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Seaway Saga

3… 2… 1… Happy New Year! Well, at least that’s what was expected to happen for dozens of Seaway workers looking to celebrate New Year’s Eve and the closing of the St. Lawrence Seaway, but instead they found themselves quickly caught up in a dramatic shipping soap opera in Massena, NY.

As Times Square prepared for the iconic ball drop, Snell Lock, one of two US operated locks on the Seaway, took some of the spotlight for its own. When one of the final ships of the season, Federal Biscay, approached the lock, it became stuck like a wine cork in a bottle as ice had built up on the lock walls and the bow of the ship pushed massive chucks of ice into the lock ahead of itself. You might think, no big deal just back the ship up and try again, but it wasn’t that easy.Caption Pacific Huron

With ice more than 10-inches thick in the canal between Eisenhower and Snell Locks, along with the growing amount of ice on the lock walls, Federal Biscay found itself lodged about two-thirds of the way into Snell Lock and unable to budge. Temperatures in the region were not helpful as they plummeted into the teens and soon after into the negative digits. The Seaway’s own tugboat, Robinson Bay, a 1958 built single screw vessel, worked behind Biscay in an effort to break up ice floes in hopes of freeing the ship, with no immediate luck.

When the Saga Began

You could say it all started on December 28, just days before the Seaway was set to close for the season, as Pacific Huron, a 623-foot ocean-going vessel, ran aground between Thousand Island Park, Wellesley Island and Fisher’s Landing, NY. Days earlier, the Seaway had removed the nearby channel markers, though that played no significance in the incident.caption theshipwatcher twitter

There were five ships, at the time, making their way to clear the locks along the St. Lawrence Seaway by the season-ending December 31 deadline. So, the clock was ticking. We got the news from several sources and the word spread quickly. Any grounding is newsworthy, but having a shipping disaster in mid-winter is more than worrisome.

The ship was traveling just east of Clayton when it experienced a mechanical blackout and lost steering abilities. The crew quickly reacted and dropped the stern anchor in an effort to keep the ship from continuing down the river and into the American Narrows. By having minimal control of the ship, it drifted to the north side of the channel and became grounded on a shoal just outside of the channel.

The timing of the grounding brought questions from many, but the biggest was “will the Seaway closing be extended?”

When Pacific Huron ran aground the remaining four ships were in transit behind her headed downbound for the ocean - Federal Biscay, Mitiq, Beatrix and Billesborg.

By December 30, Pacific Huron was assisted by tugs and moved to a nearby anchorage for further inspection, plus the Seaway quietly extended the closing date knowing the ship wouldn’t clear all of the locks in time.

Ice, Ice Baby

Meanwhile back in Massena, Robinson Bay was working overtime to break ice around the locks. Federal Biscay was the first to make its way through Eisenhower Lock. Thick ice in the canal between Eisenhower and Snell Locks was breaking up in large chunks and being pushed by the ship as it approached Snell. Freezing cold temperatures were also contributing to ice build up on the ship’s hull. On the afternoon of December 31, Federal Biscay went to enter the Snell Lock, but only managed to get partially in because of ice in the lock and ice on the lock walls. Making it more of an issue was the fact that the ship was the maximum width permitted in the locks, so space to spare was non-existent.

During the time Federal Biscay decided to jam up the Seaway, Mitiq had also made its way through Eisenhower Lock and was forced to anchor in the canal between the locks. Beatrix and Billesborg were ordered to hold up at Wilson Hill anchorage until the situation could be resolved. Back in Fisher’s Landing, Pacific Huron sat waiting for a river pilot to resume its journey, but part of the hold up with that was their pilot was stuck on Federal Biscay.

Federal Biscay had wedged itself in so tight that it would take several days, multiple tugboats, numerous heavy land equipment vehicles, boilers, bubblers, and a ton and a half of patience, before being uncorked.

