Case for a Second Great Lakes Icebreaker

Launch of USCGC Mackinaw (WLBB-30) on April 2, 2005. Photo by Peter J. Markham.

Recently in response to my post “Great Lakes–St. Lawrence Shipping: We Need Icebreakers” –Marine Link, in which I suggested that the Great Lakes icebreaker might serve as a prototype for the three planned medium polar icebreakers, there was a comment from an Academy classmate, Capt. Fred Wilder, USCG (ret.), that was intended to link to a press release from the Lake Carriers’ Association, but for some reason the link was lost. I requested a copy of the news release from Capt. Wilder which he provided. It is reproduced below.

A week after the post linked above, I posted on why we might need icebreaker assets that could be drawn on by the Atlantic Fleet, in the form of icebreakers that could serve in both the Lakes and in the Atlantic Arctic.


Lake Carriers’ Association For Immediate Release   August 1, 2019

Iced Out: Study Reveals Loss of More Than $1 Billion Due to Inadequate Icebreaking Capabilities on the Great Lakes

CLEVELAND – The U.S. economy lost more than $1 billion in business revenue and 5,421 jobs due to inadequate icebreaking capabilities on the Great Lakes during the 2018-2019 winter season.

Due to this loss of business revenue, the federal government missed out on more than $125 million in taxes and in addition $46 million was lost by state and local governments. For perspective, that loss means the U.S. government could build a new Great Lakes icebreaker and recoup those costs in two years.

“In response to a question at a recent Congressional hearing, we polled our members about the delays they incurred due to inadequate icebreaking this winter,” said Jim Weakley, President of Lake Carriers’ Association. “Once we had the total number of tons delayed and total hours they were delayed, we were able to calculate the additional cargo we could have moved had the Coast Guard been able to meet the needs of commerce. Using the economic model updated in July of 2018 by Martin Associates, it was determined that U.S. Economy lost over $1 billion as a result of the steel not made and the power not generated by the coal and iron ore the U.S.-flag fleet could not move.”

With robust icebreaking capabilities paving the way for commercial shipping, U.S.-flag Lakers could have carried 4 million additional tons of iron ore and 879,210 additional tons of coal. In other words, Lakers could have done an additional 860 trips delivering iron ore to steel mills and 21 trips delivering coal to power generation plants.

“A dynamic fleet of icebreaking assets is absolutely critical for our regional and national economy, especially our domestic steel and power generation industries which were hit hard this past winter season,” says Mark W. Barker, president of The Interlake Steamship Company, which moves nearly 20 million tons annually crisscrossing the Lakes more than 500 times between March and January. “Robust icebreaking capabilities enable the Coast Guard to deliver on its mission to facilitate the flow of commerce across our Great Lakes.”

Mark Pietrocarlo, Lake Carriers’ Association’s board chairman, noted, “The U.S. Coast Guard was down four icebreakers for a significant period of time this past winter and for the first time in memory, no icebreaker was left on Lake Superior when the Soo Locks closed from January 15th to March 25th.  One icebreaker took seventeen months to repair, one was on the East Coast for a major overhaul and two others missed more than a month of icebreaking.”

“The economic impact on our customers and the supply chain they enable is significant and points out the need for a new icebreaker for the Great Lakes,” Pietrocarlo said. “Given the lost tax revenue the economic model calculated for the federal government, the payback period to the Treasury for the vessel is two years.  Infrastructure investment isn’t just about fixing the roads, we also need to maintain our marine highways.”

Beset in ice, the M/V Stewart J. Cort and three other Great Lakes vessels await the assistance of an icebreaker on Lake Superior

About the study:

To estimate the economic impact of inadequate icebreaking during the typical ice conditions experienced on the Great Lakes during the 2018 – 2019 winter season, Lake Carriers’ Association (LCA) asked U.S.-flag carriers to report their delays in hours and the number of tons carried during their delays.

The types of delays included being beset in the ice, at anchor awaiting an icebreaker, having to slow down due to inadequate icebreaking, waiting for Coast Guard permission to proceed, and waiting for a convoy to form.

In addition, hours lost due to repairing ice damage to vessels and the hours lost by vessels that delayed their initial sailing times due to inadequate icebreaking were factored in to the total.

LCA aggregated the fleet’s lost hours and tons delayed and determined that a total of 409,729 tons of coal were delayed for 206 hours.  It also calculated that 2,186,361 tons of iron ore were delayed for a total of 1,586.5 hours. Since the vessels reporting were a combination of “footers” and smaller vessels, we used an average of 42,000 tons per trip. It was also assumed that a typical round trip for a U.S.-flag Laker takes 96 hours.


Economic Impact of Lost Tonnages due to inadequate icebreaking in the average winter of 2018/2019 (Source: Martin Associates)

4,000,000 ton loss of iron ore and 900,0000 ton loss of coal due to ice delays


  • Direct Jobs 1,925
  • Induced 1,666
  • Indirect 1,829
  • Total 5,421


  • Direct $106,912
  • Re-Spending/Local
  • Purchases $203,098
  • Indirect $80,454
  • Total $390,464


  • $1,044,044


  • $187,193


  • $46,429


  • $125,518


The data, showing tons by commodity, lost by the U.S.-flagged Great Lakes fleet, was supplied by the Lakes Carriers’ Association to Martin Associates. The July, 2018 updated Economic Impact study of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway – U.S. Flagged Fleet, developed jobs per ton and economic impact per ton ratios for iron ore, coal, limestone/aggregates and other dry bulk cargo.  These ratios were then applied to the estimated loss of 4,000,000 tons of iron ore and 900,000 tons of coal for the relatively average winter of 2018/2019.  The economic impacts of these delays are presented in terms of jobs and business revenue in table above.  For more information about 2018 Economic Impact study of the Great Lakes, go to

