Water and Steel

Port of Duluth—Saturday, October 15, 2005

In the middle of the night, at the end of a long day in the middle of October, I found myself sitting in a recliner. I was in the lounge of the penthouse high above the long deck of the American Spirit, a thousand-foot bulk freighter. We were plunging into the gaping darkness of Lake Superior.

The American Spirit, which is 1,004 feet long, to be exact, was hauling 62,000 tons of taconite pellets bound for a Mittal Steel facility in Indiana Harbor on Lake Michigan. There it would dispatch its cargo, and then promptly turn around and return to the North Shore for another load. The round trip was scheduled to take a week, give or take a couple days depending on such intangibles as weather conditions on the lakes, traffic, and loading and unloading times. Since the shipping season opened in late March, the boat and its regular complement of twenty-five crew members operated twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. They had already made more than thirty trips around the circuit, hauling Iron Range taconite to ports strung out all along the Great Lakes.

When I had come aboard the boat the previous afternoon with a photographer, we met the first mate, Randy Samways. He is a giant and affable man who looks like a retired NFL offensive lineman. He warned us that the American Spirit was a notoriously shaky ship and was coming off a particularly rough return journey. “This thing likes to rock and roll,” Samways said. “It makes a lot of people uncomfortable. I’m not going to lie to you.”

Before the boat eventually headed out into Duluth Harbor, we heard variations of this fair warning from a handful of other crew members. “Have you ever ridden through a patch of airplane turbulence?” another guy asked. “Imagine six days of that, and you’ll have some idea of what you could be in for.”

That sort of ship turbulence is called cavitation, and on the American Spirit it’s caused by a variety of factors, but most notably by the boat’s worn and outdated variable pitch propellers, which apparently have more of a choppy effect than the newer and smoother banana blade props that have been installed on many of the other freighters on the Great Lakes.

The penthouse business was unexpected. Faced with the prospect of a week aboard a freighter, I had visions of sharing a cramped, concrete, bunker-style dormitory strung with mesh hammocks; I imagined a scene straight out of a World War II submarine movie. The rest of the boat did have a bit of that vibe, but the penthouse—located three levels above the galley and deck—had the feel more of a swank suburban hotel suite, circa 1979. Most of the time, in fact, it had the feel of a swank suburban hotel suite, circa 1979, trembling through a ceaseless minor earthquake.

Apparently constructed as traveling quarters for the original owners of the ship (principals of the National Steel Company, which once maintained its own fleet), the American Spirit’s penthouse featured three bedrooms with individual bathrooms and showers, a lounge area with satellite TV, and a dining room and conference table. It also had a bank of massive windows that offered a commanding view of the deck.

Observed through the windows of the penthouse that first night, Lake Superior was an unbroken plane of gun-metal black static, the sky a solid and mottled wall of gray slate . I noticed that the lounge was equipped with a stereo console that included an eight-track player and a turntable. As the ship shuddered its way through that static and slate at roughly twelve to fourteen miles per hour , I wondered who’d had the bright idea of putting a turntable in a taconite freighter. The whole trip, I sat there at night watching that turntable hopping up and down in regular quarter-inch hiccups, and eventually I had an image in my head of the boat tumbling and rolling perilously through storm troughs while a record of some suitably dramatic classical music—Wagner, perhaps, or Mahler—skipped and skidded wildly at deafening volume.

Wouldn’t that, I thought, make a wonderful scene in a European film?

I also thought, If I’d known there was going to be a turntable I would have brought some Ramones records.

Early in the afternoon of the previous day I’d watched as the American Spirit eased in off Lake Superior and backed into dock number six at the Duluth, Missabe, and Iron Range Railway’s ore shuttle operation in a sprawling and scruffy industrial lot tucked away under Interstate 35.

Seen from astern, the American Spirit looked like an imposing cruise ship, with cabins, decks, catwalks, smokestacks, and assorted antennae and satellite gear jumbled five stories above the deck. When the whole thing came into view abeam, though, the freighter looked more like an elaborate, nautically themed apartment building dragging a huge health-club running track.

