This week marks the start of a break in the Great Lakes shipping season. A time when lakes freeze over, the locks at Sault St. Marie shut down, and crews on big freighters go home to their families.
But not everyone stops working.
Near the end of the work day at Great Lakes Towing, a company founded over 100 years ago by John D. Rockefeller, three men secured in harnesses weld on the bow of an upside-down tug boat.
“This tug will be named the tug Cleveland,” says company president Joe Starck. “All the older tugs are named after states, so we decided we’ll name these after our ports.”
The company has tug boats stationed from Duluth, Minn., all the way to Buffalo, N.Y., helping clients reach 40 different ports across the Great Lakes. But when shipping season ends, there’s little use for tugs -- and the company changes gears.
“Shipyard work is what balances our annual cycle so that we don’t go completely dark here,” said Starck. “In the old days they would shut down and everybody would go to Florida – that doesn’t happen anymore.”
These days, Great Lakes Towing is not only repairing its own boats, but customer’s boats, too.
Starck says the company changed its business model and diversified to make up for a decline in the towing business. “It has been a struggle. You really have to constantly keep your nose to the grindstone.”
Completing tug Cleveland is at the top of a long list of projects Great Lakes Towing will complete this year. Workers will also repair a client’s barge that was damaged in western Lake Erie.
“We have a barge in the yard right now that had some damage to the bottom,” said Starck. “The bottom plate was opened up by rocks that the barge unintentionally landed on.”
The company employs about 100 people, but Starck says that number could double with winter ship repairs. Some workers come to Cleveland year after year for the work.
But what happens to all the ship captains, engineers, and deckhands?
“Basically they’re all laid off, and then it’s up to them what they do,” said John Clemons, regional vice president of the American Maritime Officers Union, which has about 400 members. “I myself picked up work working on ships, doing repair work for them.
“Some of them go on vacation, a lot of people are just happy to be home.”
The life of a sailor is a grueling, 24/7 commitment. Some work what’s called a 60-30 schedule, 60 straight days working, then a 30-day break.
Almost 200 people work aboard the nine vessels of the Interlake Steamship Company, and they have a few options during the winter hiatus.
“There are some that elect to participate in winter maintenance program and that could be a shipyard in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, a shipyard in Superior, a layup dock in Detroit,” said Interlake's Brendan O’Connor.
Everyone – from shipping companies to engineers – is looking for a better season in 2017. They hope President Trump’s promise to rebuild the nation’s roads, bridges and waterways brings new opportunities to the Great Lakes.
“Any project that requires more steel and more building materials will help our business,” said Starck.
Interlake's O’Connor has a good feeling about 2017, too. “People do feel a sense of hopeful opportunity with the focus on infrastructure in the Midwest."
The federal government has already recognized the need to improve the region’s infrastructure. The U.S. Treasury Department recently released a report that lists a renovation of the Soo Locks, which connect Lake Superior to the rest of the Great Lakes, as one of the country’s key projects.
The 2017 shipping season officially begins at the end of March.