One of the coolest parts of being an author is that you can sometimes get into places to which most folks don’t have access. For me, my first experience at this perk was a 10 day trip on a lake freighter. I wrote about it in my third book in a chapter titled “Trip 29.” But, there were plenty of events that I could not put into the book. So, I figured that since more than a quarter of a century has now lapsed, I can place that stuff into my blog… it’s really fun.
It was mid autumn of 1992 and my second book “Sounds of Disaster” was at the printer. My publisher, Avery Color Studios, and I entered into some discussions about my going out on a big lake freighter and then writing a story about it. They said they’d support me and tell whatever company I managed to hook the ride with that I was a legitimate author and Avery had given me their go-ahead. Thus, it now fell to me to contact assorted lake carriers and try and hitch a ride on a lakeboat.
I started my search by calling the U.S. Steel Great Lakes Fleet. They just snickered and said something like, “We don’t do that.” Next I called Oglebay Norton… didn’t get past the switchboard operator. Next I phoned American Steamship Company looking to speak to D. Ward Fuller the C.E.O. who had been nice enough to read and approve one of the chapters in my first book. Mr. Fuller was not in, but the person who was taking his calls very professionally said that they would only consider such a trip in midsummer. I said I’d continue looking, but if no one else responded positively, I’d take them up on their offer. Frankly, since I was working as a flight instructor, midsummer was my busy season and I’d likely never get the time off. My final stop was the Interlake Steamship company, I crossed my fingers and made the call.
When the phone was answered I asked the switchboard operator if I could speak to their public relations department. She hesitated and then asked if I could hold. Of course I can hold- after all she didn’t snicker and hang up on me, so holding was a good thing. A good deal of time passed before a gentleman answered. His name was Bob Dorn, and I asked if he was in public relations. He laughed softly and told me that Interlake didn’t have a public relations department… he was the vice president of the company!
He did, however, listen to what I was proposing and surprisingly, he said that they certainly could accommodate me. I told him that I’d like to go out in early December.
“You wanna go WHEN?” he exclaimed with a hint of disbelief.
I explained that I was fully aware of the conditions on the lakes in that time of the year and for me that was what made the trip worth writing about. I wanted to show just how hard the work could be and how modern equipment allowed crews to work late into the season. I also assured him that everything I wrote would reflect the best of their company and I would give him the final edit of the story. We talked a bit more as he skillfully sampled my knowledge of the lakes shipping industry and then he asked me to hold for a moment while he called up the schedule. When he returned he said that the steamer J.L. MAUTHE would be unloading grain and then departing from Buffalo on December 5th. I could meet her and go aboard on December 4th. I was delighted to accept that offer as well as the chance to go aboard the MAUTHE.
|MAUTHE approaching Port Huron with a load of grain.|
Photo by my good friend and boat buddy D.J. Story.
There were docks and waterfront everywhere. Finally I stopped and saw a Buffalo police car in a convenience store parking lot. I pulled over and asked the officer if he knew where the Standard Grain dock was located. Astonishingly, he asked what boat I was looking for? It turned out that the officer was a former Great Lakes sailor! I told him I was looking for the J.L. MAUTHE which was supposed to be unloading at the Standard Grain dock and I was a passenger. He smiled and told me to follow him. In short order he directed me across the Ohio Street bridge and there was the dock I’d been seeking.
Arriving at the dock I saw the big AAA class steamer glowing in the dock’s amber lights reflecting off of the snow and grain dust cloud- she was a beauty. Getting out of my car I walked over toward her and that’s when I noticed that there were no guards, or gates… in fact… there appeared to be no one at all around anyplace. There was only a long boarding ladder leading up to the boat’s spar deck. Standing there for a few awkward minutes I was considering what to do. Options ranged from just going up the ladder, to spending the night in my car. Suddenly, I saw someone stepping up toward the rail. I shouted “Hello!” and got the guy’s attention. I told him I was their passenger. “Passenger?” he replied gruffly. I hollered up that Bob Dorn sent me and they were supposed to have been notified. That seemed to be enough and shortly thereafter he tossed a line down and told me to tie my bag onto it. As he hauled my bag up I put on my backpack and climbed the tallest ladder I’d seen since I went aboard the SAM LAUD back in 1984- the key was not to look down. It turned out that the guy on the deck was the first mate- and he was not happy to see me. Leading me up to the Texas deck, he showed me to a stateroom on boat’s port side and left me with a simple “here ya’ go,” as he went back to supervising the unloading. There I stood in a room that was a flashback to a hotel room from about 1953, the year that the 647 foot lakeboat was constructed. There were two nice beds and a sparkling clean bathroom and shower plus a huge General Alarm bell mounted directly over the head of my bed.
