GARDINER — Unseasonably warm weather turned an annual ice-breaking operation on the Kennebec River into a training mission.

With no ice in sight, three 65-foot ice-cutters arrived early Tuesday morning at the Gardiner town landing. Capt. Christopher Roberge, commander of Coast Guard Sector Northern New England, said despite the decrease in ice coverage and thickness this year, there was still a need for crews to follow through with the planned mission.

The ice-cutters normally break and flush ice from Merrymeeting Bay to Gardiner to reduce the risk of ice jamming and flooding as inland snow and river ice begins to melt and flow out to sea.

Coast Guard Lt. Nick Barrow said it was a great opportunity for all three cutters to work together in a restricted waterway without the risk of ice flows for navigation-related training.

“The crews benefited from the experience without the high stress of an ice condition,” Barrow said Tuesday, as an occasional chunk of ice drifted by the three moored cutters. “We have a rate of turnover each year and for a lot of the crew members this is their first time riding up the river to Gardiner.”

Barrow said the warm weather the past couple of weeks — with temperatures soaring into the high 50s and low 60s in some areas — melted the ice quicker than anyone expected. He said it was a different story last year at this time when a significant amount of rainfall presented ideal conditions for flooding.

“This year, Mother Nature did it for us,” he said. “We didn’t have the ice-covered river to break up or a major rain event to saturate the ground and cause the river to spill over the side. This is no where near that type of scenario.”

Last year’s forecast predicted temperatures soaring into the 50s with several inches of rain. In 2010, cutters were called in when an ice jam formed on Jan. 26 off Front Street and eventually stretched to Farmingdale.

The opportunity to save on fuel costs by aborting the mission had been discussed, Barrows said.

He said the Coast Guard weighs the benefits of a mission against risk to crew and equipment then costs associated with the operation.

“There’s a cost of doing business associated with running Coast Guard ships and again this was a planned and coordinated mission,” he said. “There is no added cost incurred by doing this. From a taxpayers’ perspective, I suspect it certainly benefits folks when our crews are trained and proficient with what they do and there’s a cost associated with that.”

Barrows said he didn’t know how much the operation cost. Training activities included boat navigation, practice using the ice-cutters and checking on buoys that are left in the river.

Barrows said there were about 26 crew members between the Coast Guard Cutter Shackle out of Portland, the Tackle out of Rockland and the Bridle out of South West Harbor.

He said the crews will stay overnight in Gardiner and return back to their ports today.

“They’ll take time off tonight and end up at some of the restaurants in town,” Barrows said Tuesday. “We don’t see this as a waste, but still a successfully planned mission.”

The ice-breaking operation is made possible each year through close collaboration with the Maine River Flow Advisory Commission along with federal, state, county and local agencies.

Mechele Cooper — 621-5663

[email protected]

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