Bay shipping restricted, but heating oil getting through


The weekend deep freeze that is cracking pipes and put a dent in homeowner heating budgets has left a sheet of ice across Narragansett Bay but, so far, conditions haven’t stopped the delivery of fuel and heating oil to Providence suppliers according to marine pilots.

Sean Bogus, president of the Northeast Marine Pilots Association, reported Monday that bay shipping to the Ports of Providence and Quonset are “daylight only.” He said the restriction might cause some delivery delays, but that the ice hasn’t closed down traffic.

Much of Rhode Island home heating oil is supplied to Providence terminals via barges for domestic product (mostly from refineries in New Jersey) and by tankers for foreign product. Shana Hoch, spokeswoman for Sprague Energy with 22 terminals in New England and a supplier of gasoline, diesel fuel and home heating oil, said Monday, “We have ample supplies at our two locations.” Sprague operates terminals in Providence and East Providence.

In most cases, marine pilots accompany tankers and freighters, while tug-powered barges are not required to have a pilot aboard, Bogus said.

Marine pilot and chairman of the Rhode Island State Pilotage Commission Howard McVay said that last time ice conditions modified navigational operations in Rhode Island as well as Massachusetts, New York and Connecticut was in 2015.

While GPS makes it possible to pinpoint location, McVay pointed out that ice, which can often be shoved upwards in large chunks, make it difficult to distinguish on radar between navigational buoys. For that reason, and the fact that the moving ice can shift buoys, transits are limited to daylight at this time. On average, there are between four and five daily transits requiring a pilot. On Monday two car carriers were scheduled to arrive at Quonset.

McVay said the ice has moved buoys off Rumstick Point in Barrington and Papasquash Point in Bristol and that, in one instance, ice caused a 1.5-knot reduction in speed for a freighter. In that case, McVay reported, the reduction in speed was not enough to affect maneuverability. Dislocation of navigational aids are reported to the Coast Guard.

McVay described what is now on the bay as “pancake ice.”

“It’s not solid ice,” he said.

Also, he pointed out, that pancake ice is not like an iceberg that has broken off from an ice shelf or glacier and is largely underwater. Pancake ice, however, can pile up when driven by the wind and carried by the tide.

As important as having the bay open to shipping, McVay said, is for terminals to have their docks ice free so that shipments can be delivered.

“If the terminals don’t keep free of ice then it doesn’t do you any good [for a shipment to arrive],” he said. Tugs are used to free terminals from ice.

McVay is aware of situations where tugs have attempted to push a freighter through the ice to reach a terminal with the ice cutting through the pile pilings causing the dock to collapse.


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