Effort Is Holding Off Winter’s Icy Grip

Published in 2015 by The St. Ignace News

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The St. Ignace Municipal Marina might appear silent and still after the seasonal slips empty and special events shift to the ice on Moran Bay, but constant maintenance protects the structure from ice during the winter.

“This is a year-around job,” marina director Tim Matelski said. “This system is mechanical. If you’re not checking it and there’s any problem, things will start to freeze and you’ll get damage.”

And ice can do a lot of damage. It can hook beneath the pilings and lift them out of the water, or it can build up beneath the docks and crack the boards. It can also bend the pilings inward or pull the floating docks away from the main dock and crush them.

Mr. Matelski, harbormaster Clyde Hart, and a bubbler system work together to keep the winter at bay.

There are 21 motors at the marina, 10 of which are running at any given time. The motors power the pumps that force air through the extensive network of copper pipes surrounding and running beneath each dock.

The pipes are simply half-inch and three-quarter-inch plumbing pipe, with holes at regular intervals that let bubbles escape. The bubbles carry warmer water to the surface of the marina and prevent ice from forming. By the time the bubbles reach the top of the water, the water is about 32 degrees, so it doesn’t melt any snow sitting on top of the water.

“People don’t see the open water,” Mr. Matelski said. “We want the snow on top of the water to insulate it and help keep ice from forming.”

Sometimes the snow shifts or begins to melt, but it’s usually replenished by another snowfall or a sunny day that causes snow at the dock’s edge to soften and tip over the side, onto the open water.

Some snow is appreciated for that reason, but if too much accumulates, the weight can press the dock into the water. Because the pipes are suspended five or six feet below the docks, the pipes would be forced down, as well, and disrupt the airflow.

“If that happened, the dock could get frozen that way,” Mr. Matelski said. “At smaller marinas, they just pull the docks in, but we’re too big, so we can’t do that. That’s why we have to keep them clear.”

The bubblers alone cannot keep the ice from forming around the docks, however, especially as temperatures dip low into the negatives. Mr. Matelski and Mr. Hart spend several hours every day checking the system and breaking up any ice that’s formed around the pilings. They use a homemade spud to break up the ice, and have to remove the chunks by hand.

Mr. Matelski wears insulated rubber gloves for protection as he scoops up jagged pieces of ice and flings them into the middle of the slips, where piles glint in the sunlight and continue to grow as winter progresses. The larger the pile in the middle of a slip, the more difficult you know that dock has been to keep clear.

When Mr. Matelski could not find a spud for sale that was long or heavy enough to be effective, he asked Bobby Cena of St. Ignace Auto to make him one. The seven foot pole has a wicked-looking point soldered onto one end. The triangular hunk of steel was once intended to be a car part, but it’s impossible to tell what that might have been, as the ice and constant use have bent and reshaped the point beyond recognition.

The spud has slipped beneath the icy waters of the marina at least once this winter, but Mr. Hart fished it out using a grappling hook, more commonly used for drawing bubbler pipes to the surface for inspection or repair.

“That’s why we painted the handle [of the spud] orange,” Mr. Matelski said. “Really, “that’s the sort of thing you know is going to happen.”

There has been no major damage this winter. An old piece of rubber tubing and a worn pipe segment developed holes, but the tubing was replaced and the pipe was covered by a piece of rubber until it can be replaced in the spring.

There are at least 1,000 rubber connectors beneath the docks, used when the bubbler pipes need to round a corner. If any one of them is damaged or comes undone, it can disrupt the flow of air though the bubblers. In a similar manner, a hole in one of the bubbler pipes can release too much air, cutting off the supply to other parts of the system.

“If you see all the bubbles coming up in one place, that’s bad, because it means those bubbles aren’t going up everywhere else they’re supposed to, and ice is forming,” Mr. Matelski said.

Over the next five years, additional maintenance will be required. Boards have warped and are beginning to show evidence of dry rot, posing a safety hazard to both boaters and workers. The city will also need to begin replacing docks in about five years, Mr. Hart said.