The ship’s vast length was composed of the adobe-colored deck that stretched to the bow and included seven cargo holds and thirty-six ore hatches. Built at an American Shipbuilding Company yard in Lorain, Ohio, and launched in 1978, the double-hulled American Spirit can haul a variety of dry bulk commodities such as taconite pellets, coal, and limestone aggregates.

The American Spirit was coming back to Duluth empty, its ballast tanks along both sides of the hull pumped full of water to compensate for the absence of cargo and allow the ship to ride lower in the water for greater maneuverability.

The generators were pumping out the ballast as the ship angled into position at the dock, which was itself dominated by a towering structure of steel girders, ore shuttles, and elevated railroad tracks. A constant relay of trains rolled in and out high above the harbor, hauling the taconite pellets that would be deposited in the hatches for transport to the steel mill at Indiana Harbor.

Barring any mishap or delay, Great Lakes freighters are in port every six days during the ten-month shipping season, which typically runs from March 19 to January 15. The crew members of the American Spirit live what would strike most people as wholly unreasonable lives. Their regular schedule during the season is mind boggling to anyone accustomed to a nine-to-five routine: Sixty days on (without a day off), thirty days off, sixty days on, thirty off, and ninety days straight down the stretch. That last run is often extended to 120 days as the season winds down.

A good deal of the work that has to be done on an ore freighter involves the loading and unloading process (which generally takes eight to ten hours at each end of the trip), and such boats tend to dock in inhospitable parts of town, or in places that couldn’t even charitably be called parts of town at all—harbors, docks, and industrial outbacks beyond the sprawl of cities like Detroit, Cleveland, Duluth, Buffalo, and Gary. This reality makes it difficult for crew members to spend much time away from the boat when they’re in port—if they get away at all.

While the American Spirit was taking on its taconite in Duluth, Vern Eshelman, one of the ship’s five A.B. (able bodied) seamen, dashed home to Poplar, Wisconsin, to mow his lawn. Pam Samways, who is married to the first mate and lives in Duluth, met the boat at the dock and spent some time strolling the deck and hanging out with her husband for a few hours. The majority of the crew operates on a four-hour watch schedule, whether in port or out on the water. The watch system is a firmly entrenched nautical tradition, in which a number of the jobs onboard the boat are shared and parceled out in four-hour a.m. and p.m. shifts (12-4, 4-8, and 8-12). There are, for instance, a handful of A.B. wheelsmen (the guys who actually steer the ship) on the American Spirit crew, but at any given time only one of them will actually be in the pilot house and at the wheel. The captain, Dan Bartels, is also assisted by three mates, ranked first to third, and one of them is on the bridge at all times, plotting the ship’s navigation and monitoring weather conditions and traffic on the lakes.

Though the pilot house of the American Spirit is equipped with a full complement of computer screens that show detailed present-time information such as the wind direction, depth of the lake, and the boat’s course, speed, and location, the mates do most of the actual navigation in the map room adjacent to the pilot house, using basic nautical methods that involve little more than paper charts, pencil, compass, and plastic triangles.

Below deck is the engine room. It is a sprawling and unbelievably noisy warren that is equal parts sophisticated control center (something like the booth in a gigantic and very greasy recording studio), laboratory, and dream garage. There, Chief Engineer Tom Sufak supervises four assistants (a first engineer, two seconds, and a third, one of whom is present in the room at all times) and three QMEDS (qualified members of the engine department), one for each watch.

The American Spirit is powered by two turbocharged sixteen-cylinder Pielstick engines (eight thousand horsepower per engine) that run on heavy diesel fuel. The diesel itself must be preheated by two steam boilers. There are also four huge Caterpillar diesel generators that power the ship’s bow thruster, ballast pumps, and the conveyor system for unloading cargo.

Ships on the Great Lakes operate on military and eastern time, but once you actually get out on the water, time becomes a crawling (or lurching) thing governed almost entirely by the rising and setting of the sun and the passing of the occasional landmark.