Once freed, Federal Biscay was tied to the upper lock wall to be inspected, the tugboats worked diligently to break ice, and the other remaining ships were allowed to begin locking through at Massena.DTS6zbzU0AAnbz6

Ships on Parade

Now that the ships were able to get through Snell Lock again, there was more concern regarding ice between Massena and Montreal. Rather than risk another incident or having a ship become stuck in the open ice, tugs and the Canadian Coast Guard’s Martha Black worked to break a trail through the ice and escort the convoy. They lined up one behind the other, as if on parade, and slowly ventured to the South Shore Canal just west of Montreal. The escorts would return to Massena and lead Pacific Huron and Federal Biscay the following day.

On January 9, all ships had officially cleared the US locks and on January 11 at 6 p.m. Federal Biscay was the last commercial vessel through St. Lambert Lock at Montreal, closing the Seaway’s 59th season, 11 days later than originally scheduled.

By Michael Folsom, @theshiptwatcher

Michael Folsom is a regular contributor to TI Life.  He covers the “Seaway News” on his popular web site,, as well as aTwitter site:

His work has been featured in the Thousand Islands Sun, as well as on and  You can follow him on Twitter @theshipwatcher. To see all of Michael Folsom’s 31 articles written for TI Life. Click Here.


Several tweets from @theshipwatcher feed:


Michael Folsom‏ @theshipwatcher 28 Dec 2017: ICYMI - with a few days remaining in shipping season, freighter has gone aground west of Rock Island/TI Park in #1000Islands. @SPECNewsCNY @WDTnews @7NewsFox28 @newzjunky.

Michael Folsom‏ @theshipwatcher 28 Dec 2017: Ships are being allowed to pass grounded Pacific Huron one at a time, slowly, as the channel has enough room despite the sideways ship. No word of tug assistance en route. #1000Islands.

Michael Folsom‏ @theshipwatcher 28 Dec 2017: The position of grounded freighter Pacific Huron in reality is a best case scenario as 5 more minutes east it would have been in the heart of the American Narrows. #1000Islands.

Michael Folsom‏ @theshipwatcher 28 Dec 2017: Clayton based RJ Marine is reportedly transporting folks to grounded Pacific Huron aboard their landing craft Maple Grove. #1000Islands.

Michael Folsom‏ @theshipwatcher 29 Dec 2017: Can confirm that Ocean tug A Simard will depart Toronto this afternoon to assist Pacific Huron. This is the only available Ocean tug at this time. … #1000Islands.

Michael Folsom‏ @theshipwatcher 30 Dec 2017: Just after 7:50pm Pacific Huron was pulled free from the shoal by Evans McKeil and Ocean A Simard. The ship is under tow and being repositioned. Tugs will remain with the ship as of right now. @SPECNewsCNY @newzjunky @7NewsFox28 @WDTnews

Three more tweets one from Lynda Crothers (Wolfe Islands)  - December 30, Pacific Huron able to function under her own power, divers check out, she will send the night west of Blind Bay.

Michael Folsom‏ @theshipwatcher 31 Dec 2017: Heavy ice conditions in Massena and the South Shore Canal causing havoc for ships to navigate out of the Seaway.

Michael Folsom‏ @theshipwatcher Jan 1: At this point ice has caused a log jam inside Snell Lock, not allowing Federal Biscay to fully enter the lock. All possible means of ice breaking is being done, but Robinson Bay only able to do so much as it is behind the ship. Lock doors can’t be closed.

Michael Folsom‏ @theshipwatcher Jan 2: Pacific Huron is prepping to depart anchorage.

Michael Folsom‏ @theshipwatcher Jan 2: Federal Biscay will remain stuck for another night after two tugs were used for more than 7 hours today to free her from Snell Lock. Evans McKeil will join the effort tomorrow as will boilers to heat the water. Quite the situation in Massena.

Michael Folsom‏ @theshipwatcher Jan 2: Pilots on Federal Biscay were to have been off the ship days ago and report to Pacific Huron. Instead they sit on a ship, stuck in ice about 3/4 of the way into the lock in Massena.

Michael Folsom Retweeted Lynda Crothers‏ @scubadiver5 Jan 3: Wednesday morning on the radio just heard Pacific Huron underway 7:30 , safe trip.

