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A rare voyage

Samuel Hankinson • Jul 27, 2017 at 10:00 AM

For years I have stood on the shores of Lake Michigan watching freighters travel up and down, wishing that I could experience what it was like to be onboard.

I finally got that chance.

This past Sunday evening, I found myself at Carmuse Lime and Stone’s Port Inland operation near Gulliver, in the Upper Peninsula. I was meeting up with the motor vessel Kaye E. Barker at the stone export dock, as I had been given the opportunity to ride aboard the vessel on one of her trips, by her owners, the Interlake Steamship Co.

The trip, No. 35 on the Barker’s season, was a 223-mile journey down Lake Michigan beginning at Port Inland and ending at the Verplank dock in Ferrysburg.

The Kaye towered above me as she was tied up at the dock. Once secured, the crew positioned a ladder to the ground and to the side of the ship. I ascended to the deck, where loading operations were already in full swing.

The Barker would be taking on two different types of stone, 6AA and Ohio 8s. Stone is classified by grade and size, but I really couldn’t see the difference.

Winches worked the ship up and down the dock to the appropriate location where the stone would be loaded. This process was loud and the creaking echoed through the entire ship.

“We’re constantly shifting because the (dock loader) doesn’t move,” 2nd Mate Aaron McLauchlan said. “It takes 10-20 minutes to load a hatch, depending on the tonnage we’re putting in it.”

The Barker couldn’t fill all her hatches in a row. There is a specific load plan for each trip on how to balance the cargo in the hold so that the ship can remain structurally sound and still carry the necessary amount of cargo.

Load plans are 1st Mate George Yaniga’s duty. Using a software program, he entered tonnage measurements to see if the ship would be under too much stress.

“Even though a ship is strong, it’s also flexible,” Yaniga said. “If you put too much weight in one place, that part of the ship will sink and another part of the ship will come up.”

The Barker was only loaded to 23 feet, 5 inches deep on this load. For comparison, on trips where the ship loads ore in Marquette for Dearborn, Yaniga told me that the Barker is loaded to 27 feet, 3 inches.

Grand Haven is a light draft port, he said, meaning the harbor is only dredged deep enough for the Barker to come in to a specific load line. When the ship goes up the Rouge River, they’re fully loaded. “It’s quite a bit of difference,” Yaniga said.

I woke to the sounds of the winches on Monday morning, and once the sun rose, I was treated to a full view of the sprawling Port Inland operation, with its maze of conveyor belts and mountains of stone. Trains shuttled back and forth, hauling Upper Peninsula rock from the quarry. Each pile of aggregate had its place, and the dock knew where it belonged.

The Barker continued to load, and I walked to the mess for breakfast as they were topping off, only to realize by the time I got there that we were moving. The Barker — with me onboard — was backing out to Lake Michigan laden with 22,979 tons of stone in her holds.

While underway, I got to sit down with the ship’s captain, Jeff Panneton.

Originally from Montreal, Panneton is a 35-year veteran of the lakes who has sailed for Canadian fleets and spent time on salt water. He’s in his seventh year with Interlake.

“With this company, they recognize your abilities and you can go up if you want to,” he said. “They really take care of their people.”

Panneton said runs to West Michigan are a nice change of pace from the steel mills he visits on the east side of the state.

“Grand Haven is nice to go to during daytime,” he said, citing the nice parks and the large crowds that watch as the ships come in.

Panneton had gotten on the Barker four days before I did. He had spent time on another boat in Interlake’s fleet earlier this summer.

“I was captain on the (Herbert C.) Jackson for a while, so I went to Holland, like three times,” he said. “We haven’t been there in over 15 years.”

Panneton emphasized to me that “slow is good” in a port like Grand Haven, especially on a ship that has to back out.

“When you’re backing out, basically I use the bow thruster as my rudder,” he said. “If I want to thrust the ship to the left, I know that my stern is going to go to the left.”

A bow thruster is a small motor at the front of the ship that adds maneuverability in congested waterways, and Panneton knows how to use it.

It was cool to see other ships on the lake, as they’d appear first on the AIS maps in the pilothouse and would then materialize on the horizon. We met the American Mariner near Pentwater as it was heading north, and could also see the SS Badger returning to Ludington astern of us at the same time.

The sun went down above Muskegon, and I could feel the ship turning toward shore as we got closer to Grand Haven. The engines were slowed, the spotlights were turned on and we made our approach.

I stood on the starboard side of the pilothouse, looking at my hometown from above.

Once inside the piers, I talked Panneton into blowing a salute, and the loud horn thundered through the calm night.

Getting to Verplank’s took about 45 minutes, and the crew launched a small boat to help tie up mooring lines. Positioning the Barker in the right spot to drop the stone took a while, but once the lines were secured, the boom swung out and began offloading the same stone I had seen come aboard almost 24 hours ago.

I said goodbye to the captain and disembarked from the side of the ship. I didn’t have to say goodbye to the ship, because it was going back up to Port Inland to pick up another cargo for Verplank’s and is due back today (Thursday, July 27).

I’d like to thank several people for allowing this trip to happen: Nate at Verplank’s for schedule updates, Derek and Tammy at Interlake for getting me in touch with the boat, Capt. Panneton and the crew of the Barker for a safe and memorable trip, as well as the dock crew at Port Inland for allowing me a safe place to get onboard.

The journey down Lake Michigan was amazing. I’ll never forget being in that pilothouse listening to the classic rock tunes playing from the speaker system, just loud enough to hear over the sound of the waves.

When recalling my favorite memory from the trip, I think back to a conversation I had with Aaron in the pilothouse. I asked him what his favorite view on the Great Lakes was, and he smiled and motioned to our left. “Right here,” he said.

Looking out, I could make out the Manitou Islands, with Sleeping Bear Dunes looming in the distance.

“I live in Traverse City,” Aaron told me. “The view gives me a little taste of home for an hour or two.”

While my own hometown was still hours away, I had to agree with him. On such a beautiful July afternoon, the view was hard to beat.

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