Maritime traffic jam forms on icy Lake Superior off Duluth (with photos, video)

John Lundy, Duluth News Tribune
Five ships
The Arthur M. Anderson pushes through the ice on Lake Superior that blocked access to the Duluth harbor on Saturday April 13, 2013, causing nine ships to wait at anchor in the open lake until icebreaking operations could open a lane for the traffic. The Anderson was leaving the harbor before the first of the nine waiting vessels headed in. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

The wind shifted, the ice moved and a maritime traffic jam formed just outside the Duluth Harbor on Saturday.

“I guess we call it our perfect storm,” said Adele Yorde, spokeswoman for the Duluth Seaway Port Authority. “In the five years I’ve been here I haven’t seen it.”

As many as nine ships were anchored on Lake Superior on Saturday morning, their entrance to the harbor blocked by a shield of ice. From up the hill and up close, dozens of photographers captured the unusual sight for posterity, and for social media.

Among them was Andrea Hayden, 36, of the Congdon neighborhood, who took pictures from the parking lot of First United Methodist Church at about noon as her husband, Andy Hayden, 39, looked on and their sons Owen, 6, and Charlie, 4, played in the snow.

Having heard about the anchored armada, Andrea and Andy picked up their sons after swimming lessons and headed up to one of Duluth’s most popular vantage points.

“It was a unique, ‘hey we better get down there and check it out’ ” moment, Andy Hayden said.

Plenty of locals and out-of-towners alike enjoyed the spectacle from Canal Park, alongside the Duluth ship canal. The canal, open water just a few days ago, was choked with ice; the walkways alongside were covered with snow and slush.

The sudden ice buildup was unexpected, said Justin Bravatto, U.S. Coast Guard command duty officer for the Sault Ste. Marie sector, which is responsible for icebreaking operations on Lake Superior.

“All that ice that was out there was shore ice that wasn’t showing up on radar,” Bravatto said.

The Duluth Harbor had been clear of ice for a couple of weeks and the Duluth-based cutter Alder had been placed on standby, Bravatto said. Crew members were required to be back within 24 hours if called.

The strong northeast winds on Thursday and Friday, gusting in excess of 50 mph, brought the ice back, and the Alder crew was called back on Friday, Bravatto said.

The Alder, accompanied by a couple of tugs, started making a channel by 10 a.m. Saturday, Yorde said. Within half an hour, the Arthur M. Anderson, loaded with iron ore pellets, left the harbor, followed by the Paul R. Tregurtha, loaded with coal.

They had to leave before the first of the waiting boats could make its way in, she said. The 634-foot Great Republic was first to arrive via the Duluth entry, followed by the 1,000-foot American Intergrity. Both ships passed under one lift of the Aerial Lift Bridge, leaving a trail of swirling ice chunks in their wake.

Among the boats still waiting at anchor on Saturday afternoon was a saltie, the Federal Welland, that had arrived by Thursday but was unable to get into port because of high waves, Yorde said.

It could take until Tuesday for all of the boats to get back on schedule, she said.

“The busiest people right now are the fleet managers, the operations folks that are sitting back at their desks with their telephones” trying to coordinate boat schedules, Yorde said.

The shipping season already is in full swing, she said, with two vessels expected Sunday and another four on Monday. But the weather forecast contained a worrisome wild card.

“I’m not sure what the weather will do tomorrow,” Yorde said on Saturday.

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