Tag: sea story

Grit in the Heartland

Cleveland Harbor

This is the Port of Cleveland, at the mouth of the Cuyahoga River on Lake Erie. That little ship on the left in the picture is the Fortunagracht, a Dutch general cargo vessel, 12,000 tons.  The Port has access to the world’s seas through the St. Lawrence Seaway, which is open eight or nine months of the year and frozen solid the rest. The port handles about 13 million tons of cargo a year, mostly materials for cement plants on the river and a big 800 acre steel complex at the head of the river, 6 miles upstream through three 180 degree turns. 600 to 700 ships a year go up that narrow winding river every year and come back down, some ships 700 feet long. More about the river system later. The port piers in the picture here are right next to Brown’s Stadium, right downtown, 80 acres, four or five berths, 300,000 square feet of warehouse space, mostly for imported steel products. About 50 inetrnational ships visit this faciity every year. (By that I mean, not US or Canadian ships plying the Great lakes system with iron ore, taconite, and liestone. Of the 260 remaining US flag deep sea cargo ships still sailing, 60 work on the Great Lakes. Last year at this time I was on the 261st US flag ship, the President Truman, heading for the breakers in India.)

Cleveland has had some hard times, like much of the industrial heartland around the Great Lakes. Once a city of nearly a million people, less than half that many live there now. Like Detroit and other midwest cities, the inner core is filled with abandoned homes and a diminishing tax base. Nearly 50 years ago, now, the Cuyahoga River caught fire, for the 13th time in the last century and a half, and it was this fire that caused the Clean Water Act and a number of other environmental laws. The story beyond northeast Ohio has been Cleveland has been sinking, failing, and losing ground. But don’t tell that to the people who live there. Especially now, what with the city getting the 2016 Republican Convention, Johny Football Manzell for the Browns, and LeBron James deciding to return to his home state and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Cleveland’s had a good run since this last spring and I was lucky enough to be there, for the first time in my life, except for driving through in 1967 and 1968 on I-90.

Last fall the Port of Cleveland-Cuyahoga County, a terrific small operation staffed by 18 people and governed by commissioners appointed by the Mayor of Cleveland and the Administrator of Cuyahoga County, made a choice to take their future into their own hands.  The Port had been led down one road by a previous Port Director who wanted to spend millions competing head to head with big US East Coast container ports, a totally flawed concept which soon became clear. For years ship visits to Cleveland had been diminishing and some were suggesting the port as an entity was doomed. The current Port Director, though, Will Friedman, his excellent staff, and his Board of Directors, lacking nothing in courage, strength of conviction, and titanium balls, decided there might be a market for a new liner service between Cleveland and Europe, direct sailings, through the Seaway. Their argument was that all the international cargo now shipped from the midwest must now be trucked or shipped on rail to an East or Gulf Coast port, hundreds of miles, and then usually sit in the yard somewhere for days before being placed on a ship. Why not, instead, ship a much shorter distance to Cleveland, load on a ship there, and send it directly to Antwerp and a hub for the rest of the world? Direct, fuel efficient, and faster.

They – the Port staff – did some market research, some studies, went to Europe, talked to shippers and manufacturers, and heard some interest. Of course they also heard all the reasons the many people in the Never section listed:

The Seaway is closed a third of the year what do you do then?

If you ship to an East Coast port and miss a ship there’s another the next day or two, always to the same place. In Cleveland if you start with one ship it comes once a month. If you miss that sailing that’s a long wait. Too long.

Nobody will dare take a risk and commit to a new untried service that is shaky at best and unknown.

You don’t have proper container cranes or handling gear and will never be able to handle them fast enough to be competitive.

Any ship coming through the Seaway is at the biggest 35,000 tons and most much smaller, and this flies right in the face of the trend to larger and larger ships. I mean, they’re widening the Panama Canal for such ships.

Oh, the list was long. Long.

But you have to understand, here, that this is Cleveland, one could say a nothing to lose city, a place that had seen the bottom of the pit and knew what it felt like. Backs to the wall. If the port did nothing, nothing would happen. The ship visits would continue to decline, the facility would continue to get old and tired, and whatever had been here in the way of maritime jobs and commerce would leave as so many other sectors had left. For sure, no vessel owner would ever consider starting an untried and new service to a small port on an inland sea. Ships are expensive. The cost to charter a ship of 12,000 tons, which is about as small a ship as you can imagine for such a service, is at least $ 500,000 a month for the ship, crew, stores, and operation. Now add to that the fuel. One round trip back and forth from Antwerp to Cleveland will require $ 350,000-$400,000 in fuel and thousands more in pilotage charges through the seaway. Call it, a million a month before even considering stevedoring costs to handle the cargo.

