Tune-up time for U.S.-flag Great Lakes fleet

After moving nearly 84 million tons of cargo in 2018, U.S.-flag lakers are undergoing more than $70 million in maintenance and modernization at Great Lakes shipyards. The work ranges from engine overhauls to installation of state-of-the-art radars and other navigation equipment.

While winter’s freezing, often subzero, temperatures pose real challenges for shipyards and their workers, it is the one time each year the fleet can undergo maintenance and modernization. In order to meet the needs of commerce during the late-March to mid-January sailing season, vessels must operate 24/7 and stop only long enough to load and discharge cargo.

Engine work is a large portion of the winter program. Some vessels have power plants capable of generating nearly 20,000 horsepower and over the course of the season, a vessel can travel more than 70,000 miles. Engine parts need to be remachined and reinstalled so the vessel can again operate nearly continuously in 2019.

Since the Great Lakes are freshwater, corrosion is not a major issue; hulls can last almost indefinitely. Still, with some vessels now having been in service since the 1950s, some steel, generally in cargo holds, will be replaced.

Four vessels will be drydocked this winter to undergo an out-of-water hull inspection as required by U.S. law. The vessels enter the drydock and are positioned such that when the drydock is drained, they rest on blocks. U.S. Coast Guard and American Bureau of Shipping inspectors then team with company representatives to sound the hull.

Lakers are more than freight-hauling vessels, they are the crews’ home for 10 months each year, so safety systems are also checked and serviced as necessary. In addition, upgrades to living quarters and galley equipment are scheduled on some vessels.

There are four major shipyards on the Great Lakes. They are located in Sturgeon Bay and Superior, Wisconsin; Erie, Pennsylvania; and Toledo, Ohio. During the winter employment at these yards swells to nearly 1,100.

Vessels also winter in other Great Lakes port cities such as Cleveland and Detroit and are serviced by local providers.

The pace can be challenging at Great Lakes shipyards during the winter. In two months many of the vessels will have “gotten up steam” and be heading to their first port-of-call. The March 25 opening of the locks at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan will officially signal that another shipping season is underway.

Andrea Lee