Great Lakes sailors are quick to point out that you don’t know winter sailing until you’ve stood the 12-to-4 a.m. deck watch at Two Harbors, Minnesota with a northwest gale blowing 40 knots in the second week of January. It takes a unique blend of stoicism and crazy to endure this life.
I didn’t sleep much on the downbound at first. That said, your constitution can and does adjust to anything, apparently — if you’re cold and tired enough. By the time we’d locked down to the level of Lake Huron, I only woke up when the unholy racket created by 18-inch plate ice giving way under our bow suddenly ceased, and we encountered a rare patch of open water.
I had been invited aboard the 1,000-foot “superlaker” Stewart J. Cort to photograph her third mate for a two-decade-long portrait project I was working on. In spite of the isolation and weather-induced misery, they say steam boating on the Great Lakes gets under your skin, and my subject, 28-year-old Brendan Groh, hails from the Lake Michigan port town of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, and is the sixth generation of his clan to ship out; someone in his direct bloodline has been walking the deck of a lake boat since 1842.
Navigation through the locks at Sault Ste Marie, Michigan officially ceases on the 15th of January, surrendering to the fact that ice has been choking it off a little more each day since about December 1. Each season, the bulk fleets race to stockpile iron ore at mills on the southern end of Lake Michigan and Lake Erie before the clock strikes midnight on the 15th and winter closes the St. Mary River. After putting their feet up at home for a few weeks, crews fit out the boats again and race to catch up with the stockpiling when the lock re-opens on March 25. Often that end of the frozen stick is worse than January, as the ice has thickened unperturbed for two months.
In the winter of 2013-2014, lake sailors suffered through the worst ice navigation season in 30 years. Lake Superior covers 31,700 square miles, and 95.3 percent of it was covered with blue ice, some of it 50 inches thick. It wasn’t unheard of for morning air temps to plunge to negative 40 (where Celsius and Fahrenheit finally meet) in March. Overall, the five Great Lakes came within 2 percentage points of breaking their all-time record for ice cover set during the exceptionally cruel winter of 1979. A routine voyage aboard an ore boat from head-of-lakes at Duluth to the big integrated steel mill at Burns Harbor, Indiana takes about four days on average. It took the Cort 15 days to bash its way down to the mill, then retreat to her lay-up berth at Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, battered and leaking.
Sprung hull plates, mangled propeller blades, and the sight of an axe-wielding deckhand sent out to hack at the hundreds of tons of ice thrown on deck by freezing spray were commonplace until April. Massive delays persisted until the end of May. Icebergs could be spotted floating in Marquette Harbor on Memorial Day weekend. The Lake Carriers Association trade group pegged the grim economic impact of all that icy hell at $705 million for fiscal year 2013-2014.
I departed the Cort in her lay-up berth at the Bay Shipbuilding Company on January 17, 2014, after two weeks of extraordinary wearing and tearing on men and machinery. Most of the crew would be heading for warmer climes for some R&R –- Florida, Vegas, and the like. Brendan Groh helped me thump my bags and crates down the four-story gangway tower. He tilted his face skyward as the snow pelted us in the gathering dark: “Tastes like piña coladas”, he quipped. “That’s got do with global warming for sure.”