As the American Spirit finally pulled away from dock six and got turned around in Duluth Harbor, it felt very late. There was a slightly overcast sky and a big, lopsided moon a couple days shy of full. The surface of the water was smeared with all manner of reflected light—from the other boats lined up at the docks, the bridges and buoys, and the city stretched out on the hill above the lake. Up in the pilothouse, Dan Bartels had to guide the wheelsman through the impressionistic maze by using a hand-operated spotlight to point out the buoys and giving vocal directions. As the huge spotlight angled down across the ship’s bow, fat and loaded and aswirl with dust, it looked like the beam from a drive-in movie theater’s projection booth. Slowly, buoy by buoy, Bartels and Wheelsman Vern Eshelman steered the American Spirit under the bright marquee of the Blatnik Bridge, through the Aerial Lift Bridge at Duluth’s Park Point, down the break wall, and, finally picking up speed, into the dark lake beyond.

According to the Vision Master computer screen at the wheelsman’s station, we were on track to cover 65.98 miles of Lake Superior in the next seven hours and eighteen minutes. As boats go, the American Spirit is a slow and lumbering thing.

One level down, in the penthouse lounge, I sat up and watched the swaying flashlights of the deckhands making the final rounds of their watch. A short time later, the darkness started to slowly rise up off the lake. Daybreak was coming, and I could hear the ship stirring to life beneath me.

Lake Superior—Sunday, October 16

All of the crew members on board the American Spirit, with the exception of the second cook, are men. Many of them represent the second, or even third, generation of their families to work freighters on the Great Lakes. There are also a couple Yemeni deck hands, another Yemeni in the kitchen working as the steward’s assistant, and a third mate from the Philippines. Along with the twenty-five regular crew members, there are two apprentices on board from a union school in Maryland. As one of the crew had scrutinized the boat’s roster on the clipboard prior to departure, I had watched as he ran his finger down the list and counted to himself; the names of the two interlopers from the Twin Cities were tacked onto the ship’s census as “guests.”

“Twenty-nine,” the guy said to no one in particular. “That’s not a good number on a boat like this.”

“Why is that?” I asked.

“You know that business about ‘when the gales of November come early’?” he said. “There were twenty-nine men on the Edmund Fitzgerald.”

For weeks before boarding the American Spirit I had endured Edmund Fitzgerald references from friends and co-workers, and I wasn’t on the boat twenty minutes before I heard the first of what would be many more such references to the last shipping disaster on the Great Lakes.

It also struck me as a bit disconcerting that, hanging in the TV lounge of the galley, there was an oil painting of a ship foundering in a heavy storm.

The galley is the only real community gathering place on the American Spirit. It is a combination living room and cafeteria that is directly attached to the open and spacious kitchen, at the opposite end of which is the officer’s dining room. The latter is a decidedly more formal affair, with table service and a long table, and, in a rare assertion of traditional hierarchy on a boat where everybody interacted freely and dressed pretty much the same, is reserved for the captain, mates, ranking engineers, and, of course, the penthouse guests.

Along with the rising and setting of the sun and the usual established work routines, meals are a fundamental ritual on the American Spirit, a way to mark time. Steward Mark Hosey is the chef on board. He started out working as a porter (“a pots and pans man,” as he calls it) on the Great Lakes thirty-one years ago. He and his two assistants are in and out of the kitchen pretty much all the time, from dawn to dusk. Breakfast is served from seven until eight a.m., lunch from eleven to twelve, and dinner from four to five. Each of these meals features a varied selection of offerings, mostly solid meat-and-potatoes fare available in prodigious quantities and accompanied by homemade soups, desserts, and a modest salad bar.

Hosey is a gregarious, easygoing fellow with a lingering trace of a Southern drawl acquired somewhere along the line in his upbringing as the son of a peripatetic military man. He faxes in grocery orders before arriving in each port, and the supplies are generally delivered right to the boat at the dock.