Michael Folsom‏ @theshipwatcher Jan 4: Nearly 10,000 horsepower tugging on the stern of Federal Biscay but she doesn’t want to break free just yet.

North side of seaway

Photo by Michelle Laffin as credited on theshipwatcher Twitter account.

Michael Folsom‏ @theshipwatcher Jan 4:

Tugs working to free Federal Biscay at Snell Lock as seen from the north side of the Lock. Photo by Michelle Laffin.


Photo by Finger Lakes Industrial Contracting Corp.

Michael Folsom ​ Federal Biscay ready to leave. 


Michael Folsom‏ @theshipwatcher Jan 5: Intent remains to get the ships out of the Seaway, but as time ticks by and temps drop even lower, that possibility is quickly becoming less likely. Seaway is mum on the issue. I believe next 48 hours will determine what will happen.

Michael Folsom‏ @theshipwatcher Jan 5: *IF* ships were to winter on the Seaway, Biscay would likely remain at Snell, Mitiq could back to lower Eisenhower wall, Beatrix to upper Eisenhower wall, Billesborg to Iroquois along with Pacific Huron.

She is free

Photo courtesy JP Marchant, Jan. 6 2018, as credited on theshipwatcher Twitter account.

Michael Folsom Retweeted Marchant, JP‏ @JeffMarrrrrchan Jan 6: She’s free!

Ice and locks

Photo by Amit Kulhari as credited on theshipwatcher Twitter

Michael Folsom‏ @theshipwatcher Jan 7: A look at the Lock door in Massena from a member of the Biscay crew. Photo by Amit Kulhari

Michael Folsom‏ @theshipwatcher Jan 8: Last night we learned Federal Biscay looks to be good to travel it’s own power and propeller issue seems to be null. Crews are currently preparing for downbound passage. @CCG_GCC Martha Black has worked overnight preparing east of Snell.

Thanks to Jacques Leblanc, who added several aerial photographs to his Facebook page, the “Last boat to travel on the St. Lawrence River (Seaway) for the 2017 season. With the help of an icebreaker”  January 9, 2018


Photo courtesy of aerial photography, Jacques Leblanc, January 9, 2018

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Photo courtesy of aerial photography, Jacques Leblanc, January 9, 2018


Photo courtesy of aerial photography, Jacques Leblanc, January 9, 2018

Yes, the 59th season is over. To keep up-to-date be sure to check in to Mike Folsom’s @theshipwatcher and to his facebook page. Also stay tuned as we profile his new theshipwatcher team!

Susan W. Smith, Editor,

Please feel free to leave comments about this article using the form below. Comments are moderated and we do not accept comments that contain links. As per our privacy policy, your email address will not be shared and is inaccessible even to us. For general comments, please email the editor.


Tamma Goldner
Comment by: Tamma Goldner
Left at: 4:39 PM Sunday, January 14, 2018
What a great article Michael Folsom put together. Photos were exceptional and I read every word. I’ve been a going to the River since the 50’s (before Seaway opened) and never heard of anything like this ever happening. Many thanks.
Susie Smith
Comment by: Susie Smith
Left at: 4:58 PM Sunday, January 14, 2018
Tamma be sure to read Craig Stevenson's article in this month's issue too. You will be amazed by the photos and may remember. Susie Smith
Lynda Crothers
Comment by: Lynda Crothers
Left at: 3:16 AM Monday, January 15, 2018
Yes Wow, just a quiet end to the Season ... it was not. Went away for Christmas with ships leaving the Lake and River with ice issues then coming home the ICE issues became larger , delays wondering if they would make the cut off date etc . Great run down of events : )
Mardy Howe
Comment by: Mardy Howe
Left at: 6:44 AM Monday, January 15, 2018
Great article. I followed the saga on "The Prescott Anchor. It was a nail-biter. It was the last thing you checked before you closed down to sleep and the first thing you did in the morning to check for progress. Felt so bad for the people that worked out in those frigid cold temperatures.