The only way such a service could be started would be if the Port itself chartered  a ship, paid for the fuel, and in partnership with a vessel owner booked and handled cargo. The Port found a partner in a Dutch Company, Spleithoff, located Amsterdamn, a 100-vessel feet owner, specializing in mixed project cargo ships – ships built to carry both containers and special cargoes, or project cargoes, heavy lift items, odd shaped pieces, big pieces of machinery and equipment. The Port chartered a ship. Filled it with fuel.

In November of 2913 the Port Directors voted to do this. The Port was in good shape financially, but this is a small port, with operating revenues of about $ 3,000,000 a year. Imagine – you charter  ship that will cost you, each month, one third of your annual operating income. For a start-up, an unknown and untested trade route, competing with east coast ports, and understanding that with any start up you don’t make money right out of the gate. You do this because you want and believe there are cargoes and goods within your region that need such a service, that will see the value of direct shipment to the world, avoiding the trucking and fuel costs of east coast truck or rail delivery. You do this because you believe in your port and your city and region and because unless you try it nobody will.

You think you will capture a lot of containers and some portion of project cargo. You spend the months from November 2013 until April 214 chasing bookings in both the United States and Europe. Spleitfoff places a couple of people in the Port offices in Cleveland for sales, and others in Europe for the trade there. Spleithoff selects a sweet little ship for the service, a 600 foot, 12,000 ton multi purpose mixed cargo vessel, built in 2011, nearly new, crew of 18, fuel efficient, with three deck mounted cranes and holds that can handle everything from bulk to project cargo to containers and mixtures in between.

This is the ship that departs Antwerp about the first of April, 2014, carryring some empty containers for use back in Cleveland and virtually nothing else, the first westbound voyage. The ship leaves Antwerp just about as I get on the plane to fly to Cleveland to provide some help to their staff there, because I worked with Will years ago at the Port of Seattle and we’d spent some time in the Olympics together on steep snowfields and survived, and he’d contacted me, said he needed some help, so I headed east, found an Amish farm to live on outside the city, and with the rest of them waited for the ship’s arrival.

This is the ship:


The first morning I rose before heading to the port, here’s what I saw:

Parkman sunrise

Tuna Fishing – Another True Dowsing Story

Every fall the bluefin tuna run into Cape Cod Bay and people go out with their boats to harpoon them. The boats are anywhere from 30 to 50 feet long, there’s a stand on the bow you go out on to “stick” the fish, which can be seen on the surface sunning itself. These fish are BIG up to 1,000 pounds and worth big money. One fish can be worth $ 20,000 and is sold fresh in the Tokyo market after being flown there overnight. So this is a short but big money fishery. One year my first skipper Sten was out there trying to get tunafish, with one sternman, but he got nothing. Not a thing, and he was a good fisherman.  Meanwhile my friend Gerry, who like me was first taught by Sten, was with one Elmer Costa on his big black boat the Columbia, and Gerry and Elmer had two fish. Sten was dying of curiosity, what was Gerry and Elmer doing that Sten was not? It bothered Sten. A lot. Meanwhile the season went on and Elmer and Gerry got another fish, and by this time Sten was sort of following them around, hoping to see their trick. Their technique.

This was the same year I had shown Sten with a dowsing stick where his well was, and found his gold coin, and this also perplexed him greatly, but not as much as being outfished by someone he had trained. Gerry and I had a discussion one afternoon because we both wanted to further excite Sten, and then I called Sten and said to him, “Listen, Sten, if you want to see the trick Gerry’s using, you follow Elmer tomorrow, close, get up right by their stern and take a look.”

This Sten did, it being a foggy morning so he was able to nose in real close, and he came around the stern of the Columbia and peered through the mist and saw Gerry on the stern of the Columbia holding in his hands a dowsing stick, facing aft, the stick standing upright and held in his two hands. Sten peered closer and realized that on the end of the stick Gerry was holding was an empty Bumblebee tunafish can.

This incident gave us much amusement, but then a strange thing happened. Sten began to catch fish and Gerry and Elmer were skunked, as we used to say. Sten ended the season with one more fish than Gerry and Elmer. This confused Gerry, and me, too, and one day that winter in the coffee shop we saw Sten and asked him, what changed for him? Sten gave each of us a long heavy-lidded look and cracked a slow smile.

“You were using the wrong can,” he said. “I caught my fish not with Bumblebee but with Chicken of the Sea.”

Sten passed away in 1998, brain tumor, but until he was across the bar he always said, with a perfectly straight face, when we asked, “Of course it’s true.”



