Paul L. Hayden
Taking a Break
Courtney Burton crewmen Dennis Oxford (left) and Steve Mann relax with coffee in the galley, which is also loaded with fresh pastry most of the day.
Kah-BOOM! The sharp report of a signal cannon echoes off the shore of Harsen's Island at Southeast Bend on the St. Clair River north of Detroit, Michigan. The S/S Courtney Burton of the Oglebay Norton fleet of Great Lakes bulk carriers has just come up on can buoy No. 13. The blast from her signal cannon is a diversion – a diversion in a line of work where breaks in the day's routine can be pretty far apart, and where diversions would be frowned upon if they distracted a sailor from that sailor's duty.
The Courtney Burton's signal, on this occasion, is a salute to the flower lady, Arlene Earl, whose home is near buoy No. 13. Arlene, a Detroit florist, sends plants and floral arrangements to brighten the tables of vessels plying the narrow channel, carrying coal, limestone or taconite pellets from mine to market.
Most carriers passing Arlene's home toot a whistle salute to the flower lady, especially if they go by in the daytime when it won't disturb the neighborhood too much. But only the Courtney Burton uses special artillery. The vessel's carbide cannon, which fires no projectile, was built by Allen "Junior" Sharrer. Sharrer was once the vessel's chief engineer, and he machined the cannon at the request of Oglebay Norton's late chairman, for whom the fleet's flagship is named.
If Arlene is home she steps out of the house and waves in return. Sometimes she'll respond with a blast from her own cannon, even if she has to jump in her car and follow the boat up or down the river a couple of miles in deference to her neighbors, who may appreciate the tradition, but not the noise.
Ceremonials such as a cannon salute are usually at the discretion of the captain, but might be delegated to another deck officer like second mate Jim Woodard, whose homeland is in rural Duluth among the hills that rim the north shore. This article is partly about Jim, but mainly about life on a lake carrier as Jim describes it.
Paul L. Hayden
Having spent the 1996 season aboard the Courtney Burton, second mate Jim Woodard sails this season on the Buckeye. He says changing ships is fine, so long as the ship doesn't start its first trip of the season on a Friday. Jim poses here in front of the William A. Irvin in his hometown, Duluth, Minnesota.
Jim Woodard is well-qualified to tell us about sailing the Great Lakes. His dad, Captain Cedric Woodard, sailed 56 years. Jim's been on the boats since age 17, when he applied for work at the Lake Carriers' Association office with a reference forged on his father's stationery.
Today, most who take up sailing combine special schooling, experience and license testing to get work and advance in their vocation. The Great Lakes Maritime Academy at Traverse City, Michigan, prepares many men and women for a career on the lakes. Others choose schools on the East Coast or attend training centers operated by one of the maritime unions. But, Jim came up the hawse pipe; that's a sailor's lingo for on-the-job training. In 36 years of sailing, Jim has lost count of the number of vessels he's served on. In fact, although he ended the '96 season on the Courtney Burton, as you read this he's second mate on Oglebay Norton's S/S Buckeye. Jim had no hesitation making the change, "As long as it's a steamer, and doesn't sail on a Friday, I'm happy." Both ships are powered by steam turbines, preferred by some because there's more romance to steam propulsion; also, steam engines are quieter than diesels. And, sailors have a long-standing superstition that opening a new season on a Friday after spring fit-out is unlucky. Many masters, including Captain Tilley, go along with this tradition.
As second mate, Jim is a deck officer, part of the crew that navigates, handles and cares for everything except the engine department, which is run by the chief engineer. The three mates report to the captain.
