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Breaking the Ice: Coast Guard's Chilly Trek Down the Hudson River

Chiara Sottile / NBC News

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Sturgeon Bay breaks through ice on the Hudson River in order to keep commerce moving.

By Chiara Sottile, NBC News

Standing akimbo on the ship’s bridge with his stare fixed forward, Lt. Ken Sauerbrunn can’t take his eyes off the miles of ice stretching bank to bank before him. The Hudson River is even more frozen than usual this time of year because of recent frigid temperatures -- and Sauerbrunn and the 16-person crew of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Sturgeon Bay are in a battle against the ice.

In the early morning light, the chunks, spikes, and sheets of ice glow a warm orange though it is barely 20 degrees. Their boat cuts a track from West Point to Newburgh, N.Y., alternately sending spikes like daggers ricocheting off all sides of the boat and slowly creak-crunching through the thickest frozen sections.

Their mission is to break enough ice to keep fuel barges and other commerce moving down the river safely.

“It's important, because each winter, over 10 million barrels of home heating oil come up and down the Hudson River, and if the river is jam-packed with ice, then they may not be able to move,” explained Saurebrunn.

Watch the video below to see the ice-cutting ship in action.

Lieutenant Ken Sauerbrunn of the United States Coast Guard Cutter Sturgeon Bay explains how his ship and crew breaks through thick ice on the Hudson River, a vital route for transporting American heating oil and other goods. Sauerbrunn describes this year's ice accumulation as a "significant ice event" that could be dangerous without cutters like his.

The crew acts as a lookout, too.

Down on the deck, tugging at a tangle of ropes, Chief Petty Officer Jeffrey Valentine says what he’s most proud of is the ability of the boat to help keep commerce moving.

“People don't realize that if we're not out here, these boats and commerce will not flow to New York. It just won't happen,” Valentine said.

But it’s not as simple as ramming through ice 1-foot thick. Cutters must try to keep to one track in the ice to avoid ice refreezing in larger formations after the ship passes.

“As a rule of thumb, the more ice you break, the more ice you make,” Sauerbrunn explained.  

Joseph Clements is in his third year onboard and is rarely without a smile.

“We try to have as much fun as we possibly can in the cold and during these long hours,” said Clements.