Chief Petty Officer Jones steered the cutter to follow some footsteps in the snowy ice as if to obliterate them. On their previous trip, the crewmen had seen a man walking on the harbor ice, even as they came past him not 20 yards away.
"Now, that takes a bona fide idiot," said David Bass, a machinery technician third class.
On board, there's a television, a stove and a microwave -- but no cook. When the crewmen got the call at 6 p.m. Sunday to assemble by 3 a.m. Monday, each man was expected to bring his own food.
What happens, in fact, is that they tend to prepare potluck suppers. Chief Petty Officer Jones, the senior man at 40, supplied venison this time, from a deer he had shot. Monday was venison goulash; last night, roast venison; tonight, venison sausages.
"I got to keep the boys fed, or they'll get a little light-headed on me," he said.
Today, the Chock will meet up with the tug Albemarle and a barge, and they'll try to smash their way up the Wicomico River to Salisbury.
She leaves behind her a lot of broken-up ice that by this morning could very well be flowing back together again. If it rains here tomorrow, Chief Petty Officer Jones said, it will all quickly melt away. If not, the Chock will be back.
"You just let us know," he told Tangier Mayor Dewey Crockett as the cutter crunched away from the pier. "We'll be here as long as you need us."