The Dirty Tricks Committee
By Dan R. Riksen
Republished Courtesy of the WYTM Association
A hundred and ten foot WYTM with 20 or more men on board tends to grow smaller in direct proportion to the amount of inclement weather that it encounters. This is particularly so when shipping on the Lakes has stopped and the vessel is essentially frozen in for the winter. Exterior maintenance in freezing temperatures is limited to those jobs that are absolutely necessary. Painting of living spaces is impractical due to the number of people living in the confined spaces on board and the lack of adequate ventilation when the vessel is buttoned up against the weather. And, to be practical, how much "soogying" and training can any of us stand?
As Commanding Officer of OJIBWA in the early 70's starting my second winter aboard I was again faced with this situation. OJIBWA had finished breaking ice for shipping in the Toledo, Detroit, Port Huron area and had returned to Buffalo for the winter. Long liberty periods had been granted to compensate for the weeks we had been deployed and ice probes to prepare for the opening of Buffalo Harbor in the Spring were still a couple of months away.
To lift morale and with apologies to Admiral Dan Gallery, USN from whose books I gleaned the idea, I asked the crew to form a "Dirty Tricks Committee." Since BRAMBLE, a 180' ice-breaking buoy tender, would be down in the Spring to help us open Buffalo for shipping, she would be the focus of our committee. The ground rules were simple. The jokes would have to have some class and could not cause any damage to BRAMBLE. In other words, painting her anchors pink would not be permitted. The last requirement, since I was a W-3 warrant officer at the time and BRAMBLE’S CO was a LCDR, was that the jokes could not put me in line for a Court Martial. With that encouragement, the crew went to work preparing for the arrival of BRAMBLE .
Spring arrived and OJIBWA began ice probes to ascertain the composition of the ice fields at the Buffalo end of Lake Erie. To those not familiar with the Great Lakes, the natural flow of water is North East down Lake Erie, through the Niagara River and into Lake Ontario. The prevailing winds are also from the South West. Both of these factors tend to make for heavy ice fields in the vicinity of Buffalo. For instance, the freezing thickness of ice in Lake Erie could be 12 inches. As the wind blows across the ice causing one ice field to raft up on another, you may end up with a field 24 inches thick. As the wind blows across that field the same thing happens and you have 48 inches of ice. Again, and 96 inches. As long as the temperature stays below freezing, the open water created by rafting of ice will freeze again. This process all along Lake Erie resulted in ice flows over 12 feet thick in areas off Buffalo during my tour there. Conducting ice probes allowed us to "chart" the area and plan where we could break track to open Buffalo for shipping.
OJIBWA met BRAMBLE in open water West of Port Colborne that Spring and returned in company to Buffalo. Since BRAMBLE was senior, her CO became the OTC. (Officer in Tactical Command.) As such he "invited" me to his wardroom the following morning to discuss the days work. OJIBWA was directed to move the track a little further off the shoals near the Canadian side while BRAMBLE would straighten out the entrance to the pack off Port Colborne. Both ships sailed on their assigned missions.
Those readers that were born after the 1940's probably never heard of a shaving cream called Burma Shave. Burma Shave however, advertised their product on a series of small signs approximately 5" by 30" or somewhere near that size. These signs were placed on short poles along the roadside and each contained a couple of words that made up a short rhyme in the series similar to the following:
The place to pass
is only at
a beauty show
BRAMBLE, who at the end of the day, had to return along the fresh track broken by OJIBWA was treated to a series of signs planted on short poles in the ice that read:
amidst the flo
leads BRAMBLE back
The signs were apparently well received by BRAMBLE’s crew, but her CO stopped and had them removed so they were never seen by commercial interests. They did however set the stage for the next days operation.
After a meeting the next morning, both ships sailed in company to clean up the track near the entrance to the pack off Port Colborne where there were a series of heavy pressure ridges. The 180's and 110's made a good team. Although their horsepower was similar, a 180 displaced substantially more which allowed her to carry through a pressure ridge that would require a 110 to back and ram to get through. A 110, while she didn’t have as much displacement, had a much stronger Horsepower to displacement ratio which allowed them to back and ram faster and rarely let them get stuck. 180's would frequently get stuck. When they did they would swing an "ice sinker" from side to side with their boom, causing the ship to list and break suction with the ice. It was used similar to the "heeling tanks" on the Wind class icebreakers. BRAMBLE’s ice sinker was a 10 ton cement block painted white with black dots to resemble a die.
BRAMBLE got stuck in a pressure ridge. She called for OJIBWA to come break her free. Unbeknownst to us, her CO had passed the word for all hands to "watch the horsepower of this tug." Accordingly, a good percentage of her crew was on deck as we approached. BRAMBLE was swinging her ice sinker. OJIBWA was coming up to her on a slow bell through broken ice that was far less than an impressive display of our horsepower. As OJIBWA passed close aboard, our BM1 was on our bow, very solemnly swinging a boathook back and forth to which was secured a length of marline and a cardboard box, painted white with black dots. BRAMBLE’s entire crew, less a slightly red faced CO, was clapping and cheering.
Although Buffalo was opened for commercial traffic that year without further gestures on OJIBWA’s part, there was a certain amount of tension aboard BRAMBLE the next few days as they waited for the other shoe to drop.
Return to Coast Guard Stories