Small World, Sometimes

A long long LONG time ago when we fished for lobster we worked Lydonia Canyon east of Nantucket, maybe 150 miles from land, on the edge of the continental shelf. In December 1972 we lost most of our gear to the Russian fleet, and in 1973 lost other gear to Polish and East German vessels.  It wiped us out. We switched to sword fishing. Back then the fishery was illegal so it was a black operation, smuggling the fish we landed past weigh stations. We fished in the Gulf of Mexico. Now, fast forward 40 years to January 2013. I was aboard a container ship returning from Singapore via the Suez Canal and as we approached New York I realized we were transiting exactly over Lydonia Canyon. There was even lobster gear – buoys – in the water exactly where we had fished years ago. When we reached New York some of the crew shifted and our bosun Norm was replaced by Ziggy, from Poland, former fisherman with the Polish Fleet.  I’m an Able Body Seaman and nearly ancient and Ziggy was getting up there and he tells me on the way in to Charleston his first time in the Atlantic was fishing Georges Bank as a kid in 1973. He said they’d torn their nets with lobster gear. I said, were the traps wire and red coated? He said they were. Turns out his boat was the boat we watched tear through our gear that summer. We probably saw each other, him cursing this little wooden boat messing up their nets and us cursing this big rusty Communist ship ignoring our marker buoys. Back then I was running the boat, relief skipper, and Ziggy was the green man. Now years later he’s the bosun and I’m working for him. We went together twice New York to Singapore and back. He gave me a hard time. Finally I told him I had forgiven him. It may be a big ocean but it’s a small small world.036

What goes around….

When I worked at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, in the 1980s, I don’t recall them being entirely political or filled with political appointees, like in the papers these days, but that may be because I was way too low in the food chain to know any better. I didn’t know what I was doing there anyway, coming off the back deck of a red crab boat, in a suit, working on the 64th floor of Tower Number One. I was trying to help them rebuild an old steamship terminal in Brooklyn, Erie Basin,  into a fishing center. They had their own cars in the basement,  a special lot. That basement was huge. The first time I took a car to go over to Brooklyn, to check out the site, when I returned I could not find the Port Authority lot. I had no idea where I was. None.  I was lost in a garage, talking to electronic plates attached to swing arms. I went to work there in 1984 which was just about when the first stack trains started carrying containers from the west coast to New York, avoiding the Panama Canal. Now of course there are over 100 trains a day bringing Asian cargo across the United States. In 1988 APL built the first container ship too big for the Panama Canal, the first Post Panamax ship, at the time the biggest such ship in the world. I remember being in a meeting back then in my suit when someone said that eventually such ships will take cargo from southern Asia, Singapore, to New York by going the other way, west, through the Indian Ocean, Red Sea, Suez, Mediterranean and Atlantic. Everyone else scoffed and laughed, declaring such a concept absurd and ridiculous.

In 2012 I flew to New York and joined the APL President Truman at Port Newark as an Ordinary Seaman, and the next morning, early, we left with the tide, cast off, carried through the channels leaving Port Newark, past Staten island, passing under the Verrezano Bridge, bound for Singapore. As we left I thought of those people laughing all those years ago and here I was taking that very run, a route that had now been traveled for years. Shortly after that I learned from the other sailors that the Truman was the first Post Panamax container ship that ever carried cargo, that it was this very ship that had been the subject of such laughter a quarter century before. Then the ship had been state of the art, the largest in the world, carrying 4300 TEUs. Now, a quarter century later, she was tired, rusty, on her last legs, and passing newer ships holding 6,000, 8,000, 12,000 TEUs. It was a gray morning, that morning. The Staten Island ferry crossed our stern and beyond, at the tip of Manhattan, the twin towers where I had worked all those years ago were gone. I knew, even then, that the Truman was probably on her last legs, and in 2013 I was aboard when she took her last trip to the breakers. Just before we arrived in Singapore and handed her over to the new crew to take her to the beach we passed an 18,300 TEU double engine, double stack 1300 foot long Maersk ship on her maiden voyage. I know what we all thought, looking across at her. It sure felt like the passing of an era.

Hanjin Ship

Does anyone remember when a Hanjin container ship heading from Asia to Seattle was battered by a storm, then abandoned, and went adrift for a week? Eventually they put a tow on her and she was brought to Seattle, and what a sight she was. Anyone have a good adrift story?

Just the other day, November 2016, we crossed the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Victoria from Port Angeles to go see the short face bear and mammoth exhibit, and there, not far off Victoria, but far enough, I saw a Hanjin ship, alone, anchored, entirely stripped of containers, smoke from its generators rising form the stack. Hanjin went bankrupt early in the fall of 2016, or late in the summer, and ships were trapped at the dock, or trapped at sea, nobody willing to handle the ships for fear of not being paid, and this was one such ship. She had, I suppose, been in Vancouver or Seattle and was stripped there of cargo then went to anchor in the middle of nowhere. It was a good fifty minute launch ride to the shop from Victoria, maybe more. And on that ship was the entire crew, 22 men, stuck, unable to go ashore, unable to go anywhere, in total limbo. The ship’s owner (the ship was a leased ship) was getting the crew food. Who knows how long they will be out there, anchored, men withut a country?