By BRAD LINDBERG, Grosse Pointe News, Thursday, September 18, 2008

PORT HURON — Frank Frisk's first lesson as a Great Lakes sailor was of the sink or swim variety.

The tone was set in Marquette, where Frisk boarded the 806-foot bulk carrier Charles M. Beeghly, part of the Interlake Steamship Co. fleet.

"You're Frank Frisk?" the watchman asked, sizing him up.

"Yes I am," Frisk answered dutifully.

"You're our relief second cook?"

"Yes I am."

"Do you know how to cook?"


"Do you know how to swim?"

The message was clear. Cook well and the crew will be happy. Cook bad, and "they were going to toss my butt overboard," Frisk said.

Frisk was a good cook.

"I spent 10 years on the boats," he said. "Everyone ate like kings. On one of my ships, we had the governors of Montana and Wyoming on board. They ate exactly the same thing the deck hands ate: steaks, lobster tails, crab legs."

Frisk grew up in Grosse Pointe Park. He retired from the fleet, lives in Marysville and works as a maritime consultant for boatnerd.com, the 50,000 hit per-day Web site headquartered at the Great Lakes Maritime Center, an indoor-outdoor St. Clair Riverside lookout at Vantage Point in downtown Port Huron.

Frisk's first-hand freighter know-how and his knack for telling fresh-water tales earned him the nickname Freighter Frank.

"I love this place," he said of the maritime center. "This is the place to watch boats."

There's no fee to enter the center or park in its gravel and dirt lot.

Photo by Brad Lindberg

Close enough for you? American Victory, built in 1942 from a converted salt water tanker, heads down the St. Clair River past Vantage Point and meets the upbound Canada Transfer, a freighter cobbled together from the stern of the 1943 Canadian Explore and the mid-body and bow of a World War II-era lake freighter.

Photo by Brad Lindberg
Motoring up the St. Clair River, the Agawa Canyon, top, is in plain view of visitors at the Great Lakes Marine Center. Ships pass so closely, its often a case of who's watching whom.

Vantage Point occupies the site of an old railway yard. The maritime center is part of a large shoreline renewal project by Acheson Ventures, which also owns the Highlander Sea schooner docked at Seaway Terminal about one mile downstream.

The center is operated by Grosse Pointe Shores native Peter Werly.

"You get to see freighters up close," said Werly, a former radio personality at stations WJZZ in Detroit, WLBS in Mount Clemens and more.

"I lived on Greenbriar," he said of living in the Shores. "Freighters were way out in the lake. I had no idea I was a closet boat nerd."

The maritime center has developed into a regional gathering place for like minded river-lovers and boat fans.

"It's a nice place to come, have coffee and a doughnut and watch the river go by," said Craig Young, a volunteer docent from Port Huron.

Young staffs the center's information desk. He sits within arms' reach of books about Midwestern maritime history and ships in the Great Lakes fleet, present and past. When a freighter approaches, he switches on the public address system and gives a brief history of the vessel and its mission that day.

Last Thursday afternoon, people at the center sat behind a 100-foot wall of picture windows overlooking picnic tables and the St. Clair River. Some visitors ate lunch from the center's cafe. The menu included chili, sandwiches, salads, soft drinks and a large assortment of fresh doughnuts. Meals cost less than $10.

A flat-screen television monitor linked to boatnerd.com displayed a real-time radar map of freighter traffic. The sweep ranged from lower Lake Huron to halfway down the St. Clair River toward Lake St. Clair.

The screen switched back and forth every 30 seconds or so with another boatnerd.com page listing more freighters, their locations, directions, destinations, cargo and estimated time to pass the center.

Shortly before 1:30 p.m., the 23,400-ton Agawa Canyon steamed upstream into view. She wasn't going fast, but due to an oncoming 7-to-12-knot current, a tiny wave curled up her blunt, black bow and broke foamy white onto the blue river.

"Here comes a freighter," said Young, smiling wider than usual.

He picked up his microphone. Instead of taking center stage, he narrated from the wings. Visitors put down their coffee and let that last bite of sandwich wait for a minute. Everything at the center is subordinate to freighters.

"Good afternoon," Young broadcast. "The upbound freighter is the Agawa Canyon. The keel for this mid-sized Great Lakes self-unloading bulk carrier was laid on Jan. 28, 1970 at Collingwood shipyards in Ontario. It was built at an approximate net cost of $6.7 million. The vessel was launched Aug. 27, 1970 for Algoma Central Railroad. The Agawa Canyon was named after the scenic gorge and canyon of the same name located north of Sault Ste. Marie in Ontario."

And so on. But not too long. Young doesn't babble. Like golden age play-by-play announcers, Young let fans hear the sounds of their fascination and soak up the scene as they see fit.

"We have all the freighters cataloged so we can read about them as they go by," Young said. "When we get two or three going by at the same time, it can be pretty busy."

The Great Lakes fleet, much of which hauled iron ore from Duluth to steel mills in Detroit, shrank from nearly 400 vessels during the early 1970s to about 110 today, according to Roger LeLievre, a native of Sault Ste. Marie and the publisher of "Know Your Ships," the Bible of freighter-watchers.

"U.S. Steel alone had a fleet of 60 boats," LeLievre said.

The steel giant's inland navy no longer exists. Neither does Cleveland Cliff's nor boats of Ford Motor Co. and their flags flying the Blue Bird of Happiness.

A world economy and changing manufacturing practices have lessened demand for iron ore and the freighters that carried it to market.

"We buy a lot of our steel from overseas," LeLievre said. "And, we don't use as much steel. Look at your car and see how much less of it is made of steel as opposed to 20 years ago. The other thing that happened was building 1,000-foot freighters, of which there are 13. Each 1,000-footer replaced three of the old, standard boats."

LeLievre remembers boats of the Ford fleet, known for running rhythmically up and down the lakes to the bunga-wiffle bunga-wiffle of their noisy, two-stroke Doxford diesels.

"You could tell a Ford boat from miles away," LeLievre said. "It was said the diesels were saying, 'makin' money, makin' money.'"

Freighter Frank sailed on three ships, including the Paul R. Tregurtha, which at 1,013.5 feet is the longest on the lakes.

"It's peaceful and calm out there," he said, looking at the river but thinking of places far offshore, "like being in a hot air balloon."

During storms, however, when waves washed over the deck, he said bouncing boats had him chasing chili all over the galley.

He's totally in league with landlubbers who have never been on a freighter, but love them anyway.

"It's like NASCAR on the water," he said. "In 1996, I was on a boat coming up from the Rouge Steel plant. I walked on deck as we went by Marysville and saw people with campers and pickup trucks waving at us. When we got to Duluth, those same people were standing there on a dock. There are people hooked on their favorite boats. They chase them."

Frisk said it takes about 4 1/2 hours for a freighter to travel from Belle Isle to Port Huron.

He said, "If you miss a boat at Belle Isle and feel like hopping in the car, coming up here for lunch and hanging out with the rest of us nerds, you're welcome to do so."

The Great Lakes Maritime Center, 51 Water Street, Port Huron, is open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily through September, and to 6 p.m. starting in October. For more information call

(810) 985-4817 or see


For more information about the Great Lakes fleet, vessel locations and more, see boatnerd.com.

Frisk is in demand for public speaking engagements. Contact him at mvfrisk2@yahoo.com. His Web site, freighterfrank.com, contains about 10,000 photographs and, under the section "Big Boat Recipes," hundreds of recipes he cooked during his decade on the water.