Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site


Biting winds sweep across the deck as the ship groans with the stress of 12 -foot-high waves that roll beneath. The Coast Guard had proclaimed it a gale -- not unusual weather in the middle of Lake Superior in November.

Bracing myself against winds gusting up to 60 m.p.h., I inch along the ice-covered deck. A roller strikes the side of the Ship, and the 600-foot boat quivers before plunging into the next wave.I tighten my grip on the safety line; attempting to navigate the slick deck would be suicidal without the thin steel cable. Each wave that washes over the deck carries enough force to sweep anyone overboard.

About these ads

When this Great Lakes steamship was built 73 years ago, the only potable water tap was placed in the galley, "back aft." As one of the six deckhands, I was responsible for regularly filling the water containers for the deck crew of the forward end. During most of the trip, the rest of the crews of 34 would remain in the safety of their cabins.

We have just left port. The captain had grown impatient with the weather delays: We had spent three of the last four days anchored in sheltered coves along the shores of the largeest freshwater lake in the world.

Our captain's decision to sail left us slightly uneasy. November is not the season to rely on the Coast Guard's weather reports. Storms strike suddenly and unleash a fury equal to any ocean gale.

The Great Lakes shipping industry pushes full steam ahead for nine months each year. Only when the ice in the rivers and shallow bays becomes thick enough to halt their passage do the ships shut down their engines for winter "layup," usually in mid-December.

This vessel is one of about 150 American vessels (there are at least that many Canadians ships on the five Lakes) that carry bulk freight. All the iron ore for the Detroit automobile industry and virtually all of the grain grown on the northern Great Plains is transported by these ships. They are also becoming more and more important as a way to bring low-sulfur coal from the West to Midwestern cities.

Shipping volume is closely tied to the economic fortunes of the region. There has been little overall increase in tonnage over the last decade with the exception of coal, which has begun to approach the peak years of the 1950s.

While tonnage has not increased, the number of boats has begun to approach the peak years of the 1950s.

About these ads

While tonnage has not increased, the number of boats has sharply decreased.

Great Lakes transport was revolutionary by the launching of the "thousand-footers" in the early 1970s. The supercarriers, which are more than three football fields long and higher than a five-story building, can haul loads of more than 60,000 tons. Constructed with their own unloading systems, consisting of conveyor belts and a 300-foot boom, the ships can discharge the cargo in six hours' time (more than 2 1/2 tons per secondm ).

Although the new ships dwarf their ancestors, fewer seamen are needed to crew them. Physical labor is reduced because of a more efficient deck and hatch design.

In contrast with ocean vessels, which have an average working lifetime ot 20 years, Great Lakes ships built more than half a century ago still ply these inland seas. Fresh water does not corrode steel as rapidly as salt water does, and the outdated ships remain profitable because Great Lakes shipping companies do not complete with foreign flag ships.

Kinsman Lines, for example, owned by George STeinbrenner, better known as the owner of the New York Yankees, has a fleet of six ships, four of which were built before World War I. Its flagship, four of which were built before World War I. ITs flagship, the SS Alastair Guthrie, is the newest ship of the fleet and was built in 1926.

Three of the Kinsman steamships still burn coal, the fuel first used in the middle of last century. The extra labor costs of operating with coal are compensated by the high cost of the alternatives -- bunker oil and diesel.

I heave a sigh of relief as I return from the quarter-mile trip to the galley. I push open the heavy steel door of the forward end and feel my way down the dank passageway with a jug of water and some sandwiches under one arm.

Now we could huddle in our cabins or in the machinery space below deck, what we call the "wreck room," until the supplies run out. Here, below the level of the 40-degree water, the boatswain keeps his tools and buckets of grease. Hissing steam pipes draped with the crew's wet clotes form a maze leading off in every direction.

Our sleeping quarters are adjacent to this area.Cabins are cramped and appear to be an afterbrought of the ship's architect. One is sandwiched between the staircase and the storage space for the anchor chain. The lowliest crew members -- the ones most recently aboard -- are literally rattled out of their bunks each time the "hook" is dropped.

While crew members on the modern ships sit like suburban dwellers in lounge chairs watching color televisions, the sailors on the ancient steamships spend their time on makeshift furniture telling their own tales. "Sea stories of the lakes" (a curious locution, if not a downright contradiction) are both humorous and poignant.