Despite the fact that he has spent his entire career working in the galley of boats, Hosey’s story is not all that different from many of the other crew members in its particulars. “I had an uncle who was a dispatcher for a fleet of ships,” he said, “and I got Shanghaied right out of high school. I started out working for the Hannah Mining Company fleet out of Cleveland. There was a time when I took a short break for a stint at Ball State University, but otherwise this has been it.”

Hosey learned a long time ago that meals have an important role in boosting crew morale. He orders his supplies and prepares his menus with a bit of surplus in mind. “I try to get stocked up for ten days at every port,” he said. “If there are leftovers, then I know everybody’s getting fed and getting enough to eat. Meals go a long way toward spiffing up the atmosphere on a ship. If something’s gonna blow or stuff’s going to start flying, it usually happens in the galley. When I hear the guys in here laughing, that means everything’s going pretty good.”

Weight gain is an occupational hazard aboard Great Lakes freighters, and a regular topic of conversation among crew members. Though the work is often difficult and dangerous, the amount of sedentary time during the long stretches out on the water make it difficult to burn off all those calories.

“One of three things is almost inevitable if you work on these boats long enough,” one of the guys in the engine room told me. “Eventually your heart, knees, or back is going to go out on you. Some guys will get laid low by all three.”

While I was on the American Spirit, I noticed a number of the crew members were clearly suffering as they subjected themselves to some sort of weight-loss program designed around a regular diet of cabbage soup. It was particularly painful to watch these men dipping into their soup when, at lunch one day, one of their fellow crew members sat across the table from them eating a bacon cheeseburger and two portions of eggs Benedict.

Curiously—cruelly—eggs Benedict was an offering at virtually every meal for the first two days aboard the American Spirit.

The first morning out in Lake Superior, we sailed along Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula, churning through rolling waves that were crashing over the bow and tossing spray up the deck. Somewhere to the north was Isle Royale, but it seemed as if the gray sky had completely engulfed the boat and you couldn’t see much of anything beyond the bow. A few crew members were out in the wind and mist, hunched under hoses and staggering along trying to rinse the taconite dust and grit from the deck. That adobe-colored dust is an inescapable part of the atmosphere on the boat; if you step anywhere outside the cabin, or touch any surface or handrail, you’ll instantly acquire a light coating.

These days the crews on most Great Lakes boats have individual cabins, and the majority of the members of the American Spirit pay to have satellite TV hookups in their rooms. During the NFL season, Sundays on the boat are dominated by football, and the crew runs a highly competitive pool every week. After a lunch of hamburgers grilled on the deck (followed a mere four hours later by steaks grilled on the deck, a Sunday tradition of longstanding on freighters) pretty much everybody disappears to settle in front of their televisions to watch the games.

Outside of meal times, in fact, the boat generally has a strangely abandoned feel to it. There always seems to be a good deal of activity below deck in the engine room, but for the most part the other crew members seem to spend the majority of their down time in their cabins.

This is a relatively recent development and one which a number of the older sailors on board will bemoan. It wasn’t all that long ago, according to Captain Dan Bartels, that most boats had only one television, in the galley, a set that was lucky to be able to pull in a clear reception for a single channel.

“There was a lot more camaraderie in those days,” Bartels said. “You had bigger crews, for one thing, and the quarters were more cramped. Guys would spend a lot of time just hanging out in the galley, telling stories and playing cards. There was a much more relaxed atmosphere. Of course you didn’t have so much paperwork then, either. Now there are all these security rules and paperwork and just general red tape.”

Bartels is a trim, middle-aged man who is funny in a slightly sardonic, understated way. If you put the entire crew of the American Spirit in a lineup, Bartels is the one guy you’d instantly pick out as the captain of a ship. He’s also making only his second trip in a thirty-day stretch spelling the regular skipper of the American Spirit. He was on his way home to Buffalo for a break when he was sidetracked in Detroit and swapped off the seven hundred-foot H. Lee White, another vessel in the American Steamship Company fleet, to assume command of the bigger and balkier boat.

