The name Mackinaw has its roots in the ancient Native American language of the Great Lakes. Specifically, it is derived from the word Michilimackinac in the Ojibwa language, meaning "Island of the Great Turtle." Both Mackinaw (the English derivation) and Mackinac (the French derivation where "ac" is pronounced "aw") are derived from this word and pronounced Mak'ino.
The original CGC MACKINAW (WAGB-83) was constructed during World War II in response to the need to keep shipping active during the winter months to maintain production of steel. For this purpose, Congress authorized the construction of a state of the art icebreaker to be permanently stationed in the Great Lakes. The "Arsenal of Democracy" needed to keep its factories running year-round, especially the steel-making plants along the Great Lakes. Those plants needed iron ore. That meant keeping the shipping lanes on the Lakes open for as long as possible. The only way to accomplish that was to build an icebreaker. Congress authorized the funds to construct that icebreaker for the Great Lakes on 17 December 1941.
Mackinaw was based on the Wind-class icebreakers first designed during the early years of World War II for icebreaking and combat operations in Arctic waters. These icebreaker plans were developed and prepared by Gibbs & Cox of New York off of preliminary design work conducted by the Coast Guard's Naval Engineering Division. The Coast Guard's design work had been based on the research conducted by LCDR Edward Thiele, USCG, during a trip he made to Europe to study Scandinavian icebreaker design as well as on the design of the Soviet icebreaker Krassin.
According to Admiral Thiele, the "Mackinaw was nothing but a Wind-class ship that was squashed down and pushed out and extended to meet the requirements of the [Great] Lakes." Her draft was considerably less than her Wind-Class sisters and she was also constructed of mild steel (1-5/8 inch hull plating), all in deference to her assignment on the freshwater Great Lakes. Her breadth and length were greater than her sisters but consequently those dimensions meant she could not get through the Welland Canal and was therefore prevented from ever leaving the Great Lakes.
A Fairbanks-Morse article described the icebreaker's power plant: ". . .there are six 2000hp Fairbanks-Morse opposed piston diesels generating the electricity to drive her two stern screws and the one under her bow. There are also four 300hp Fairbanks-Morse O-P diesels for auxiliary services, and there are the Fairbanks-Morse heeling and trimming pumps to help the Mackinaw shake herself out of trouble when it is at its very worst."
The Mackinaw could break 2.5 feet of ice continuously and 11 feet by backing and ramming. Her hull strength derived from her design and construction. Along with the Wind-Class icebreakers, Mackinaw's frames were spaced about 16-inches apart, and they made up a truss similar to that found in an inverted hangar, and an inner shell was built inside that truss. The volume between the inner and outer hull plating was divided into many tanks, which were used to store fuel and carry seawater ballast for heeling operations. The heeling pumps were capable of transferring up to 160 tons of water from one side of the icebreaker to the other in about one-and-a-half minutes.
Mackinaw's keel was laid on 20 March 1943 at the Toledo Shipbuilding Company's yard in Toledo, Ohio. She was launched and christened Mackinaw a year later, on 4 March 1944. She was to have been named Manitowoc but the Navy had already assigned that name to a PF (frigate). Mackinaw was commissioned on 20 December 1944 after undergoing trials on Lake Huron. Her first commanding officer was CDR E. J. Roland. Local newspapers heralded the new icebreaker's arrival on the Lakes, hoping that "with the assistance of the powerful new icebreaker. . .the Coast Guard hopes to keep Great Lakes shipping lanes open one month longer each year, and to enable newly-built naval and cargo craft to move from Great Lakes shipyards to the ocean during the winter months, averting long delays.
She was assigned the home-port of Cheboygan, Michigan and was assigned to ice-breaking duties from 20 January to the close of the war. Her effectiveness in keeping the shipping lanes open longer than ever before was pointed out in an information bulletin which stated: "In the years previous to the MACKINAW, general navigation on the Great Lakes was closed to shipping due to ice on the average of about 4-1/2 months a year. The MACKINAW has reduced this closed season to an average of about three months a year." She also hosted 25 Soviet naval personnel who trained in ice breaking operations prior to their taking over one of the "Wind" class icebreakers under Lend Lease.
After the war, she conducted icebreaking duties as well as typical Coast Guard duties during the ice-free months, including law enforcement and search and rescue operations as well as patrolling regattas and steaming on resupply missions to various Coast Guard land stations around the Lakes.
