— For watermen who require safe passage to Chesapeake Bay oyster bars and fishing grounds each winter, the appearance of one of the state's four ice-breaking ships means money in the bank.
Like giant plows on an asphalt road, icebreakers have been carving channels from piers to open waters, clearing away dangerous sheets of ice that can idle the commercial fleet, or worse, punch through the hull of a fishing boat.
"Any ice at all is a real hazard for them," Capt. Shawn Orr said Tuesday morning as he guided the 80-foot M/V Sandusky through a row of watermen's boats tied up at Kent Narrows. "It's really important to them that we're here because they have to get out and make a living."
As the Sandusky passed, a waterman working on his boat smiled and waved.
"We couldn't live without them," said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association. "It's important to keep our products flowing to the market."
Despite several periods of deep-freeze temperatures that jump-started the ice season on Chesapeake tributaries and harbors, this winter hasn't been particularly harsh. Many days of high winds brought warmer water to the surface and slowed ice buildup. But in shallower water and protected coves a "fair amount" of ice has taken hold, Orr said.
Ice can be deceptive. Even the thin veneer surrounding the Sandusky at its Kent Narrows mooring — not enough to safely support a person — "is enough to keep me from going out the way I wanted to," said Orr, turning the ship's wheel slowly to negotiate the path of least resistance.
The translucent ice sheet made a grinding, booming sound beneath the Sandusky's steel hull. In its wake, chunks bobbed to the surface and swirled. On a return pass, the boat's propeller minced the ice into harmless pieces.
"The worst conditions I've ever seen was my first year, eight years ago," said Orr. "The whole Kent Narrows was just solid ice. Trying to make it out onto the Chester River, those ice floes were just packed in on top of one another and the ice was three feet thick in some places. It was slow going."
The vessel is named for former Baltimore Colt offensive lineman Alex Sandusky, an avid angler who for 24 years was director of Waterway Improvement for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. In addition to Kent Narrows, the Sandusky is responsible for Rock Hall, Eastern Bay, large portions of the Chester and Miles rivers and Tilghman Creek.
John Gallagher, the chief of hydrographic operations for the DNR, acts like a deep-freeze disc jockey, taking phone requests from ice-bound communities, dredging companies and the marine industry. To anticipate need and have his vessels in the best locations, he consults a play list of historical trouble spots and recurring needs.
For example on Monday, the 50-foot tugboat Big Lou freed a yacht maintenance business in Cambridge. The M/V Widener left its winter home at Annapolis City Dock to clear a channel in a Magothy River tributary for a skipjack. The M/V Tawes, the state's largest icebreaker, left Crisfield at 5 a.m. yesterday to break out three inches of ice around Smith Island so the school boat could pick up students.
Sometimes, the job is a little more dramatic. Last month, the Sandusky broke up ice around Hart-Miller Island off Baltimore County, so Natural Resources Police officers could reach two duck hunters stranded in a storm.
"If we hadn't gone out there to break out the NRP cops, they would have had a tough time with that rescue mission," Orr said.
The Sandusky, a buoy tender and the state's second-largest icebreaker, can tackle ice up to eight inches thick. But a six-inch slab "will slow us down to three knots," said Orr. "Once it gets a foot thick, we have to hit it, bounce back and hit it again. It's a long, arduous process."
The slight warming over the last few days hasn't allowed Gallagher to drop his guard, especially with another storm bearing down on the region.
"Ice just keeps popping up. The water lots of places is still around 33 degrees. It doesn't take much," he said. "We're just waiting for what comes next."