Of course, even after a 12 hour drive it was impossible to fully spool down and just go to sleep. Thus, I took a small excursion into the guest lounge and then got handy with my video camera and went out on deck to shoot some images of the Dart’s legs lifting the grain. The fact that I hadn’t been able to fall asleep the previous night and only got about four hours of sleep total finally overcame the thrill of getting aboard the MAUTHE and I got back to my room and crashed.
It was the following morning that the effects of the grain dust actually hit me. My childhood asthma resurfaced and it felt like I was coming down with a whopper of a cold. What I didn’t know until later in the day was that I was allergic to grain dust. The guys in the crew told me that it really hits some people. The second mate told me that there was one captain that he sailed with who was so allergic to the grain dust that he’d get to the dock on a grain run and would be the first one off the boat. He’d get a taxi to a local motel and have the crew call him when they were ready to sail. I raided a nearby pharmacy of as much over the counter cold meds as I could grab and headed back aboard the MAUTHE.
I met the captain as we both came out of our cabins at the same time. “Who are you?” he asked somewhat puzzled. I told him that Mr. Dorn authorized me to make the trip and I was an author who would write about it. “Well no one said nothin’ to me,” he said deeply. I replied that Mr. Dorn’s office was supposed to contact him. “I haven’t heard anything,” he said, “but that’s nothin’ new from our front office.” Then he asked if I knew my way around a boat. I assured him that I’d toured several other lakers and I knew enough to stay out of the way. He smiled slightly and told me that he and I had that whole deck all to ourselves- then he asked if I’d had breakfast yet? I replied that I had not and he told me go back to the galley and ask for Mary’s blueberry pancakes. I was on the MAUTHE for a total of 10 days and ate Mary’s blueberry pancakes for nine of them.
|The cleaned out hold of the J.L. MAUTHE |
after the "Scoopers" were finished
Everyone aboard the boat was somewhat friendly, yet distant. The exception being the first mate and the chief engineer who both seemed to downright resent my presence. What I found out on that first day was there had been a local TV news crew onboard on the previous trip’s upbound leg and one night they had left a voice activated tape recorder “hidden” in the holder for the pilothouse’s binoculars. When one of the crew found it the device ended up overboard. Of course no one on the news crew wanted to admit that they’d actually left a secret recording device hidden in the pilothouse, so they never said anything about it being missing. The MAUTHE’s crew were thus not very trusting of strangers- especially those who were writers. I settled their nerves by telling them that my own VOX tape recorder was in my cabin hard wired into my marine scanner, and it wasn’t going anywhere else. The first mate’s problem was that he didn’t want “…his damned name in any damned book!” I explained to him that it was my damned book and if he didn’t want his name in it, I just wouldn’t use his name at all. He looked at me and said “really?” I told him it was no problem, if I need to talk about something he was involved in, I’d just use the term “the first mate” and that would be all. Suddenly he was a lot more friendly and by the end of the trip he would pull a prank on me and lose five bucks at the same time. Of course I simply avoided the chief engineer. Those guys are best handled that way.
We finished unloading and were casting off lines at 9:45pm Buffalo time. The unloading gang were an assembly of all sorts of folks from school teachers to local auto mechanics. They all made a hefty chunk of cash by skipping out of their regular jobs in order to work as “skoopers” cleaning the final grain out of a lakeboat. As we headed out with the deck crew busy closing the hatches the tug IOWA was needed to thread us through the dreaded Ohio Street bridge span. I was in the pilot house observing as quiet as a mouse. Radio calls from the second and third mates coordinated with the captain’s use of the bow thruster did the job as we headed out easily clearing the span. Before long we were out of the harbor and onto open Lake Erie.
|Crossing Lake Erie 12/5/1992|
It turned out that I simply had to go two decks down and there was the tunnel door. I used the starboard tunnel and it was a fun trip. The tunnels were also used on the MAUTHE to route steam lines and electrical lines from the engine room to the forward areas. So they are cramped, noisy and hot, plus they’re lined with the beams that made up the boat’s hull. Along the way large fans kept the air circulating and added to the noise. It was a tight fit even for scrawny me. As I got toward the end I realized that I had no idea where I’d come out! As it turned out the door at the end led to a stairway that took me right up to a companionway that separated the crew and officer’s mess rooms. I was told by the cook that I was to dine in the officer’s mess. When I asked if I could eat with the crew the answer was a simple “nope.”
