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Ship-watchers scan river for 'old friends'
Today marks start of 2004 shipping season

From staff and wire reports

By MELISSA WAWZYSKO, Times Herald

KEEPING TRACK: Frank Frisk, a retired cook-porter with the Interlakes Steamship Co., likes to track freighter passages through the Great Lakes via radio in his Marysville home. Above is a flag with the company logo.

SAULT STE. MARIE, Mich. -- Freighters lined up Wednesday on the St. Marys River in preparation for the opening of the Soo Locks and a new shipping season on the upper Great Lakes.

The docks on Lake Superior were buzzing with activity during the past few days as crew members prepared ships.

Blue Water Area freighter enthusiasts, meanwhile, eagerly are awaiting a new season of visits from what they consider "old friends."

The Soo Locks, which connect Lake Superior to the other Great Lakes, were scheduled to open just after midnight.

Lake ships will encounter market conditions that are more encouraging than previous years.

"It looks like this could be the year of the lakers," said Ron Johnson, trade development director for the Duluth (Minn.) Seaway Port Authority.

Most of those ships won't dock in the Blue Water Area, but freighter watchers such as Frank Frisk, 56, of Marysville are just happy to watch them glide past St. Clair County.

"It gives us a variety of ships to watch and see where they're going," said Frisk, a former Great Lakes freighter crew member.

Personal favorites
Freighter watchers have a variety of methods to keep tabs on their floating targets. Some just watch from area parks, some peek out their front door, and people such as Frisk have maritime radios that alert them to incoming vessels.

Each ship has to contact the Sarnia Coast Guard monitoring station when entering the area, which gives Frisk a good estimate as to what time to expect a ship.

"It's very easy just to sit and listen and monitor," Frisk said. "Some people make a note of where they are going and what time they call in (to the station)."

With good weather, Frisk said ships coming from the Soo Locks can make it to Port Huron in 14 to 18 hours, which could put the first few vessels past the Blue Water Bridge by Friday evening.

More than 11,000 vessels up to 1,000 feet long maneuver through the locks every year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said. Many haul more than 72,000 tons of cargo per load -- mostly iron ore, coal, stone and grain.

Seventeen southbound ships were heading toward the locks Wednesday, said Stan Jacek, Soo Locks Area engineer.

The Coast Guard said about 28 ships could make the river on opening day.

Each person has his or her own favorite ship to watch for, Frisk said, such as people who cheer for their favorite auto-racing teams.

"It's like NASCAR on the water," Frisk said.

Jack Kelley, 60, of Port Huron likes to watch from his window for the older vessels, which each year are becoming a dying species.

"Every year they seem to eliminate more and more of the old boats and replace them," Kelley said.

He, too, listens to the freighter captains by radio.

"A lot of times the captains will switch over to another channel and talk about conditions on the lakes, where they're coming from and where they're going."

Good year
The closing of the Soo Locks was delayed last year at the request of steelmakers who said they needed additional taconite to maintain production through the winter.

Cold weather and worsening ice conditions choked off some of the final scheduled shipments. The locks closed Jan. 25.

"There appears to be some pent-up demand from last year for taconite," said Charlie Patterson, vice president and general manager of the Great Lakes Fleet Inc. in Duluth.

"Some of the steel mills apparently are desirous of early cargo because inventory levels are lower than they would like them to be.

" U.S. and Canadian vessels are apt to play an even larger-than-usual role in moving cargo on the Great Lakes because so many oceangoing vessels -- called salties -- are needed to meet China's growing demand for materials.

Johnson expects fewer salties to call on Great Lakes ports this year. And, he said, North American carriers could be called upon to move grain through the St. Lawrence Seaway to larger oceangoing ships on the East Coast.

Originally published Thursday, March 25, 2004

The Associated Press and Times Herald reporter Chris Sebastian contributed to this story.

Times Herald, file photo by TONY PITTS

SIGHT FOR SORE EYES: Watching freighters on the St. Clair River is a much anticipated activity each spring. This couple watches in Port Huron.

By MELISSA WAWZYSKO, Times Herald

SHARING THE VIEW: Frank Frisk, a former crew member for the Interlakes Steamship Co., adds photos of lake vessels to his Web page, "Frank's Great Lakes Review," on his computer in Marysville.

ONLINE SHIP WATCHING
Freighter Frank's Greak Lakes Review: www.greatlakesphotos.com