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Drama Closes Seaway Season in 2013

Just as both side of the river prepared to enjoy the Christmas holiday, those aboard the ocean-going vessel Orsula were in for a long holiday of their own. However, they weren’t the only sailors in for a dragged-out closing to the shipping season.

The brutal winter began to cause havoc well before many would have expected, especially those associated with Great Lakes shipping. In the second week of December, crews at the Eisenhower Lock in Massena were faced with a damaged lock gate, which seemed to trigger the next three weeks of hold ups. Several hours for a repair to be made, backed-up ships along the Seaway, waiting to make their pass through the lock. The cold temperatures began to se- in and just a few days later, ice became the biggest enemy of the ships.

The South Shore Canal, just west of Montreal, is a tight and narrow stretch of waterway. Its shallow depth, narrow banks, combined with frigid temperatures created an ice jam that no one was prepared for. Ice began to form along the canal and within the locks, bringing ships to a gridlock. Heavy equipment was called in to initially attempt to free ships lodged within the locks, but with not much success.

The hold-up lasted nearly 3 days before little movement was made. The Canadian Coast Guard and a few tugboats were dispatched to the area to assist the ships. The ice cover this early in the season was never expected and resulted in long delays due to no immediate icebreaking plans.

Former Save The River director, Jennifer Caddick, chimed-in on the situation and shared this tweet, "Current probs on #StLawrenceSeaway proof that weather not a pre-set calendar should dictate opening/closing of Seaway."

It was true, weather operates on its own calendar and the failure to prepare for it resulted in thousands of dollars in lost revenue for the industry.

At midnight on December 23rd, the height of the ice storm that had now crippled the region, there were still 15 ocean-going ships within the Seaway system that would need to get out before the closing, which was just a week away. To make matters worse, the ship arrestor was damaged at St. Lambert Lock, bringing every ship to a standstill yet again.

One ship captain indicated that his trek from Cape Vincent to Montreal took 90 hours - more than 3 days longer than usual due to having to anchor or wait for ice to be cleared from locks.

In addition, just off Tibbetts Point, the ocean-going vessel Orsula ran aground, as Santa’s sleigh was circling the world.

Just a few days prior, the channel marker that sits near rocks off Tibbetts Point had been removed for the winter months. It was believed that the ship was setting its anchor when it collided with the rock bed. In that area, water levels tend to drop-off just outside of the channel, from more than 60+ feet to less than 20 feet, rather quickly.

The Coast Guard, along with McKeil Marine vessels, spent a few days, along with local divers from Clayton, on the scene to inspect the ship and begin to lighten, in order to re-float it. The night before the Seaway closing deadline, Orsula was deemed capable of sailing under its own power and was then moved to Carleton Island anchorage, with assistance of tugs, before setting out for Montreal, with a tug escort. All looked good at the time, the ship was moving and while the Seaway closing deadline loomed, it could likely be beat.

Not so fast, ice remained an issue along the South Shore Canal.

As Orsula crept down-bound, others were trying to make the journey out of the Seaway, well ahead of the deadline.

Canadian Coast Guard Cutter Martha Black, along with tugs from the Ocean Group, worked to un-clog the ice build-up through the Canal. However, December 30 at 11:59 p.m. came and went as ships remained in the Seaway system.

Algoma Equinox would be the final upbound ship of the year to clear the 1000 Islands, later than expected.

Nearly 38 hours after the Seaway was to close, the final vessels made their way through St. Lambert Lock in Montreal. Orsula was allowed to clear, after the deadline and soon after the tugs and Coast Guard vessels that worked to clear ice for more than a week straight, would cap-off the season, as the final ships of 2013 – though now it was January 1, 2014.

To see more photographs and a video of the Orsula, see the January issue of TI Life’s The Orsula on Christmas Day, by Dennis McCarthy and Khris Hunt.

By Michael J. Folsom

Michael J. Folsom is a regular contributor to TI Life.  He covers the “Seaway News” on his popular web site,, as well as a twitter site: His work has been featured in the Thousand Islands Sun, as well as on and  You can follow him on Twitter @theshipwatcher

In real life you can find Michael at the Antique Boat Museum in Clayton NY. where he is the Director of Marketing & Communications.

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Brian Johnson
Comment by: Brian Johnson ( )
Left at: 3:10 PM Saturday, February 15, 2014
Mike, we listened on the VHF plus watched events unfold on the ARPA/AIS system on the Wolfe Islander III. Thanks for actually showing us up close and personal pics and video of what was actually going on!!