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Coast Guard was responsible for causeway damage, Duc captain says

Pam Wright Coast Guard icebreakers trying to keep a shipping lane open in the St. Clair River were responsible for the damage done to the Sombra ferry, says Captain Ken Bracewell.
Owner Ken Bracewell says the Duc d’Orleans cruise ships, seen here berthed here in Centennial Park, has also been damaged by Coast Guard icebreaking activity in the St. Clair River. Glenn Ogilvie

Pam Wright

Coast Guard icebreakers trying to keep a shipping lane open in the St. Clair River were responsible for the damage done to the Sombra ferry, says Captain Ken Bracewell.

The international border crossing between Sombra and Marine City, Michigan has been closed since Jan. 11 when massive ice floes wiped out the causeway linking the ferry dock to land, impacting thousands of people.

A number of private docks on the river were also crushed.

“In my opinion, that’s what caused it,” said Bracewell, who added his own Duc d’Orleans II cruise ship operation has been damaged by Coast Guard icebreaking.

“Extending the shipping season has had dire consequences.”

Bracewell, who operates the Duc with his wife Sherry, grew up on the river in Corunna, runs his business out of Sarnia, and understands the waterway’s ebb and flow.

Messing with natural forces rarely turns out well and dislodging thick ice in current is a bad idea with unpredictable results, he said.

“It’s the icebreakers versus the rights of the people with structures on the river,” said Bracewell, who blames icebreakers for snapping lines, breaking pilings and ripping electrical lines from shore connections at his dock.

Ironically, he added, The Duc and Bluewater Ferry are forced to pay Transport Canada for ice clearing and navigational aid maintenance or have their operations certificates suspended.

Sarnia-Lambton MP Marilyn Gladu made a plea in the House of Commons last week for the government to reopen the border crossing.

The Parliamentary secretary to the minister of oceans and fisheries offered no encouragement.

The “shipping lane that the Canadian icebreaker was on was nowhere near the ferry dock and no link can be found between the damage to the ferry dock and the transport of the Canadian Coast Guard,” Terry Beech told Parliament.

Gladu met with Beech and St. Clair Township Mayor Steve Arnold on Friday, with Arnold presenting maps, photos and video of the damage.

“I’m pleased they took the time to meet with us, but until we see something tangible all we have is hope,” Gladu said.

A GoFundMe account has been launched by Sarnia resident Helen Cole to raise $2.5 million to reopen the ferry operation.

In a statement issued by the Canadian Coast Guard on Jan. 20 — and echoed by Beech —the damage was caused primarily by an Arctic blast gale-force north wind that pushed ice into the river.

It said the shipping lane is on the U.S. side of the river and icebreakers don’t operate near the Sombra ferry dock.

Gladu and Mayor Steve Arnold say they will continue to fight for federal funding.

“I will continue to try until somebody shuts the door in my face,” Arnold said.

Captain Bracewell said icebreaking is sometimes needed to prevent flooding, but clearing a path for commercial ship traffic is different.

In years past, shipping ceased when heavy ice clogged the river and it was tradition to watch for the first and last ships of the season.

“The first boat to come down was always a big deal,” he added.

Bracewell noted the Dalgety family, the owners of the Sombra Ferry, were forced to purchase the dock in the 1990s when Ottawa offloaded many of its port lands.

“They (Transport Canada) didn’t want the responsibility, including the Sarnia Harbor, he said.

“But fair is fair. They should be compensated,” he said, adding he’s not surprised neither the Canadian nor U.S. Coast Guards will accept responsibility.

“For them to admit that, it opens the floodgates for damage caused over the years,” he said.

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