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, the spokesman for the Weehawken-based NY Waterway ferry service 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 Coast Guard for the Port of New York and New Jersey monitors a region extending 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 operates 35 ferries between Hudson County and New York City and said they are able to maintain service throughout the wintry mess. However, some of the NY Waterway routes have been postponed due to the heavy ice.

Smith said that the routes canceled were only the ones that offered the fewest riders. Smith said that the system’s two most popular ferries (Weehawken to midtown and Hoboken to the World Financial Center) remained open throughout the frigid temperatures.

Other ferry routes have taking longer, as the boats make their way through the waters that have huge ice floes or waiting for the Coast Guard tug boats to break up the ice.

Smith said that the cold weather and slower routes have cut down on the number of commuters who use the NY Waterway service, but he wouldn’t know exact figures until the monthly totals are made available next week.

Some riders were concerned about the loud noises that the ferries make when they go through an ice floe.

“When I first heard that crunching, creaking noise, I thought it was the Titanic all over again,” said Weehawken resident Tina Takacs, who works at a midtown advertising firm. “I had no idea what it was. It was pretty scary.”

“I figured that’s the way cruise ships make their way through Alaska,” said Eddie Gauger, a Weehawken resident who works for a Manhattan publishing company. “I always wondered how those ships are able to keep moving. After all, I knew we weren’t talking about icebergs floating in the river here. Let’s not get overly dramatic.”

Because the NY Waterway ferries need to take in river water to cool the engines of the vessels, it is vital to be able to keep a steady water floe and as little ice as possible. The hulls of the ferries are sturdy enough to withstand any formed ice. However, the ice can clog the intake valves, which would overheat the engines of the boats and take them out of service.

“The ice is not a physical danger to the boat,” Smith said. “The boats are safe.”

If a ferry route is canceled, NY Waterway uses its entire fleet of 110 shuttle buses to transport riders to other ferry slips where the ferries continue to run, as well as full transportation through the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels.

“Bottom line is, if you come to a New York Waterway terminal, you’re going to get across the Hudson River,” Smith said. “We’re going to make sure of that.”

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


© 2000, Newspaper Media Group