Lake Superior Opens for Business: Tug-Barge Sets Off to Start Shipping Season

Helen H.

The Helen H. breaks ice to clear a path for the departure of the Erie Trader/Clyde S. VanEnkevort. Bob King / DNT

The shipping campaign sailed into action on Tuesday and, no, the first vessel didn’t get stuck in the ice. The barge-tug combo Erie Trader/Clyde S. VanEnkevort made it under the Aerial Lift Bridge and through the canal at about noon, only to seem to be held up on Lake Superior for several hours off 21st Avenue East on its way to Two Harbors to load ore pellets.

But it wasn’t the jumbled ice that slowed the vessel. It was the aftermath of an offseason spent rebuilding the twin engines of the VanEnkevort.

“If anyone is concerned about us outside the harbor, we are not stuck,” said Captain Mark Mather via a text message shared by the Duluth Seaway Port Authority. “We are merely ‘burning in’ our overhauled engines.”

The tug did separate from her barge in order to ramp up her engines. But a bad omen for the upcoming season this was not.
“We are 14 strong!” Mather texted of his crew size.

The tug-barge figured to see the remaining five ships wintering in Duluth and Superior follow her out of the port in the subsequent days. All the vessels locally were scheduled to load ore and head for the Soo Locks and steel mills on the lower Great Lakes. The locks open for the season at 12:01 a.m. Sunday.

For Heritage Marine owner Mike Ojard, the first spring day brought an end to wrenching and repairing on his tugs and a return to the ice-breaking and harbor maneuvering he’d left behind with the close of the previous commercial shipping season in January.

With the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Alder breaking ice in Thunder Bay, Ojard used his golden-hued Helen H. to clear out the VanEnkevort from the Clure Public Marine Terminal on Superior Bay. The tug-barge could have managed to get out of the modest ice cover herself, Ojard said, but thrusting through the ice and out of the berth with two rebuilt engines might have also hurt the sheet piling on the seawall.

“Turning the screws hard could undermine and ruin the dock,” Ojard said, using shipping speak to describe propellers. “They would just as soon have us come over and break them out and have them shoved around the corner.”

It was a busy offseason for Ojard, too. He described rebuilding the locomotive engines on the Helen H., calling it “a huge job.” It was just one of the tasks required to keep up with his three-tug fleet.

“Working on tugboats, you always have something to fix, something to renew,” he said, sounding eager to turn the page and get back on the water. “I like this time of year.”

The Edwin H. Gott, also at the Clure, and Kaye E. Barker, which wintered at Fraser Shipyards in Superior, were set to depart Thursday. In the meantime, two 1,000-footers were scheduled to load iron ore pellets Thursday in the Twin Ports before heading out Friday. The James R. Barker was to move from its berth at the Midwest Energy Terminal across St. Louis Bay to the CN dock in Duluth. Similarly, the Burns Harbor was to make its way from Elevator M to the BNSF Railway Dock in Superior. Once loaded, she was ticketed to depart via the Superior entry.

Last in the opening week lineup was the Lee A. Tregurtha, scheduled to leave Fraser Shipyards next Tuesday to load ore in Two Harbors before sailing on her way downbound.

The local harbor could begin seeing its first inbound lakers arriving a day or two later, depending on ice conditions.
Meanwhile, the Welland Canal and St. Lawrence Seaway locks are not scheduled to open until March 29, putting the arrival of the season’s first salties sometime in April.


SOURCE: Duluth News Tribune