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It takes two to break ice in the Connecticut River

Aboard the Coast Guard cutter Hawser — After calling off its icebreaking operation in the Connecticut River earlier in the week, the Coast Guard brought in reinforcement Thursday to break up massive chunks of ice that prompted emergency conditions in at least one town.

Thick ice piled up to several feet high forced the Coast Guard cutter Bollard, a 65-foot icebreaking tug weighing more than 70 tons, to turn around Tuesday about a mile and a half north of Essex, roughly between Deep River and Selden Neck State Park, and temporarily abandon its mission.

Haddam First Selectwoman Lizz Milardo declared Thursday that "due to flooding and ice dams, a condition of danger to life and property exists." A copy of the proclamation was forwarded to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy with hopes that he would declare the town to be in a state of emergency so that it could be eligible for state and federal assistance.

The Coast Guard cutter Hawser, also a 65-foot icebreaking harbor tug, made the trip from its home base in Bayonne, N.J., Wednesday to assist the New Haven-based Bollard. The two cutters set out in the late morning Thursday and again in the late afternoon, traversing the stretch of the river from Brockway Island to near Selden Neck, which was covered in large shards of ice that looked like mini icebergs.

"One to break initial track and then the other one of us will come up and ride it, and try to widen it as we go through to keep as much of the ice chunks flowing down with the current," explained Senior Chief Patrick Bouchard, officer-in-charge of the Hawser.

They made their way slowly, in tandem, ramming through the massive ice chunks, which crunched noisily beneath their hulls, and then backing up and going at it again. The goal was to cut relief channels through the ice to prevent flooding, but both crews were discouraged earlier Thursday when they saw ice was filling back in areas they'd broken up.

In some areas of the river, the ice stretched from shore to shore. Big logs, which can cause damage to a boat's rudder and the propellers of cutters, were seen among many ice groupings.

Bouchard said he wasn't sure when he and his crew of seven Coast Guardsmen would be returning home to New Jersey.

"We're going to try to relieve as much pressure from the river as we can, as quick as we can," he said.

Making the process more difficult was the fact that the ice, which ranged in thickness from 6 to 8 inches, after breaking up, was sliding over itself and refreezing due to the strong current in the river.

"Some of the spots that we saw up there, it's two to three feet thick with all these brash plates going on top of each other and refreezing," Bouchard said. Brash plates are accumulated chunks of floating ice.

The Hudson River, where Bouchard and his crew normally work, is much wider and deeper than the Connecticut River and sees a lot of commercial traffic. The strategy is the same for breaking up the ice, but "the channel here is a lot narrower and shallower," he said, and the main concern is flooding.

"With it being narrower, there's a lot more bends in it, so it's (the ice is) stacking up thicker," Bouchard said.

The Bollard and Hawser had to turn back at sunset. Both crews were planning to sleep on the cutters, which were docked in Essex, and give it another go once the sun rose Friday.


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