Aboard the Maryland Department of Natural Resources icebreaker in the Annapolis harbor. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun video)
The ice-breaking buoy tender John C. Widener carved its way through Annapolis Harbor on Monday, sending 3-inch chunks of ice clattering across the calm, solid surface in its wake.
As the region endured one of its longest stretches of sub-freezing temperatures in decades, plunging into the single digits this past weekend, significant ice built up quickly on many local waterways. Annapolis’ Spa Creek iced over in just two days.
“Saturday, there was no ice,” said Jeff Lill, the Widener’s captain. “In two days’ time, this is what we have.”
In addition to dispatching the Widener to Annapolis, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources sent its other three ice-breaking vessels to work clearing Kent Narrows, Tangier Sound and elsewhere. The U.S. Coast Guard also sent cutters to help clear paths.
Though a gradual warm-up is forecast this week, mariners said they don’t expect the floes to melt away quickly. For crews like Lill’s, it could be the start of another busy winter battling ice.
“We don’t see it every year,” said Lill, recalling recent tough seasons in early 2014 and 2015. Still, the recent conditions aren’t as extreme as in winters long past, early in Lill’s 28-year career: “Back in the day, we went through some ice that was 18 inches thick.”
Ice has been building in Chesapeake Bay rivers and creeks for nearly two weeks. The cold snap began Dec. 27, and except for a brief period of 33-degree weather Dec. 30, temperatures have remained at or below freezing since then at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.
Waterways including the Magothy and Chester rivers and most of the upper reaches of the bay, north of the Gunpowder and Bush rivers, were already coated in ice as of Friday, according to the U.S. National Ice Center.
The sub-freezing stretch hit eight days on Sunday, when temperatures fell to a record low of 1 degree at BWI, and ended Monday when temperatures had reached 33 degrees at BWI by 4 p.m.
The last time Baltimore spent so much time at or below 32 degrees was a 10-day stretch that ended on Christmas Day 1989, according to Jim Lee, meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service’s Baltimore/Washington forecast office.
So all it took were clear, calm conditions over the weekend to multiply the ice cover around the bay, such as in Spa Creek. Wind and precipitation both discourage a layer of ice from forming on the surface, said Beth Bellis, the Annapolis harbormaster.
The few boaters hardy enough to venture out during the winter, as well as those who live on their vessels year-round, were trapped.
Marcus Wooley, an Annapolis resident who is keeping his boat, Big Wooley Style, at City Dock for the winter, had hoped to take advantage of cheaper wintertime slip rental rates. But instead of heading out for some fishing, he was working Monday to keep the ice from building around the hull of his sport-fishing vessel, which he likens to a two-bedroom, one-bathroom floating condo.
“I can’t take it out — not in this ice,” he said.
While boat traffic is at its lightest by far this time of year, icebreaking is still needed to ensure safety and protect property, Bellis said. Channels need to be cleared for any marine law enforcement activity, and to allow watermen to reach their fishing and harvesting grounds. Some residents who live on their boats don’t have easy access to land, she said.
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The Widener is based in Cambridge, and spends most of the year maintaining hundreds of buoys that mark off oyster sanctuaries, guide navigation or warn boaters of swimmers. But going into the winter, its crew makes regular friendly bets on the season’s temperature forecasts, wondering if they will get some downtime or stay busy.
For Doug Outten, the Widener’s chief marine engineer, icebreaking means being constantly on guard for breaks or leaks in the steel hull — though the ship has had only one in his 29 years on the crew, he said.
“During the summer, it’s a lot easier,” he said.
Lill said the work is rewarding, because it provides an important service to communities and their economies.
Though temperatures are forecast to hit the 40s Tuesday and the 50s by Thursday, mariners will have to be vigilant around the ice. Depending on the winds and the tides, a thin layer of ice can turn into a soup of larger icebergs that can damage vessels, Bellis said.
“We will be busy probably the remainder of this week,” Lill said. “It’s not going to melt that quick.”
The crew was in for a long day Monday. After looping around Spa Creek, the Widener was off to the South River, helping clear channels for a marine construction job and a marina that needed to move boats around.