Following a plate of Mary’s pancakes, each or which was so large that they out-sized the plate, and a plate of grilled ham, I went up the port side tunnel with my belly so stuffed that I wondered if I’d actually fit. I got there just as the skipper was leaving and he asked how I liked the tunnel? Grinning like a school kid I told him it was great and I was going to go back later and walk it with my video camera recording. Captain Petz said that he preferred to walk the deck instead of the tunnel. As the day wore on we finally got sight of a couple of other vessels. One was a downbound salty whose name was unpronounceable by anyone from North America. She was followed an hour later by the graceful SEAWAY QUEEN headed for the Welland Canal. Then on the horizon to the southeast I spotted a laker popping up out of Cleveland. I’d brought my own 50mm binoculars and so I made a trip down to my room and fetched them. By the time I got back to the pilot house I could see that it appeared to be one of U.S. Steel’s triple-A boats. Since they’re triplets even the most rabid boatnerd really needs to see the name to tell one from the other. I had no idea that the one heading our way had ill intent and would nearly send that MAUTHE to the bottom of Lake Erie.
Steaming across the western end of the lake, the MAUTHE had been exactly on the prescribed 275 and ½ degree magnetic course from Pelee Passage that would lead to the East Outer Channel where the boat would turn to a magnetic heading of 344 and follow the channel to the Detroit River light- which is exactly what we did. The U.S. Steel boat that had been gaining on us, however, made no effort to join the prescribed course. Instead she crossed far behind us on about a 300 heading. In the pilot house were wheelsman Gary Myjak, a deck cadet Richard Ruth plus Doug Cooley the third mate and myself. As we watched this 767 foot laker charge farther and farther off the channel the conversation became repeated quips of “What the heck is that guy doin’?”
Entering the pilothouse came watchman, the late, Wally Watkins followed shortly by Captain Petz. Wally had started sailing on the lakes in the late 1940s and by the early 1990s he had officially retired. When Interlake decided to bring the MAUTHE out for the fall grain runs, they called Wally out of retirement to make some trips as a fill-in crewman. Wally had more lakeboat tales, tricks, trivia and facts to tell than the whole of the MAUTHE’s crew combined. He took one look at the steel-trust AAA in the distance and gave a “hurumph” and quietly said,
“He’s running the shallows to cut us off and get ahead in the channel.”
Indeed that was the game. Even though the AAA vessel was longer than the MAUTHE, all three of those tin-stackers had been modified with new stainless steel propellers that were shaped for greater efficiency. The MAUTHE, with her 1950s era bronze propeller was somewhat slower.
As the AAA began to re-converge on the MAUTHE I put my personal 50 power binoculars on it. She was the CASON J. CALLAWAY, which I would forever after consider to be the lakeboat that damn near killed me. I’d had my video camera on her for nearly the entire time that she’d been converging on us. Of course, a camcorder records sound as well as images. So everything that was spoken in our pilothouse was being recorded. Staying on the approved course we soon saw the CALLAWAY coming right at us at about a 120 degree angle as we neared the Detroit river light. That light marked a two lane highway leading into the Detroit river. As I videotaped and the CALLAWAY drew frighteningly close, I heard Wally quietly say,
|Screen capture from my camcorder as the CALLAWAY|
charges toward the MAUTHE.
“Jesus Christ, where are the survival suits?”
With the amount of forward way that the CALLAWAY had gained, if she hit us at that angle, she’d cut the MAUTHE nearly in half!
