Friday, September 04, 2009
Cruise on a Great Lakes freighter Episode 1
Whenever the word 'cruise' is mentioned, people immediately tend to associate this with something exotic, like a cruise in the Caribbean on some monster passenger cruise ship, where everything is shiny and new.
Not so with the cruise we took last month (August 12th through 17th). This was a really different and quite unique cruise.
Great Lake freighters ply the lakes, usually moving bulk cargo such as grain, corn, salt, iron ore, coal and the like. Due to ice conditions, the ships are usually 'laid up' between late December and early April, when once again most of the ice has melted. For 9 months of the year, they scoot from one port on the lakes to another, from the Canadian to the American side.
Normally, they don't take passengers. The only reason we got to go is that this trip was offered at a fund raising dinner as an auction item. Since it sounded like something out of the ordinary, we bid and happened to win.
So early last month we got the call. Our ship was to be the Cuyahoga, a ship built in 1943 in the United States, its sole purpose being to aid the war effort in ferrying iron ore across the lakes. Its length is approximately 600 ft (200 m), with a beam of 60 ft (20m). Originally, it had a coal fired steam engine, later switched to fuel oil. Around 2000, the steam engine was replaced by an Caterpillar diesel engine, which, by the way, probably occupies about a tenth of the space the old steam engine did.
Around 1993, the ship was laid up (moored) for a couple of years, because the previous owners didn't think running her was economically feasible no longer
A brand new company from Port Dover, Ontario, Lower Lakes Towing, decided to give it a go, had it towed to Sarnia, Ontario for some repairs and a paint job and renamed it the Cuyahoga, the first ship in their fleet. They now have 12. Where others couldn't, they made it work. After spending almost a week on the ship, we now understand why.
With a little bit of apprehension we reported at the designated hour at Pier 25 in the Hamilton Harbour. After all, we didn't know what to expect. But it didn't take long for us to figure out that the crew was about as welcoming as could be. We were shown our room and shortly after met the captain. Now, when you think of captain, you think of a grumpy old guy with a curly moustache, cussing and swearing while smoking a pipe. Wrong... Captain Colin was a very young guy, immensely knowledgeable about his ship and well versed in the latest technologies. To boot he knew how to handle the ship's crew.
Later that day, Ralph the second mate gave us a safety briefing, told us where our muster station was in case of emergency and explained how to launch the lifeboats. Fortunately for us during our trip, all this information was useless.
He took us around the ship, to the galley, the crews and officers mess, a quick peek in the engine room and then down through the tunnels underneath the holds back to the bow of the ship up to the wheelhouse, where we got a sneak preview of all the navigation equipment on board. After that it was time for dinner, so Doug the cook served us the first of many enjoyable meals, which we ate with the rest of the crew, while being introduced to all 17 of them.
Meanwhile, the ship was taking on a load of corn, 10,000 or so tons, to be shipped to the Casco plant in Cardinal, Ontario for processing there into corn syrup, starch and a host of other products too numerous to mention. Since there is only one sleeve loading the corn is tends to be a little slow, about 15 hours to load the ship. The entirely ship was loaded by 6:00 o'clock the next morning and it is a good thing that something woke us up (the lack of coffee in our veins) at that hour, otherwise we would have missed leaving port.
Soon we approached the bridges that allowed us out of the harbor. On a beautifully warm sunny morning, it was a sight to see, worth the price of admission alone. Fortunately, even the lift bridge was up, so we didn't have to ram it in order to get out.
Quite quickly we got out into Lake Ontario, leaving Hamilton behind us. The ship, when out in open waters like that makes around 11 knots, which equates to 20 km/h. What is interesting is
that the engine runs at more or less the same rpm all the time, it is the pitch of the blades that is changed, which in or decreases speed.
Not long after entering Lake Ontario, the outline of the City of Toronto became visible through the slight summer time haze, also known as smog. It was about 50 km away.
To be continued...