Normally, lake ice begins thawing at the end of April, but "Big Mac" -- as the icebreaker is affectionately called in the lakes region -- has opened shipping lanes as early as the third week in March, thus facilitating the early movement of millions of tons of iron ore, grain, and other vital cargo. Usually the MACKINAW headed first for the strategic area of the Straits of Mackinac about the first week in March to begin ice operations. As conditions permit, she worked up through the Soo Locks to White Fish Bay and areas of the St. Mary's River, then to the head of Lake Superior, then eventually works into the lower lakes areas.
Though icebreaking was the MACKINAW's big function, she was not idle during the summer months. She spent many hours assisting vessels in distress, engages in law enforcement and boarding duties in the interests of safety on the waters, patrols sail and power boat regattas, and usually made one or two annual cruises for training reserve forces. With the aid of her two 12-ton cranes, she can handle the heaviest buoys on the lakes, and carry fuel and supplies to Coast Guard stations.
From 9 to 13 May 1947, aided by the CGC Tupelo, Mackinaw "restored order" from the utter confusion in Buffalo Harbor which was ice-blocked, trapping dozens of vessels. The icebreakers freed 38 of the steamers and escorted them into the harbor and freed and escorted out another 49. The following year, from 17-18 March 1948, she repeated her rescue efforts and opened a passage that freed 12 ice-locked ships at Buffalo, activities that she conducted nearly every spring in the coming years.
During her Coast Guard career she also conducted numerous search-and-rescue operations. On 13 April 1960 she assisted the ice-damaged M/V Henry Phipps, a 585-foot ore carrier. After welding the cracks in the ore carrier's hull, Mackinaw towed the damaged freighter to safety through the ice. On 18 October 1960 she freed the grounded M/V August Ziesing off the upper Little Rapids Cut channel bank. On 10 May 1965 she served as the on-scene commander following a collision between the M/V Cedarville and Norwegian M/V Topdalsfjord one mile northeast of Mackinaw City, Michigan, in which the Cedarville sank. The German M/V Weissenburg rescued the survivors. On 30 October 1966 she stood by the grounded M/V Halifax 40 miles south of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. On 21 November 1966 she transported 29 crewmen from the grounded German M/V Nordmeer to Alpine, Michigan and on 29 November 1966 she evacuated the remaining crewmen. On 5 April 1968 she helped free the M/V W. B. Schiller from heavy ice in Lake Superior. On 1 April 1970 she helped free the grounded M/V Stadacona near the Mackinaw Bridge. In September of 1986 she served as the platform to survey the wreck of the sunken F/V Razel Brothers.
The FM 38D8-l/8 engine in various configurations provides main propulsion on some icebreakers and coastal buoy-tenders. This engine had been identified as emitting, in some instances , unacceptably high level s of white and black smoke. Gaseous emissions of carbon monoxide (CO) and total hydrocarbons (THC) were reduced up to 43% and- 88% respectively with the modified engine. Oxides of nitrogen (NOx) increased up to 38% after the modifications. Smoke emissions, already low, decreased 50% at low loads and 5% at high loads with no significant change through the midpower ranges.
The “Mac”, “Guardian of the Lakes” and “Great White Mother” as MACKINAW has been know with affection, provided over 60 years of outstanding service to the communities and commercial enterprises of the Great Lakes. Homeported in Cheboygan, MI, her age made her very expensive and difficult to maintain. And thus she was decommissioned in June 2006 where she now serves as a beautiful lakeside maritime museum in Mackinaw City, Michigan.
In 2000, the original Mackinaw’s crew began collecting Christmas trees from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to bring them south through Lake Michigan to Chicago.
Mackinaw was decommissioned on 10 June 2006 in Cheboygan, the same day that the "new" Mackinaw, WLBB-30, was commissioned. After the decommissioning of the first Mackinaw (WAGB 83), the new Mackinaw (WLBB 30) has taken up the tradition started by Capt. Herman Schuenemann, master of the three-masted schooner Rouse Simmons, the original “Christmas Tree Ship” that delivered thousands of trees to Chicago families in the early 1900’s. Rouse Simmons foundered and sank near Two Rivers, Wis., on Nov. 23, 1912, with all 17 souls onboard lost.
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