One mate is always in the pilothouse, so there are three shifts – called "watches" on a ship – four hours on, eight hours off. Watches are 12-4 (the graveyard), 4-8 (usually taken by the first mate) and 8-12. Time is kept by the traditional ship's bell, which strikes on the half-hour, tolling a watch change at eight bells. The mates wind the clock, adjust it to a naval observatory time radio signal and note the winding in the log. It's one more entry in the ship's official record of navigation data, cargoes, weather conditions, watch changes and observations that might have a bearing on operations. All clocks on the Courtney Burton are spring-wound. When the clock in the pilothouse strikes, the wheelsman reaches for the manual bell lanyard and tugs it to repeat the signal on the ship's bell mounted on deck above. This isn't a company requirement, but one of several traditions Captain Bobby B. Tilley chooses to keep. To avoid confusion in communications and scheduling, all Oglebay Norton boats stay on eastern time regardless of their location.
Of 27 crew members, 15 work on watches, so there are five on duty at each watch: a mate, a wheelsman (who maintains the course ordered by the officer on duty), a watchman and, in the engine department, an oiler and one of the ship's three assistant engineers. Except for some special scheduling in the galley, three deckhands, the bosun (chief of maintenance and first-mate's "right hand"), maintenance personnel and conveyor operators work 8-4:30 and receive overtime pay when required outside these regular daytime hours. For example, if docking or traversing the Soo locks occurs at night, deckhands would be called upon to handle lines and winches.
Crews have been getting smaller over the years as more labor-saving technology has been adopted. On an older vessel like the Courtney Burton, that means accommodations now provide a little more elbow room, because the boat was designed for a larger crew. Many personnel have private quarters, although some cabins are still doubles. Today's new 1,000-footers have all living and working space aft, but in boats like the Courtney Burton the captain and deck crew sleep forward below the pilothouse while the engine crew and cooks sleep aft to be near their work. Neither the accommodations nor company policies discriminate against having women on the crew.
Paul L. Hayden
The work of the galley staff keeps members of the crew well fed and happy. Second cook Audrey Hannafius specializes in baked goods, much to the delight of the crew.
The galley normally has a complement of three: the steward (chief cook who heads the department, does the menu planning and purchasing), the second cook (who is often responsible for all baking) and the porter. Sailors on the lakers eat well. The companies understand the importance of a happy, well-fed family. A well-worn seafaring maxim is: if you take up responsibility for feeding a ship's crew, "you'd better be either a good cook or a good swimmer." When meals aren't being served, the galley stays open for coffee breaks and snacks.
What does the crew do when off duty? Jim Woodard spends "more time reading than you'd imagine." Besides sleeping and reading, sailors watch TV, with a particular interest in VCR fare, because regular reception isn't always reliable and you can't expect your favorite program to be there when you're free to watch it. There's a television in the crew's lounge, but many have their own sets and some are networked to a central video player.
Jim says there's less cribbage and other games than there used to be. And, less letter writing, too. Other ways of keeping in touch with home are too easy. Next time you see a laker entering the Soo, Thunder Bay, Marquette or Duluth-Superior, check the open portholes and chances are you'll see some of those curly cellular antennas sticking out.
Before reading, calling home or other pastimes, personal upkeep needs attention. There are laundry facilities for the crew at both ends of the vessel (ship's linens are cleaned by commercial laundries ashore). On the Courtney Burton, and increasingly common on boats today, a fitness room allows workouts on machines to strengthen muscles or get aerobic exercise. Many crew members occupy time with hobbies or crafts, just as whaling crews once carved scrimshaw to relieve the monotony of long voyages.
If you're not on duty when in port, you may get a few hours to test your land legs. Some docks are within walking distance of commercial areas, but you may need a bicycle or a taxi ride to get to town. Most boats require only four to five hours to load or unload, although some bulk cargoes, like grain, take longer. So whether you're heading for the drugstore, library or another activity, you don't have a lot of time. Shoreside consumption of alcohol is discouraged; crew members know that federal law forbids working within four hours of imbibing. Oglebay Norton policy prohibits crew members from drinking alcohol on board, period.
Illicit drugs are forbidden, and there's mandatory drug testing after any accident – not just the victim, but others on duty or in charge. There's random testing, too. When called upon for a test, you show up or lose your license.
