Frozen Wicomico River hampers barge traffic

The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Chock enters the mouth of the Wicomico River on Tuesday, breaking ice more than 1-foot-thick.

The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Chock was on the Wicomico River Tuesday and Wednesday breaking ice more than one foot deep, so the barge Falcon could make its way to Salisbury and deliver oil.

A spokesman for Vane Brothers in Baltimore, whose vessels deliver to Salisbury, said Cato Oil asked the U.S. Coast Guard for assistance last Sunday. Cato Oil sells products including heating, propane and oil fuels and receives deliveries from barges.

Cutter Chock, based in Baltimore, responded to “break the ice at the mouth of the Wicomico River and allow barge traffic to recommence,” the spokesman said.

Barges were never blocking the river, he said. On Tuesday, one was waiting to make a delivery while anchored in the Chesapeake Bay at the Western Shore and another had delivered and was heading back, the spokesman said.

The Falcon was carrying more than 1.1 million gallons of ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel, which can be used for home heating oil, and another was hauling more than 1.1 million gallons of gasoline.

“They were not stuck in the ice. They were below the mouth of the Wicomico River awaiting the opportunity. They can move but they can’t get into the Wicomico because of the ice,” the spokesman said.

The barges are just under 300 feet long and each is paired with a tugboat towing vessel that’s 70 to 100 feet long and provides 1,800 to 2,000 horsepower to push or pull the barge, the spokesman explained.

U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Third Class Ronald Hodges, at the Coast Guard Station in Baltimore, also said the barges were never stuck in the ice. They couldn’t deliver because there are restrictions on what thickness of ice they can venture through, he said.

He told the Salisbury Independent the Chock is capable of breaking up to 18 inches of ice by ramming it with a reinforced hull. No blades are used to cut ice.

The Chock began plowing into ice around 9 Tuesday morning, Hodges said.

“The plan was for them to break the ice, go back and check with the vessel, then escort them into Salisbury. The boats produce about 1,100 rpms of power for each 65-foot small harbor tug,” Hodges explained.

Early this week, Wicomico County Executive Bob Culver said he contacted the Maryland Emergency Management Agency as soon as he learned the barges were delayed and was assured The Chock would be commissioned.

Culver said the matter was not an emergency but urgent and had to be remedied “before the situation became an emergency.”

Oil is stored below the deck of each barge in what the Vane Brothers spokesman described as a beehive of containers. Each container area has plenty of room for liquid products. During delivery, fuel is pumped out of the areas, he said.

If a barge becomes stuck, crews have adequate provisions to wait and remain in one place overnight, he said.  Crews work two weeks on, then two weeks off.

Ice has been building in Chesapeake Bay rivers and creeks for nearly two weeks. The cold snap began Dec. 27, and except for a brief period of 33-degree weather Dec. 30, temperatures have remained at or below freezing since then at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

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