Now there were two huge lakeboats side by side and about a boat width apart in the restricted confines of a two way channel! Worse yet, the laws of fluid dynamics not took effect. With the massive hulls of the two boats in close proximity and the current of the Detroit River growing stronger the water pressure was lowering in the flow between us as its velocity increased. The suction was holding the boats together and even drawing them closer to one another. The CALLAWAY could gain no additional lead on the MAUTHE, we were static locked as a pair.
For several minutes were ran together until the MAUTHE’s captain said, “Shit, it ain’t worth it. This ain’t the place to be racin’. If he wants it, let the damned dummy have it.” With that the third mate checked down.
It made no difference.
“Take her down one more.”
The third mate rang another check down… it too made no difference.
“Shit,” the captain growled, “ring her down again.”
Finally, the CALLAWAY began to pass us. Just before we entered the river the 767 foot tin stacker had finally cleared us. I didn’t have time to be terrified… I was too busy videotaping. About then the guys in the pilothouse had guessed that the reason for this insanity was fuel. The MAUTHE was going to stop at the Shell fuel dock in Sarnia and the cowboy captain of the CALLAWAY intended to fuel there too. If he beat us to the dock he would save himself nearly three hours. Captain Petz got on the radio and gave the CALLAWAY an extremely restrained call.
“I suppose yer gonna be takin’ on fuel at Shell, eh?” He said in a measured deep tone.
“Yep, that’s what we’re gonna do,” Came the reply.
“We’ll be goin’ in there behind ya’,”
He would get to beat us to the fuel dock. To save about $6,000 in operating costs, the reckless captain of the CALLAWAY had risked his boat, plus the MAUTHE and every soul aboard the two of them. I captured the entire event on video from beginning to end. The next day when I showed the video to the skipper, he asked if I could transfer that video onto VHS? I told him that by simply using the VHS machine in the guest lounge, I could easily do that. He radioed the company and ordered a couple of VHS tapes to be delivered to us at the Soo. When I got the tapes reproduced, Captain Petz kept one and had the other two sent back to Mr. Dorn at the home office. After my trip when I got back home I called Mr. Dorn to thank him and while we were on the phone I asked what he was going to do with that video. He said he was going to hold onto it, until the next time U.S. Steel Great Lakes called and complained about one of the Interlake boats, then he was going to send it to them and say, “…well look what one of your boats did to us!”
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Loading up our fuel, we cast off and finally passed Port Huron just about midnight. Aside from meals I’d been in the pilothouse for more than 15 hours. Now, before turning in for the night, I decided to take a walk around. Down in the companionway, outside of the windlass room, I came upon a deckhand with a paint roller on a mop handle as he was rolling gray paint on the deck. He told me he’d been working on this same task for more than two weeks. The problem was that after he finishes and goes off watch, some clown comes along and makes foot prints in his fresh paint!
“It’s always the same shores,” he said with disgust, “I’ve checked the sneakers of every guy on this boat and I just can’t find out who it is. When I catch him, I’m gonna paint his ass gray!”
After a few hours of sleep I was awakened by a distant “boom!” It was a hallow sound as if someone hit an empty 55 gallon drum inside an empty warehouse. Waiting a minute I heard it again. Since I’d slept in my clothes, I headed up to the pilothouse. There sat the captain as relaxed as can be with the wheelsman just leaning on the rail. “Boom!” it went again. I asked what that was?
She’s stubbin’ her toe,” the captain said casually.
We were off Alpena in 40 mile-per-hour winds and 12 to 14 foot seas. Running in ballast those waves were just right for the MAUTHE to pound. A few minutes later and we took a wave that threw spray over top of the pilot house! The wheelsman guessed that was about an 18 footer. Captain Petz suggested that I should go and get my camcorder and record some of that. He didn’t have to suggest that twice, because a second pilothouse shower convinced me to go back to my room and get my Sony. When I got back I recorded wave after wave… but we didn’t get another one sending spray over the pilot house.
“Take her about a half a point to starboard,” the captain ordered passively, “let’s see if we can get Wes another wave or two.”
Going off course even a slightly is something that really goes against the grain for these guys.
“Are ya’ sure ya’ wanna do that cap.?” the wheelsman questioned.
“Just for a couple of waves,” the captain replied.
|More of Wes' true stories|
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Taking the captain’s order to heart, the wheelsman altered the course slightly. The dang boat ran better in the seas! So, Captain Petz decided to leave her there and I never got my spray over the pilothouse video. Later on my way down to breakfast I met the same deckhand painting the same area. Sure enough there were fresh footprints and these even led away down the companionway across the old paint.
