Fewer ships afloat

By STEPHEN TAIT, Port Huron Times Herald, March 7, 2009

"Freighter" Frank Frisk says the Edward L. Ryerson is one of the favorite freighters among boat watchers who monitor the Great Lakes.

But the local maritime expert said it remains questionable if the Ryerson will operate this summer.

The single-decker ship, which typically hauls taconite, may not go to work this year because of the declining economy, he said.

"It is up in the air," Frisk, a maritime consultant, lecturer and researcher, said.

Great Lakes shipping experts say a poor economy -- which means less demand for goods -- will mean area residents will see fewer freighters on Lake Huron and the St. Clair River.

That spells potential trouble for boat watchers and local boat pilots, who depend on the local shipping channels for leisure and employment.

Glen Nekvasil, vice president of the Lake Carriers Association, which represents 16 companies with 63 ships on the Great Lakes, said with many industries -- such as steel mills on reduced productions or closing -- traffic will be reduced.

He said that's because freighters "do not make demand, they meet demand."

Nekvasil said he couldn't predict what percentage drop is in store, but said to expect a decrease.

"There are going to be less ships operating this year," he said. "A number of ships do not have sail dates this year."

Dan Gallagher is the president of Port Huron-based Lakes Pilots Association, a company that provides pilots to freighters making their way from the eastern edge of Lake Erie to Lake Huron -- including the eight-hour trip from Detroit to Port Huron.

The association employs 12 pilots, four dispatchers, two secretaries and four pilot boat operators who transport pilots to the freighters.

Gallagher said the association is operated similar to a law firm -- in which the pilots act as partners who divvy up the revenue -- but does not expect layoffs.

Still, he said "there will be less revenue because there will be fewer boats to pilot."

Gallagher said he expects a 5% dip in revenue from last year, which itself "wasn't a real good year."

He said the St. Lawrence Seaway, which usually opens March 21, will open March 31 because of poor economics and frozen waterways.

But he said things could change quickly.

For instance, he said there is a huge steel contract pending in Cleveland, which, if finalized, could mean good business.

"In our business, you never know, it fluctuates so much," he said. "It could start out slow, and then it picks up."

For those who enjoy watching ships, this summer may prove difficult.

Photo by Melissa Wawzysko, Times Herald
SCALED BACK: A gang of workers climb aboard Lower Lakes Towing Ltd. freighter Mississagi on Thursday at the Government docks in Sarnia. Maritime experts are predicting fewer freighters on the lake this shipping season as the industry feels the effects of the economy.

Photo by Melissa Wawzysko, Times Herald
MOORED: Lower Lakes Towing Ltd. freighter Mississagi sits tied at the dock Thursday at the Government docks in Sarnia. Area freighter enthusiasts and maritime workers are bracing for what will be a reduced number of freighters traveling the Great Lakes. The shipping industry, like others, will feel directly the effects of a shrinking economy.

Frisk said among ship enthusiasts, some freighters are treated like popular cars in NASCAR, with devoted and faithful followings.

"There is still going to be boats running because it is still the most economical way to transport cargo in the world," he said. "But they could just be a little disappointed because they won't see their own favorite boat."

At the Thomas Edison Inn in Port Huron, a hotel with views of the St. Clair River, Larissa Surline, the front desk manager, said 80% of their customers stay there to see the river.

But she didn't think business would be affected too much by a lack of freighters.

"It is not just the freighters people come here for, it is to see the river in general," she said.

Contact Stephen Tait at (810) 989-6275 or at stait@gannett.com