ABOARD THE FRANK DREW - As commanding officer Dave Merrill piloted the 900-ton, black-hulled U.S. Coast Guard cutter up the Chesapeake Bay yesterday, he contemplated a world that resembled the South Pole: a wide expanse of glittering white, with its only boundary the pale blue horizon.
"There's ice as far as you can see," said Merrill, whose rank is chief warrant officer. "It's hard to tell if we're in Baltimore or Antarctica."
Merrill's cutter and others like it are working overtime this winter.
A prolonged freeze coupled with snow, sleet and freezing rain have coated the lower bay with 2 to 12 inches of ice, and as much as 20 inches near the mouth of the Elk River to the north.
Commercial traffic in the bay has continued, but not without the aid of cutters such as the Frank Drew, based in Portsmouth, Va., and the James Rankin, a similar craft based in Baltimore.
The cutters have escorted tugs and barges, clearing the way through shipping channels clogged with ice chunks and icy plates as long as Maryland Transit Administration buses. They also have worked to keep lanes passable so ships could navigate them on their own.
The ice has virtually shut down the Coast Guard's Curtis Bay facility, grounding search and rescue boats and making ship repairs more laborious.
Worried that the ice could get worse - more snow and ice were expected overnight - Coast Guard officials have called in backup.
A 2,000-ton ice cutter called the Cypress, which can slice through 36-inch ice rafts, is on its way to Maryland from Mobile, Ala.
The Cypress is expected to arrive tomorrow to bail out the smaller cutters. The James Rankin has been battling 20-inch ice islands in the northern reaches of the Chesapeake Bay for several days. The ice there is nearly too thick to cut, Merrill said.
"It's a real tough go," said Merrill. "There's a lot of irregular shapes and thicknesses out there. It is especially bad in the northern bay. It is getting close to the limits of our icebreakers."
Commissioned in 2000
The 19-member crew of the Frank Drew - commissioned in 2000 and named after a lighthouse keeper on Lake Michigan - had been on the water for 10 days without a break. Although crew members will be on leave today, they will be back at work tomorrow.
Although the enclosed bridge from which Merrill steers the ship is heated to a balmy 70 degrees, many of the crew station themselves on the deck, listening to a portable radio in the frigid temperatures.
Merrill said there's no way of saying when the crew will be able to return home to Virginia. Forecasters are calling for more snow, sleet or freezing rain Thursday night and into Friday. Snow on top of ice makes ice cutting even more difficult, he said.
"It's harder on the young folks," said Merrill, who is the father of two adult children. His wife, Toni, has grown accustomed to his absences after more than 20 years of marriage, he said.
Still, the opportunity to do battle with the ice intrigues his young crew, the average age of which is 22.
It is not unusual for ice to accumulate in spots but it is rare for the bay to freeze from shore to shore, as it has this year. Before last year's record-breaking winter, the last major freeze was 1994.
Merrill, who is near retirement, says he is taking advantage of the ice to train "the next generation," crew members such as Mike Brandt, 28, an operations petty officer from Corpus Christi, Texas, who wants to captain a cutter some day.
"I've got a long way to go," said Brandt, who has been with the Coast Guard about seven years.
Mastering the basics
He has mastered more than ice-cutting basics.
Early yesterday, Brandt used the ship's twin 1,000 horse-power propellers to clear the ice from a dry dock at the Coast Guard Yard. As the propellers whirred into action, they churned up green water, which caused giant fissures in the ice.
By turning the cutter in a slow circle, Brandt used the propellers to mince the broken ice into slush.
Next on the list: de-icing the bay.
Following the Craighill Channel from the Baltimore harbor south toward the Bay Bridge, the cutter cleared a wider swath through the ice.
No one, except for perhaps the captains of two tugs and a barge, noted the activity.
"It's lonely at this time of the year, but it's also easier to do our job," said Merrill.
During the spring and summer, when cutter crews repair navigational aides such as buoys and speed markers, the bay is dotted with pleasure boats, he said.
Merrill is well-versed in ice. He can talk about "new ice," "brash ice," "raft ice" and "ridge ice."
Each sort has its own attributes: New ice is easier to break; brash ice, formed from refrozen shards, is more difficult.
As the Frank Drew cut through a field of brash ice near Gibson Island, the ship suddenly slowed as the metal hull dueled with the frozen water.
The sound of breaking ice - loud cracks and snaps - and grinding rumblings -- a nerve-wracking baritone that awakens the crew at night - filled the air.
Ice eats away at the paint on cutter hulls, and by winter's end, the Frank Drew will need a new coat.
On the ice yesterday, traces of red and black paint were evident on ice shards and ridges.
"This ice is not going away," said Joshua Gonzalez, 26, a yeoman 3rd class from Brooklyn, N.Y., who had never set foot on a boat until he joined the Coast Guard. "It's amazing how fast it freezes again. It looks like Alaska."
As the cutter neared the Bay Bridge, the crew spotted a disabled buoy leaning into the icy water, its cage encrusted and heavy with ice pack and icicles.
"The buoy's light isn't visible to anyone," Merrill said. "The only ones who benefit from that buoy are the fish and the birds."
The buoy, a summer model, was quickly lifted out of the water with a crane and replaced with an ice buoy, a toy top-shaped model that stands up better to ice.
With the new buoy in place, the Frank Drew turned north toward Baltimore.
On the way back, the crew recounted serene moments on ice-encrusted waterways.
Last week, a pair of red foxes crossed the frozen Potomac River near downtown Washington. Bald eagles have been near constant companions: Eagles - as well as other birds - take advantage of the ice cutter as it exposes schools of fish otherwise cached by milky-white ice.
"If you were concerned about the bald eagles on the bay, your mind should be at ease," said Merrill. "They are everywhere."
When the cutter is anchored on the ice, the silence is deep and purifying.
Memories in tow, the Frank Drew returned to the Baltimore harbor about 3 p.m. As the ship approached the Key Bridge, Merrill spotted the coming storm.
"Here comes another storm," Merrill shouted out. "More snow, freezing rain and ice. It won't bother us."