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Exploring the Brown/Challenger

Samuel Hankinson • Aug 16, 2017 at 4:00 PM

Three ships visited Grand Haven in the past week.

On Wednesday, Aug. 9, Interlake Steamship Co.’s motor vessel Kaye E. Barker came into port with a load of stone for Verplank’s in Ferrysburg. The Barker unloaded and backed out after dark.

On Friday morning, Pere Marquette Shipping’s articulated tug/barge Undaunted/Pere Marquette 41 arrived with a partial load for Verplank’s. They had unloaded in Ludington prior to their visit.

The next day, Port City Marine Service’s articulated tug/barge Prentiss Brown/St. Marys Challenger crossed the pier heads in the late morning bound for the St. Marys Cement terminal in Ferrysburg.

I was given an invitation to tour the Brown and Challenger, and I climbed on board in the late afternoon.

A cement boat is very different than the self-unloaders that visit Verplank’s. The first thing I noticed was the deck layout. A self-unloader like the Cuyahoga or Kaye E. Barker has cargo holds with hatches that extend nearly the width of the ship. The Challenger has hatches, too, but they are circular, centered in the ship and no wider than a Frisbee.

The cement the Challenger carries is in powdered form. As with any cargo, sometimes it will spill during loading. The ship had encountered a rainstorm on the way down Lake Michigan, and dried cement was caked all over the deck.

I didn’t see anyone chipping it off, but there were several buckets full of the dried cement at the bow of the barge. I can’t imagine how many they fill up in a season.

The unloading process is actually quite noisy. The barge has two massive air compressors at the bow that help push the cargo out the short unloading boom and into the silos.

Next, I went down below to check out the tunnel. The tunnel runs the entire length of the ship below decks, and I was given a good view of the cargo holds from underneath.

I entered at the bow and came out near the stern, where the Prentiss Brown sat in the notch of the barge.

The tug and barge are connected by hydraulics. While underway, the tug is connected to the barge. But while loading or unloading, the tug disconnects, as the barge is adjusting in height and the tug is not.

The Prentiss Brown has two pilothouses. The main one is rather spacious for a tug, but the raised pilothouse is very cramped, and had to be reached by a very tight spiral staircase.

The tug has two GM EMD 12-645-E2 engines, both the size of a large minivan. The tug has to have a powerful propulsion system in order to be able to push a fully loaded barge.

The tour was my first look at a tug/barge and also my first time being on a cement carrier. It was humbling stepping on the Challenger, considering that it’s been around since 1906 and up until recently was the oldest self-powered ship on the Great Lakes.

Thanks to Kris at Sand Products Corp. for setting up the tour and to Captain Apple and the crew of the Brown/Challenger for welcoming me aboard.

During the tour, a memory floated into my head. I distinctly remember watching the Prentiss Brown coming into Grand Haven in 2009 when it pushed the St. Marys Conquest. This encounter was my first ship sighting and it fueled my interest into what it is today.

Eight years later, I stood inside the pilothouse of the tug. It’s amazing to see where this passion has taken me.

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