“This facility is nearly 12 years old. It’s not new anymore,” Mr. Matelski said. “It’s supposed to have a 30-year life, but we certainly don’t have 30 years on the docks or the pilings. We can hope the flotation system lasts that long if we keep the ice away. The electrical and plumbing could last that long, as well, but maintenance isn’t cheap.”

Impending maintenance costs are worrying for the city, because payments on the marina will increase over the next few years, rising from $47,085 to $76,562 this year and increasing to $84,987 in 2016. From then until 2026, payments will remain around $80,000.

The marina has been making money for the past three years and has nearly $190,000 in the bank, but more is needed to offset the increased debt payments and to pay for impending repairs.

To offset the costs, Mr. Matelski and Mr. Hart have been investigating ways to both save and make more money.

Last winter, the marina spent $8,000 on electricity to keep the bubblers running. This year’s costs are expected to be less, with more than $5,000 in costs so far. How much higher the cost will be depends on how soon warm weather arrives and how long the bubblers have to be run.

At least 10 of the bubbler system’s 21 engines must run continuously throughout the winter. This February, 12 were needed because of the cold temperatures. Each engine turns out five horsepower and costs $10.40 a day to run.

The system could potentially run on smaller engines, however, so Mr. Matelski hopes to replace some of the engines to cut electric costs. He has already had one smaller engine donated, which he plans to use next year. If electric costs are lower and the system operates as well as it did before, he might look into downsizing more.

“If we can save $1,000 or $2,000, that’s money in the city’s pocket,” Mr. Matelski said. “We’ll do anything we can to cut those costs.”

Mr. Hart also wintered his sailing trimaran at the marina, both to keep it close to home and to see whether the marina could earn money offseason by wintering boats. He paid for a winter seasonal slip, his own bubbler system, and had a meter installed to pay for all of the electricity needed to run it, so the marina is actually earning about $1,000 from the boat’s stay.

“I’ve had my boat in ice before, but it’s more serious here,” Mr. Hart said. “But the boat’s doing fine. I have two submersible fans beneath it that send warm water to the top, so there’s only about a half an inch [of ice] around it, which it can handle.”

The curved shape of the boat’s hull lends itself to enduring ice well, as it has no hard angles to act as pressure points. On a more angular hull, the ice can press against the corners and break it.

The experiment has shown boats with round, sloping hulls could be easily stored in St. Ignace during the winter. Mr. Hart and Mr. Matelski have yet to decide if they will pursue that option further, as the marina’s insurance would require them to purchase a deicer system in addition to the bubblers.

This past fall, the city asked to have 20 of the 96 transient slips designated as seasonal. Transient slips are rented by the day, while seasonal slips are rented for the entire summer. Seasonal slips are a far more popular option for boaters, as high fuel prices discourage transient traffic, but St. Ignace only has 40. The state does not appear willing to change the slip designations, but low fuel prices could bring more transient boaters into St. Ignace this summer. The marina has already locked down fuel prices for July and August, agreeing to purchase 22,000 gallons each month at $2.10 a gallon. That’s 80% of the gasoline sold last summer at $1 cheaper per gallon.

The marina charges boaters more for gasoline than it pays, as a 15% state tax, electricity, personnel costs, and profit are factored in, but prices still tend to be lower than many other Great Lakes marinas.

“People shop for price. If they’re buying 500 gallons, a few cents can make a difference and bring them in here. When they look around and see how nice the marina is, they might stay for a couple days and then come back or tell their friends about us,” Mr. Matelski said.

Rising water levels and the dredging completed last summer have made more slips available for boaters. Four newly opened slips near the office have electric and water hook-ups and are good for smaller vessels.

Boats that don’t need electric or water hook-ups can tie up along the inside of Dock A, also made accessible by the dredging. There’s enough room for 10 small boats or five large ones.

Boaters must renew their contracts for seasonal slips by April 1, and so far two of the 40 seasonal boaters have said they don’t intend to return this year. Fifteen to 20 people are on a waiting list for the seasonal slips, and people may call in to have their names added at any time.

“We always encourage people to contact us if you’re looking for a good home port on the Great Lakes,” Mr. Hart said.