What do you do when the river freezes? Coast Guard ensures that boat traffic flows despite ice

In a rare occurrence last week, parts of the Hudson River were frozen over, making it difficult to get ferries through. So who is in charge of regulating the conditions?

“God,” joked Pat Smith of the local NY Waterway Ferry Company last week. “Actually, the Coast Guard would be the one.”

Wind direction, tides, and river traffic all affect the amount of ice on the river and where it gathers.

“The river pushes the ice down, and as the tide is coming in, the two forces push together, and the ice builds up,” said Smith. “As the tide goes down, it flows out to sea.”

Boat activity during the day helps to break up the ice. At night, reduced boat traffic allows the ice to build back up.

The U.S. Coast Guard Aids to Navigation team monitors the river, making sure all the buoys are in place, and helping out in ice breaking using two cutter boats.

“Mostly that’s done to make sure that the home heating oil is delivered,” said Lt. Commander Luis Martinez, Chief of Marine Events for Waterway Operations for the Coast Guard. “There are some deliveries that have to be made, but they may have lesser priority. We try to work with commerce to meet everyone’s needs, but home heating oil has its priorities.”

The Coast Guard Vessel Traffic Service communicates regularly with the various shipping agents (private commercial entities) to inform them about conditions on the river.

“We have boats out there all the time to determine how the ice is,” said Martinez.

The Port of New York and New Jersey extends from Long Branch, N.J., to the Canadian border, and includes the Hudson River, East River, Long Island Sound and the Raritan Railroad Bridge. The captain of the port decides what needs to be closed down.

“We haven’t had any closures,” said Martinez.

Martinez said that this is the coldest winter he has seen since he started his job four years ago.

It’s not dangerous

But some ferry trips may be delayed due to routes that have been altered because of the ice. NY Waterway, the company who operates 35 ferries that run between Hudson County and New York City, said they are able to maintain service.

“The ice is not a physical danger to the boat,” said Pat Smith, spokesperson for NY Waterways. “The boats are safe.”

New York Waterways has 13 propeller-driven boats which have an internal cooling system with pipes that run through the boats to cool the engines, so there is no water intake.

“With those boats in play, you can always keep open the routes between Port Imperial in Weehawken and West 38th Street in Manhattan,” she said, “and between the Hoboken Rail Terminal and the World Financial Center. They will always operate.”

Other routes, the service is provided by jet-powered boats that draw water in and push it out. The intake on these boats can get clogged by ice and slush.

“So if staff plans for the next few hours of service,” said Smith. “they have to identify where there is ice. And if they determine that they can’t use jet-powered boats at that location, they have to reroute the boats to avoid the ice.”

NY Waterway has 100 buses.

“So you might go to another terminal, or take a bus to another terminal,” Smith said. “You can be very flexible in finding solutions.”

According to Smith, NY Waterway is responsible for breaking up the ice surrounding their own docks, at their own discretion.

“No one’s responsible for breaking up the ice unless they need to use it,” said Smith. “The necessity is to move ferries in and out.”

Commuters can find information at nywaterway.com, which is updated daily at 5:45 a.m., or call (800) 53-FERRY.


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