CG talks with the Canadian Coast Guard about icebreaking, polar bears and protecting Canadian waters
|Acting commanding officer John Jenner
Photo: Holly Gordon
Ice heroes (and we're not talking hockey)
CG talks with the Canadian Coast Guard about icebreaking, polar
bears and protecting Canadian waters
By Holly Gordon
The red and white ships of the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) have been a familiar sight off the
country’s shores since 1962. The specialized CCG fleet of 17 icebreakers helps ships navigate
icy waters, clears harbours of ice, resupplies northern communities and government sites
when commercial carriers can’t get through and controls possible floods caused by ice build-up.
John Jenner is currently the acting commanding officer of the Louis S. St. Laurent,
the CCG’s biggest icebreaking ship and the only CCG ship that has travelled to the North
How does a CCG ship break ice?
"I think one of the most enjoyable parts of being on
an icebreaker is all of the different wildlife that we get to see in the Arctic that
the rest of the population only gets to read about."
A Coast Guard ship’s bow has a shallow angle, which lets it slide up on top of the ice
and break it with the ship’s weight. A ship is best at icebreaking when she’s at her heaviest.
In addition, the front of the hull has what’s called suctionalized air bubbles. They are
small holes across the front of the hull where compressed air created inside the ship is
forced through. The air bubbles minimize friction on the hull as it moves through the ice.
It’s useful when there is lots of broken ice around, creating a kind of sludge to get through;
therefore, reducing the power needed to get going.
What are ice charts used for?
They’re used to tell where the heaviest ice is and what the best route for a vessel to
take would be. Canada’s Ice Service creates the ice chart and the Ice Office in Sarnia gives
them out and recommends safe routes for ships to take. The charts are on the internet and
can be downloaded. If a ship takes a recommended route but still runs into trouble, then
they call the Coast Guard for assistance.
What’s one of the experiences you enjoy most when icebreaking?
The wildlife. I think one of the most enjoyable parts of being on an icebreaker is all
of the different wildlife that we get to see in the Arctic that the rest of the population
only gets to read about. This last ship, I saw beluga whales up off of the Resolute area.
But we also see snowy owls, arctic foxes, narwhales, walrus and polar bears. More...
Do you have any problems with the wildlife?
Polar bears run away from the ship as we come through the ice. They could follow
our track for a number of miles and then make a wrong turn and go in the ice. We have to
stop so that they can get out of the way. We have to be careful with them because they can
get heat stress. So we usually give them a pretty wide berth.
What problems do you have with icebergs when you’re icebreaking?
"If we were to collide with an iceberg
at a certain speed it would certainly do damage."
Although we’re built to break ice, if we were to collide with an iceberg at a certain speed
it would certainly do damage. When you have an iceberg you have all types of little pieces
of it breaking off, and they’re very hard. When we’re manoeuvering and laying out course
lines and we know there’s a ‘berg, we will pass on the side that we know is clear.
You also have to keep in mind that seven-eighths of an iceberg is under the water so you
can’t just come right up to it ― you have to give yourself some distance. So we slow
down at night and when the concentration of icebergs increases because we have to keep track
What’s the difference between the different types of ice you break through?
There is first-year ice, which is ice that happens in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and freezes
and thaws within a one-year period. Multi-year ice is ice leftover from previous years that
has never melted and is harder than first-year ice. And then you have glacial ice, which
is really hard stuff.
And you break all three types?
Well, we break through it, yes. In areas like Peel Sound, where you would find those three
types of ice, the ship has been tasked to go through and break for a variety of different
reasons. In 1999, we were in a really tough area where in about 24-hours the vessel made
about 5.6 kilometres. It took us a couple of days to get through a ridge that was very hard.
We had all five engines online and we burned about 100 tonnes of fuel. We can’t do that for
an extended period.