Charlie, who has spent more than half of his 36 years afloat on the Great Lakes, has a storytelling knack equal to any sailor with twice as much experience. Sitting on an empty milk crate, he rests his muscular arms, blue with faded tattoos, on his knees. He begins his tale after everyone has attempted to outdo the previous storyteller.

Once he took a job as wheelman, whose duty is to keep the ship on course. On his first trip, Charlies promptly got the ship stuck in the mud near the dock. The captain paced the pilot-house incessantly, barking borders to Charlie and the first mate. They tried turning the ship, unloading ballast, and backing out. Nothing worked. Finally, in desperation, the skipper turned to the first mate and said, "Get this ship docked. I'm going down below."

The mate, dumbfounded that the captain would relinquish command in this predicament, tried again. He told Charlie to wheel hard right, then, hard left; they reversed the engine; then, half speed ahead. By this time, the Coast Guard had appeared on the port side, demanding over a loudspeaker to speak to the captain.

"Charlie, go find the old man!" the mate said frantically. Charlie went to the captain's quarters. He wasn't there.

After checking every place he thought the captain could be, Charlie returned to the pilothouse to admit his failure. The mate glared at Charlie with disgust and descended to begin his own search. A half hour later, the make reappreared, looked at Charlie intently and said, "He's hiding in his closet and refuses to come out."

Charlie typifies lake sailors not just in his ability to tell stories. Like many other sailors, he is an incurable transient. He doesn't stay on a boat very long, earning just enough money to begin a new adventure on shore. This doesn't take long, since his wages range from $2,000 to $3,000 per month, depending on the amount of overtime he works. Since lake freighters make frequent ports and the sailor's only obligation is to give the captain 24-hour notice of his intention to leave the ship, Charlie disembarks at every whim.

He says tht he often gets fed up with a ship and leaves in such haste that he doesn't even collect his belongings. "I've got four sets of gear scattered around the lakes. Someday I won't even have to carry a sea bag -- I'll just board a ship and find my own stuff."

Rusty, the boatswain, began sailing long before the seamen's unions became strong. In those days, the freedom of movement that Charlie enjoys was unheard of.

Sailors call Rusty a "homesteader." He returns to his vessel season after season. But after 38 years of ship life he has become an alcoholic. The mates and captain tolerate this because of their respect for his ability to splice both rope and heavy steel cable -- a skill that is rapidly becoming obsolete on the lakes.

Alcoholism is so widespread that most unions now offer free alcoholic rehabilitation programs for their members. Among the younger generation of sailors, the use of marijuana and amphetamines is also rampant. Union magazines warn against the stiff penalties -- closing seaman's papers and imprisonment -- that a convicted drug user faces. (Lakes ships, like ocean vessels, come under the jurisdiction of federal maritime law, which imposes harsher penalties than do state regulations.)

Yet enforcement is not always uniform. When Coast Guard inspectors boarded by ship one night, they apprehended to sailors for possessing marijuana (others dumped their stashes out the portholes in time), yet looked the other way at the supplies of liquor, although alcohol is permitted is up to the captains, many of whom themselves drink. Heavy drinking is, unfortunately, as much a part of the Great Lakes sailors' way of life as was the daily rum ration to the American Navy of the 19th Century.

Veteran sailors have all faced the conditions that Rusty describes in history:

Last December, on a trip to Fort William, Ontario, in the northern reaches of Lake Superior, the crew fought weather so cold that the steam valves on deck froze. Each of the ship s 33 hatches had to be covered with a heavy tarpaulin to keep water out of the ship's holds. Caked with ice from the violent waves, the tarps were almost unmanageable. Crew members were summoned from slumber at 3 a.m. to wrestle with them in piercing winds. When the ship reached port, the tarps were frozen solid. The entire crew worked 36 hours nonstop to remove them , using blowtorches to melt the ice. The ship had to stay on schedule.

Ships average between 50 and 75 loads per season, although 100 trips are not uncommon for vessels on short runs. This means that the ship frequently calls on more than one port in a day.

The Coast Guard has tightened safety measures on board lakes ships since the notorious wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald during a storn in November 1975. Survival suits and inflatable life rafts must now be provided by the shipping companies. Inspections for violation of the safely code are frequent and more rigid.

Suddenly, the hollow belly of our ship reverberates with the crash of a wave The jolt cuts off conversation and jars two crewmen from their perches atop a mattress balanced against the bulkhead.

Rusty smiles as he feels his way back to his cabin in the dim light.

"Just wait," he says, "till you see a realm storm."

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.