BREWER, Maine -- Thick ice formed on the Penobscot River earlier than normal this year, so the U.S. Coast Guard was called in to help break it up as part of its annual mission to keep the river passable.
"It seems like a pretty early year to break out ice as thick as a foot," Chief Eric Silboy, officer in charge of the 65-foot ice breaking cutter the Tackle from Rockland, said Wednesday after working in the Bangor area. "We've had a lot of early seasonal ice in Bangor."
Ice breaking on the Penobscot started on Dec. 12, when the ice breaking vessel the Bridle from Southwest Harbor, another 65-foot cutter, arrived to start the up-river battle. The Bridle worked for four days and cleared a path to about a mile south of the Veterans Memorial Bridge, also known as Interstate 395.
"We came up to start where they stopped," Silboy said.
The Tackle's crew of seven started Tuesday and as the sun set Wednesday, they had been able to break the ice to about "200 to 300 yards past the I-395 bridge," the ship's chief said.
Typically, the cutters will make their way north to the mouth of the Kenduskeag Stream, but "we're leaving because we got a storm coming," Silboy said.
The annual mission is part of Operation Reliable Energy for Northeast Winters, the Coast Guard's regionwide effort to ensure communities have security, supplies, energy and emergency resources they need throughout the winter, said Lt. David Bourbeau, the agency's waterways management division chief for Coast Guard Sector Northern New England, based in Portland.
"It's a community service," Bourbeau said. "Our number one priority is search and rescue."
Breaking ice to clear shipping lanes, to free vessels or to prevent flooding are important but secondary roles, he said.
Most people don't know that most of the oil that is burned to keep homes warm in the winter arrives by boat, which means ports need to be passable.
"The Coast Guard estimates that 80 percent of heating oil needs come in through New England ports," Bourbeau said, explaining why shipping lanes need to be kept open.
"It's an annual mission for us," he said.
Preventing ice jams that lead to flooding is another main issue for the Bangor area, both Coast Guard officials said.
The Tackle stayed Wednesday afternoon to catch the outgoing tide, the ship's chief said.
"You want to break ice when the tide is going out, so the broken ice goes out with the tide," said Silboy, who has served as the vessel's chief for two years.
The Tackle returned to Rockland Wednesday afternoon but will return.
"We'll be back next week," Silboy said.