Shifting ice from icebreaker crushes ferry causeway south of Sarnia, threatening family business

The Canadian Coast Guard is investigating after the causeway leading to a boat that has ferried workers and tourists across the St. Clair River in Sombra, Ont., south of Sarnia for 55 years was crushed by ice Thursday.

The damage is threatening to kill a fifth-generation family ferry business.

The Bluewater Ferry was built by Morgan Dalgety's grandfather decades ago, with the Canadian government supporting the enterprise by building a causeway leading to its dock back in 1962.

'Your dock is collapsing'

On Thursday morning, Dalgety got a call from the person who lives next to the place where that road reaches land.

"They said 'Your dock is collapsing,'" he said later in the day. "They thought it was an earthquake it was shaking so much."

The river was clogged with ice, so the ferry had not been operating for more than a week. Then the icebreaker came by.

"The Canadian Coast Guard was escorting four freighters down the river today ... and the river has been plugged with ice," Dalgety explained. "It shifted the ice above our dock when they went through and pushed the ice into our dock, causing our causeway to collapse."

On Jan. 7, the Canadian Coast Guard Ship Samuel Risley along with U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Neah Bay escorted two ships along the St. Clair River to Lake Huron. The Coast Guard said it freed multiple vessels from the ice that weekend. 

"The icebreaking done by the Canadian Coast Guard mitigates a significant flood risk along the St. Clair River, which benefits communities on both sides of the border," Carol Launderville, communications adviser for the Canadian Coast Guard, said in an email to CBC News.

"Icebreaking keeps ships moving safely and efficiently on one of the busiest transborder shipping lanes in North America."

Launderville said the Coast Guard is aware of what happened along the causeway, and is "reviewing information provided by the manager of the Bluewater Ferry."

Pictures Dalgety shot with his cellphone show the extent of the damage. Twisted steel and pavement that looks more like a roller coaster track than a roadway are framed by thick wooden posts shattered into splinters.

In all his years along the water, Delgaty said he's never seen such a big ice field move with so much force. The causeway didn't stand a chance.

"We actually had 18 40-foot oak spiles, which we use for clusters in front of our causeway just so this wouldn't happen. They were 14-inch thick spiles, and they snapped them off like toothpicks."

The roadway was too expensive to insure, meaning Delgaty and his family are desperately searching for help.

He's already called a construction company in Windsor for an estimate to cover the repair work. The news was not good.

"To get that one out of there and build a new one will be around $4 million, and by the time you get permits and everything, it's going to be about a year," said Dalgety.

"I'm sick to death. I can't think straight, because this is my livelihood and this basically put us out of business."

Busy boats facing year-long break

In peak season during the spring or summer, the company's two 12-car ferries cross the river about 40 times a day. In the winter months, business is slower, but "if the ice is moving we're running," said Dalgety.

"We have a lot of nurses who cross there, and some for the auto industry who go over to Detroit, but mostly it's shoppers, day trippers and people that own cottages."

Facing a year-long wait and the possibility of having to cough up millions his company doesn't have, Dalgety said he's reached out the coast guard and government in Ottawa asking for help.

"I'm going to be on the phone or in my truck or on a plane, knocking on a whole bunch of doors and seeing if we can't get some help, because the Bluewater Ferry doesn't have $4 million to build a causeway," he stated bluntly.

"It's either we get help from the government or we go bankrupt."