The Self-Unloading System
Modern self-unloading equipment speeds the discharge of coal, stone or ore. Hoppers in the vessel's hold drop material onto a conveyor running along the keel. Special belts lift cargo to the deck then transfer it to a boom conveyor that sends it to a stockpile or hopper on shore. This technology has reduced the number of jobs on the dock, but adds two conveyor operators to the complement aboard each vessel. Drawing-down the cargo evenly keeps the boat level ("in trim"), while the on-duty mate orders ballast water added or pumped out as needed.
Whether loading or unloading, there's considerable cleanup needed at the dock. Not only must decks be hosed down, but once the holds are empty they are cleaned of all dust and residue. Your next load may be a different cargo, and coal customers don't want their delivery contaminated with ore.
Jim says the word "family" is about the best way to describe the relationship among crew members. Most have a real family on land; while on the water, teaming up and caring about each other substitutes for close relatives, who, of course, are "capable of a squabble once in a while."
But it doesn't take long before you know just about everything there is to know about your shipmates. Small talk, sharing advice and experiences are some of the best ways to shorten your watch when everything's running smoothly and that's most of the time. If a crew member is on duty while at the dock, and a shipmate is going ashore, the on-duty sailor might say, "Pick me up a tube of toothpaste." It isn't necessary to say what brand. Shoreside families are special to sailors, too. Imagine having a spouse and kids you see only occasionally during nine months of the year. The stay-at-home takes on total responsibility for the children, home maintenance and yard work, knowing how to fix a drain or when to call the plumber. Jim Woodard speaks for many when he tells us that it takes a special, independent and tolerant person to be married to a sailor. His wife of 32 years, Corrine, is a classic example. Their 31-year-old son, Jim Jr., proves her competence at being both mom and dad for so much of the year. Jim Woodard says that fate has been kind to him.
He transferred to the Sylvania from the S/S Edmund Fitzgerald two months before the Fitz was lost. He feels lucky to have survived that same November 1975 storm when trying desperately to turn the Sylvania around to seek shelter behind Pelee Point on Lake Erie. His father, then a pilot on the Swedish freighter Avafors, was one of the last persons to have radio contact with the Fitzgerald. The Avafors was upbound, entering the open lake from Whitefish Bay.
Jim acknowledges respect for a few superstitions, but stops short of saying that they're the source of his good fortune. He considers his vocation safer than most, but still refrains from whistling on deck; after all, why whistle up the wind? He thinks this belief stems from a navy custom, where whistling might be confused with the high-pitched notes of a bosun's pipe. Also, when Jim signed onto the Buckeye at the beginning of April, he asked a shipmate to hang his license on the bulkhead. Hanging your own license invites bad luck.
With five years to go before removing his license from the bulkhead for the last time, Jim and Corrine are building a winter retreat in Arizona. Jim wonders how it will feel to settle down after devoting most of his adult life to walking a deck that flexes, rolls with the waves and throbs in sympathy with the turbines below.
But without hesitation he says, if given the chance, he'd do it all over again, "It's in my blood." One thing's for sure: if by some mysterious reincarnation Jim Woodard is awarded another career on the lakes, he won't set sail on a Friday.
Paul L. Hayden
Lake Superior ends and the St. Marys River officially begins at the Gros Cap Lighthouse (distant right). Smooth water and sunset over Whitefish Bay bring a peaceful end to a day of sailing.
Editor's Note, 12/12/14: In 2006, the Courtney Burton was sold to American Steamship Co. and renamed the American Fortitude. In late 2014, after sitting idle for six years, the vessel made its final voyage, to Brownsville, Texas, to be scrapped.
Writer Donn Larson and his wife, Donna, divide their time between Duluth and their cottage on the Canadian north shore. Their boat Keeper is a familiar visitor at Isle Royale and harbors around the lake.