Risks, and some ‘pretty neat stuff’

View over the bow“Ice breaking is a test of endurance,” explains the Mackinaw’s commanding officer, Cdr. Jon Nickerson. “You have to keep your ship running, sustain your machinery to get home and balance the fatigue and work hours of your people.”

As he speaks, the cutter is moving easily through Whitefish Bay, headed for the “ice edge,” where open water begins. She’ll stop for the night near Gros Cap light, then spend the next day breaking multiple tracks. Not only does the Mackinaw provide separate tracks for upbound and downbound vessels, she also cuts “relief tracks” on either side of the main tracks so the ice has some place to go when a ship passes through and pushes aside even more ice. If the Mackinaw gets stuck, she’ll “back and ram” until free, a process that involves backing up to 500-600 feet from a trouble spot then hitting full power, using brute force to make forward progress. The process is repeated as often as necessary. In the battle between icebreaker and ice, the Mackinaw usually wins.

“When I got the job, I knew a lot about the Mackinaw but had never been on it,” says Nickerson. “Every day I am more amazed by the ship and what the crew can do. You have 75 people that can overcome any challenge you give them. And the ship is awesome. It’s got more capability than one could imagine. There’s not too many ice conditions we can’t get through.”

View from the Ice

Prior to taking over on the Mackinaw, Nickerson, 40, commanded the smaller Coast Guard cutter Mobile Bay from 1993 to 1996. At the time of this trip he had 18 years of active service to his credit, 10 of them at sea.

When winter ends, the cutter returns to Cheboygan, Mich., her home port, for maintenance, which includes machinery repair and painting. Training is conducted in midsummer, she’s often on hand as patrol commander and safety escort during annual sailboat races such as the Chicago to Mackinac contest, and she is often sent on good will tours to various Great Lakes’ ports, where the ship is opened for public viewing.

Estimates are the Mackinaw welcomes around 18,000 people aboard each season. “What’s unique about Mackinaw is its reputation,” Nickerson observes, “not just on the Great Lakes, but all over the country and across the ocean. People who break ice in Europe know of the Mackinaw. It carries a legacy that was created well before me, but I get to enjoy the benefits of that... the history that has been woven by 30 captains before me.”

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