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Torrent of ice roars down Hudson River, taking vessels with it

Mar 29, 2019 01:40 PM
The excursion boat Capt. JP III.

New York State Police photo

The excursion boat Capt. JP III.

Eight vessels broke away from their moorings in upstate New York during a period of rapidly rising water and thick ice on the Hudson River.

Although no one was injured during the breakaways that started at about 0230 on Jan. 25, several vessels were damaged. The dinner boat Capt. JP III became pinned against a railroad bridge five miles from its mooring, and the tugboat Betty D. went over the Troy Federal Lock but remained afloat.

Four barges also came free during the incident, although two beached shortly after leaving their moorings. State officials briefly closed three bridges around Troy and Albany as a precaution.

“Apparently there was an ice jam that held everything back north of my mooring facility, and everything let loose at one time,” said Jim Pledger, owner of the 600-passenger Capt. JP III, which he has tied up along the Troy seawall.

“We determined this was a very unprecedented act of nature,” said Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer Mike Leathers, a marine investigator assigned to the case.

The breakaways occurred during an unusual stretch of weather in upstate New York. Bitter cold days and nights gave way to heavy rain and temperatures in the mid-50s that caused high water in the river and its tributaries.

“The biggest thing was the big temperature change,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Steven Strohmaier, a Coast Guard spokesman based in New York. “The contributing factor was the rain. We had a lot of ice that was starting to break up and flow south.”

Rob Goldman, president of the New York State (NYS) Marine Highway Transportation Co., said three client barges and three tugboats broke free during the incident. Another NYS tug, Frances, was traveling north from Albany when it encountered a wall of ice nearly 8 feet high.

Carried south by high water and ice after being torn from its moorings in Troy, N.Y., Capt. JP III eventually wedged under the Livingston Avenue Bridge between Albany and Rensselaer.

Pat Rossi illustration

“(The vessels) were being set south. They were being carried by it,” Goldman said, noting that Frances sought shelter until the ice wall dispersed.

Similar forces pushed Betty D. over the lock north of downtown Troy. The NYS vessel was moored at the company’s facility north of the lock and dam when it came free. The barges were moored south of that structure.

“The water was so high and it had such carry from the ice that it just pushed (the tug) over the dam,” Goldman said.

Pledger and Goldman separately described rapidly rising water in the Hudson preceding the breakaways. That section of river normally flows at about 10,000 cubic feet per second (CFS). But on the morning of Jan. 25, it jumped to nearly 90,000 CFS within a couple of hours.

The water and ice was powerful enough to sever 11 mooring lines that connected Capt. JP III to the seawall. Three barges used by Goldman’s firm also broke free along with Betty D. and the other two NYS tugboats, which were not occupied. Another barge used as a restaurant called The Rusty Anchor also came loose.

Not all of the vessels were adrift at the same time. At least one barge hit Capt. JP III, damaging its stern and rudder. The excursion boat sustained more damage along the third deck when it became stuck under the Livingston Avenue Bridge, a railroad span north of downtown Albany.

“The four barges going downriver were kind of bouncing off each other,” Pledger said. “They would hit the beach, hit an ice patch and then spin around. Things were kind of going everywhere.”

The NYS tugboats Frances and Margot pulled Capt. JP III from under the bridge at about 1530 on Jan. 25, then towed the vessel back to Troy. It remained there as of mid-February, awaiting warmer weather for a transit south to North River Shipyard in Nyack, N.Y. Capt. JP III should be ready for operation when its season starts in April.

Several NYS vessels sustained minor damage in the incident. Goldman said it could have been a lot worse, and he credited state and local agencies for their response.

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