LAKE ERIE - FOX 8 News had an exclusive tour aboard the U.S. Coast Guard Neah Bay icebreaker as it chopped through ice on Lake Erie from Cleveland to Toledo.
The 140' cutter escorted the iron ore freighter American Spirit nearly 100 miles Thursday, including through Canadian waters north of Pelee Island.
The Neah Bay, which departed from the U.S. Coast Guard station in Cleveland, has completed around 30 vessel escorts so far this month to keep commerce flowing on the Great Lakes.
With 90.6 percent of Lake Erie covered by ice as of Thursday, the ship can be compared to a snow plow on a highway.
"You can almost think of the waterways the same way we think of highways," said the ship's captain, Lt. Andrew Perodeau.
He said Great Lakes shipping is a $5 billion industry that can't stop during the winter months.
"I don't think people understand how much shipping happens on the Great Lakes and how important ice breaking is to keep that shipping moving," Perodeau said.
The ship breaks ice using its own weight and movement. Its rounded hull, similar to the shape of a football, crushes ice as the Neah Bay moves through the water. Its massive wake churns up additional ice.
It can break ice as thick as three feet, Perodeau said.
At one point Thursday, it had to circle back to break additional ice when the 1000' American Spirit became stuck. The freighter, which carries iron ore used in steel to make Ford F-150 pickup trucks, will lay up in Toledo until March.
The Neah Bay's 19 crew members live onboard for weeks at a time, sleeping in bunks and eating meals together in a mess room.
Lorain Native Billy Shuck prepares the meals.
"I love serving my country, having a purpose, doing something great. I love cooking food, so it's great," he said. "I get to do everything all at once."
Several crew members described the crew as a family.
"It's basically like living in a big old house with a whole bunch of family 'cause you have officers and they're like big parents," Najee Williams said.
Perodeau said clearing ice from waterways connecting the Great Lakes is also vital.
The Neah Bay crew planned to spend Thursday night in Toledo before heading to clear ice on the Detroit Saint Clair River Friday, which Perodeau said also helps to prevent flooding amid historic high Great Lakes water levels.