“Looks like he got ya’ again,” I said.
“Look at what that son of a bitch did,” he snarled, “there’s footprints all the way down there too!”
That was the only breakfast where I deviated from Mary’s blueberry pancakes because the second cook said his eggs and ham breakfast was dynamite. It was really great, but I stuck with Mary’s pancakes for the rest of the trip.
Going up the St. Mary’s River toward the Soo was a big difference from boat watchin’ ashore. The pilothouse of the MAUTHE was boatnerd paradise. I didn’t have to chase the lakeboats, they simply passed me in a parade of downbounders. I shot lots of video, unfortunately, this was 1992 and “Hi Def” video was unavailable to us common folks. We were assigned the MacArthur Lock for our upbound passage. As we entered the lock I stood way back so as to not obscure anyone’s view at this “critical” time.
“Why don’t ya’ just come up here and video from the center window?” the captain beckoned.
|The MAUTHE's center window|
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I slept like someone had clobbered me with a hockey stick and when I awoke there was daylight shining through my portholes- but the boat felt still. The pounding of the waves that we’d experienced yesterday was gone. I figured we were at anchor behind Whitefish Point. Going up to the pilothouse, however, I discovered that we were underway at full speed off of Copper Harbor and Lake Superior was dead calm!
After a shower I stalked another stack of Mary’s Blueberry pancakes. The second cook was really miffed that morning. When the MAUTHE had picked up supplies a few weeks prior, they had included some nifty looking Interlake Steamship Company placemats for the dining rooms. This morning six of them were missing! I told him I didn’t swipe them. Heck if I wanted some I’d have simply asked and if he told me they couldn’t give them away I’d just hit up Mr. Dorn for some. He told me not to worry, he was sure the crewman who got off at the Soo had taken them. That guy was done for the season and probably figured by next spring the galley crew would forget all about it. Of course, I could not let it rest there. I planted the suspicion in his head that perhaps one of the other crew who is still onboard had stolen the placemats knowing that when that guy left the boat, all suspicion would be mis-directed to him. Thus, now the missing placemats were still onboard, but concealed in some crewman’s room. When he served me my pancakes he just looked at me and said, “Why’d you have to tell me that?”
Later I spent some time dubbing my camcorder tape of the CALLOWAY near miss onto three VHS tapes that we’d received at the Soo. For the rest of the day I just hung out in the pilothouse listening to the sea stories and learning. We approached the Duluth Ship Canal around 9pm and passed through crushing a bit of ice. At 11pm we were tied up at the Harvest States elevator. The bad news was that they were not going to start loading us until 7:30 in the morning!
Everyone in the crew had the same advice for me that morning as the loading began- get the hell off the boat! It would be best for my lungs if I got away from that grain dust. So, I did what they told me. Spent the day at the Canal Park Museum and used my new title of “Great Lakes Author” to the maximum in order to invade their library stacks and do some research. When I got back to the boat one of the deck hands gave me a new dust mask and told me to go and lock myself in my room and stuff a towel under the door. We were away from the dock shortly before Midnight and the freezing drizzle had kept the grain dust to a minimum.
|Some of the MAUTHE's Protein 14.3 cargo|
|Photo of the J.L. MAUTHE loading at Harvest States dock|
in Superior, WI. This is an Interlake Steamship Company
photo given to me by the MAUTHE's captain 12/13/1992
Originally Jon LaFontaine photo, 12/6/90
“I’m gonna get him again tonight,” he giggled.
One man’s entertainment is another man’s phantom.
|MAUTHE at dusk.|
As we were heading down Lake Huron I was in the pilothouse with the third mate.
“We like you,” he told me, “when you came aboard we thought you were just another day-tripper. Ya’ know just aboard to see the sights and eat the food. But yer’ different, you’ve been standing watches with us and everything.”
I told him that I was there to work- authoring is my job and I couldn’t tell the story from sittin’ in the lounge. A laker is far more than a guest room and a galley. But his comment made me feel more like one of the crew rather than just a tourist. What I didn’t know was that now they had an evil prank that they were developing for me.
