Winter Fleet at Sturgeon Bay




During the winter months, more than a dozen Great Lakes freighters dock at Bay Shipbuilding Co. in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, resembling a separate city — especially at night. Blazing with deck lights and bustling with activity, the freighters are not slumbering through their winter layup, nor are the men assigned to care for them until spring frees the locks at Sault Ste. Marie.

The handful of men hired by shipping companies as shipkeepers maintain systems, keep watch and provide assistance to the many Bay Ship employees who complete repairs, refits and upgrades as well as oversee dry dockings for mandated U.S. Coast Guard and American Bureau of Shipping (ABS) surveys.

The shipkeepers are a colorful lot, clearly dedicated to the ships on which they serve.

Mike Lester, shipkeeper aboard the 678-foot steamship Wilfred Sykes, for instance, was born landlocked on Omaha, Nebraska. He didn’t discover his Great Lakes calling until 1969, after he’d completed a tour of duty in the U.S. Army’s 1st Infantry Division.

“I had a friend who worked on the Great Lakes, so I decided to come up and work as a deckhand,” Lester said. “Then I worked through the following winter as extra help in the engine department. The job was kind of interesting, so after six months as a wiper, I took my Coast Guard exam, and then, boom! I got a job as a fireman.”

Over the years, Lester worked his way up to chief engineer, serving aboard the Sykes, the Edward L. Ryerson and the Joseph L. Block. He retired in 1997 but remained active in the fleet’s winter relief program.

“I go where I’m needed,” he said. “When you retire, you can only play so much golf and drink so much beer! I’m proficient at this, and I enjoy it. It’s a cloistered environment, but if you have other interests, it’s got a great time-off program. Plus you’re always moving around, so I get paid to exercise all day long!”

Lester has two shipmates aboard the Sykes this winter: Jerry Berg, a retired U.S.  Steel chief engineer who hails from Foston, Minnesota; and Chad Gauger, a Sturgeon Bay native who has worked for Roen Salvage, U.S. Steel and Inland Steel. Most recently, he was the first assistant on the carferry S.S. Badger.

“I also worked on the Badger,” Lester said. “I laid her up in Ludington in October. She was my initiation to coal-fired reciprocating engines!”

The Sykes, by contrast, features two steam turbine engines that operate on heavy oil rather than coal.

Perhaps the most important project on the Sykes this year is repairing the self-unloading system.

The classic steamer, built by Lorain, Ohio-based American Shipbuilding in 1949 for Inland Steel Co., was converted to a self-unloader in 1975. Prior to the conversion, she averaged a 14-hour unloading time. Afterward, she could unload her 20,000-ton cargo in just three or four hours.

“She’s like a big dump truck,” Lester said. “She must be able to unload, as the ports are limited now. You can push her around with tugs if you need to, as long as you can still unload!”

The Sykes spent most of her career hauling taconite, stone and coal on Lake Michigan and now primarily hauls taconite ore into Indiana Harbor.

Days at Bay Ship (a former subsidiary of the Manitowoc Company and now part of Fincantieri Marine Group) typically start at 7 a.m. Lester, however, prefers to get a jump on things.

“I like to start at 5:30 or 6 a.m. so I can catch the foremen and team leaders to coordinate what needs to happen that day,” he said. “It works out well; they’re very punctual and efficient.”

The shipkeeper’s job has changed significantly since Lester began sailing the lakes more than 35 years ago.

“Years ago, shipkeepers made the rounds, checked the mooring lines and made sure no one came aboard,” Lester said. “You were basically a watchman. Now, you still make the rounds, sound the ballast tanks and check boiler readers and bilges, but the job’s more productive, and there’s more professionalism.

“Security isn’t as critical anymore, because the shipyards have exceptionally good security programs,” he continued. “Safety is part of everything, and Bay Ship has backups on backups. So we focus on maintenance and working with all the shoreside support — carpenters, welders, machinists.”

