My years living on the North Shore convinced me that Great Lakes ship captains are among the most amazing people on earth.
This is not because I am easily impressed by big equipment.
The sound of ore trains rumbling down the hill from the Iron Range was the soundtrack of my youth.
Five rail carriers serve the international port of Duluth, and the sight of trains made up of strings of ore cars filled with the rich red earth, or with taconite pellets, stretching as far as the eye could see, was part of the natural environment.
When I visited my grandparents on the range, I observed some of the giant machines that were used to extract the valuable ore from the earth.
The railways and the mines had some impressive equipment, but the boats that worked Duluth and the other Great Lakes ports had a special fascination for me.
These boats carry cargoes of iron ore, taconite, coal, and grain from Duluth to ports around the world.
The biggest of the lakers (In local parlance, “lakers” are boats designed specifically to work the Great Lakes, as opposed to “salties,” which are ocean-going ships that occasionally work the lakes) are limited by the size of the locks, including the Poe Lock (largest of the Soo Locks).
Whenever I find myself in a port city, I make a point to head down to the waterfront to watch the boats.
My informal observations have convinced me that the captains who pilot the big lakers can do the impossible (or near-impossible).
Watching these people work is a revelation.
They have to plan each move well in advance, and the margin for error is practically nil.
There are some enormous ships on the ocean, too, but they generally operate in an environment of a larger scale.
The ships that work the Great Lakes operate on a stage where the rivers, canals, and docks are scarcely large enough to accommodate their impressive bulk.
Take, for example the Paul R. Tregurtha, the reigning “Queen of the Lakes.”
Operated by Interlake Steamship Co., she is the longest boat currently working the lakes.
The Tregurtha is 1,013 feet, 6 inches long, and has a beam of 105 feet. She can haul a maximum cargo of about 68,000 tons of iron ore.
It is incredible that these giants are able to float, much less do so gracefully.
Imagine the skill that is required to pilot something that size through a narrow river, or through the Poe Lock, which measures 1,200 feet long by 110 feet wide.
If one does the math, one finds that this leaves about 2.5 feet of clearance on either side of the vessel.
Think about that.
Anyone who has any doubt about what an impressive feat of navigation this is need only visit any large parking lot during business hours and count the number of drivers who can’t seem to pilot an average-sized vehicle into a standard parking space.
If we estimate the dimensions of a passenger car on the generous side, and use a figure of 6 feet wide by 16 feet long (based on a popular sedan), and if we use a figure of 8.5 feet wide for a standard parking space, we can conclude that drivers have almost as much clearance when they pull into a parking space as the captain of the Tregurtha has when pulling into Poe Lock.
One notable difference is that the Tregurtha is about 63 times the length of the average passenger car.
And yet, the captain is consistently a more successful navigator than a lot of drivers are.
Another fun job for laker captains is making the 80-degree turn out of the Duluth harbor to pass through the ship canal and out onto the big lake.
This highlights some other important differences between the boats and the cars.
Ship captains on the Great Lakes don’t just have to navigate through some tight spaces; they have to do it while contending with current, wind, ice, and fog.
They have to do it day and night, in all weather conditions.
Ship captains have to contend with waves, which one rarely encounters on the highways.
They also have the added dimension of having to watch their depth so they don’t rip out their bottoms on shoals or run aground in the mud. The depth is not constant, either, since water levels are constantly changing, and the bottom can also change with the accumulation of sediment.
It is not just in parking spaces that ship captains surpass the average driver.
Despite the wide variety of signs, pavement markings, and other navigation aids, some drivers still seem to have difficulty keeping their vehicles in traffic lanes.
Highway departments have even gone so far as to mill rumble stripes (rows of indents in the pavement) to warn motorists who stray from the traffic lanes, and even this is not sufficient to keep drivers in line.
If ship captains drift out of their lanes, they risk damaging or sinking their vessels, which can make for a very bad day at work.
Some people might argue that drivers travel faster than cargo ships. That might be true, but I suspect that even 15 mph seems plenty fast when one is piloting a 1,000-foot vessel through a tight space.
Even the smaller Great Lakes ships are generally in the 700 to 800-foot range. These, too, require a skillful operator.
When it comes to a skill test between ship captains and the average motorist, I will put my money on the captain every time.