Through the entire trip the crew groused about wanting the shipping season to end. The captain liked to say that when you ask the company “how many more trips?” they say two, and then hold up three fingers. The fact is that at the tail end of the shipping season it is good for the company to use the MAUTHE to her maximum advantage. The crew still gets paid, but they can hardly wait for the season to end and their vacation to start. Only the winter’s annual freeze over of the lake waters will end the season. With that in mind I went down to the ice machine in forward galley and got a cup full of ice. As we sailed downbound I stood on the bridge wing and started tossing ice cubes out into the river. When I came back into the pilothouse Captain Petz asked what the hell was I doing? I told him I was seeding so the water would freeze over sooner for him. He told me to go and get another cup full of ice and do it again.
After a full night of hauling the grain down the St. Clair and Detroit rivers we entered Lake Erie at dawn. The CALLOWAY and her idiot captain were elsewhere, so this time the transition was uneventful. The first mate had just come on watch as we cleared the channel into the open lake and I told him I was going down to hit the sack. He just smirked and said that since I’d stood the equivalent of two watches in the pilothouse, that was probably a good idea. In an unusually friendly way he told me to get some good sleep. When I got into my bed with that general alarm bell up on the wall directly over my head, I gave it little notice. The weather was clear and calm and there wasn’t another boat anywhere in sight- sleep came easy.
It was the shrill ringing of the general alarm that shocked me from my slumber. Leaping from the bed the first thing I thought was “We’re havin’ a wreck and I’m missin’ it!” I snatched my camcorder and with the general alarm sounding all around me I burst out onto the open Texas deck ready to shoot exciting, perhaps historic video…
I found two of the deck hands squirting a fire hose over the side into Lake Erie while others were aft in their survival suits practicing to launch a lifeboat. Befuddled, I stood there for a minute, then I looked up at the bridge wing. There stood the first mate and a watchman laughing. You see… the Coast Guard requires an emergency drill at some point on every trip, and the crew had been plotting this one for a few days. The first mate lost a $5 bet to the wheelsman. The mate’s bet was that I’d come flying out of my cabin with my survival suit on. The watchman, knew me better and had bet that I’d come out in my street clothes with my camcorder in hand.
“Where’s yer’ survival suit?” the laughing mate shouted down, “the regs say you gotta put it on!”
“I don’t know where it is!” I shouted back.
“It’s under yer’ bed,” came the reply, “you gotta go put it on.”
Returning to my room I looked under the bed- nothing! I looked under the other bed… nothing again! I made my way back up to the pilot house and when I went in the mate told me he wasn’t kidding, I needed to put on the survival suit. When I told him there wasn’t one under either bed, he gave a disgusted grunt and headed down to my room. After looking under both beds he stood up and shook his head.
“That damned news crew must’ve walked off with the survival suits,” he quipped gruffly, “we’ll have to report that to the Coast Guard.”
A quick check of the other guest room found both survival suits missing there too. It’s no wonder the crew of the MAUTHE liked me better than their other guests. It was, however, a good thing that the CALLOWAY actually didn’t hit us on the way up. I figured I’d have been the only one without a survival suit. Meanwhile I went back to bed and the mate went back to the pilothouse and handed the wheelsman a five dollar bill.
I slept half of the way across Lake Erie simply because I was too exhausted to stay awake. We got into the unloading dock just after one o’clock in the morning of December 13, 1992. Again the unloading crew wasn’t going to start work until daylight. That meant another night sleeping in the comfort of my stateroom and another breakfast of Mary’s blueberry pancakes. Before I left the boat, Captain Petz gave me some souvenirs- an Interlake hat, some stationary, MAUTHE postcards and a framed photo of her loading at the Harvest States dock.
|My Interlake Steamship car- a gift|
from the captain (the model of the
MAUTHE is one of my own builds)
My story of the trip… the sanitized version… appeared initially in my third book “Ice Water Museum” and was updated in my 16th book, “The Best of Wes.”
|Get the rest of the story|
Interlake Steamship Company Photo
|Interlake sticker- thanks Chrissy!|
Plus, Interlake has just become the first Great Lakes carrier in more than 30 years to commission the construction of a new Great Lakes freighter to be built on the lakes by a United States shipyard.
|Interlake's new boat- I love it already!|
That folks, is history.