On thin ice

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Two airboat crews get underway on a safety patrol for residents who were stranded due to flooding in their North Dakota community. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Annie R. Berlin.
Two airboat crews get underway on a safety patrol for residents who were stranded due to flooding in their North Dakota community. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Annie R. Berlin.

While scores of boaters in colder parts of the country have put their boats into storage until spring, many still rely on their vessels for hunting, fishing and transportation. But what happens when a lake or river freezes over and a snowmobiler falls through the ice, or fishermen become stranded on an ice floe?

The Coast Guard, Always Ready, responds with an airboat.

Being at the wheel of an airboat is rare, as they are found at only 11 units across the Coast Guard. While there are few airboats, they are operated by exceptional coxswains who operate on frozen lakes and rivers – an environment that is constantly in flux.

An airboat’s handling characteristics challenges many coxswains due to the diversity of terrains and missions the platform is used on. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Connie Terrell.
An airboat’s handling characteristics challenges many coxswains due to the diversity of terrains and missions the platform is used on. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Connie Terrell.

There are many variables that any smallboat coxswain must keep in mind when they are at sea, but an airboat coxswain has to be aware of all that and more.

“Land, water and ice affect the handling of the boat differently. Add wind, current, fog and snow and, the fact that the boat doesn’t have reverse, and you realize handling is a unique challenge,” said Lt. Warren Fair, the Coast Guard’s ice rescue program manager.

An airboat’s handling characteristics challenges many coxswains due to the diversity of terrains and missions the platform is used on. But before a coxswain even gets a turn at the wheel, they must first become certified as an ice rescuer.

Beginning with the basics of ice terminology and protective equipment, potential airboat crewmembers learn the movements required of teams in ice rescues. Airboat crews must also learn about the factors that affect how the ice forms, including water current, depth, snow cover and temperature.

Continuing their training, coxswains are required to exhibit in-depth knowledge of the airboat itself, including mechanical characteristics, mission performance, boat operations and hard and soft water handling skills.

The skills these Coast Guard members learn requires a commitment to proficiency, as airboats are highly sought after to conduct emergency relief missions in environments other than ice. Due to their mission diversity, airboats serve as a perfect platform when responding to natural or man-made disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina, Red River flooding and Deepwater Horizon.

As maritime search and rescue professionals, the Coast Guard understands the dangers of cold water as well as the dangers of venturing out on the ice. While the airboat crews are ready to respond, those who live on or near the ice should always consider ice safety.

A Coast Guard Station Marblehead airboat crew speaks with local ice fishermen during a local festival to discuss safe ice fishing. U.S. Coast Guard photo courtesy Station Marblehead.
A Coast Guard Station Marblehead airboat crew speaks with local ice fishermen during a local festival to discuss safe ice fishing. U.S. Coast Guard photo courtesy Station Marblehead.

If people choose to go out on ice, Lacy encourages keeping the acronym “ICE” in mind.

I – Intelligence : Know the weather and ice conditions, know where you’re going and know how to call for help.

C – Clothing : Have proper clothing to prevent hypothermia. Dress for the water temperature, not the air temperature.

E – Equipment : Have proper equipment including marine radio, life jackets, screw drivers, ice picks, etc.

The Coast Guard performs missions in the most extreme of environments and ice is no exception. As you make a serious investment and commitment to ice safety, the Coast Guard makes a serious commitment to being Always Ready.

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