A Buffalo, New York, native, Bartels more or less grew up on the Great Lakes. His father was a captain for thirty-three years, and as a kid Bartels made the occasional trip on his dad’s boat and caught the bug. He started working summers on the boats when he was sixteen, and in 1972, after graduating from high school, he went to work full time as an unlicensed ordinary seaman.

Though ranking jobs on the freighters are now occasionally filled by candidates from the Maritime Academies, the American Spirit’s crew is entirely composed of guys who worked their way up gradually through the ranks and learned their jobs mostly through hands-on experience aboard ship.

Bartels has seen a lot of changes in thirty years on the Great Lakes, some of them technological advances that have made his job easier—certainly safer—if more complicated. He’s also had to deal with the unpredictable boom-and-bust economic fluctuations of the business part of the job.

“Because we’re hauling the raw industrial products, if there’s a recession coming we’ll pretty much always feel it first,” he said. “I had a year in the mid-eighties where I worked nineteen days. And we had another similar slump in the early nineties. The flip side is that when the economy’s rolling back the other way, we’ll starting hauling the ore and coal even before the industries start producing again.”

By almost any standard, shipping on the Great Lakes isn’t what it was in its glory days, when there were booming steel factories, ports, and shipbuilding plants strung out all over the lakes from Thunder Bay out to Buffalo and down into Lake Erie destinations such as Cleveland and Toledo. There’s still a lot of traffic on the lakes, but the fleets tend to be smaller or more consolidated, and the boats are entirely at the mercy of the industries they serve. Increased international competition in the steel market and slumps in Iron Range taconite production have occasionally had drastic effects on the shipping part of the business.

Working boats today tend to be aging—there hasn’t been a new freighter fitted out on the Great Lakes since the eighties—but because they don’t have to contend with the corrosive effects of saltwater, they can be kept running for almost as long as their mechanical parts and essential structure can be patched up and pieced back together. They’re also much larger, safer, and more efficient than the ships of the past. Most ore boats now feature sophisticated and automated conveyor systems for faster unloading; the American Spirit, for instance, can unload up to 10,000 tons an hour, and the system can be operated by a relatively small contingent of the ship’s crew.

Last year was a relatively healthy year for Great Lakes carriers, owing to an increase in taconite production on the Iron Range and the rising domestic demand for steel as well as from the booming Chinese market. Sixty percent of the ore used by integrated steel facilities in the United States originates from Minnesota mines, and much of that gets transported on the Great Lakes. The Iron Range still contain the world’s highest concentration of iron ore.

The economic pendulum always seems to be swinging, though. During the past year, a combination of factors has been working against the industry; fueled largely by competition from Brazil, the market for domestic steel has softened, leading to a decrease in taconite production on the Range. Toss in wild upsurges in gas costs, and the freighter fleets are once again battling very slim margins. (It is not uncommon for ore boats to top off their tanks en route just to take advantage of penny-per-gallon savings at various fuel stations, and the crew spent a good deal of time on the radio gathering and comparing fuel prices at each port along the way.)

Still, the boats remain a necessary and viable means to an end. The longer boats can carry greater quantities of cargo and thus charge lower rates, and a ship like the American Spirit can haul more in four days than can be transported across the country train in the same time.

Once the boat is out in the middle of Lake Superior, there isn’t a whole lot for an interloper on the boat to do but wander around, walk laps on the deck (three laps equals a mile), and hang out in the penthouse lounge or up on the bridge with the captain, wheelsmen, and mates.

From the looks of things, the penthouse is seldom used. The reading selections on the glass coffee table consisted of old copies of Reader’s Digest, a run of People magazines from 2002 (“Julia’s Secret Wedding!”), issues of Professional Mariner, the 9-11 edition of Newsweek, and a trade paperback copy of a Mona Simpson novel.

I also noticed that the impressive assortment of beverages in the refrigerator were all at least one year, and in some cases three years, beyond their expiration dates.

As the American Spirit crept along through the waves and the mist, the recliner in the lounge became a rocking chair, and I came to find this persistent and almost rhythmic motion comforting during those times when the ship was rolling through stretches of the worst turbulence.

