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Ice on the Creek


There’s ice on the creek. It’s the creek I call “my creek,” but then, so does everybody else who’s there. Pretty creeks have a tendency to make you feel that way about them. They’re personal. And so it’s very personal when they get skimmed over by ice … not to mention deeply frozen over by ice. It’s like the creek can’t communicate as well.

Frozen Creek

The geese can’t land there. The osprey can’t dive for fish. The deer are loath to swim across, to the delight of the hound dogs. And boats in the water are trapped. The can’t take you to the freedom of the open water. The ice may be beautiful, but it can also be spirit crushing and depressing.

There’s all kinds of ice that can form across waters. Some is just skim ice. It’s thin and you know if the wind pushes some wavelets in from the river it’ll probably break up. Even if it’s flat calm, the warmth of the noon sun will probably make the ice disappear. And your skiff can push through it if you really need to get out. But that ice, thin as it is, can cut through the paint of your skiff leaving opens wounds of splintered soft wood to fester and rot of you don’t take care of them soon. Even if that skiff is fiberglass, the ice can cut off gelcoat and strip off bottom paint. Thin ice is sharp.

If you let your boat lie at its dock it’ll probably be OK for a while, even as the ice thickens. Because ice at this stage seems to shy away from dock pilings and boat hulls. I believe it’s the slight even imperceptible movement of water between the ice and the hull that keeps a small warmer ice free band of water around the hull. That’s good.

But if it gets cold enough and stays cold enough without warm respite, the ice thickens and grows closer to the pilings and the hulls. Eventually it can start to gnaw up wood and fiberglass and then, as the cold remains, it can begin to seize whatever is in it. As tides rise and fall under the floating solid water, it has inestimable strength to move or damage what it holds. If it’s seized enough around dock pilings, it can even pull them up out of the mud. If the tide rises on a nor’easter pushing the thick ice up against the bottom of the dock it can destroy that dock.

And there’s another angle. If there’s ice in your creek, there’s probably ice everywhere else, especially upstream or up river. And the water underneath it isn’t frozen. It’s still flowing down river, or both up and down if you’re in a tidal area. When that heavy ice breaks up, as in a thaw or from wind, huge chunks are borne down on the current and these can crush boats and piers. Ice is more than a spell breaker or a spirit dampener. It can be a destroyer.

And there’s another way that it’s a destroyer. In a way, it’s more subtle. We all know about winterizing our boats. If you’ve just got a skiff sitting in the water with no systems or outboard, you don’t have much winterizing to do (except maybe you should have pulled it for the winter). But with larger boats there are many things we need to do. I won’t go into that here because every year just about every magazine reminds us again. And we should do all those things … everything we can to protect our boats from freezing. But there’s something else that’s important to know about.

While that ribbon of water is still between your hull and the ice, not only is there a chaffing buffer, there’s also usually a little extra warmth at your waterline. This is because the creek water that hasn’t frozen is obviously warmer than the creek water that has. Even if you’ve done all the “right stuff” to winterize your boat, when the ice sheet attaches to your hull, there’s added danger of through hulls freezing (between the opening and the valve that you dutifully closed) as well as the danger of abrasive and cutting damage and the danger of your boat being seized and even compressed by the ice. When that ribbon of slightly warmer water succumbs to the sheet of ice, it can mean big trouble.

An Easier Way

Anything that you can do to keep that ribbon of water open will help. Once, before we began going south, our 41 foot ketch was entrapped by a particularly cold winter on the Chesapeake. The whole bay froze over in many areas. I went aboard at least twice every day with a long heavy galvanized pipe and a T head screwed onto the end. I pounded the ice with my battering ram, up and down, until my muscles screamed, sweat was freezing on my face and the ice broke. In that way I kept my boat and dock free and we had no damage. But there’s now a much easier way.

Ice Eater in Action

Most of us have seen “bubblers” and “ice eaters” in marinas and at boat shows. They work because the water down deep (and usually the deeper the better) is relatively warm compared to the surface that’s frozen. (If it’s not, you’ve really got problems.) The bubblers blow bubbles deep under water. These make some of the water rise and the warmer bubbles, which have traveled through that deep layer of warmer water, help to keep the ice away. The second is a propeller in a special casing that turns by an electric motor and pushes the deeper warm water up, again keeping the ice away from the area of up flow.

I use the latter type. The electric motor is, of course, underwater and attached directly to the propeller. But it’s in a stainless case and immersed in oil within that case. A heavy duty water proof cable carries the electricity down to the motor. In old days these consumed a large amount of electricity, but newer ones are very efficient. I use only one, but it clears a large area around my boat and dock. If the power goes off and stays off, you’ve got trouble. But it usually doesn’t stay off that long and, once a unit has returned to working, its “warm” water flow can eat away most ice that’s formed on top. And you can buy a controller that allows you to set the unit to come on at certain times and temperatures. I don’t know which of these types are best and I imagine it depends in part on the circumstances. I do know I don’t want to hang around up north long enough to really find out.

So when winter tries to take my creek away, I know I can at least keep some of it. And this makes spring feel like it’s coming sooner.

Tom’s Tips About Rigging Ice Eaters

  • If you must join the ice eater wire to an extension cord (it’s far better if you don’t) make sure to well secure the plugs above the highest tide. Usually this would be near the top of a piling.
  • People often go overboard taping plug connections hoping to keep the rain water out. Often a lot of tape just traps the water and causes a short.
  • It may be better to secure the plugs in a vertical arrangement at the top of the piling, with the female receptacle on top facing down and the male on bottom. If you use tape, make an apron around the upside down female plug body, extending down to hang around the male plug body, but not stuck to it, so that this apron will not trap water inside.
  • Also make this very conspicuous so that all will know about it and no one on your dock will grab it (as maybe when they slip on that icy spot) and possibly get shocked.
  • Carefully secure the line along the top of the dock so that it won’t get washed overboard in flood tides.
  • Keep your equipment well maintained and inspected and follow all instructions and warnings.
  • Don’t let anyone go in the water (as, perhaps, divers who might go in during the winter) while there’s power to it. Remember you’re dealing with electricity around the water.

Tom Neale

Technical Editor, BoatUS Magazine