Ice-fighting crew on Great Lakes ATB keeps cargo flowing

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Able seaman Jacob Bourdage stands against a thick curtain of ice that built up on Erie Trader as the barge transited Lake Superior. Frigid winds blowing spray off the Great Lakes result in frequent icebreaking duty.

At 2030, the articulated tug-barge Clyde S. VanEnkevort/Erie Trader entered the cold, dark St. Clair River, about six hours north of the ATB’s destination: a steel plant in Detroit, Mich. The Blue Water Bridge was disappearing off the stern, as soon would be another shipping season. It was mid-January 2019 and the Soo Locks in Sault Ste. Marie were shutting down, blocking the connection between the ore docks on Lake Superior and the mills on the lower Great Lakes.

Compared with a year before, the St. Clair River had little ice, although the forecast of plunging temperatures would change that soon. The river was quiet, with none of the small boat traffic of the summer. The AB standing watch in the crow’s nest on the bow of the barge felt less stress than in the warmer months. The most he’d see now might be impatient ice fishermen and wildlife on the ice.

As Clyde S. VanEnkevort and Erie Trader headed downriver, a few railings on the tug and barge were still festooned with strings of Christmas lights, although the lighted Santa Claus mounted atop the A-frame of the self-unloader was gone. The crew had spent both Christmas and New Year’s Day aboard, morale boosted by holiday buffets in the galley. Now, they began to prepare for winter layup: taking down decorations, packing personal gear, cleaning cabins, doing laundry, consuming the last of the grub, and of course, once at the dock in Detroit, discharging this cargo of ore.

The voyage was the 59th of the shipping season. The cargo of approximately 35,000 tons of taconite pellets from the Canadian National ore dock in Two Harbors, Minn., would bring the ATB’s season total to just shy of 2 million tons. Its downbound cargoes had all been ore from Lake Superior ports, and its upbound cargoes all limestone used as flux in the production of taconite pellets. The Great Lakes region has some of the largest non-fuel mineral deposits in close proximity to water transportation in the world.

A deck hand on the ATB descends to the Poe Lock to assist U.S. Army Corps of Engineers personnel with the locking process.

After discharging its cargo at U.S. Steel’s Zug Island plant in Detroit, the ATB would make for winter layup in Toledo, Ohio. A skeleton crew staying aboard would address lists of maintenance tasks, upgrades, modifications, replacements and repairs. Once in layup, the projected mid-March fitting out and departure for the next season, the ATB’s eighth, would be right around the corner.

Clyde S. VanEnkevort and Erie Trader combine as the newest ATB in the ore and stone trade on the Great Lakes. As a single unit, the overall length of the two vessels is 875 feet. Clyde S. is 135 feet by 50 feet. The 22-foot-wide pilothouse may look small from anywhere on the barge, but the helm is perched at a 71-foot height of eye. Another way to think of that: There are 84 steps in five flights leading up from the mess to the seat in the pilothouse. Erie Trader is 740 feet by 78 feet. If you walked around the barge for exercise, it would take only three laps to equal one mile. Everyone on board carries a marine radio, but to see what’s happening on deck, crew in the pilothouse use binoculars.

For propulsion, Clyde S. has two MaK 8M32C EPA Tier 2 main engines totaling 10,876 horsepower. The mains turn five-blade Berg controllable-pitch propellers that are 14.5 feet wide. Fuel consumption is approximately 400 gallons per hour. To put that into perspective, Erie Trader’s maximum cargo capacity of 38,516 tons converts to the equivalent of more than 1,900 20-ton trucks. Calculate the cost and fuel consumption of that many trucks carrying ore southward and you’ll appreciate the economy of waterborne transportation.

Clyde S. VanEnkevort eases Erie Trader into the Poe Lock at Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., the only lock at Soo big enough to accommodate the ATB. The combined length of the two vessels is 875 feet, with the barge measuring 78 feet at the beam.

The tug and barge were christened in April 2012 at Donjon Shipbuilding & Repair in Erie, Pa. VanEnkevort Tug & Barge (VTB) purchased the unit in 2017 after it completed a five-year charter to American Steamship Company. Although it was the only ATB operated by American Steamship, which has six 1,000-foot freighters on the Lakes, surprisingly it was not the smallest vessel in the company’s fleet. In fact, many ore carriers have less capacity. The line from Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” about the freighter being able to carry more than most — “26,000 tons more than (it) weighed empty” — needs context. That was only true until the 1970s. Erie Trader is beamier, longer and has more than one-third greater capacity than did Edmund Fitzgerald.

The leading advantage of ATBs over freighters is the smaller crew size, and therefore lower operating costs. This is made possible by the extensive use of automation. Clyde S. and Erie Trader work with a crew of 14, even less than the new Canadian bulk carriers built for minimal personnel. Canada Steamship Lines’ Trillium class of self-unloaders carries 16, and Algoma Central’s Equinox boats carry 18 (dry-bulk carriers on the Great Lakes are called boats). VanEnkevort’s three ATBs offer the perfect balance of cargo capacity and size, allowing them to serve ports that larger boats can’t — Lorain (Ohio), Green Bay (Wis.) and South Chicago to name a few.

