CHESTER – It’s late morning. On a warmer day, watermen would have been out on the bay for hours.
But Roger Corbman’s 89-year-old boat is too old to break through the February ice. She hasn’t left her Kent Island dock in more than three weeks.
Corbman is at the dock, tending to his boat. Several other watermen loiter around their boats, complaining about the ice.
Throughout Maryland, watermen haven’t been able to work for days at a time because of one of the state’s coldest winters in more than three years.
They rely on the state’s icebreaker boats to clear the waterways.
Around Kent Narrows, where Corbman is, the A.V. Sandusky has been breaking ice. The Sandusky is one of four icebreakers the Maryland Department of Natural Resources sends out every year.
To break the ice, the boat’s captain, Shawn Orr, steers her straight into the sheets of ice.
“This hull – it’s not specifically designed for icebreaking. It’s not an icebreaking type hull – it’s not cutting through the ice. So we just ride up on top of it, and that will bust the ice in and you can make it through. I don’t think there’s a lot of skill – just a lot of brute force,” Orr said.
But with the cold weather, it can be a struggle to keep the waterways clear.
“One day, the narrow was open and the next day, it was just filled with ice,” Orr said.
The boats also are assigned to multiple areas. In addition to Kent Narrows, the Sandusky also covers Wye River, the Eastern Bay and the Chester River.
But as the temperatures begin to rise in the coming weeks, the waterways should begin to stay clear.
“I think it’ll stay open – the days are starting to get longer, and we’ll have the cold temps, but hopefully they’re not down to zero again,” Orr said.
If the waterways stay clear, watermen like Corbman won’t have to worry about the damage the ice can do to their boats.
The grizzled waterman is protective of his boat. The way he talks about her is like an artist describing his life-long masterpiece.
He’s worked on the vessel since he was a young boy, painting the boat for the man who handed it down to him.
But the risk of bringing it out to the bay is greater than just sentimental reasons. Damage from the ice could cost him thousands of dollars.
Corbman knows because it has happened to him. He and his brother took his brother’s boat out in the ice.
“We did one year and we sunk her, put a hole in her. Cost us $1,600 to have it fixed, so it wasn’t too good,” Corbman said.
But not taking the boat out has its costs too.
“It makes it tight, makes it hard, because you don’t have any other money coming in. When we’re oystering, we were catching eight, nine, ten bushels a day. But when you don’t get to work, you’re just sitting at home and bills are stacking up on you,” Corbman said.
When the weather gets warmer and the boats are no longer needed for ice breaking, the Sandusky and the other three ships operate as buoy tenders, painting and repairing broken buoys.