BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB)- Tearing through the ice, the EM Cotter makes its way down the Buffalo River.
“It’s definitely a challenge to navigate through the ice,” said Captain John Sixt. “The boat doesn’t dictate where the boat goes, the ice does,” he said. “As the ice spikes and breaks we get rocked around a little bit here and there.”
He’s been at the helm for three seasons now.
The ship went out on Monday, clearing a path from its dock at Michigan and Ohio to the mouth of the river.
On Wednesday, it headed the other direction to clear the ice all the way past the South Park lift bridge, to the old Mobil refinery.
The cracking of the ice underneath can be felt standing on deck and the noise at times can be thundering.
The Cotter creates an avenue for the water to flow, preventing ice jams and flooding, which are a risk with rain and warmer weather in the forecast.
“You never know how bad it would get but why would you take that chance,” said Steve Stepniak, the Commissioner of Public Works.
Captain Sixt works hand in hand with the Buffalo Public Works department to decide when it’s time to go out and break the ice.
“It’s easier for us to do it as it’s going to thaw so the ice doesn’t start stacking on top of itself,” said Sixt.
It’s no easy task. Monday’s trip took 10 hours.
The thickness of the ice is one of the biggest challenges, said Sixt. It was 12 to 13 inches think in places. To break through it, he had to keep backuping and accelerating forward.
The crew also had to make sure the engine didn’t overheat.
“It’s nothing this boat hasn’t handled in the past 100 years,” said Sixt. “This is its main purpose, this is what this boat was put here for.”
One big challenge they frequently face on these missions are delays at the bridges. They have to wait for at least three bridges to be raised to allow the ship to pass, which can take minutes or hours.
“Everything’s frozen, it’s cold, and nothing wants to work in the winter so we just slowly plow as we can,” said Sixt.
There were two previous Buffalo Fire Dept. ships were unsuccessful at breaking up the ice, which is why the Cotter was brought in so many years ago.
It has an extra inch and a half of Swedish steel on the front and back which make it able to break the ice.
The crew doesn’t know how many more times they’ll be out on the river this winter. The past few years they only had to tackle the ice six to eight times because the weather was mild. Other years, however, they’ve gone out 40 times or more. It will depend on the weather over the next few months.