During the ice months at the beginning and end of the season, ATBs offer another advantage: The ability of the tug to leave the notch and break a track through the ice, or sweep it from the sides of docks. A conventional ore boat requires the assistance of a tug or an icebreaker in these cases.

Cason J. Callaway, a self-discharging bulk carrier, dwarfs Clyde S. VanEnkevort, far left, at the dock at Two Harbors, Minn.

The Clyde S. and Erie Trader crew was surprisingly young, with an average age of 34. The first mate, a hawsepiper with experience in the Gulf of Mexico and South America, is 35. The second mate, a graduate of Great Lakes Maritime Academy with experience on Jones Act container vessels, is just 28. The chief engineer is 30. All of the crewmembers on the voyage were from Michigan except one. In some cases during the season, the ATB passes within view of their hometowns along the Lakes, where some of their families have lived and worked on ships or in mining for several generations.

The ATB’s captain, Mark Mather, is in the pilothouse frequently day and night — always in the rivers, as well as for the locks and docks when a mate oversees operations on deck. A mate also manages the loading and discharging of cargo.

Although voyages on Clyde S. and Erie Trader are quite long, mostly between ore docks on Lake Superior and steel mill ports on the lower Lakes, deck crews stay busy. Besides maintaining the self-unloading gear to minimize the time spent at docks, summer means rust-busting and painting. The cold months mean icebreaking on deck and around the hatch covers. When ice encases the covers, they can’t be opened, preventing the loading of cargo. Although steam can be used to melt the ice, transiting the windy Lakes while temperatures are below freezing means cleared areas are continuously being re-coated. This translates into fatiguing work to get rid of the ice with sledgehammers, crowbars and even propane torches for able seamen and deck hands.

Ore shuttles load the ice-encased Erie Trader at the dock in Two Harbors, Minn. The barge carried nearly 2 million tons of cargo during the shipping season that ended in mid-January 2019.

Erie Trader has seven cargo holds ranging from 72 feet to 120 feet long. The hatch covers, weighing several tons each, measure 50 feet by 12 feet. They are opened and closed using a track crane called an “iron deck hand.” The holds have slanted sides that funnel the ore pellets to narrow gates at the bottom. During cargo discharge, a gateman in the tunnel below controls the flow of ore dropping onto a single continuous rubber belt called the loop. It carries the ore upward and toward a 265-foot boom, which is fitted with another belt that transports the ore to shore. The boom can swing 190 degrees, or 95 degrees on either side of the barge.

Boom operations are controlled by touch screens in two shacks, one on either side of the barge. The self-unloading gear can discharge up to 6,000 tons of taconite pellets an hour, a process that begins almost immediately after tie-up. At the Zug Island terminal where the River Rouge meets the Detroit River, all dock lines were made fast at 0245. By 0300, the boom was swung to port over the designated discharge area and ore was conveyed off the barge.

Loading at the gravity-feed dock is even faster. If the dock is “charged,” or adequately supplied by railcars known as “ore jennies” running atop the dock, Erie Trader can be loaded in four hours. During loading and unloading, Clyde S. unpins from the barge to facilitate ballast and cargo operations. The draft of the barge can change by 8 feet depending on whether it is full or empty.

Tools employed to keep the barge’s hatch covers clear of ice include crowbars, sledgehammers and propane torches.

The upbound portion of the transit had been affected by adverse winds, leading the captain to plot a course as close as safely possible to the lee shore to minimize icing. This is called beachcombing. At the end of the season, a firm deadline for the ore trade is the closure of the Soo Locks, typically Jan. 15. If ice conditions permit, some traffic moving mostly salt and petroleum continues on Lake Michigan, Lake Huron and Lake Erie after the Soo Locks shut down.

All season long, deck hands assist at Soo with the locking-through process, descending from the barge to the lock wall by means of the landing chair, a process requiring teamwork and skill to be executed safely. In cold weather, it also requires the removal of ice that can foul the landing chair lines. Once down on the lock wall, deck hands can retrieve mail and packages from an office there. Two other locations for parcel pickup are near Detroit’s Ambassador Bridge, where the J.W. Westcott Co. has catered to mariners since 1874, and at the Soo Marine Supply warehouse. Both businesses operate vessels that make deliveries to ships while underway.

Clyde S. and Erie Trader were among the last vessels to transit the Soo Locks in the 2018 shipping season. About 20 miles behind the ATB was the bulk carrier Hon. James L. Oberstar, which eventually passed Clyde S. at the Zug Island dock with its last cargo of the season — ore bound for Ashtabula, Ohio — at about 0300. Oberstar’s captain, Joe Ruch, hailed Clyde S. on the radio as Mather completed paperwork in the pilothouse. The two mariners are friends and would see each other at the International Ship Masters’ Association convention in February. People working on the Lakes are a small and close-knit group, and Ruch blew a salute to Clyde S. as they passed.

Mather answered by flashing the vessel’s lights. “You don’t want to blow the whistle while tied up at the dock — that really scares the heck out of the dockworkers,” he explained. The two mariners discussed layup and vacation plans before wishing each other a safe voyage and giving regards to their respective families. “Have a good winter,” came the departing response from Oberstar, now invisible in the night.

Categories: Publication > Professional Mariner, Tugboats & Towing