At one point, as I was sitting in the recliner rocking and reading, I looked up for an instant and saw the sun emerge from the clouds for the first time all day, only to immediately plunge into the lake and disappear from the horizon. Moments later even the horizon was once again entirely gone.

After darkness had settled on the lake, I went up to the pilot house and sat around for most of the night talking with Bartels, Eshelman (who was at the wheel), and Third Mate Bartolome (Tommy) Romero Jr.

The pilot house, or bridge, is kept completely dark at all times, presumably so the guys on watch can see all the illuminated gauges and screens and pick out any obstacles in the lake or river channels. The room is long and orderly, and located at the top of the stern above the cabins. The atmosphere up there, with the darkness, the regular radio chatter, and the quiet, casual conversation that strays easily between the business of navigation and small talk, has something of the feel of an air traffic control tower at a modest regional airport.

The crew members relish swapping stories of whopping storms and tragedies narrowly averted, and it seems like virtually everybody onboard has a keen appreciation for the history of disasters on the Great Lakes.

Bartels told me about the time he was piloting a boat on Lake Michigan, and it ran into a wicked storm off Green Bay in the middle of the night. The ship was ploughed up in an incredible trough and was rolling perilously. Stuff started falling off the shelves, the drawers in the map room were sliding in and out, and everybody on the bridge was either hanging on or pitching around trying to get the thing boat to settle down. In the midst of this mayhem, Bartels staggered out of the map room with a pot of hot coffee extended in one arm, and made his way to the starboard windows, from which he saw a terrifying sight: the bottom of the boat rolling into plain view out of the dark lake beneath him. The mate on the other side of the room was reporting similarly alarming visions, and as Bartels lurched across the pilot house shouting instructions he continued to clutch the pot of coffee in his outstretched arm.

The boat eventually settled back down, and Bartels disappeared into the map room and reemerged without the coffee pot. The explanation for this strange and seemingly dangerous behavior, Bartels said, should be clear enough: When things really start to go to hell up in the pilot house in the middle of the night, the first thing you save is the coffee pot. You’re probably in for a long night, and you’re going to need that coffee pot.

A bit later, after a few more similar yarns, including tales of thirty-foot waves breaking over the bow and rolling up the deck, Eshelman asked, “Do you know the difference between a fairy tale and a sea story? A fairy tale starts out ‘Once upon a time.’ A sea story almost always begins with ‘This is no shit.’”

Sault Ste. Marie, the St. Mary’s River, the Mackinac Straits, and into Lake Michigan— Monday, October 17

I sat up all night as the American Spirit approached the locks at Sault Ste. Marie. There is only one lock large enough to accommodate a thousand-foot ship, so up in the pilothouse they spent quite a bit of time idling while waiting for the green light from the lockmaster.

It was just before four a.m. as we finally made our slow approach into the Poe lock, which would lower the boat forty feet into the main channel of the St. Mary’s river. The locks were eerily quiet in the middle of the night, and the captain and the wheelsman had to steer the ship into a long approach canal that was 110 feet wide—no small feat, considering the American Spirit is 105 feet wide. As the boat nosed its way into the slip and crept along, the steel hull ground against the wood and rubber linings of the pier. Plumes of smoke swirled, and occasionally there were little bursts of actual sparks and flames.

It seems inconceivable that the process of lowering such a giant boat forty feet would be virtually imperceptible, yet the descent was so silent, steady, and swift that the only way to recognize that the ship was descending was by watching the walkways of the pier as they disappeared above the deck. It was 5 a.m. by the time the boat eased out of the locks and moved out into the St. Mary’s River, which would take us down into Lake Huron. I tried to retire to my room to get some sleep, but the boat was rattling so hard and so noisily with all the corrections required for river navigation that the mattress kept getting jiggled off the frame, and even with earplugs the sound was head-splitting. I was just beginning to master a sort of horizontal balancing act when Tommy Romero knocked on my door and encouraged me to come back up to the bridge to watch the sun rise as the crew threaded the boat through all the islands and buoys of the St. Mary’s.

