Gone Again: Maritime Capital of the Great Lakes

Written by Elizabeth Granger

Friday, 20 June 2008

PORT HURON, Mich. – It’s all about the water, they say in the Blue Water Area at the base of Michigan’s “thumb,” north of Detroit. And with Lake Huron, the St. Clair and Black rivers, tall ship Highlander Sea, Coast Guard cutters Bramble and Hollyhock, tour boat Huron Lady II, Great Lakes Maritime Center, Fort Gratiot Lighthouse and world headquarters of boatnerd.com, it’s no wonder Port Huron has been named the Maritime Capital of the Great Lakes.
The twin Blue Water Bridges connect the United States and Canada
between Port Huron in Michigan and Sarnia in Ontario. Photo by
Elizabeth Granger

Just ask Frank Frisk, a.k.a. Freighter Frank.

An apt name for someone so caught up in all things nautical.

“He’s a legend around here,” said Paul Maxwell of Acheson Ventures, which has been spearheading the city’s recent economic renaissance. “He knows more people on the boats than anybody else I know.”

Frisk heads boatnerd.com, a Web site created in 1994 by a community college student, as a hobby site, “out of his love for Great Lakes shipping.” Its popularity has exploded.

“When he (the student) moved here from New Jersey he had no idea what was involved in commercial shipping and lighthouses on the Great Lakes, so he started it as a class project,” said Frisk. “If you fast forward to today, there are 60,000 people a day on the front page of the Web site. We’ve just hit 15 million visitors to the Web site since it went fully online.”

With the exception of military vessels and others tied to national security, boatnerd.com tracks every ship as it makes its way through the entire Great Lakes seaway system, about 2,700 miles.

“We can give you a fairly accurate idea of where each ship is presently located, where it’s going, what it’s carrying,” said Frisk.

A site visitor can type in the name of a ship and get its complete history.

The Web site is a natural for Frisk, who sailed on the Great Lakes for close to 10 years as a cook on a series of freighters. He was a computer nerd even then and started his own Web site devoted to the maritime industry – www.freighterfrank.com – to showcase his interest in and expertise with cooking as well as with the Great Lakes.

“If you’re looking for any good recipes, they’re on there,” he said.

Along with close to 10,000 photos of the Great Lakes that Frisk has taken.

“The (boatnerd.com) site kept growing and growing, just like a snowball going downhill,” said Frisk.

Today boatnerd.com is headquartered at the Acheson Ventures Maritime Center in Port Huron. When a boat – and on the Great Lakes, even those measuring 1,000 feet are called boats – goes by, a volunteer pulls up its information from the Web site and broadcasts it to curious bystanders who often stop to watch it.

“When you see the freighters going by, you just can’t get to the water fast enough,” said Marci Fogal, president of the Blue Water Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It wows you.”

“The most favorite boat on the Great Lakes, bar none, is the Edward L. Ryerson,” added Frisk. “She’s the sleekest ship on the Great Lakes. Absolutely beautiful.”

The Ryerson is an ore carrier that hauls taconite from Duluth, Minn., to steel mills in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. 

One of the most popular Port Huron sights is boats going under the Blue Water Bridges which connect the United States and Canada, with Port Huron on the U.S. side and Sarnia on the Canadian side. Visitors can take a voyage under the bridge aboard the tour boat Huron Lady, with Capt. John Rigney providing information.

They can also join the crew sailing under Capt. Benjamin Hale and go out on the water aboard the Highlander Sea, a 1924 topsail schooner that served as a Boston harbor pilot ship for 47 years.

The decommissioned Coast Guard cutter Bramble is another tour option. Commissioned in 1944, she was used in search and rescue, maintaining aids to navigation and as an icebreaker. In 1957 she was one of the first ships to circumnavigate the North American continent as part of a three-ship task force that traveled 4,500 miles of partially charted waters. Today she serves as a floating museum.

The water also provides more individual activities that include fishing, private boating, swimming, … “It’s all about the water,” said Fogal again.

Elizabeth Granger is a Fishers resident. She can be reached at wayfarer2@comcast.net. Opinions may not reflect those of the Noblesville Daily Times.