ABOUT LAKE CARRIERS’ ASSOCIATION: Since 1880, Lake Carriers’ has represented the U.S.-flag Great Lakes fleet, which today can move more than 90 million tons of cargos annually that are the foundation of American industry, power, and construction: iron ore, limestone, coal, cement, and other dry bulk materials such as grain and sand. For more information contact Jim Weakley – 440-333-9995 /

9 thoughts on “Case for a Second Great Lakes Icebreaker

  1. Few days ago, Canada announced that they are going to build not less than six new icebreakers to “…replace the Coast Guard’s heavy and medium icebreakers that operate in Atlantic Canada and the St. Lawrence waterways during the winter and in the Arctic during the summer”.

    Based on information from other sources, this apparently does not include the polar icebreaker that was already included in the National Shipbuilding Strategy (CCGS John G. Diefenbaker), meaning that the total number of new icebreaking ships entering Canadian service in the future will be seven (assuming the overly expensive “Diefenbreaker” gets built at all). While there’s no information about the construction schedule, the builder has already been selected: it will be the yet-unnamed third shipyard that will join the NSS program. This will obviously be the Quebec-based Davie Shipbuilding that already converted the commercial container ship MV Asterix to an interim supply ship for the Royal Canadian Navy; there are no other shipyards in Canada that would qualify.

    Perhaps the Canadian icebreaker design could be adapted to USCG service in the Great Lakes and, as you have proposed, Atlantic Arctic? Obviously there would be quite significant changes, the USCG being a military service whereas the CCG is not, but sharing just the hull form and propulsion configuration would save some design cost and time. After all, the ships are essentially designed for the same operating area, albeit for a slightly different mission.

  2. Either use the Canadian hull design, or call the experts in Finland for a one that is designed for purpose.
    Getting the military coast guard to do this will be expensive. It could also be done after the Finnish model, where a civilian company is set up to do the task. As they can employ non-military ships with a lot fewer personnel, it will be a lot cheaper in both capital cost and O&M. The newest Finnish Baltic icebreakers are crewed by 14. These would likely be able to be adapted to the Lakes requirements fairly easily. They may even be possible to be adapted to USCGs standards, if needed, saving a lot of design work

    • Well, it’s not set in stone that the Canadians would not be using a Finnish design as well…

      I don’t think setting up a civilian company for icebreaking would work in the United States where state-owned enterprises are only set up for /very/ specific purposes; in this case, icebreaking service in the Great Lakes would have to be offered by a fully-commercial company on a fee basis. It’s unlikely that this would work in the long run; either it would not be profitable or the service would be too expensive to shipping companies. Also, such scheme probably wouldn’t be compatible with Chuck’s proposal of using the icebreakers in the Atlantic Arctic to support US Navy operations.

      As for design work, a “parent design” is the most useful when you want to convince the client to skip few year’s worth of various “pre-studies”. However, when you start putting ink on paper for the final design, it’s better to start from a clean sheet. A good designer can re-create working solutions without having to consult the archives; often the idea is more important than the actual design material. This includes hull form development which will always be verified with model testing unless the new design is externally a carbon copy of the preceding one.

      If I were to speculate the new Canadian icebreaker designs, I’d put my money on a twin azimuth stern drive icebreaker. For this, there are some pretty good built references and a few further developments at various design stages.

      • Sorry for the late reply.
        You mean Canada would/could use a Finnish design it for a new series of lake ice breakers, as they will need some to replace the ones they just bought, the Viking class?
        Yes, true. I don’t know what the rules are in this regard, but that is a method that is used in here i Europe. Do the companies pay for the ice breaking or it is provided for free by the state/USGC?
        True, if the icebreaker is to be used in the summer for Arctic stuff by the USCG it is much easier that they operate it all the time.

        It some ways yes, but as we can see with the heavy icebreaker, it only becomes economical with three ships. If you told a commercial operator that you cannot hit the target with the first ship, they would walk away. They need to make money on every ship. Which it also why the Finnish are likely better at doing that, while the US yards and design offices are not.

        What classes are you referring to with the two stern drive azimuth pods?

      • While Canada has just announced that they’ll build six new icebreakers in the coming years, there has been no information whatsoever about the design. I think there’ll be a separate RFP eventually and, when (if) that comes out, I’m quite sure the Finnish designers will bid. After all, they already designed the future Canadian heavy polar icebreaker CCGS John G. Diefenbaker in co-operation with STX Canada Marine (today Vard).

        As for icebreaking in the Great Lakes, I don’t know how it works with the USCG and CCG when it comes to paying the bill.

        If I had to pick the best icebreaker design with two azimuthing propulsion units and a “normal” icebreaking bow, I’d definitely go for the “FESCO Sakhalin family” which is a proven Finnish design with seven ships built as of today:

        Of course, you can’t just carbon-copy an offshore vessel for CG service, but the big lines are already there and the necessary modifications would be relatively small.

  3. I’d replace the Hollyhock and Alder as-well as the Bays with the ATON barge with Mackinaw-class ships and put serious consideration to also replacing those non-ATON Bays as well.

  4. Pingback: Second Great Lakes Icebreaker? | Chuck Hill's CG Blog

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