The winter fleet is scheduled to leave Sturgeon Bay in mid- to late March. After that, Lester will return to his home in Logansport, Indiana.

“I bought an old building that’s on the National Register of Historic Places,” he said. “I enjoy carpentry, so I’m remodeling it and turning it into a gift shop.”

Eventually, of course, another freighter will come along.

“I’m at the call of the company,” he said simply. “I go when and where I’m needed.”

Shipkeeper Tom Drzal also has been a Great Lakes sailor for the better part of his life. A native of Buffalo, New York, Drzal started work as a deckhand a year earlier than Lester, in 1968.

“I came out for one year,” Drzal said, chuckling. “I was en route to Los Angeles, and I never made it.”

Drzal is assigned to the Stewart J. Cort, the first 1,000-footer on the lakes. She was built in 1970 at Ingalls Shipbuilding Corp. in Pascagoula, Mississippi, for the InterLake Steamship Co. She makes regular runs between the Burlington Northern Santa Fe ore docks in Superior, Wisconsin, and the Bethlehem Steel mill in Burns Harbor, Indiana.

Working as the Cort’s wheelman during the summer season, Drzal has also sailed aboard the Burns Harbor, a 1,000-footer that was built at Bay Ship in 1979. And, 30 years ago, he had the unforgettable experience of sailing through the same vicious 1975 storm that sank the Edmund Fitzgerald — his vessel was just three hours ahead of her on Lake Superior.

With a whistle, he said quietly, “That was some storm.”

Drzal is the only man assigned to the Cort, which recently spent time in dry dock getting a new belt and new generator as well as undergoing routine maintenance.

“Right now I don’t have heat or water over there, so I’m staying on the Tregurtha,” he said. “But I’m on the Cort every day, checking things, doing odd jobs, making sure all the systems are running. I’ve got to be around while the Bay Ship guys are working in case they need any support.”

After a slight pause, he added, “Being alone on that ship builds character, let me tell you.”

Sitting next to Drzal is Steve Hohenshelf, who hails from Brookfield, Connecticut, and is the shipkeeper aboard the Paul R. Tregurtha. Unlike Drzal and Lester, Hohenshelf is new to the lakes; he happened upon the shipkeeping job last November at his New York City union hall.

“It seemed exciting, and I wanted to travel,” Hohenshelf said. “I took the job for 60 days. I really like it, though, and I definitely want to stay on.”

The Tregurtha was the last of the 13 1,000-footers to be put into service on the Great Lakes, and she was the last ship built at American Shipbuilding. Launched in 1981 for InterLake Steamship Co. as the William J. De Lancy, she became affectionately known as the “Fancy De Lancy” due to her comfortable interior spaces, air-conditioning and elevator. She makes regular runs between St. Clair, Michigan, and Superior.

The food was, in part, an attraction for Hohenshelf.

With a broad grin, he said, “Back East, they say we’re lucky to go to the Great Lakes. They say you’ll be well fed, and you’ll gain weight.”

Eyes twinkling, Drzal interjected, “There are storms, and there are bad storms. There are good cooks… and then there are bad cooks.”

Laughter rippled around the room, where the other four men assigned to the Tregurtha occasionally popped in to see what was going on. There is an easy camaraderie among lakeboat men.

This winter, the Tregurtha is receiving a new fuel-oil purifier and undergoing inspections required by the U.S. Coast Guard and the American Bureau of Shipping. In addition, Bay Ship employees are hard at work on her forward hold, installing a new slope for the coal cargo. Hohenshelf provides support when needed, but many shipkeeper’s tasks, he said, are much more mundane.

“I run to the post office and garbage dumpster, and I shovel the path to the gangway,” he said. “Shipkeeping is a little bit of everything.

“That’s the best part,” he added. “You could sail for 40 years and still learn something new. You never know what’s going to happen.”

Originally published in the Door County Advocate, Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin — March 2, 2006.