I frequently received these visits in the wee hours from various crew members, always alerting me to something coming up on the route they felt certain I shouldn’t miss. Almost to a man, the crew members of the American Spirit seemed to have a true appreciation for the aesthetic fringe benefits of their line of work, from the beauty of a full moon rising over the lake to the splendor of peak fall colors along a string of islands.

The St. Mary’s was astonishingly beautiful, shrouded in moving mist and lined with huge trees. Just as the sun was coming up, we entered a 1.7-mile section called the Rock Cut, a shallow (in some places there was just three feet below the bottom of the ship) and narrow man-made canal eighteen miles out of Sault Ste. Marie that was blasted out of the bedrock to allow two-way boat traffic through a particularly narrow section of the river. The Rock Cut ran right through what appeared to be an otherwise pristine wilderness area, and there were cabins and log homes perched right at the edge of the water. As the boat glided past, it created fantastic, kaleidoscopic shadows in the scattering mist that was already shimmering with sunlight.

The range of autumn color stretching out on both sides of the ship was spectacular, particularly when the sun rose just high enough to get tangled in the tops of the trees and ignite the foliage. As the sun popped up out of the fog and swept across the trees, it looked like a series of magic lanterns being lit one right after the other.

Later in the morning, the American Spirit left the St. Mary’s at De Tour Village in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, crawled through the De Tour Passage into Lake Huron, and then headed back west toward the Mackinac Straits.

I generally have a pretty sound sense of direction, but I was continually amazed at how catawampus that sense became aboard the ship. With the regular shifts in weather and frequent cloud cover, it was difficult much of the time to tell which direction the boat was headed, and all the zigzagging and reversals in course only served to aggravate this persistent feeling of disorientation. One morning the sun rose behind the boat; the next it popped up out of the lake directly over the bow.

You roll for hour after hour through open water with no sign of land in any direction and nothing in the way of actual event and then, suddenly, are rewarded with several hours of drama or beauty. There is the languid and pleasurable passing of time, and then there are intense and fleeting rewards for enduring that passing of time.

It quickly becomes an intoxicating and ideal sort of routine.

Early in the afternoon the boat glided between Bois Blanc and Mackinac Islands in the Straits, passing within spitting distance of a lovely little lighthouse on Bois Blanc, and sailing close enough to Mackinac that you could stare into the living rooms of the ostentatious mansions through the pilothouse binoculars.

The American Spirit was churning up the Straits in light rain and increasingly thick fog. The Mackinac Bridge, which we were told was somewhere out there in the distance, was nowhere to be seen and then, in an instant, from perhaps a half mile away, it just popped out of the fog like an architectural drawing pinned to a white wall. As the boat crept closer the fog receded as if on command, and we sailed under the bridge and out into Lake Michigan in bright sunlight and clear skies.

Before the ship was a mile out into the lake the fog had moved back in, and I watched from the deck as the Mackinac bridge was gradually absorbed and then entirely erased in the distance.

Lake Michigan, crew members have been insisting, is more relentless than any of the other Great Lakes. Lake Superior, of course, has its fearsome storms and history of spectacular shipwrecks, but is also offers all sorts of nooks and crannies—islands, peninsulas, and harbors—where in a pinch a freighter can seek refuge. Michigan, by contrast, is an inhospitable and unbroken body of unpredictable water. There would, we were told, be nothing much to see from the north of the lake all the way down to Chicago at the southern tip.

“This is a rough lake,” Dan Bartels said. “It’s definitely my least favorite. If you run into trouble out here, there’s no place to hide."

Then, in an apparent attempt at offering some reassurance, Bartels informed me that the American Spirit was designed to be able to break in half and still stay afloat.


That fact seemed more amusing than reassuring to most of the boat’s crew, and was offset by Vern Eshelman’s claim that, in the overwhelming majority of shipwrecks on the Great Lakes, the crew had never even managed to get its lifeboats in the water.


Read part 2 in the January 2006 issue.