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Deep freeze causes oversized traffic jam on the seaway

Freezing temperatures like none in recent memory caused more than just a few pipes to stop supplying water to houses, as ships lined up in the St. Lawrence Seaway to wait for frozen locks to be defrosted over the holidays. (Courtesy Java James Jacobs)

If you have ever driven over the Mercier Bridge, you are conditioned to see and experience long traffic lines to get across it. One thing you aren’t likely to see is a line-up underneath the bridge.

But that was the case on New Year’s eve morning as several ships were stopped in the St Lawrence Seaway in Kahnawake. They were queuing up to enter the locks and head to the port of Montreal, ahead of that afternoon’s official closing of the seaway for the season.

“In all the years that I’ve been following shipping I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Joe Delaronde, a local shipping enthusiast. “It is quite extraordinary. They usually find a way to clear them out.”

The ships were forced to wait because of the weather, the longest extreme cold stretch in history. The temperature did not rise above -17 Celsius for six days between December 27 and January 1. It caused the locks to freeze.

“The locks were taking extra time due to the ice conditions,” said Andrew Bogora, the communications officer for the St-Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation. “They were moored in the seaway for more shelter. The alternative was to leave the ships exposed in Lake St. Louis. Instead this was an opportunity to be in protected waters.”

Kellyann Meloche, the manager of Kahnawake’s Emergency Preparedness and Planning, was on top of the situation. Her department posted an alert at 10:26 am.

“We called the seaway control centre and offered our assistance,” she said. “But they never needed to call us back. We were assured all ships were functioning properly as were their power systems.”

Instead crews with the Canadian Coast Guard made their way into the Seaway with an icebreaker and powerful tugs to make sure the idle ships didn’t get frozen in place.

“It was something odd to see, considering they were looking to be so close together on the seaway that day,” Meloche admits.

Meanwhile other crews worked on de-icing the locks, according to Bogora. “They were chipping the ice,” he said. “We have to scrape the walls inside the chamber (lock) so the ice inside doesn’t prevent the ship from smoothly transitioning that lock.”

Scraping the walls involves having a tug tow a barge with a backhoe on it which is used to chip away at the ice.

They also used steam to de-ice the locks’ doors and keep them functioning.

“We’ve had cold winters,” Delaronde said, but I guess the circumstances all conspired against getting this backlog cleared up in time.”

The official closing was at 3 p.m. on New Year’s eve. In fact it took until around midnight the next day, according to Bogora, to clear up all of the traffic.

Meloche says it just proves that people need to always be prepared in case of a weather or other kind of emergency.

“It goes to show that the weather changes very quickly,” she said. “You have to be prepared for any kind of weather, such as having a back up heat source and the ability to get around.”

There are five ships that remain stuck at the American locks or above. Bogora says they are hopeful that those ships will complete their transit through the Seaway and to the Port of Montreal in the next day or two.

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