Todd McInturf / The Detroit News

Fort Gratiot Lighthouse keeper Bob Hanford, left, 82,
and Frank Frisk, 60, of Marysville, wave at the American Spirit.


By JIM LYNCH, The Detroit News, Monday, April 21, 2008

GROSSE POINTE PARK -- Max Mager had just settled into his morning English class at Pierce Middle School when he heard the low rumbling tones of a far-off horn through the open window -- three long blasts followed by one short blast.

The sound barely registered with his fellow students, but the 13-year-old knew exactly what he was hearing and where it was coming from.

"It was the (Edward L.) Ryerson," Max said, referring to the massive freighter that was cruising by a few weeks ago on Lake St. Clair. "It has a very distinctive horn and that was a formal salute."

Amazing? Not necessarily. A Boatnerd knows these things.

Watching and appreciating the huge ships that cruise the Great Lakes has been a passion of many Michigan residents for generations. But what was once mostly a solitary pursuit has been revolutionized by Internet freighter-cams and Web sites such as the Port Huron-based, which allows enthusiasts to network and share their hobby.

A repository for information and images concerning Great Lakes shipping, the site has helped foster a sense of community among those who affectionately refer to each other as "nerds."

Through the Web, enthusiasts share stories, information and photos generated by their shared interest. Want to know what ships passed west through the locks at Sault St. Marie last night? Want to see the newest photos of your favorite ship that's just come out of dry dock? Looking for the dimensions of your favorite bulk carrier?

It's all there, and more and more people are finding it. Since its creation in the late 1990s, is up to 20 million hits -- requests for individual files -- each month, its organizers say.

And the Boatnerds have expanded beyond the Internet. In the summer of 2005, the group set up its headquarters in Port Huron in what is now the Great Lakes Maritime Center, and a future expansion is possible. Last year, the nonprofit Great Lakes and Seaway Shipping was formed in Port Huron to support the Web site's efforts. The site's popularity even extends to those onboard the giant freighters.

John T. Greilick / The Detroit News

Alex Mager, left, 16, and his brother Max, 12, of Grosse Pointe Park are self-described Boatnerds who post their photos of vessels online for others to enjoy.

The thrill of a whistle salute

Capt. Eric Treese, who is something of a rock star in the Boatnerd community as the captain of the much-beloved 730-footer Edward L. Ryerson, says his crew checks the site almost daily to keep up on lakes gossip.

And in his short career in the pilothouse, the 40-year-old has developed a reputation as someone who appreciates those who appreciate him. Those he sees waving from the shores of the lakes and rivers are treated to a salute more often than not.

"Dealing with them takes me back to my childhood," Treese said in an interview with The Detroit News while guiding the Ryerson through the Welland Canal, which connects lakes Ontario and Erie. "I swore then that if I ever got my own boat I wouldn't be one of those captains who was stingy with the whistle. Those salutes go a long way."

For those who don't quite understand the thrill of that salute, Max Mager puts it this way: "It makes me feel pretty special -- like that horn was just for me."

Despite the wealth of technical information about freighters on the Web, it's the human connections made over the years that have proven most valuable to some.

The ship-watching season runs from March 25 through Jan. 15 and, if you're a fan, you're likely to be at one of Michigan's main popular viewing spots for Opening Day. Three years ago, Cathy Kohring marked the occasion with a trip from her DeTour Village home at the Upper Peninsula's east end to the locks at Sault Ste. Marie.

"At one point, a woman walked up to me and said, 'Your name wouldn't happen to be Cathy, would it?' " she recalled. The stranger turned out to be Lee Rowe, a retired schoolteacher and fellow Boatnerd, with whom Kohring had been in touch through the group's site.

Another of Kohring's friendships that began online has morphed into an annual visit from a fellow enthusiast and her husband who live in Tennessee.

"The site has extended my family," Kohring said. "Your flesh and blood family, well, you're stuck with them. But with boaters, I've chosen my family."

Roughly 200 miles west of Kohring's location, her friend Lee Rowe tried to describe what it is about the Great Lakes ships that so captivates her that she's pushing her husband to upgrade the family's digital camera for the fourth time in recent years.

"When you stand alongside the river and you see those ships coming in ... it's just impressive," said the 65-year-old Marquette resident. "They're surprisingly quiet. It's fascinating."

Rowe regularly posts her photos of ships from her most recent trips to viewing points like Escanaba. And the vessels, some longer than three football fields, never fail to stir the imagination.

Todd Mcinturf / The Detroit News

Valerie Campbell, 79, and husband Russ, 85, of Port Huron, recently started visiting the Great Lakes Maritime Center in Port Huron.

Fan does renderings of ships

For Sterling Heights resident and Boatnerd John Belliveau, photos aren't enough. Belliveau pairs his appreciation of ships with his engineering expertise to create computer-generated renderings of Great Lakes vessels.

He has painstakingly reproduced nearly 40 craft -- from ill-fated vessels like the Edmund Fitzgerald and the S.S. North American to current ships like the Ryerson and the massive Stewart J. Cort. What began as a personal hobby has turned into a mini-industry. He estimated he has sold "a few hundred" prints of his work.

Like others, the Internet has opened up a whole new world to Belliveau in terms of his passion for ships.

"In the old days, the only way we knew other people were into it was if we were standing on the shore and saw someone else jumping around with a camera," Belliveau said. "With the expansion of the Internet, you start to realize, I'm not the only one who's a freak about these freighters."

Roger LeLievre, a member of the Boatnerds' board of directors, focuses his love for the ships of the Great Lakes into work on the book "Know Your Ships," a guide to boat watching that has been published annually since 1955.

LeLievre traces his zeal for the work to his earliest days growing up in Sault Ste. Marie. His grandfather operated a coal crane on the docks and was allegedly capable of identifying incoming ships by the smoke coming out of their funnels.

In those days, he did most of his boat-watching along. His involvement with Boatnerd has changed that.

"This really has brought it all together," said LeLievre, who works as the music writer for the Ann Arbor News.

"The site allows me and others to share our pictures with people of a like mind.

"It has also given me chances to meet people of a like mind. I didn't know there were so many."

You can reach Jim Lynch at (586) 468-0520 or

    Where to watch

    Roger LeLievre, author of "Know Your Ships," said Michigan has several great locations for seeing the big commercial carriers of the Great Lakes:

  • The Soo Locks at Sault Ste. Marie.
  • Underneath the Blue Water Bridge in Port Huron.
  • The Ore Dock in Marquette.
  • Mission Point in Rotary Park near Sault Ste. Marie.
    And in the Detroit area:
  • Windmill Pointe Park in Grosse Pointe Park.
  • Belle Isle in Detroit.
  • Hart Plaza in Detroit.