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Lingering lake ice hinders Welland Canal traffic

The Algoma Equinox got all dressed up in a top hat and had nowhere to go.

The vessel was the first upbound ship traveling through the Welland Canal as the navigation season opened Friday. Per tradition, its captain received a ceremonial “top hat” at Lock No. 3, home of the Welland Canals Centre in St. Catharines, Ont.

The start of the canal’s season heralds the arrival of spring, but this year’s harsh winter seemed unwilling to step aside. As of Friday afternoon, the Equinox was still in the canal, with too much ice covering Lake Erie to safely continue its journey.

The ship is empty as it travels from Toronto, where it was docked for the winter, to Thunder Bay, on Lake Superior, to pick up a load of wheat. Then the Equinox will travel downbound through the canal to unload the wheat in Montreal, for distribution to points beyond, including overseas.

But the Equinox will probably be waiting in the canal for a few days, until icebreakers and warmer weather can create better conditions on the Great Lakes, said Greg Wight, president and chief executive officer of Algoma Central Corp., which owns the vessel. “I don’t ever remember a winter like this one.”

This was the latest opening date for the Welland Canal since a March 31 opening in 2009. In recent years, the canal has opened as early as March 20; the navigation season typically wraps up at year’s end. Wight says it is hard to make up for lost time in a finite season, but the company will do its best.

The canal is part of the St. Lawrence Seaway, linking Lake Erie and Lake Ontario with a system of eight locks and enabling ships to bypass Niagara Falls. Another portion of the Seaway extends from Lake Ontario to Montreal.

The stubborn Great Lakes ice is having an impact beyond the Equinox’s schedule. The Lake Ontario-Montreal segment of the Seaway delayed its opening until Monday. Port Colborne, Ont., west of Crystal Beach, postponed its “top hat” ceremony, to honor the first downbound vessel, until next week. Even the ice boom on Lake Erie is staying put later than planned.

Despite the icy start to the season, the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp.’s president and chief executive officer, Terence Bowles, forecast more than 38 million metric tons of cargo will be shipped on the Seaway this year, which would be up from 37 million in 2013. The 2012 total was 38.9 million.

The corporation is investing $395 million between now and 2018 to revitalize the Seaway’s locks and structures. Its U.S.-based counterpart, the Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corp., is investing $92 million over a similar time frame. The two organizations say the investments will rebuild the lock infrastructure and introduce technologies that will make the Seaway safer, more efficient and more reliable.

The Equinox represents the first of eight new vessels joining Algoma’s fleet. Algoma is spending $300 million (Canadian) on six Chinese-made ships, including the Equinox. The two other vessels are being built for CWB Inc. and will be operated and managed by Algoma.