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Cutter captain breaks familiar ice in hometown Twin Ports

As the Great Lakes shipping season nears its seasonal close, Lt. Alexander Stewart shared thoughts about churning up his home ice.

Lt. Stewart on the Biscayne Bay
Duluth Marshall School graduate Lt. Alexander Stewart, commanding officer of the Coast Guard Cutter Biscayne Bay, sits in the vessel’s pilot house. The cutter is in the Twin Ports until the close of the Soo Locks on Saturday, Jan. 15, 2022.
Contributed / U.S. Coast Guard

DULUTH — Marshall School graduate Alexander Stewart talks like he’s got the best job in the world — and, for another day or so, it’s right in his hometown.

“I’m coming into my sixth year working on cutters and breaking ice on the Great Lakes,” said Lt. Stewart, the commanding officer and captain of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Biscayne Bay. “I’ll keep doing it as long as the Coast Guard lets me.”

The 32-year-old described breaking ice as being different than any other sailing excursion. Instead of avoiding obstacles and hazards, he confronts everything head-on.

“It’s so much fun,” Stewart said. “With ice-breaking, they tell you to hit stuff with a ship as hard as you can. It’s so different. It barely happens outside the Great Lakes. It’s a very specific mission.”

Crew members of the Biscayne Bay toss ice overboard on Lake Superior
Crew members aboard the U.S. Coast Guard’s Biscayne Bay toss ice overboard as they sail on Lake Superior toward the Superior Entry on Monday, Jan. 3, 2022.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

A 2007 Marshall grad, Stewart later completed four years at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut. Stewart is the son of Richard Stewart, the well-regarded head of the University of Wisconsin-Superior’s renowned Transportation and Logistics Management program.

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“My dad has had a long history on the water … and we’ve always been closely associated with the water,” the Biscayne Bay captain said. “My family also has a history of military service. It seemed like a natural fit of the two (to join the Coast Guard).”

With its newly announced ability to accept maritime cargo containers, sources wonder if the Great Lakes might offer future relief in the face of supply chain pressures.

Stewart will be in Duluth roughly through the end of the 2021-22 Great Lakes shipping campaign at 11:59 p.m. Saturday, when the Soo Locks in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, close for 10 weeks of maintenance and repair. It's an annual exercise which shuts down passage from Lake Superior to the lower Great Lakes via the St. Marys River.

With the close of the season, the Duluth Seaway Port Authority released this week the names of the lake freighters wintering in the Twin Ports:

  • James R. Barker at the Clure Public Marine Terminal in Duluth
  • Paul R. Tregurtha at the Clure Public Marine Terminal 
  • Lee A. Tregurtha at Fraser Shipyards in Superior
  • Burns Harbor at the Hansen-Mueller in Superior
  • American Century at Enbridge Dock in Superior 

“Winter layup is an especially busy time for skilled tradespeople throughout the Twin Ports and the Great Lakes who perform millions of dollars in crucial maintenance work on U.S.-flag lakers,” said Jayson Hron, Port Authority spokesperson. “Engine work comprises a large portion of the winter work program.”
Some vessels have power plants capable of generating nearly 20,000 horsepower, and over the course of the season, a vessel can travel more than 70,000 miles. Engine parts need to be re-machined and re-installed so that ships can operate again when the season resumes March 25 — ice-coverage permitting.

“I would say there’s at least 6 inches wherever there is ice, and up to 12-15 inches,” Stewart told the News Tribune about the current ice situation. “Especially on cold days, it starts freezing again right behind you. We go through every couple days to make sure it's worked up enough and loose enough the commercial tug companies can get the lakers into the piers."

The Biscayne Bay is the second Coast Guard cutter to break ice in Duluth-Superior this season, joining the Katmai Bay, which cycled through earlier. The local port is awaiting the arrival later this year of the cutter Spar, which will make its home in the Twin Ports.

U.S. Coast Guard cutter Katmai Bay visited Duluth last week, but as temperatures drop regional assets remain at least a day away.

At the Soo Locks, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will spend the remainder of winter performing maintenance on the locks, sometimes working in extreme conditions.

“It is a difficult time in terms of weather to complete this work, but it keeps this important national infrastructure project operating during shipping season,” Soo Area Engineer Kevin Sprague said in a news release this week.

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Stewart, the captain of the Biscayne Bay, wasn’t able to see much of his hometown during his roughly two-week stop in Duluth. A COVID-19 case aboard the vessel forced the officers and crew into quarantine, meaning all work and no leaving the ship.

“My duties are very broad and poorly defined,” Stewart said, wise-cracking as Coast Guard officers are prone to do. “I’ve got a lot of highly trained professionals to take care of the minute details for me.”

Lt. Alexander Stewart stands onboard the Biscayne Bay
Lt. Alexander Stewart, commanding officer of the Coast Guard Cutter Biscayne Bay, stands on the vessel’s deck. The cutter is in the port of Duluth-Superior until the close of the Soo Locks on Saturday, Jan. 15, 2022.
Contributed / U.S. Coast Guard

Even without a chance to catch up with old friends and relatives, Stewart was soaking in his visit home. He loves the cold weather and working Lake Superior, where he first grew fond of ship-watching with his father.

After leaving Duluth-Superior, he’ll take the Biscayne Bay back south of the locks to break track for two months of winter traffic on the lower lakes.

There’s one thing Stewart hasn’t done yet in his official Coast Guard visits to the Twin Ports.

“I haven’t gone under the (Aerial) Lift Bridge yet,” he said. “I’d like to do that, but it’s counterproductive to our ice-breaking currently.”

The Biscayne Bay has been using the Superior harbor entrance to come into the port.

“If I get to go out under the Lift Bridge,” Stewart said, “that’s something that’d be really cool.”

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Biscayne Bay turns into the Superior Bay as it breaks up ice
The U.S. Coast Guard’s Biscayne Bay turns into the Superior Bay as it breaks up ice after sailing through the Superior Entry on Monday, Jan. 3, 2022.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

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