After a season in which U.S.-flag lakers will have sailed more than 2,500,000 miles and carried nearly 90 million tons of cargo, a $70-plus million tune-up awaits the fleet. One ship arrived in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, to undergo conversion to a barge in early November, but the bulk of the fleet began tying up at their winter berths starting in late December and the final lay-ups will come in short order now that the locks at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, are closed. Upwards of 1,200 shipyard workers then will labor virtually non-stop to ready the vessels for the 2014 season that will begin in mid-March.
Despite the challenges that winter weather presents in the Great Lakes region, the first quarter of the year is the prime time for maintaining and modernizing vessels. Vessels have to operate 24/7 during the season to meet the needs of commerce, so the closing of the Soo Locks means employment at Great Lakes shipyards is about to peak.
The steel industry is Great Lakes shipping’s largest customer, so it is perhaps fitting that steel is the primary material used in maintaining and modernizing the fleet each year. This winter approximately 1,100 tons of steel will be used to renew sections of hulls and cargo holds. The various grades of steel used in vessels must meet exacting standards set by the American Bureau of Shipping and so must be ordered months in advance.
While the Lakes freshwater environment is gentle on vessels, U.S. law requires lakers be dry-docked at regularly scheduled intervals so the U.S. Coast Guard and American Bureau of Shipping can examine the hull below the waterline. Massive concrete and wooden blocks are positioned in the drydock and support the vessel once the chamber has been drained. Several vessels will undergo out-of-water inspections this winter.
Much attention will be paid to the vessels’ massive engines, some capable of generating nearly 20,000 horsepower. The engines are shut down only long enough to load and discharge cargo during the late March/mid-January shipping season, so must be primed for nearly continuous operation.
Navigation, fire fighting and lifesaving equipment will also be carefully checked.
The major shipyards on the Lakes are located in Sturgeon Bay and Superior, Wisconsin; Erie, Pennsylvania; and Toledo, Ohio. Smaller “top-side” repair operations are located in Cleveland, Ohio; Escanaba, Michigan; Buffalo, New York; and several cities in Michigan. The industry’s annual payroll approaches $50 million and it is estimated that additional $800,000 in economic activity is generated per vessel in the community in which it is wintering.
Great Lakes shipyards made a number of improvements during the year to better service the fleet this winter. One yard in Wisconsin added a 7,000-ton floating drydock. Another yard in Wisconsin continued to add hundreds of feet of sheet pile berthing dock to allow it to service more vessels.
Communities far from the Lakes also benefit from the winter work program. Hundreds of feet of high-strength conveyor belts for the vessels’ unloading systems are being manufactured in Marysville, Ohio, and new galley ranges to feed the crew of 23 on a 1,000-foot-long vessel are being produced in Smithsville, Tennessee.
Over the course of the season, about 1,600 men and women work on U.S.-flag lakers. Some will assist with maintenance of the vessels during the winter. Others will upgrade their skills at classes sponsored by their employers and unions.
Lake Carriers’ Association represents 17 American companies that operate 57 U.S.-flag vessels on the Great Lakes and carry the raw materials that drive the nation’s economy: iron ore and fluxstone for the steel industry, limestone and cement for the construction industry, coal for power generation, as well as salt, sand and grain. Collectively, these vessels can transport more than 115 million tons of cargo per year. Those cargos generate and sustain more than 103,000 jobs in the United States and have an economic impact of more than $20 billion.